Lewis Carroll’s 8 Still-Relevant Rules For Letter-Writing

lewis carroll letter writing

My grad­u­ate school super­vi­sor taught me all I know about pro­fes­sion­al email eti­quette. Vague lan­guage? Poor form. Typos? Noth­ing worse. Run-on para­graphs? A big no-no. Spelling your recipient’s name wrong? No com­ing back from that one. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, hasti­ly com­posed emails and ambigu­ous phras­ing are all too com­mon, par­tic­u­lar­ly with the high vol­ume of emails many peo­ple send dai­ly. Skimp­ing on the cour­tesy and the proof­read­ing, how­ev­er, is like­ly to cost you points with your recip­i­ent. Thank­ful­ly, we’ve pro­vid­ed a list of cor­re­spon­dence best prac­tices, com­piled by an author­i­ty on let­ters: Lewis Car­roll (who, inci­den­tal­ly, would have cel­e­brat­ed his 182nd birth­day today). In 1890, Car­roll began to sell a Won­der­land Stamp Case, which helped its users to orga­nize their var­i­ous postage stamps. Paired with the case was a short essay, enti­tled “Eight Or Nine Wise Words About Let­ter-Writ­ing.”

The ini­tial guide, of course, refers to pen and paper cor­re­spon­dence. In fact, Carroll’s fore­most pre­cept, which instructs one to write leg­i­bly, is no longer a con­cern in the dig­i­tal age. Nev­er­the­less, the remain­ing eight rules pro­vide a clear and sim­ple crib sheet for let­ter-writ­ing that has stood the test of time remark­ably well:

1) Start by address­ing any ques­tions the receiv­er pre­vi­ous­ly had - “Don’t fill more than a page and a half with apolo­gies for not hav­ing writ­ten soon­er!

The best sub­ject, to begin with, is your friend’s last let­ter. Write with the let­ter open before you. Answer his ques­tions, and make any remarks his let­ter sug­gests. Then go on to what you want to say your­self. This arrange­ment is more cour­te­ous, and pleas­an­ter for the read­er, than to fill the let­ter with your own invalu­able remarks, and then hasti­ly answer your friend’s ques­tions in a post­script. Your friend is much more like­ly to enjoy your wit, after his own anx­i­ety for infor­ma­tion has been sat­is­fied.”

2) Don’t repeat your­self - “When once you have said your say, ful­ly and clear­ly, on a cer­tain point, and have failed to con­vince your friend, drop that sub­ject: to repeat your argu­ments, all over again, will sim­ply lead to his doing the same…”

3) Write with a lev­el head — “When you have writ­ten a let­ter that you feel may pos­si­bly irri­tate your friend, how­ev­er nec­es­sary you may have felt it to so express your­self, put it aside till the next day. Then read it over again, and fan­cy it addressed to your­self. This will often lead to your writ­ing it all over again, tak­ing out a lot of the vine­gar and pep­per, and putting in hon­ey instead, and thus mak­ing a much more palat­able dish of it!”

4) When in doubt, err on the side of cour­tesy - “If your friend makes a severe remark, either leave it unno­ticed, or make your reply dis­tinct­ly less severe: and if he makes a friend­ly remark, tend­ing towards ‘mak­ing up’ the lit­tle dif­fer­ence that has arisen between you, let your reply be dis­tinct­ly more friend­ly. If, in pick­ing a quar­rel, each par­ty declined to go more than three-eighths of the way, and if, in mak­ing friends, each was ready to go five-eighths of the way—why, there would be more rec­on­cil­i­a­tions than quar­rels! Which is like the Irishman’s remon­strance to his gad-about daughter—‘Shure, you’re always goin’ out! You go out three times, for wanst that you come in!’ ”

5) Don’t try to have the last word — “How many a con­tro­ver­sy would be nipped in the bud, if each was anx­ious to let the oth­er have the last word! Nev­er mind how telling a rejoin­der you leave unut­tered: nev­er mind your friend’s sup­pos­ing that you are silent from lack of any­thing to say: let the thing drop, as soon as it is pos­si­ble with­out dis­cour­tesy: remem­ber ‘speech is sil­vern, but silence is gold­en’! (N.B.—If you are a gen­tle­man, and your friend a lady, this Rule is super­flu­ous: you won’t get the last word!)”

6) Humor is hard to trans­late to writ­ing. Be obvi­ous. - “If it should ever occur to you to write, jest­ing­ly, in dis­praise of your friend, be sure you exag­ger­ate enough to make the jest­ing obvi­ous: a word spo­ken in jest, but tak­en as earnest, may lead to very seri­ous con­se­quences. I have known it to lead to the break­ing-off of a friend­ship. Sup­pose, for instance, you wish to remind your friend of a sov­er­eign you have lent him, which he has for­got­ten to repay—you might quite mean the words “I men­tion it, as you seem to have a con­ve­nient­ly bad mem­o­ry for debts”, in jest: yet there would be noth­ing to won­der at if he took offence at that way of putting it. But, sup­pose you wrote “Long obser­va­tion of your career, as a pick­pock­et and a bur­glar, has con­vinced me that my one lin­ger­ing hope, for recov­er­ing that sov­er­eign I lent you, is to say ‘Pay up, or I’ll sum­mons yer!’” he would indeed be a mat­ter-of-fact friend if he took that as seri­ous­ly meant!”

7) Don’t for­get that attach­ment! — “When you say, in your let­ter, “I enclose cheque for £5”, or “I enclose John’s let­ter for you to see”, leave off writ­ing for a moment—go and get the doc­u­ment referred to—and put it into the enve­lope. Oth­er­wise, you are pret­ty cer­tain to find it lying about, after the Post has gone!”

8) Using a post­script? Make it short — “A Post­script is a very use­ful inven­tion: but it is not meant (as so many ladies sup­pose) to con­tain the real gist of the let­ter: it serves rather to throw into the shade any lit­tle mat­ter we do not wish to make a fuss about.”

Casu­al Vic­to­ri­an-era “sil­ly women!” sex­ism aside, Car­rol­l’s tips are sur­pris­ing­ly fresh and applic­a­ble. If you’re plan­ning on engag­ing in some seri­ous snail-mail cor­re­spon­dence, we sug­gest you check out Car­rol­l’s com­plete essay over at Project Guten­berg.

Ilia Blin­d­er­man is a Mon­tre­al-based cul­ture and sci­ence writer. Fol­low him at @iliablinderman.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

See Sal­vador Dali’s Illus­tra­tions for the 1969 Edi­tion of Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land

See The Orig­i­nal Alice In Won­der­land Man­u­script, Hand­writ­ten & Illus­trat­ed By Lewis Car­roll (1864)

The Real Alice in Won­der­land Cir­ca 1862


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