how to write a letter: letters no one cares to read.
As mentioned in the previous post, the information below concerning longer letters has been taken from chapter 28 of Emily Post’s 1922 book on Etiquette. It contains pertinent advice to any letter writer direct from the golden age of handwritten personal mail.
LETTERS NO ONE CARES TO READ
LETTERS OF CALAMITY
First and foremost in the category of letters that no one can possibly receive with pleasure might be put the “letter of calamity,” the letter of gloomy apprehension, the letter filled with petty annoyances. Less disturbing to receive but far from enjoyable are such letters as “the blank,” the “meandering,” the “letter of the capital I,” the “plaintive,” the “apologetic.” There is scarcely any one who has not one or more relatives or friends whose letters belong in one of these classes.
Even in so personal a matter as the letter to an absent member of one’s immediate family, it should be borne in mind, not to write needlessly of misfortune or unhappiness. To hear from those we love how ill or unhappy they are, is to have our distress intensified in direct proportion to the number of miles by which we are separated from them. This last example, however, has nothing in common with the choosing of calamity and gloom as a subject of welcome tidings in ordinary correspondence.
The chronic calamity writers seem to wait until the skies are darkest, and then, rushing to their desk, luxuriate in pouring all their troubles and fears of troubles out on paper to their friends.
LETTERS OF GLOOMY APPREHENSION
“My little Betty [“My little” adds to the pathos much more than saying merely “Betty”] has been feeling miserable for several days. I am worried to death about her, as there are so many sudden cases of typhoid and appendicitis. The doctor says the symptoms are not at all alarming as yet, but doctors see so much of illness and death, they don’t seem to appreciate what anxiety means to a mother,” etc.
Another writes: “The times seem to be getting worse and worse. I always said we would have to go through a long night before any chance of daylight. You can mark my words, the night of bad times isn’t much more than begun.”
Or, “I have scarcely slept for nights, worrying about whether Junior has passed his examinations or not.”
LETTERS OF PETTY MISFORTUNES
Other perfectly well-meaning friends fancy they are giving pleasure when they write such “news” as: “My cook has been sick for the past ten days,” and follow this with a page or two descriptive of her ailments; or, “I have a slight cough. I think I must have caught it yesterday when I went out in the rain without rubbers”; or, “The children have not been doing as well in their lessons this week as last. Johnny’s arithmetic marks were dreadful and Katie got an E in spelling and an F in geography.” Her husband and her mother would be interested in the children’s weekly reports, and her own slight cough, but no one else. How could they be?
If the writers of all such letters would merely read over what they have written, and ask themselves if they could find pleasure in receiving messages of like manner and matter, perhaps they might begin to do a little thinking, and break the habit of cataleptic unthinkingness that seemingly descends upon them as soon as they are seated at their desk.
The writer of the “blank” letter begins fluently with the date and “Dear Mary,” and then sits and chews his penholder or makes little dots and squares and circles on the blotter—utterly unable to attack the cold, forbidding blankness of that first page. Mentally, he seems to say: “Well, here I am—and now what?” He has not an idea! He can never find anything of sufficient importance to write about. A murder next door, a house burned to the ground, a burglary or an elopement could alone furnish material; and that, too, would be finished off in a brief sentence stating the bare fact.
A person whose life is a revolving wheel of routine may have really very little to say, but a letter does not have to be long to be welcome—it can be very good indeed if it has a message that seems to have been spoken.
“Life here is as dull as ever—duller if anything. Just the same old things done in the same old way—not even a fire engine out or a new face in town, but this is to show you that I am thinking of you and longing to hear from you.”
“I wish something really exciting would happen so that I might have something with a little thrill in it to write you, but everything goes on and on—if there were any check in its sameness, I think we’d all land in a heap against the edge of the town.”
THE MEANDERING LETTER
As its name implies, the meandering letter is one which dawdles through disconnected subjects, like a trolley car gone down grade off the track, through fences and fields and flower-beds indiscriminately. “Mrs. Blake’s cow died last week, the Governor and his wife were on the Reception Committee; Mary Selfridge went to stay with her aunt in Riverview; I think the new shade called Harding blue is perfectly hideous.”
Another that is almost akin to it, runs glibly on, page after page of meaningless repetition and detail. “I thought at first that I would get a gray dress—I think gray is such a pretty color, and I have had so many blue dresses. I can’t decide this time whether to get blue or gray. Sometimes I think gray is more becoming to me than blue. I think gray looks well on fair-haired people—I don’t know whether you would call my hair fair or not? I am certainly not dark, and yet fair hair suggests a sort of straw color. Maybe I might be called medium fair. Do you think I am light enough to wear gray? Maybe blue would be more serviceable. Gray certainly looks pretty in the spring, it is so clean and fresh looking. There is a lovely French model at Benson’s in gray, but I can have it copied for less in blue. Maybe it won’t be as pretty though as the gray,” etc., etc. By the above method of cud-chewing, any subject, clothes, painting the house, children’s school, planting a garden, or even the weather, need be limited only by the supply of paper and ink.
THE LETTER OF THE “CAPITAL I”
The letter of the “capital I” is a pompous effusion which strives through pretentiousness to impress its reader with its writer’s wealth, position, ability, or whatever possession or attribute is thought to be rated most highly. None but unfortunate dependents or the cringing in spirit would subject themselves to a second letter of this kind by answering the first. The letter which hints at hoped-for benefits is no worse!
THE LETTER OF CHRONIC APOLOGY
The letter written by a person with an apologetic habit of mind, is different totally from the sometimes necessary letter of genuine apology. The former is as senseless as it is irritating:
“It was so good of you to come to my horrid little shanty. [The house and the food she served were both probably better than that of the person she is writing to.] I know you had nothing fit to eat, and I know that everything was just all wrong! Of course, everything is always so beautifully done at everything you give, I wonder I have the courage to ask you to dine with me.”