Letter writing

Letter writing

Letter writing as in art that seems to be going out of favour. The extra effort involved is always appreciated more than the usual impersonal telephone call. This is the age of the cellphone. We use it to arrange meetings, to keep in touch with those we love, to announce our good and bad news. We call one another up to gossip, to settle arguments, to quarrel, to make up, to offer comfort, to express love. However, the cell phone has not always dominated our lives in this way. As little as 20 or 30 years ago, people would write letters whenever they felt the need for contact with their friends and relatives.

Parted lovers undoubtedly used the telephone occasionally, but they softened the pain of absence with letters which expressed their deepest feelings for each other. Husbands and wives who were parted wrote to each other. Grown-up children sent news home regularly. Families remained in touch and closely-knit through the letters they exchanged and friendships were kept alive for decades.

There are many rewards to letter-writing. Letters link those who are parted and keep friendships alive and meaningful. They also allow us to enter into really close relationships with our special friends. It is often much easier to express innermost thoughts and feelings in a letter than in person. Letters, because they give the reader time and privacy to react, can also be used to ease a difficult situation; to break news gently; to explain awkward events tactfully; to mend quarrels gracefully. Perhaps the greatest value of letters is that they give lasting pleasure. The amusing telephone call from a girl-friend is over as soon as the receiver is replaced.

Letters should give great pleasure to both the writer and the recipient. Try to think of letter-writing as an art and not as a chore. Half an hour later it will be hard to remember three phrases from the conversation. A quick telephone call will give lovers instant togetherness, but this sense of nearness vanishes as swiftly as it came. Letters provide a lasting record of the significant moments in life. Like entries in a diary, they have the power to conjure up vividly the situation which existed at the time they were written.

Letters can be broadly grouped into four categories:

  1. formal letters
  2. social letters
  3. letters to close friends
  4. and love letters

Even the most reluctant letter-writer will not always be able to avoid writing formal letters from time to time. These are the letters which have to be written to total strangers: when applying for a job, returning a completed income-tax form or making a hotel reservation. The essential thing about these letters is that they should be clear, brief and strictly to the point. The letter to the hotel, for example, must specify the date for which the reservation is being made, the number of rooms required, and any other details such as whether the room is to have twin beds or a double. Unnecessary information should be omitted as the reservations clerk will have countless letters to process.

Letters applying for jobs fall into a slightly more sensitive area, for here a hint of personality can be allowed to creep in, to distinguish one application from another. But this is dangerous territory and, strictly speaking, letters have to do two things only:

  • express the candidate's interest in and enthusiasm for the job in question
  • and outline the qualifications and experience that make him or her suitable for the post.

Letters of application must be organized to convey the necessary information in the clearest possible way. Employers tend to be busy people and may impatiently dismiss a rambling letter. The director of a marketing company will not be at all interested in the fact that his prospective secretary is a brilliant needle woman. But the fact that she speaks French, although the advertisement for the job may have made no mention of languages, will attract his attention. A talent for needlework would, however, be worth mentioning if the vacancy were in the office of a school of embroidery design, as it would give the candidate a clear advantage over the others.

A useful way of applying for a job when there is a lot of information to convey is to send' in a typed curriculum vitae [resume"] which gives details of age, sex, education, qualifications, employment, spare-time occupations, and anything else that could interest a prospective employer. This should be accompanied by a short, handwritten, letter which expresses interest in the vacancy and perhaps draws attention to the most relevant achievements.

Jobs for which one has to fill in a printed application form should be returned with a similar letter. If in doubt it is far better to limit the letter to straight facts expressed in as natural a way as possible. Even the most impersonal letters to strangers can be formal in tone without sounding stilted. There are, however, fairly strict conventions governing the style of address and endings of formal letters which, although not really complicated, can be difficult to negotiate without a little practice.

Very formal letters open with the words 'Dear Sir' or 'Dear Madam' and end 'Yours faithfully' or 'Yours truly'. Some very staid institutions continue to address their correspondents in this way long after they know their names, but this is becoming increasingly unusual. Normally, as the correspondence progresses, 'Dear Sir' very soon becomes 'Dear Mr Smith', and then perhaps 'Dear Charles'. 'Yours faithfully' leaves the scene a fraction earlier than 'Yours truly', giving way to 'Yours sincerely' 'Yours ever', or just 'Yours'. So the least formal letter will begin with 'Dear Charles' and end 'Yours ever' or 'Yours'.

