On Writing Letters
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE letter is the primary form of direct advertising. It is the oldest, the most personal and the most individual of all forms of communication, save only oral speech. In the nature of things, its primacy must remain unchallenged, and it follows, of course, that the business establishment that writes careless or stupid or slovenly or impolite letters raises immediately a needless obstacle to success.
Let us try to get at the fundamentals of letter writing, even though they appear simple to the point of triviality. Mr. Carnegie says, in his autobiography, that a very great man once told him that he would cease to consider trifles if he ever could find out what was trivial; and he then adds that the start of his own career came during a game of checkers between his uncle and a friend who was the local manager of the Western Union Telegraph Company in Pittsburgh. His uncle casually asked the telegraph man if he could give work to a bright boy, and from this messengership Andrew Carnegie passed rapidly into the railroad and steel businesses and became the great manufacturing genius of the world.
The purpose of all business letters, no matter what their nature, is, directly or indirectly, to sell goods, and this applies o letters that are orders for material or equipment or letters of collection, as surely, if not as directly, as to those letters that are actually written for the purpose of inducing people to buy. Every letter your establishment sends out, to some degree adds to or takes away from the friendships and the respect that your business commands. Letters are a mighty factor in the creation or destruction of good-will, and good-will is the one invaluable asset that every business must create for itself. A new business may be started under the happiest auspices. There may be a competent and proven personnel, a sound manufacturing program, everything needful in the way of plant and equipment, and ample capital. But the product must make its own reputation, and the business practices of the enterprise will in the course of time determine whether it is a company with which people like to do business. When any business has reached a point where its product is universally known and is recognized as of sound quality, and where its practices are regarded as fair, reliable and friendly, then, and not till then, that business may be said to have achieved good-will.
There was a very significant advertisement in all the principal newspapers of the country in 1925, immediately after the announcement that the business of Dodge Brothers, Inc., had been sold to an investment banker for the sum of $146,000,000 in cash. This advertisement bore the simple heading "Good-Will," in the letters characteristic of the Dodge advertising. It was manifestly written to offset any possible impression in the mind of the public that when the Dodge business passed from the hands of the family of the founders and became the property of a multitude of investors, there might be a tendency to cheapen the product. The advertisement went on to say that the new owners fully recognized that the greatest asset they had acquired when they paid out an unprecedented sum of money was good-will, and there followed a pledge that so long as a motor car was made under that name there would be no departure from the manufacturing standards on which its success had been built.
Now, all persons of experience know that we are much more likely to buy goods from people we like and trust than from people whom we either do not know at all or whom we do not like. Every friendship made by a business is an absolute selling asset, and the aggregate of these friendships constitutes our good-will and, very largely, our permanent market.
The very first attribute of good letter writing, therefore, we say unequivocally is courtesy, which is the main creator of good-will. There is often a temptation to write an impatient, an ironical, or a positively abusive letter; for extremely irritating things do come up in every business. We know of no safe rule for the man who has a temperament that subjects him to such temptations except this: Write your letter if you must. Get it "out of your system," but direct your secretary to hold the letter until next day. Then read it over and determine next morning if you wish to send it. We are much of the opinion that not one disagreeable letter of every hundred that are written will be dispatched if this practice is observed. Sharp letters, like hard words and blows, are the product of impulse and denote lack of self-control. They never accomplish so much as can be done by moderate and courteous expression, and they do alienate many valuable customers. If you intend to sue a man it is quite possible to tell him so politely and to make him feel that he is treating you unfairly and putting you into a disagreeable situation; but if you yield to the temptation to tell him that he is a thief, you may be sure that he will at once decide never to pay you a cent unless he is forced to do so. Courtesy is the first rule of letters and of all business intercourse. It pays in money and it pays in self-respect and happiness. A few years ago the writer had occasion to visit the offices of the two largest businesses in the world. I went unannounced and unknown, without any credentials whatsoever except my personal card. The kindly, attentive and prolonged consideration I received con-firmed my previous observation that courtesy and success are handmaidens, and that only the small man is likely to be impolite. Let every letter that goes out of your offices add a little to the sum total of your friendships.
The second essential of letter writing is directness. This is an indispensable attribute of literary style, but it may be readily acquired by any man who has a sufficiently clear and logical mind to manage a business. By "directness" we mean something quite different from abruptness or brusqueness. When you sit down to dictate a letter you have some definite message in mind. If you haven't, don't begin to dictate until you know exactly what you wish to convey and have it in orderly fashion in your mind. You may wish to give information, or to ask information, or to confer a favor or to request one, or to give advice or to seek it. It makes no difference what be the nature of your letter, if the thing is con-fused in your mind you cannot write anything except a confusing letter. Having determined what you wish to convey, let the very first sentence take up your message, and let each succeeding sentence carry it on in orderly fashion, so that the mind of the recipient will go naturally along with your thought.
