On this day in 1890, Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), English writer and mathematician, published an essay entitled “Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing.” Best known for his works Alice in Wonderland and “Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll’s essay on letter writing was included as a booklet in the “Wonderland” Postage-Stamp-Case, a product designed to help letter writers organize their postage and correspondence.
In his essay, Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson, offered tips on opening a letter, closing a letter, and keeping a registry of correspondence. The main focus of the essay, however, is the section entitled “How to Go on With a Letter” in which he provides his key considerations for the body of a letter. The nine rules are summarized below:
Rule 1: Write legibly.
Rule 2: Begin with remarks about your reader or your reader’s last letter rather than about yourself or about your apologies for not having written sooner.
Rule 3: Don’t repeat yourself.
Rule 4: If you think your letter might irritate your friend, set it aside for a day and re-read it again. Then, re-write the letter, if necessary, to make it less offensive. Also, keep a copy of the letter so that you’ll have a record of what you actually said.
Rule 5: If your friend makes a severe remark in his or her letter, either ignore it or respond in a less severe way.
Rule 6: Don’t try to have the last word.
Rule 7: Watch out for sarcasm and humor. If you write in jest, make sure that it is obvious.
Rule 8: If you write in your letter that you have enclosed something, stop writing for a moment and get the item for enclosure and put it into the envelope immediately.
Rule 9: If you get to the end of the note-sheet and you have more to say, take out another piece of paper instead of cross-writing. (Cross writing was a paper-saving practice of writing vertically over the horizontal lines of your letter) (1).
What seems to unify Carroll’s rules is the consideration for the reader. Carroll reminds writers to avoid egocentricity and to craft every sentence with the reader in mind. Even though letter writing today is certainly less popular than in Carroll’s time, his emphasis on this universal writing principle — “Put the reader first” — makes his rules applicable to just about any form of writing.
American humorist Will Rogers stated the rule using an apt metaphor: “When you go fishing you bait the hook, not with what you like, but with what the fish likes.”
Today’s Challenge: Rules for Email
What are your rules for crafting an effective email? Brainstorm some rules that effective writers and communicators should consider when writing an email, either for personal or professional purposes. State at least three rules, and follow each rule with an explanation and rationale, using specific examples where appropriate. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
1-Carroll, Lewis. Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing. 1890. Public Domain Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/38065/38065-h/38065-h.htm.