Letter-writing manuals

Letter-writing manuals

Famously, Norbert Elias used etiquette manuals as a proxy for gauging how manners and morals were represented over time, with changes in their content enabling him to gain purchase on the whys and wherefores of the ‘civilising process’ as particular societies construed and enacted this at the representational level and over the longue duree. Also famously, Thomas and Znaniecki saw letter-writing and its changing conventions and practices as a proxy for tracking and interpreting the processes of social change, as ‘the Polish peasant’ in vast numbers left homes in Eastern Europe and immigrated to the United States. In particular, they were interested in the so-called ‘bowing letter’, in which those younger, less socially important and so on observed –  and over time failed to observe – the social niceties which indicated such differences in status between the writer and the recipient, with changes in the niceties seen as connected with social change more generally.

An idle early morning thought encouraged me to bring these together, and to have a quick look at some contemporary letter-writing manuals, places in which the etiquette and composing practices of letter-writing are presented in terms of authoritative guidance. The results have been interesting and in keeping with both Elias’s and Thomas and Znaniecki’s observations.

Starting with two high selling manuals published some 20 years ago, McCarthy’s 1995 and 1998 volumes, these provide interesting food for thought. The 1995 volume (updated in 1999) focuses on providing sort pithy guidance about suitable content and tone under a wide range of headings, including personal letters such as apologies, asking for favours, reminders, thank you notes; and business letters including banking, jobs, dealing with government and landlords, the press, schools and services and tax matters. Well-crafted letters are best, it proposes, and forms of address must be carefully chosen and socially appropriate. The 1998 volume (updated in 2003) is similarly organised under the general headings of personal letters and business letters, while specific headings within this are somewhat different. It also comments that “Phone calls are more common for nearly all types of communication. And even those who have computers and use e-mail find that writing an old-fashioned letter is a more effective form of communication… And e-mail is quick and informal; the letter is more formal, and thus makes a stronger statement” (xv). Beyond this general guidance, email makes little to no appearance.

This is different from a decade on and May’s 2004 guidance with accompanying ‘samples you can adapt a moment’s notice’. This has more of a ‘real book’ feel to it, as it has substantially more authorial content than McCarthy’s volumes, and also suggestions for adapting the sample letters for different kinds of circumstances. It starts by recognising the changing status of letters, not just because of phone calls but also email, pagers, and text messaging. In this wider context, it suggests there are situations in which ‘letters or e-mails are more practical’ (10). It indicates that there are advantages to letters in some circumstances, while email might be preferable in others. In particular, it recommends a S N A I L formula for recognising when letter-writing should be preferred: to make the contents Secure, to ensure that they are Noted or documented, to convey Affect or emotion, to be Impressive, and to ensure Legality. A number of these have been overtaken in the decade since the book was written, perhaps in particular Affect but also the Noting and Impressive aspects too, while Security and also in some circumstances Legality matters remain under a question mark. However, threading discussions of email, text and other forms of electronic communication along with discussing letter-writing  is a recognition of the signs of the time and the changes occurring.

The final manual for consideration is Wright’s 2013 ‘quick’ discussion of writing emails in a professional and organisational context and which assumes that letter-writing is defunct and has been replaced by email: “In ancient times, such as those when I first went to work in an office… Managers dictated letters… Those days are gone… Letters could be proofread, retyped,… before they were finally put in the mailbox… Business today would collapse with that kind of time line” (1-2). As a consequence, her short book proposes that email therefore needs to adhere to some widely accepted organisational standards or conventions. Conveying these is the purpose of her guide.

What to make of this brief foray into reviewing the content of manuals for appropriate epistolary  communications? Clearly, there have been major changes and in particular a shift towards recognising the centrality of the email and cognates forms of electronic communication, and with letter-writing in the form of something written or typed on paper seen as having just residual purposes. Can what the content and focus of these manuals give a reasonable indication of what is happening to letter-writing and the development of different forms of epistolary communication, and can this be squared with the ideas developed by Elias and by Thomas and Znaniecki? Certainly. Have the rules, the etiquette, completely changed? Perhaps not.

But of course just four of these manuals have been considered, and these were chosen because they were easily available from second-hand sources. A more comprehensive investigation of such publications is called for! Any Norbert Elias scholars interested in such a project?


Margaret McCarthy (1995 revised edition) Letter Writing Made Easy! California, Santa Monica: Santa Monica Press.

Margaret McCarthy (1998 revised edition) Letter Writing Made Easy! Volume 2. California, Santa Monica: Santa Monica Press.

Debra Hart May (2004) Everyday Letters for Busy People. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press.

Heather Wright (2013) A Quick Guide to Writing Better Emails Book Layout: BookDesignTemplates.com

Last updated: 8 September 2016


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