Let me illustrate from fiction. When you pick up one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories or one of Robert Louis Stevenson's novels, something happens in the very first sentence. Your attention is instantly caught and your mind is carried along resistlessly to the very end. That is directness. Watson and Holmes are sitting before their fire, while the December rain beats down in Baker Street. There is a knock on the door. A frightened woman enters, and from that moment you are enmeshed in a web of extra-ordinary and terrible events. Compare this with one of the stories now too prevalent in our periodicals, in which the writer unwisely embarks on an irrelevant introduction beginning, perhaps, in this fashion: "This is the story of a little girl who dreamed dreams," etc. Now, if the story itself does not make clear what kind of a little girl it is about, it is a very bad literary job. Personally, I am no longer able to get past the introduction of any story so begun, and I don't think I have missed a lot.
There is a school of writers of so-called "clever" letters which sins egregiously in this regard, and many of them are sales managers. Not long ago we had a letter in our own office which devoted a whole page to the narrative of an experience in a shell hole "somewhere in France." It was a labored and artificial production at best, as nearly all such letters are; and only our interest in the mistakes of letter-writers induced us to read to the end. To our astonishment, it turned out to be an appeal to buy coal, though we dare say that not ten per cent of the people who received that letter ever got far enough along to find out what was wanted. Tell your story from the first to the last line, and be sure that, if the man you are writing to is a real business prospect, he will be interested enough to read it. Having told your story, quit. Don't try to tell it again in another way. Redundancy and repetition are merely a confession that you have failed to state your case clearly, and their only effect is confusion. Moreover, in floundering and repeating you are very likely to say something that you don't mean. Clear thinking and clear writing must go together. Without the first the second is impossible.
The third quality of excellence in a letter is but another phase of the second. It is simplicity or clarity. Don't fall into long and involved sentences or use big words merely to let your correspondent know how great is your vocabulary. We are not advocating letters like the lessons in the readers of childhood days, when it was assumed that at certain stages of life words of only two syllables could be understood. If it is necessary for the exact expression of your thought to employ an uncommon word, by all means use it. Anything that is written spontaneously will make a favorable impression and will not savor of pedantry and false pride.
This naturally leads to a consideration of the language of letters that are advertisements. There has lately been quite a vogue of colloquialism. "Write naturally; write as you talk; imagine that the man you are writing to is sitting just across your desk," are some of the habitual slogans of these modernists. Their intent is honest and their purpose sane, in so far as they are trying to induce people to get away from the stilted, hackneyed forms and phrases that used to make up nearly all business letters and much advertising. But the course they so easily suggest is full of dangers and may readily lead to an utter loss of dignity, impressiveness and prestige. Breezy writing, like humor, requires the light and certain touch, and unfortunately but few of us have it or can acquire it.
The plain truth is that writing is a more formal manner of expression than talking, and a great deal that sounds well in conversation seems trifling, crude, or even offensive in print. The words are not flavored by the personality of the writer, as they are when one speaks, and they must stand on their own merit or fall. How often have I heard public speakers of such expansive personality that I began to smile and feel content the moment they arose. And what a disillusionment it was to read the speech that had made so happy an impression, in the cold type of the morning-after newspaper! The very element of permanence that is inherent in the written word suggests that it be well considered, and the thought that you commit to paper is entitled to a more solid and lasting vehicle than the ephemeral slang of the day. The one safe middle ground for the letter-writer is naturalness.
Be friendly as well as courteous in your letters. Probably the greatest enemies to good letter writing that have arisen in our day were the "efficiency experts," now happily well on their way to oblivion. The flair for short cuts in working and writing was widespread in the first years of this century, and probably was most general during the hysterical years of the Great War. "Lost motion" became the cardinal industrial sin, and, to the devotees of the efficiency cult, a needless step or an unrequired word was about on a par with pro-Germanism in that day or horse stealing in the nineties. Man was to be elevated into the category of machines, to be stoked with a certain amount of fuel energy and guaranteed to run without stopping for a given number of hours on a fixed and predetermined quantity of vitamines.
Now, man is not a machine, but a complex human thing, complicated with a mass of vague wishes, hopes, desires and ambitions. When he is touched sympathetically in any of his numberless points of contact he will respond with very good work. So efficiency has been stripped of much of its flapdoodle, and in the salvaging of the kernel of good that was in it men are coming to work a little better and more happily. Knowledge of human nature and sympathy with it are indispensable in conducting a business, just as they are in writing a good letter or advertisement. The main effect of "efficiency" on letter writing was a tendency to make letters so concise that they were robbed of their most fertile creative power —the personal and friendly touch that makes good-will. I believe that every man likes to be saluted by his own name rather than as "Dear Sir." I believe that "cordially," "faithfully," and "sincerely" are more expressive and significant than the meaningless "Yours truly." I believe that, if you have a personal acquaintance or a kindly feeling for the man to whom you are writing, a little expression of good-will is never misplaced. But generous and friendly expressions must have some basis in the heart of the writer, or, by some intuition, the recipient will sense that they are but a hollow form, like the "With assurance of my personal regard" that winds up the letters most congressmen send to the pests back home who are bedeviling them for a pension.
