Many, many years ago, a young teacher sat at the back of a room surrounded by fellow markers for our annual markers’ briefing. The chief examiner at the time was an almost mythical figure: passionate about the fact we must award the ‘right’ marks and be dedicated to giving the students the marks they deserved, and unsympathetic towards examiners who didn’t do their duty. He was as humorous as he was terrifying, but you dared not be the one to ask the wrong question.
The task that year was a letter. I don’t know what it was about, but I remember that it was a letter. One examiner stood up to ask how we should penalise candidates who had not written an address or matched up their ‘Dear …’ salutation with the appropriate and corresponding ‘faithfully’ or ‘sincerely’.
What happened next changed the way I thought and taught forever.
“Well, you mark it as you would mark any other response…” came the reply.
“Yes, but it’s not a letter…”
“It IS a letter. It just isn’t addressed. Don’t concern yourself with whether it looks like a letter. Ask yourself if it sounds like a letter.”
As it turned out, there were few of us who could put our finger exactly on the qualities of a piece of writing that made it sound like a letter. We kind of knew, but none of us could say categorically: “it does this, this, this and this.”
What followed was a 20-minute blasting about ‘letterness’ – the style, conventions, register and tone – and I’ve forever followed the guidance that, if you took the address off, the ‘Dear blah blah’ and the ending, and it doesn’t do anything else that is remotely ‘letter-y’, then it’s not very letter-y at all. An address, a Dear Sir and a yours faithfully do not a letter make.
So what is this ‘letterness’ business and why are we so bad at it?
As a 24-year-old examiner, I’d written precisely three formal letters. Two got me an interview and one got me a job. I’d never written a letter to my mayor. I’d never written to my headteacher. I’d never once written to the local council. I was quite remiss in my correspondence, it must be said.
I’d written lots of letters, in the days before email and Whatsapp, just not the kind that you’d ever write in an exam. I had a friend called Paul in Salisbury and we wrote bitchy letters about townies and Cabrini jackets. I also wrote to my friend Pam when I should have been doing GCSE History. I had a boyfriend who lived in Bury St Edmunds who wrote me letters, and then one who lived in Crewe who did the same. When I moved to Sheffield to start university, my friends wrote to me religiously. We wrote about various lads we liked and various things we’d done at the weekend. They were in equal measures funny and cringeworthy.
What they weren’t were the kind of letter-writing practice that would be in any way useful for GCSE letters.
And despite my extensive repertoire with informal letters to friends, I still hadn’t written a letter to a headteacher, a mayor or a local town council. Nor had I written one to a newspaper. I had never been Disgusted, of Tunbridge Wells.
By the time I got to the examiners’ meeting in 1996, I lived in a land without formal letters or formal letter experience. Practically, anyway.
In 2018, I still don’t write letters. I write some emails, and I get a lot of emails. Many of them sound a bit like letters. None of them look like letters, though, which would horrify that examiner back in 1998, who wanted to give E grades to anyone who left off an address.
And you, dear reader, do you write many letters?
Maybe I’m underestimating you, but I would hazard a guess that for most of us, we neither receive many letters nor write them. Worse in the Age of Technology than in the Age of Ink. My 15-year-old self knew it would be funny to write a letter addressed to “Miss Pam Fairhurst, esq.” and asking if she could do me “the courtesy, nay, the honour” of joining me on the monkey bridge by the pie shop at breaktime. I ‘got’ formal letter style, though nobody had ever bothered to teach me. And she knew how funny it would be to reply, “Dear Bunts (informal, perhaps a touch blasé)”. We played around with those salutations ranging from the formal to the casual “Oreet?” (which passed for a greeting back in 1980s Lancashire) in ways that showed we really understood formality of letters, even if we’d never written one.
You may well be the same.
That said, times have changed. Letters were the only mode of written transactional communication back in the day. Thirty years on, are we busily hammering out notes to our friends at the back of History lessons? Why no, dear students, you are not, because you are not as naughty as Pam and I were, and you value your results. My result spoke for itself in that subject (decidedly average) and I shall not embarrass you by assuming you’d be so silly as to write notes in class. Besides, we had a fair few intercepted and read out as punishment, which clearly was ineffective as it didn’t stop us at all, just made us more crafty.
Those thirty years in between my teenage years and yours have changed the way we write forever.
That makes it pretty hard, then, for the average person to know what ‘letterness’ entails anymore. Plus, our correspondence is much more immediate and open-ended. Gone are the “Hi Mum” letters, because my mum and I have been in an open-ended conversation since, well, about 2008. We very rarely have to open conversations anymore, and we are even rarer in having to finish them off. Our transactional writing is open-ended and much more in keeping with spoken conversations. In 1991, I would happily write ten-sided letters simply because a) I had too much time in the world before selfies and Facebook, and b) you might as well, since it cost you the same to send that as it did to send three sentences on one side of writing paper. When was the last time you wrote a ten-sided missive to your best friend?!
It’s no wonder then that ‘letterness’ has become even more of an old-fashioned notion.
Luckily, I have two guiding lights. One is that twenty-minute explanation of what letterness entailed from our former chief examiner. The other is a delightful book called ‘The Timewaster Letters’ by Robin Cooper. In this book, Cooper writes to many agencies, shops, associations, clubs and individuals with a variety of unusual propositions or suggestions. Not only does he have a wonderful handle on ‘letterness’, but he also included the responses, which showed that everyone else seemed to as well.
