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"A letter" written on an envelope

How to Write Letters, the Lost Art of Epistolary Expression


A great guide to rediscover the art of elegance and clarity that letters ask for.

The writing of letters is the most practiced of all the forms of writing, and thus its composition is the most relevant of all. Even now, when we communicate via e-mail, form is as important as content ––why not then implement some handwriting techniques which will undoubtedly be appreciated by our addressee, and at the same time will refine our mode of expression.

Francis Bacon used to say that letters are the best teachers of history. The book How to Write Letters, a manual of correspondence, showing the correct structure, composition punctuation, formalities, and users of various kinds of Letters, Notes and Cards, by Willis Westlake, is a wonderful guide to follow:

Nearly all the writing of most persons is in the form of letters; and yet in many of our schools this kind of composition is almost entirely neglected. This neglect is probably due in some measure to the fact that heretofore there has been no complete and systematic treatise on the subject of letter-writing. When it is considered, that in the art of correspondence there is much that is conventional, requiring a knowledge of social customs, which, if not early taught, is obtained only after many years of observation and experience; and that the possession or want of this knowledge does much to determine a person’s standing in cultured society, —the value of this art, and of a thorough text-book by which it may be taught, will be duly appreciated.

Westlake reminds us that feelings live not only in what is written, but also in how it is written: and osmosis of great importance in the present, when cold screens and telephone texts have left the world of the written word in a stage of homogenisation and lack of expression.

Good writing affects us sympathetically, giving us a higher appreciation both of what is written and of the person who wrote it. Don’t say, I haven’t time to be so particular. Take time; or else write fewer letters and shorter ones. A neat well-worded letter of one page once a month is better than a slovenly scrawl of four pages once a week. In fact, bad letters are like store bills: the fewer and the shorter they are.

Westlake concludes by sharing some general advice on the value of writing in letters:

The handwriting must be simple, and if at all possible, elegant.

Never use the margins if you ran out of paper to continue writing. This disrespects the reader. Instead you should make it shorter or use a new piece of paper.

Do not cross out or write between the lines. Cleanliness is crucial. The page should be considered not just a medium but a work of art. The appearance heightens the reader’s pleasure.

Never send less than a page, unless it is a business letter. Use the entire page.

For the page, the most elegant and useful colour is white. Unless this is a condolence letter, then it should have black borders as well.

The envelope should be adapted to the size of the page.

Never write a letter in red ink. Simply use black. One never tires of black.

To conclude always use a kind, respectful or loving phrase.

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