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The Art Of Letter Writing

( Originally Published 1907 )

A correspondence between two persons is simply a conversation reduced to writing. We should write to an absent person as we would speak to the same party if present. To a superior, we ought to be respectful; to a parent, dutiful and affectionate; to a friend, frank and easy ; and clear and definite in our expressions to all.

Conciseness is one of the charms of letter-writing. A letter should contain the desired facts, ideas, and feelings ; but they ought to be expressed as briefly as perspicuity and elegance will permit.

Lengthened periods are as much out of place in a letter as they would be in conversation, for they tire the reader even more than they would the hearer. When written, their faults are also perceived with much less difficulty than when spoken.

When the party to whom a letter is addressed is uninterested in the subject on which it is written, the writer of it should display a brevity which will attract attention and insure a perusal. No unnecessary ornament should be used, nor, in fact, any thing introduced but what is important and bears strongly on the case stated, or the inquiry made.

To an absent friend, on the contrary, a lengthy epistle, well filled with details of passing incidents, is likely to prove welcome and interesting, and one may venture even upon prolixity if sure that his correspondent has a strong interest in the subject, and is likely to desire minute details concerning it.

Style in Correspondence.

The style of the letter may rise with the subject, and with the character of the person written to. In a familiar epistle an effort at dignity of style is misplaced, but such is not the case where the person addressed is superior in position or character, or where the subject is one demanding seriousness and dignity. For instance, the death of a friend or relation, a calamity, or any circumstance of grave importance, should not be communicated in the same manner as a trifling occurrence, or even a happy event: brevity, in the latter case, is beauty; in the former, it would be deemed unfeeling and abrupt.

Express your thoughts in simple English and in legible writing. The latter should be clear and bold. Never write carelessly or hurriedly ; read the letter over before sending; and, if writing more than one letter at a time, be cautious that such are not put in the wrong envelopes. Great attention should be paid to correct punctuation.

As to writing material, the shape and size of paper and envelopes are not so important as the quality. They should be plain white, with no colored border (except the black border when in mourning), and of substantial texture. The address of the writer, printed neatly at the head of the sheet, should take the place of any attempt at ornament.

Fold all letters evenly, and put the stamp in the upper right-hand corner. Remember to enclose a stamp when writing to a stranger concerning your own affairs. Use postal cards only for ordinary business communications; never for friendly correspondence or in writing to any one who might be annoyed by having his or her occupation made public.

Take the trouble to spell correctly. Be careful to write dates, numbers and proper names plainly. Date a note, at the conclusion, on the left-hand side of the page; a letter at the beginning, on the right hand. Sign a letter with a full name, or with the last name and initials. In business correspondence sign "yours respectfully," "your obedient servant," "yours truly," or "yours sincerely." Place the name and address of your correspondent at the upper left-hand corner of the page.

Let your signature suit the style of the letter-a business communication should bear a formal, a friendly note, a cordial con clusion. Between intimate friends and relatives no formal rule is laid down for the beginning and ending of letters. The etiquette of letter-writing should only be considered between strangers or slight acquaintances. In these cases it is well to preserve a mean between cold formality and familiarity. '

Forms of Address.

The conventional forms are " Sir," " Dear Sir," " My Dear Sir," or " Madam," "Dear Madam," or "My Dear Madam.` Either of these can be used, but to a total stranger " My Dear Sir " is rather too cordial, and to an acquaintance " Sir " is too formal, unless there is a pur pose to convey coldness of feeling. When writing to persons of your own social class, though strangers, " Dear Sir " or " Dear Madam " are used in preference to " Sir " or " Madam."

A married lady should not sign herself "Mrs.", nor an unmarried one "Miss," except in writing to a stranger who will need to reply. In this case the full name should be signed, as " Miss Susan Blake," or " Mrs. Mary Brown." Mrs. and Miss may be enclosed in parenthesis. Letters to married ladies are usually addressed with the initials or names of the husband, " Mrs. John P. Smith," etc. Widows and unmarried ladies should only be addressed with their christian names, " Mrs. Mary Smith " or " Miss Fanny Jones." The eldest daughter or unmarried lady of the family should be addressed " Miss " simply, the christian name being omitted. " Mr." and " Esq. " cannot be used simultaneously. A letter Must be addressed either like the following examples, to " Mr. R. H. Smith" or to " R. H. Smith, Esq." When a letter is addressed to the Hon. James Blank, the "Esq." must not follow.

Never use the husband's title in directing a letter to the wife, as "Mrs. Gen. James Bancroft," or " Mrs. Rev. John Pearl. "

Do not cross a letter, put the most important part of it in a postscript, or sign it in the first person, if it has been written in the third. Never fail to answer promptly, in case the communication requires an answer.

When a note is commenced " Sir " or "Dear Sir," it is usual to write the name of the person addressed at the end of the letter or note in the left-hand corner, or it may be put before the commencement; for instance, " To R. H. Smith, Esq.," but in this case it must not be repeated at the bottom.

A son of the same name as his father is addressed in this way: " R. H. Smith, Jr., Esq."

