Friday, 1 April 2016

10 April 1880 - 'The Art of Letter Writing' by S.F.A. Caulfield


On sitting down to write a letter the first thing you should do is ask yourself - "How shall I best please the individual to whom I write? What will interest her the most? How may I relieve her of any feeling of anxiety?" Put these questions to yourself, and use your common sense; and be sure your letter will gratify the receiver. The writing of one with such an end in view occupies time well spent, and you will have carried out faithfully the second grand principle - "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might."

First of all, you should never lay aside your dictionary till your spelling difficulties are all mastered. Our language is very arbitrary, and there is no absolute rule as regards the dropping or retention of the middle "e" of words that end with "able", and those also that end with "ment"; and in the doubling of "t"s, "r"s, "l"s and "p"s. If you have a letter to write, no matter to whom, look out every word rather than spell incorrectly; the trouble taken will impress it on your memory.

As regards the writing itself, remember that it is a vulgar, ill-bred thing to do to form your letters incorrectly; it is not only an evidence of bad taste and awkwardness, but it is an act of discourtesy to the person addressed. It seems as though you thought that any scrawl would be sufficiently good, and you put your friend to inconvenience when giving the trouble of deciphering your unsightly hieroglyphics. It cannot be polite to give needless trouble; and thus, in sending an ill-written and ill-spelt letter, you have broken that great "law of kindness" which is the very foundation of all "good breeding". Do not let a silly feeling of vanity induce you to make "pot hooks and hangers" after your own eccentric fancy, nor elaborate flourishes, which only occupy needless space and spoil the style of your writing. When you can copy the copper-plate pattern given in your copy-books with perfect facility, then take some good running hand that you admire, and imitate what you please in that, to modify a little the copy-book style which you have acquired.

Having accomplished the difficulties of spelling and of calligraphy, you should practice the writing of ordinary notes, such as those of invitation or acceptation of evening entertainments. Turn the sentences and say the same thing in every possible variety of way; but take care to complete your sentences, leave nothing elliptical nor equivocal. Avoid all abbreviations, such as "I'm", "yr", "wd" and so forth, it is a kind of impertinent familiarity a free-and-easy style that is by no means ladylike, nor even respectful.

You may very naturally ask why I pronounce abbreviations to be vulgar. I may explain the reason by comparing the off-hand style of representing a word of half-a-dozen letters by two, to the recognition of an acquaintance by a short nod of the head, instead of a polite bow. Suppose yourself ushered into a drawing-room, and instead of a graceful inclination, imagine yourself giving a short nod to the assembled guests, in return to their courteous salutations. How unseemly it would be, I scarcely need to say, and the same rule that forbids the one breach of politeness forbids the others. Why? Because it is an impertinent familiarity which, uninvited, you force upon other. To be guilty of this, is to lower yourself, and detract from that respectful regard which you might all win; more than this - it is offensive to others.

But there are few rules that admit of no exceptions, and while abbreviations are ill-bred in a private letter, they are quite admissible in trade correspondence. "Time is money" and neither familiarity, nor discourtesy is understood by short signs and diminished words, written at the utmost speed; in these days when steam carriages cannot convey our business messages sufficiently fast and telegraphs and telephones are brought into requisition.

Avoid slang expressions in writing as much as in speaking. Try to write sound grammatical English, if you cannot attain to a still higher and more elegant style. There is an evidence of a want of self-respect in writing or speaking in a careless, slip-slop, anyhow manner. Do not end your sentences with little pronouns, not ever confound the imperfect tense with the past participle, and make no mistakes about the subjective mood.

I am not going to give you a lesson in grammar; you have one at home, and need only to study it with attention, to understand the allusions to it which I have made, and to know as much about it as I can tell you.

Having mastered the first three difficulties in the way of letter-writing - difficulties which you are disposed to weigh far too lightly - the subject matter of your letter, and the mode of address is next to be considered.

Punctuation is little understood by ordinary letter-writers, and it occasions much difficulty to the reader. Besides, the meaning of a sentence may be completely altered, or, at least, mystified, by placing a stop in the wrong place. Always place commas before and after a parenthesis, and never forget your full stops. If the "i" needed not a dot, and the "t" a cross, you would not have been taught to add them. In any case, your business is to make your writing as legible as possible, so as to save all trouble to the reader.