What I have said about letters applies equally, I think, to all direct advertisements, which are but modified and elaborated forms of letters. There is no set of rules that can confer on any man the gift of literary excellence or of plain common sense. The most that rules can do is to point out broadly some common pitfalls to be avoided.
Before me is a recent book on letter writing, produced by a young friend of mine who has unquestionably improved the quality of the letters going out of a very large establishment. It is of the type of book so popular with many advertisement writers and talkers, and is filled with what they are always calling "brass tacks." Whatever "brass tacks" are, I don't know, unless they be very definite, concrete, pointed things. This book contains chapter after chapter of "don'ts," and while the advice is in the main sound, I sympathize deeply with the letter-writer who is caught in such a maze of inhibitions.
At the outset is a long list of trite phrases and words that are all too common in business letters. But I should hate to have to subscribe to a pledge never to use any of them again; and my friend goes a bit far when he attacks so sound a word as "advise" with this comment: " `Advise'—the most abused, misused and over-worked word in business writing. It means to give advice, not to inform or tell." Now the most authoritative dictionary of the English language with which I am familiar defines "advise" as "To give information, to communicate notice to." It is in many instances a stronger word than "tell," and despite the fact that it has been overworked, it is not one whit more stilted or artificial than "inform."
"I'll tell the world," quoth the "flapper" to the "sheik." "I'm tellin' you," says the street urchin to his gang. These are true colloquialisms. Do you want them in your letters?
We have said before that letters are more formal than talk, and an occasional recurrence of an old form or of an usage that has come down from earlier and more formal days is not a fatal defect.
The writing of many routine letters is a hard job. Acknowledgments of orders are a good example. It may be necessary to write many letters on substantially the same subject to a single correspondent. There is no sense in striving to put originality into such letters. Make them polite, friendly and individual by the use of any natural variations of expression, but don't make them foolish by an obvious squirming to get into a new verbal posture.
A friendly, natural and logical letter is a sufficient aspiration for all of us who are not especially gifted. Any letter so written will not seem perfunctory.
It should be needless to add that, as one's letters represent him and his business, they should be written on worthy stationery. A cheap and slovenly letter does not suggest an important and well-conducted business.
As many letters are not individual, but are sent to lists of customers or prospective customers, the various duplicating devices are of general interest. In late years they have been greatly improved. It is well, however, when planning duplicate letters to remember that the main value and interest of a letter comes from the fact that it is an individual communication, and once the recipient discovers that he has received a form letter, his interest sinks toward the vanishing point. It is important, therefore, that all appearance of a circular be eliminated. This can be accomplished by very careful operators of duplicating machines; or if one wishes entirely individual letters, an automatic typewriter may be used.
The last thing in a book may have a better chance of being read than what is buried in its drab interior, so I am going to put in a detail that was omitted in the first edition. May I add that my own experience in distributing the first edition of this book brought home to me the importance of what I am about to suggest.
In more than one place in these pages we have tried to emphasize the personal and human element in business as a creator of good-will. We have said that every man likes to have an identity and to be individually recognized by his business correspondents. Therefore he likes to be saluted in his own name and he wants to see his name correctly spelled.
But how, we ask, are people to address you correctly if your name is not legibly written or printed on your letter? You create a great and needless annoyance every time you scrawl a signature on a letter.
In distributing the first edition of The Buckeye Book of Direct advertising, I have received perhaps five thousand letters and requests. How many weary hours have my typist and I expended trying to decipher signatures that looked like a section of the Rosetta stone, and trying to reconcile our reading of names with the initials the stenographer had put in. With what relief would we find the name printed on the letterhead or typed in full below.
A good many years ago, when I was a young newspaper reporter, I spent an evening with Mr. S. S. McClure, the magazine publisher, who was marooned in our town between trains. We went together to a telegraph office, where Mr. McClure dispatched a message to a famous sanitarium where he was accustomed to rest from time to time. I observed the extreme care with which he signed his name and remarked that he had a signature of unusual legibility. "I always take pains to write my name so that it cannot possibly be misread," said he. "The context always gives a clue to my message, even if it is not very carefully written, but there is nothing to indicate what my name is except the letters it contains. Therefore I always write it as legibly as I can."
This is a little thing to remember all these years, but it stands out among all the interesting things Mr. McClure said that evening. It is one of the many judicious qualities that made him a conspicuously successful man.
My parting word to the writers of letters is, then — Type Your Signature on every letter you write.