Letter-Writing Tips From Great Men

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Letter-Writing Tips From Great Men

Words by Mr Mansel Fletcher

2 November 2016

How putting pen to paper can prove to be the most meaningful way to communicate.

To celebrate the launch of The Art of the Everyday, our new capsule collection with COS, we at MR PORTER decided to muse upon a few simple quotidian habits that can vastly improve the quality of a man’s life. Below, man of letters and MR PORTER Contributing Editor Mr Mansel Fletcher muses upon the art of hand-written communication, and looks to some of its greatest masters for tips.

The convenience of electronic communication is unimpeachable. Fixing a training session with your PT? Send him a text. Catching up with an old friend who now lives abroad? Send her an email. Making a plan to see your sister? Use WhatsApp. But if you’re thanking a friend for dinner, applying for a job, commissioning an artist, passing on fatherly advice or even chasing a debt, it’s better to put pen to paper. Their scarcity means that hand-written letters have never made as deep an impression as they do now.

But don’t just take our word for it. Instead enjoy three letters written by great men, all taken from the blog Letters Of Note, and see what conclusions you draw.

How to show off in style

Showing off is only really excusable in pursuit of success either in business or in romance. Charm tends to win the day in the latter, but a clear demonstration of talent is more important in the former. It’s hard to see how Oscar-winning screenwriter Mr Robert Pirosh, who had given up a copy-writing job with a New York ad firm, could have more successfully exhibited his facility with words when, in 1934, he wrote this extraordinary letter (see below). It ultimately won him a job at MGM. Starting out with the statement “I like words”, the letter goes on to prove it thanks to Mr Pirosh’s virtuosic sentences, which include “I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty” and “I like sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.” It works because the execution is so pure. Mr Pirosh luxuriates in the power of language, before concisely explaining his ambition, “I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter” and winningly signing off with, “… I still like words. May I have a few with you?”

The tip: big gestures must be perfectly executed.

Read the full letter here

How to get personal

When advising on matters of the heart, one has to navigate between the rocks of sentimentality, formality and vagueness. President Ronald Reagan steered a masterful course when he wrote to his son on the eve of his 1971 wedding, particularly by first saying of marriage, “It can be whatever you decide to make it”. This reinforces the idea that advice is being offered, rather than instruction given. The letter’s potency comes from the fact that plain truths are stated, such as “It does take quite a man to remain attractive and to be loved by a woman who has heard him snore, seen him unshaven, tended him while he was sick and washed his dirty underwear”. Rather than lean on woolly notions of romance, President Reagan relies on tangible things like respect, manners and morality, and holds out this alluring prize, “There is no greater happiness for a man than approaching a door at the end of the day knowing someone on the other side of the door is waiting for the sound of his footsteps”.

The tip: The best advice is actionable and grounded in reason, but still intensely human.

Read the full letter here

How to be persuasive

Even business letters are personal, and none more so than when they’re addressed to creatives. Sir Mick Jagger’s letter to Mr Andy Warhol manages to give the artist free-rein over the design for the famous cover of the band’s 1971 album Sticky Fingers without ceding control of the project. He opens, “I’m really pleased you can do the art-work for our new hits album.” This emphasises that Mr Warhol’s work is secondary to the record it will encase. Only a rock star could strike such a relaxed tone (“In my short, sweet experience”) about both the timescale (Sir Mick advises Mr Warhol to “take little notice” of his colleague who will be chasing him to complete the art work) and the budget (“please write back saying how much money you would like”). The letter demonstrates the band’s confidence in Mr Warhol, emphasises their personal involvement, offers practical advice and still comes across as relaxed.

The tip: tailor your words to the personality of the recipient.

Read the full letter here

Letters Of Note (Canongate) compiled by Mr Shaun Usher is out now