No one can go far wrong in writing any sort of letter if first the trouble be taken to set out the exact object of the letter. A letter always has an object—otherwise why write it? But somehow, and particularly in the dictated letter, the object frequently gets lost in the words. A handwritten letter is not so apt to be wordy—it is too much trouble to write. But a man dictating may, especially if he be interrupted by telephone calls, ramble all around what he wants to say a
The single purpose of a letter is to convey thought. That thought may have to do with facts, and the further purpose may be to have the thought produce action. But plainly the action depends solely upon how well the thought is transferred. Words as used in a letter are vehicles for thought, but every word is not a vehicle for thought, because it may not be the kind of word that goes to the place where you want your thought to go; or, to put it another way, there is a wide variation in the understanding of words. The average American vocabulary is quite limited, and where an exactly phrased letter might completely convey an exact thought to a person of education, that same letter might be meaningless to a person who understands but few words. Therefore, it is fatal in general letter writing to venture into unusual words or to go much beyond the vocabulary of, say, a grammar school graduate. Statistics show that the ordinary adult in the United States—that is, the great American public—has either no high school education or less than a year of it. You can assume in writing to a man whom you do not know and about whom you have no information that he has only a grammar school education and that in using other than commonplace words you run a double danger—first, that he will not know what you are talking about or will misinterpret it; and second, that he will think you are trying to be highfalutin and will resent your possibly quite innocent parade of language.
In a few very effective sales letters the writers have taken exactly the opposite tack. They have slung language in the fashion of a circus publicity agent, and by their verbal gymnastics have attracted attention. This sort of thing may do very well in some kinds of circular letters, but it is quite out of place in the common run of business correspondence, and a comparison of the sales letters of many companies with their day-to-day correspondence shows clearly the need for more attention to the day-to-day letter. A sales letter may be bought. A number of very competent men make a business of writing letters for special purposes. But a higher tone in general correspondence cannot be bought and paid for. It has to be developed. A good letter writer will neither insult the intelligence of his correspondent by making the letter too childish, nor will he make the mistake of going over his head. He will visualize who is going to receive his letter and use the kind of language that seems best to fit both the subject matter and the reader, and he will give the fitting of the words to the reader the first choice.
There is something of a feeling that letters should be elegant—that if one merely expresses oneself simply and clearly, it is because of some lack of erudition, and that true erudition breaks out in great, sonorous words and involved constructions. There could be no greater mistake. The man who really knows the language will write simply. The man who does not know the language and is affecting something which he thinks is culture has what might be called a sense of linguistic insecurity, which is akin to the sense of social insecurity. Now and again one meets a person who is dreadfully afraid of making a social error. He is afraid of getting hold of the wrong fork or of doing something else that is not done. Such people labor along frightfully. They have a perfectly vile time of it, but any one who knows social usage takes it as a matter of course. He observes the rules, not because they are rules, but because they are second nature to him, and he shamelessly violates the rules if the occasion seems to warrant it. It is quite the same with the letter. One should know his ground well enough to do what one likes, bearing in mind that there is no reason for writing a letter unless the objective is clearly defined. Writing a letter is like shooting at a target. The target may be hit by accident, but it is more apt to be hit if careful aim has been taken.