how to write a letter: the beginning
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.
BEGINNING A LETTER
“For most people the difficulty in letter-writing is in the beginning and the close. Once they are started, the middle goes smoothly enough, until they face the difficulty of the end. The direction of the Professor of English to “Begin at the beginning of what you have to say, and go on until you have finished, and then stop,” is very like a celebrated artist’s direction for painting: “You simply take a little of the right color paint and put it on the right spot.”
HOW NOT TO BEGIN
Even one who “loves the very sight of your handwriting,” could not possibly find any pleasure in a letter beginning:
“I have been meaning to write you for a long time but haven’t had a minute to spare.”
“I suppose you have been thinking me very neglectful, but you know how I hate to write letters.
“I know I ought to have answered your letter sooner, but I haven’t had a thing to write about.”
The above sentences are written time and again by persons who are utterly unconscious that they are not expressing a friendly or loving thought. If one of your friends were to walk into the room, and you were to receive him stretched out and yawning in an easy chair, no one would have to point out the rudeness of such behavior; yet countless kindly intentioned people begin their letters mentally reclining and yawning in just such a way.
HOW TO BEGIN A LETTER
Suppose you merely change the wording of the above sentences, so that instead of slamming the door in your friend’s face, you hold it open:
“Do you think I have forgotten you entirely? You don’t know, dear Mary, how many letters I have written you in thought.”
“Time and time again I have wanted to write you but each moment that I saved for myself was always interrupted by—something.”
One of the frequent difficulties in beginning a letter is that your answer is so long delayed that you begin with an apology, which is always a lame duck. But these examples indicate a way in which even an opening apology may be attractive rather than repellent. If you are going to take the trouble to write a letter, you are doing it because you have at least remembered some one with friendly regard, or you would not be writing at all. You certainly would like to convey the impression that you want to be with your friend in thought for a little while at least—not that she through some malignant force is holding you to a grindstone and forcing you to the task of making hateful schoolroom pot-hooks for her selfish gain.
A perfect letter has always the effect of being a light dipping off of the top of a spring. A poor letter suggests digging into the dried ink at the bottom of an ink-well.
It is easy to begin a letter if it is in answer to one that has just been received. The news contained in it is fresh and the impulse to reply needs no prodding.
Nothing can be simpler than to say: “We were all overjoyed to hear from you this morning,” or, “Your letter was the most welcome thing the postman has brought for ages,” or, “It was more than good to have news of you this morning,” or, “Your letter from Capri brought all the allure of Italy back to me,” or, “You can’t imagine, dear Mary, how glad I was to see an envelope with your writing this morning.” And then you take up the various subjects in Mary’s letter, which should certainly launch you without difficulty upon topics of your own”.