And now I will suppose that, prepared at all points so far, you are waiting, pen in hand, to commence an epistle. Collect your thoughts for a moment. If not a little note, the date must be written at the top of the page, and your present address in full, which latter must never be omitted in any letter, as former letters may be mislaid and the address forgotten, and so the omission on your part may give trouble and delay to an answer. Should a journey or sickness be in question, you should give the hour, as well as the day - for good news at a certain time of the day might give hope of permanent recovery, and show some crisis to be past; and if you have just arrived from a journey, those you have left behind will like to know all such little particulars. Remember that nothing is insignificant to those who care for you, and nothing should be too troublesome for you to do in reward for their interest and affection. Do not make your letter like a washerwoman's list, or a grocer's bill by writing the year with a long stroke, and the last two figures only, nor substitute a mere numeral  for the name of the current month. This is a very vulgar style - write it in full.

The superscription being now completed, we begin with the first part of your letter. Consider to whom you are writing; if to one of your own immediate family - father, mother, brother, sister, uncle, aunt or grand-parents, never omit the word "my", whether it be followed only with "dear" or any term of a more demonstrative character; it is due to the near tie of blood, and it would be in extremely bad taste to omit it. Consider, if you have just left home, what news will be most welcome, i.e., that of your safe arrival, a little account of the journey, of your reception, of how your hosts are, and whom you have met, how you are lodged, and what plans, if any, have been formed for your business-arrangements or for your entertainment. Let your writing be clear, let the size of your hand be suited to the reader for whom is designed. If an old person (as for a child), it should be larger than for anyone else; otherwise let it rather be small and round, than large and scrawled. I have seen many hands that would cover the whole length of a line with two words, they should be very significant and contain very good news indeed to be worth so much valuable space!  It is so disappointing to those who care for the news you could send, to see an empty sheet of paper; which, had the writer been more thoughtfully kind, and willing to take a little trouble to please, might have given so much satisfaction to a whole family party.

The second part of your letter should be devoted to inquiries and expressions of interest about those you have left behind. Were any of them ailing in health? Were any otherwise in anxiety or distress/ Had any one of them engaged in any work or enterprise? Is there anything which you might do for them in your absence? Make your inquiries, express your sympathy, offer your services, or give your advice, if seemly so to do. Let them see that you are not wholly absorbed with your own amusements and personal interests, that you do not send them any sort of an epistle, just because you had to write, and evidently grudged the miserable pittance of news, and of time you squeezed out of your ample leisure to write. Alas! How often has a letter of this sorry description given a pang, untold to any sympathising ear, to one who perhaps provided the means of every pleasure which the thankless writer enjoyed!

Lastly, tell, so far as you may be able, when you hope to write next, where the answer is to be addressed, and give any messages that your hosts may wish to convey through you. Remember to send loves and kind remembrances to each and all, but do not "lump" either of your parents in the "all" to whom you may send them. They should always have a distinct and separate recognition and, as a rule, personal mention is always more appreciated by every one, because more kind, than that made in mere general and collective terms. In signing your name, or pet name if writing to any of the near relatives before enumerated, be careful never to omit the mention of your own relationship to the person you address; 'i.e., "Your affectionate daughter - sister - niece". Never sign yourself "Yours affectionately" for this would be unseemly and a making light, as it were, of your ties of near and dear relationships to them. You will observe how, throughout the whole of the rules which I have prescribed for you, that every one of them, and the whole composition of the letter suggested, is based on that golden "law of kindness" which I told you was the very foundation of all good breeding.

And now, suppose that, instead of writing the first letter yourself, you have one to answer. Observe whether any questions have been asked, and begin by answering them all, at once. Never forget to do so. There is also another fault into which some letter-writers fall - instead of giving any news, they merely recapitulate the scraps of information received in the letter they are answering.

For example, they say "It must be very pleasant to you have your aunt with you; and what a surprise such and such an event must have been! No doubt you feel glad that so-and-so" etc, "and your plan of doing so-and-so will doubtless prove a good one", and so on, through a most uninteresting and truly aggravating letter winding up with repetitions, just as it began. Some notice of news received and sympathy expressed, as the case may be, is a very good thing, but not to the exclusion of news.

In directing a letter, if to a visitor in the house of another person, never fail to add the owner's name to the address. Thus -

Miss B____
Care of John K____, Esq,
Etc, etc.

And observe, also, do not abbreviate the words "Care of" to "c/o" for this is altogether in commercial style and very unladylike.

And now I leave my rules and illustrations  for the earnest and kindly consideration of my readers, begging them never to fall into the grave error of imagining that anything is but a trifle, and beneath their consideration, for

"Grains of sand the mountains make,
And atomies infinity."

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