In formal letters each ritual step from one stage to the next is an unspoken acknowledgement on both sides that the relationship is moving away from formality towards near-friendship. If you are unsure about changing to a less formal style, take your cue from your correspondent. If he bypasses the

'Dear Sir', 'Yours faithfully' stage altogether and plunges in with 'Dear Mr Jones', 'Yours sincerely' from the beginning, do the same; when he starts addressing you by your christian name, address him by his. If you do not you may unintentionally offend him. Addressing someone as 'Dear Mr Smith' when he has written 'Dear John' to you can be interpreted as a signal that you think he is being over-familiar and wish to restore the correspondence to its earlier formality. The only exception to this is when there is a great disparity in age or status, as, for example, in the employer-employee relationship, when the employee may feel that it is more respectful to continue to use the more formal 'Dear Mr Brown', although she herself may be being addressed as 'Dear Jane'.

Party invitations come into the category of formal correspondence. They are usually specially printed and follow the format 'John Smith requests the pleasure of the company of Jane Brown at his 21 st birthday party'. Until recently the convention was that you should reply to such an invitation with corresponding formality, no matter how well you knew the sender. So Jane Brown would reply 'Jane Brown thanks Mr John Smith for his kind invitation which she is very pleased to accept'. This still remains the correct way to answer such an invitation, but in the relaxed social climate of today, many people find this artificially rather embarrassing. Except for very formal functions and replies to hostesses who might be offended by a casual approach, it is now accepted that the response to these invitations may be in a more informal vein.

Two further points are worth remembering about formal letters. First, always quote the date and reference number of any earlier correspondence large firms have very complex filing systems. Secondly, avoid business jargon such as 'Referring to yours of 7th inst' or 'the 12th ult'. It is unnecessary, ugly and old-fashioned. Simple, everyday language is more attractive.

Social letters range from short thank-you notes for presents or hospitality to long epistles sending news to your grandmother. The easy, relaxed letters which fall into this category are letters to enjoy. They have none of the difficult style points encountered in formal letters. Friends can be addressed in any way and any conventional, quirky or affectionate ending can be used.

Style in social letters, in so far as it exists at all, is a simple question of suiting the tone of the letter to the degree of friendship involved, so that what is written is appropriate to both the person and the occasion. They can be as lively and interesting as can be managed without sounding contrived.

Common politeness makes some social letters more or less obligatory. Letters of thanks, congratulations and condolence fall into this category. In many cases the correspondents may not know each other very well, but it should be possible to convey some feeling without being hypocritical. Write naturally, briefly and sincerely rather than at length. (The recipient can often tell when the writer has struggled to think of something with which to fill the page.)

A good social letter should make the recipient feel that their gift or hospitality has really been appreciated, or their loss or success, genuinely acknowledged. A friendly, lively, communication should really brighten the recipient's day. In time the writing of such letters can become an art in itself, giving enormous pleasure not only to those who receive them, but to their writers too.

Letters to close friends are everything letters to more casual friends are, but they convey deeper feelings. There are no rules for composing them except to write with the same warmth, naturalness, and lack of inhibition which would be shown in a face-to-face situation. Letters like these simply provide a means of sharing the highs and lows of everyday life with friends who are absent. They can be written on many different levels but, with real trust on both sides, communication by letter can be a very enriching experience.

Love-letters will be the most treasured letters of all. They have to make up for separation. Because they will be read as if the writer were present, they should be written warmly and tenderly. Above all, a lover should respond to the other's warmth and love. Nothing is more hurtful than a correspondence between lovers in which one is tender and forthcoming and the other reserved and cool. Indifference in love-letters can damage a relationship more surely than any word of anger spoken during a personal exchange for the writer will not be there to put things right with a look or a touch. Sensitively written, however, love-letters can be the next best thing to being together. They can lead lovers to an even better understanding of each other and bring them closer on all sorts of levels, from shared jokes to deep thoughts and feelings.

Whatever its purpose, a letter is a personal and lasting way of communicating. And while people continue to enjoy writing to each other, the art of letter-writing will not disappear.