Letters or notes to servants usually begin with the servant's name, and then the directions follow in the third person ; ex ample: " To Mary Smith: Mrs. Brown will return home on Saturday next, etc." Address a clergyman "Reverend Sir" or " Dear Sir," and direct the envelope to " Rev. John Blank; " or if the initial is not known, to " Rev. Blank." Address a doctor of divinity " To the Rev. John Hall, D.D.," or the " Rev. Dr. Hall."

Address a doctor of medicine " J. B. Blank, M.D.," or " Dr. J. B. Blank," or " Dr. Blank."

Address a bishop "To the Right Rev. the Bishop of " or "To the Right Rev. H. C. Potter, D. D., Bishop of ," and begin the letter " Right Rev. Sir," or " Right Rev. and Dear Sir."

Address foreign ministers as " His Excellency and Honorable."

Letters to the President should be addressed " To His Excellency, the President of the United States," or " President of the United States."

Cabinet officers should be addressed " To the Honorable J. C. Blank, Secretary of State," " To the Hon. , the Postmaster-General," etc.

In writing to Senators or members of the House, address " To the Hon. ." Officers of the army or navy are addressed by their titles, as " General Wilson Earle," " Captain Paul Jones," Admiral William Harvey," etc. The members of a college faculty are addressed as " Professor," and their particular title may be added after the name, as " D. D. ", " LL. D," etc. This addition of titular abbreviations applies as well to scientists, physicians, and all others whose special college title may be known to the writer.

Letters of Recommendation.

A letter of recommendation should be composed with careful attention to its statements. It is a guarantee for the party recommended, and truth should never be sacrificed to condescension, false kindness or politeness. To write a letter of recommendation contrary to one's own opinion and knowledge of the person recommended, is to be guilty of a great imprudence.

To say all that is necessary, in a clear and distinct manner, and nothing more, is the grand merit of a letter on business of any kind. Pleasantry and pathos would be greatly misplaced in it, unless it embraced some other subject than the business one. Brilliant diction is a dress in which directions on business should never be clothed. The style ought to he precise, sufficiently copious to leave no uncertainty, but not re dundant. Every thing necessary should be stated, plainly and unequivocally; so that the party addressed may be in full possession of our desires and opinions on the subject involved. Ambiguity is nowhere so unpardonable as in a letter on business.

Letters of Introduction.

Letters of introduction are one of the common methods of establishing social relations. The person who is not known to your friend can become known through your kind offices. In this way, very often, important services can be rendered.

Never give a letter of introduction unless you thoroughly understand the character and manners of the person to whom you write the letter and also of the person whom the letter introduces.

You have no right, to avoid giving offence, or through sheer inability to say no to a request, to foist upon your distant friend some one for whose acquaintance he will not thank you and who may prove a very undesirable visitor. If one or the other of the two parties concerned must be offended, let it be the applicant. You can usually give some sufficient reason for declining-but decline in any event, if the person is likely to prove objectionable.

As such a letter cannot well enter into particulars, it is customary and desirable to notify your friend by mail of the fact that you have given a letter of introduction to such a person, and tell him what further it is well for him to know concerning the character and purpose of his probable visitor. If you have given such a letter to a party of whom you do not approve, all that remains is to warn your friend privately, placing him on his guard against a possibly objectionable person.

A letter of introduction (unless sent by mail) should be delivered, unsealed, by the writer of the letter to the bearer of the introduction, and should be closed by the latter before delivery to the party to whom it is addressed. If purely a business introduction and one which can be delivered personally, it may remain unsealed.

The bearer of a letter of introduction should send it to the house of the person to whom it is addressed, together with a card on which should be written his address. It is not in order to deliver it in person, since this may force the party addressed into a position which h2 may prefer to decline. It does not follow, because a friend has chosen to introduce you to another, that this other may not have private reasons for declining your acquaintance, or may be prevented from seeing and entertaining you by stress of other engagements. If he lives in a large city, the letter may make him feel obliged to escort you to the various places of interest, or in any case to invite you to meals or other entertainments. We should not tax the time or the purse of a friend, except for a satisfactory reason.

The letter delivered, there is nothing more to be done until the party receiving it calls upon you or sends you some card or note of invitation. Those who receive such letters should, within twenty-four hours, if possible, take some kindly notice of them by a call or an invitation.

A letter of introduction must be carefully worded, stating clearly the name of the person introduced, but with as few per sonal remarks as possible. It suffices in most cases to say that the bearer is a friend of yours, whom you trust your other friend will receive with attention, or you may state his profession, object in traveling, etc. In traveling, one cannot have too many letters of introduction: It is the custom in foreign towns for the newcomer to call on the residents first, a hint that may prove acceptable to persons contemplating a long or short residence abroad.

A letter of introduction of a business nature may be delivered by the bearer in person, since it requires no social obligations. In style it should resemble other business letters ; that is, it should be brief and to the point.

If a stranger sends you a letter of introduction, and his or her card (for the law of etiquette here holds good for both sexes), good form requires that you should not only call next day, but follow up that attention by others. If you are in a position to do so, the next correct proceeding is to send an invitation to dinner. Should circumstances not render this available, you can probably escort the stranger to some exhibition, concert, public building, museum, or other place likely to prove interesting to a foreigner or provincial visitor. In short, etiquette demands that you shall exert yourself to show kindness in some desirable way to the stranger, out of compliment to the friend who introduced him to you.

