Chapter XXIV. The Business Letter In Detail
§ 114. To study a letter in detail before studying the general qualities that inform it is to put the cart before the horse. For there is no detailed rule to be followed blindly. There is none which may not be modified in the light of the principles arrived at in the preceding chapter.
But in that light we may well examine every little convention of letter-writing. We may take up matters that seem very elementary. And this chapter will concern the transcriber quite as much as it concerns the correspondent himself. He is helpless without a good transcriber. Alas that good transcribers should be so hard to find.
The poor ones blot and misspell and misspace. They are little better than machines. They show no judgment. They allow downright errors to go out, being too careless or too much afraid to call the correspondent's attention to them. All this may be the correspondent's fault as much as the transcriber's. But if he is wise, he will treat her as an intelligent human being, and evoke the best that is in her. He will know that she is his best helper. She will be surer than he on spelling and punctuation. She will no more offer than he will accept a letter marred by blots or erasures. She will know how to call his attention once in a while - and only once in a while - to some infelicity or ambiguity or error. The general tone between her and the correspondent will be marked by self-respect and seriousness, not by a running fire of raillery.
The paper and envelopes used by the firm should be in every respect first-class, but not expressed in fancy. If you can't resist the temptation to print a lithograph of your big factory, let it be a good one. Factories are rarely inspiring sights, even to a farmer. If there is a man in the establishment who knows what a neat letter-head really is, give him his say. He must not be hampered either by the conceit of some member of the firm, or by the conceit of the printer. A little more severity in letterheads would help business. Elegance is desirable, but elegance consists not in richness alone; it is richness refined and re-strained. This paragraph is not so timid, perhaps, as it should be. It is only the opinion of an outsider, but it is backed by the opinion of several correspondents.
The letter-text should be well centered on the paper. The borders should be reasonably wide. The second page - which should have no letter-head - should contain more than a mere leave-taking and signature. No page, however, should be crowded at the bottom. Number the pages. Initials or name of the person addressed should appear on each page.
Envelopes should be addressed in type-writing if the letter itself is typewritten. The comma is not needed after the lines of the address on the envelope.
The address-heading may be in one, two, or at most three lines; but it -should be logically distributed. The first line may include both address and date; or, the first line may give the address, the second the date; or, the first may give the street and number, the second the town and state, and the third the date.
Separate town and state by a comma. See p. 42.
In order letters, each item should be paragraphed (indented) by itself.
§ 115. Salutations are a matter for discussion. But every American citizen is entitled to be addressed as Mr., and men in a firm to be called Messrs. If the firm spells out the word Company, the correspondent addressing it should do the same. Incorporated companies, e.g. The Baker and Taylor Company, do not need the Messrs. I know that many writers no longer use either Mr. or Messrs. It saves a good deal of time to omit them. But I cannot help thinking that to do so is a mark of impatience rather than of courtesy. Let us not brutalize business more than is necessary. Even if we have secured a monopoly, let us address our victims as Mr., lest the worm turn.
And be not weary of that well-doing which writes Dear Sir, Gentlemen, and Dear Madam. An excellent correspondent, Mr. Charles B. Wiers (in, How to Write a Business Letter) recommends that these forms of address be discontinued. His reasons are five: "1. Because Dear Madam or Bear Sir [Mr. Wiers means and] haven't the warmth or meaning typical of real life; they are decidedly stiff and formal. 2. Because they are not applicable to personal conversation. What is appropriate in such a sense seldom is in a business letter, although it is true that not all the things said in a conversation could be advisedly used in a letter. 3. Because it provides a way to address the customer exactly as you would face to face. In ordinary life your answer to a man who gives you an order or promises one would probably be, 'Mr. Smith, we thank you,' or 'Mr. Smith, we shall be glad to receive your order.' The omission of the salutation will enable you to address any one naturally and also make a material reduction in the stenographer's work. 4. Because a person who asks a question or states a proposition is more concerned about the answer than [about] a lot of senseless preliminaries. The fancy covers of a catalogue cut a very small figure if there are no attractive offers inside. 5. Because their omission gives a letter originality and distinction. Salutations are in letters to-day solely because they have been dictated by custom - and custom is often deficient in propriety."
These are Mr. Wiers's reasons, and he applies his doctrine in his own letters. But he is careful not to omit Mr., Messrs., Miss, or Mrs. before the name of the person addressed. That fact saves the opening of his letters from seeming curt. The effect is not unpleasing, but it may be questioned whether Mr. Wiers's five reasons wholly support it. 1. "Real life" is some-times no less real for being a trifle formal; not every situation in real life should have "warmth." Perhaps strangers like us just as well for not being too warm at first. 2. Personal conversation is of every shade of formality and informality. 3. I am not certain that in ordinary life a good business man would always say "Mr. Smith, we thank you" in the situation described. "We thank you, Mr. Smith" would be a little less formal. It would be an unfortunate mannerism to begin every other sentence with "Mr. Smith." And it would be ridiculous - except in joke - to say in conversation, "Mr. Morton Hiscox, President Chicago Trade Press Association, we thank you." No, this third argument proves too much. 4. Two words of salutation cannot fairly be described as "a lot of senseless preliminaries." 5. The omission of Dear Sir may for a little while give "originality and distinction" of a sort. But Mr. Wiers would fain persuade us all, and if he succeeds, what becomes of the originality and distinction? Meantime, will there not be many people who would call such a letter queer rather than distinguished, and fall to reflecting on the queerness rather than on the goods?