If you invite strangers to dinner or tea, it is a higher compliment to ask others to meet them than to dine with them alone. You thereby afford them an opportunity of making other acquaintances, and are assisting your friend in still further promoting the purpose for which he gave the introduction to yourself. Be careful at the same time only to ask such persons as you are quite sure are the stranger's own social equals.

Letters of Congratulation or Condolence.

Epistles of this kind need to be very carefully written. Unless there is some actual sympathy in the mind of the writer, they had better, in many cases, be left unwritten, since they may serve the opposite purpose to that designed. A verbal expression of feeling, where there is no feeling, is apt to fail of its intention. If such a letter prove difficult to compose, it is likely to seem studied, cold, and formal. Simplicity and ease of expression are necessary elements in a note of condolence or compliment.

A letter of congratulation should avoid any indication of other than unselfish good feeling in the writer. The slightest show of envy or jealousy at the good fortune of those whom we felicitate is unpardonable. It should on no account contain a hint of any hope that the advancement, or change of situation, upon which the compliment is made, may afford the person addressed the means of conferring a benefit on the party writing.

Such a letter should, in fact, be an unmixed expression of pleasure and congratulation on the event that calls for its production. But care must be taken to keep within due bounds; to exaggerate in our congratulations may be to seem satirical.

In a letter of congratulation we should be cheerful; from an epistle of condolence all pleasantry should be banished. When addressing a person who is laboring under any grievous calamity, it is bad taste to make light of it; to treat that loss as a matter which might be endured calmly, by a little firmness on the part of the party who has suffered it, has the effect to irritate rather than soothe. One should seek to enter into the feelings of the mourner, to eulogize the departed relation, to rebuke the ingratitude of the false friend, to confess, the inconstancy of fortune, or otherwise, according to the circumstances ; and, without magnifying, to lament the affliction.

Language like this is balm to the wounded mind, which rejects consolation from those who do not seem sensible of the extent of the sorrow under which it labors. But such a subject must be treated with a delicate hand, for an exaggerated expression of sympathy may give the appearance of insincerity, and of a strained endeavor to condole. In such a case it may aggravate the depression which it seeks to remove.

Replying to Letters.

Every letter, that is not insulting, merits a reply, if it be required or necessary. If the letter contains a request, it should either be acceded to gracefully and without ostentation, or refused without harshness. An answer to a letter of condolence or of congratulation should be grateful. The subjects should succeed each other in proper order, and the questions put be consecutively answered. In familiar correspondence a greater latitude of arrangement is allowed; but even in this no question should be left unanswered. In all replies it is usual to acknowledge the receipt, and to mention the date, of the last letter received: if this be neglected, your correspondent may be left in doubt, and may, through misunderstanding, hold you guilty of some offense.


Punctuation is a matter of the utmost importance in every species of literary composition; without it there can be no clearness, strength, or accuracy. Its utility consists in separating the different portions of what is written in such a manner that the subjects may be properly classed and subdivided, so as to convey the precise meaning of the writer to the reader. It shows the relation which the various parts bear to each other, unites such as ought to be connected, and keeps apart such as have no mutual dependence.

It is much to be lamented that so little attention is paid to this important subject. As there is no positive system of punctu ation to direct the writer, the modern editions of good authors should be carefully studied, in order to acquire the leading principles of the art. The construction of sentences may be examined, and the mode adopted of dividing them attended to with considerable advantage.

One cannot expect, perhaps, in this manner to become an expert in punctuation, but may grow sufficiently familiar with its essential elements to make no serious errors. The mode of placing punctuation marks permits of considerable latitude, and it is advisable not to be too profuse in their employment. The use of the comma is frequently very faulty through carelessness in this particular, dividing parts of sentences which naturally cohere, and being dropped in the centre of a phrase in which it is absurdly out of place. The natural halting points for the reader, or slight breaks in the sense, should be duly considered, and a mark placed in consonance with the degree of this break. The comma and the dash do duty with many as the only elements of punctuation, the latter being much over used, through a desire to escape the necessity of considering the proper mark required.


Lady writers have been accused, and perhaps with some reason, of often reserving the most important part of a letter for the postscript. It is an accusation which they should avoid giving cause for. Postscripts are, for the most part, needless, and in bad taste. It is best to pause a few moments before concluding a letter, and reflect whether we have anything more to say. Above all things, none should defer civilities or kind inquiries to this justly-despised part of a letter. To do so is a proof of thoughtlessness or disrespect. " My kindest regards to my cousin Lucy," added as a postscript, looks like what it really is-an after-thought; and is, therefore, not only without value, but, to persons of fine feelings, offensive.

To all writers something will occasionally occur, after finishing the letter, which it is important to state. If to have for gotten it implies no disrespect it may properly be added as a postscript. But if it should indicate a forgetfulness which may possibly offend the recipient, the whole letter had better be rewritten, and the after-thought put in its proper place.

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