It seemed from this glorious documentation of many, many series of correspondence, that there is a loose understanding in society of the style, register and formality of letters. A bit of light-fingered pilfering allowed me to pick out the main stylistic features of letters (and emails) to share with you to help you understand letterness too.
With that in mind, I’m going to use some of the openings and endings from The Timewaster Letters as well as a couple of emails from people in my correspondence list to elucidate for you what ‘letterness’ is really made up of, so if you are struggling to make something SOUND LIKE a letter, you’ll have a bit of a clue.
My advice is this: chop off the address and the date, the ‘Dear Blah Blah’ (and definitely the ‘I am writing to you…’) as well as the ‘yours faithfully’ at the end, and ask yourself what else am I doing that makes this sound like a letter? If there really is nothing in there that’s very lettery, this article is definitely for you.
If the answer is ‘very little’, you can brush up on that today.
Just to make it clear about WHY you might want to bother doing that, I’m going to talk you through the levels on the markscheme.
Remember that the levels are what we use to mark. They aren’t grades. When I say level 4, I don’t mean Grade 4.
The markscheme is split up into 4 levels. You already see the problem that there are 9 grades.
When I write about level 1, I am writing about what will roughly be Grades 1-3. Level 2 is roughly Grades 3 – 5, Level 3 is roughly Grades 5 – 7, and Level 4 is roughly Grades 7 – 9. The exact boundaries depend on so much maths that it makes my head hurt, and anyway, they change year on year, so it would be redundant. To make it more fun, each level is divided into sub-levels. So I’ve taken the description for each one for our lovely table.
I’m focusing on the part of the markscheme that is about audience, purpose, register and response to task. I’ve shortened it a little and put in the marks available, but as you can see, at the bottom, a candidate will have occasional sense of audience and purpose (does one or two things that shows they know someone is reading it and that they’re not writing a story) whereas at the top, it’s not only a ‘convincing’ letter that sounds appropriately letter-y throughout, but it’s also so compelling to read that I actually want to read it.
What follows, then, is a bit of an exploration of letterness, then a list of some lettery things you can do. It’s not a checklist or ticklist. It will also be moderated by the audience and it will be affected by the required level of formality, so you can use these features as and where they fit. Don’t use them all. That would be horrible.
Let’s start with identifying some lettery things.
I’ve taken these two from Robin Cooper’s The Timewaster Letters.
The first is his letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
I hope you are very well.
I am writing to you for your learned advice.
I am thinking of starting up my own religion. Unfortunately, I’m a bit stuck on a number of issues, such as what we should believe in, how we pray, what to call ourselves etc.
As a religious man could you perhaps give me a few tips as to the best way to set up an entirely new world religion.
I look forward to your response.
So, this is what I mean about appropriate. There are bits that just aren’t. For instance, “I hope you are well” is kind of inappropriate. It sounds as if Robin Cooper personally knows the Archbishop. I also, personally, hate “I am writing”. Of course you are writing. That much is evident. I would like to ban this phrase completely from all letters.
Of course, the content is also wrong. You shouldn’t ask the leader of a world religion for advice on how to set up a new world religion. It’s just not done.
But there’s some nice bits you can use. I do like the fact that the letter tries to establish a sense of a relationship. “I hope you are well” invites response. We should never forget that letters are a transaction. They are like a very long written communication. So therefore they need the same politeness features we would expect at the beginning of a conversation. You can’t just come in with a: “Can you tell me how to start a religion please?”
All the same, you can’t use conversational things easily because they’re not formal enough.
What I like to do is have a bit of a warm-up by explaining why I’m writing to them at that moment focusing on our shared interest (the subject of the letter)
The very fact that I am writing to them shows they can do something for me, or I want to do something for them. That something is our common link.
Let’s have a look at a sample question:
“Subjects in school today are based on things that are no longer useful for us. Education should be relevant to the lives young people will lead.”
Write a letter to your headteacher in which you explain your views on this subject.
So, I’m guessing I’ll share a common interest about education with the headteacher.
Letters, too, have a special kind of tone, even if you were writing to complain (which isn’t something you’ll be asked about) or if you are trying to persuade the recipient of a different view. Politeness is crucial and even if you strongly disagree with the views the recipient might have, you don’t ever want to threaten or be rude. Letters are the last bastion of polite manners.
If you think I’m joking, you should see how French letters end. Even my electricity bill comes with distinguished and cordial salutations. I forgot to pay once and I got a menacing letter that even finished with a very polite, “please accept our distinguished salutations”.
Seriously, you are going to be verging on obsequious and obnoxious good manners.
Let’s look at how the Archbishop of Canterbury could have replied to Robin Cooper.
Dear Mr Cooper,
Are you &”%*ing kidding me? Have you got some kind of undiagnosed mental illness? What on God’s good earth makes you think you can start a religion? We’ve had two thousand years’ practice, and that’s nothing on our Jewish friends. Work out your own religion, you thieving swine! Either that, or you are seriously taking the mick. Get a grip, you timewaster.
Despite the feelings of whoever opened that letter – be they amusement, anger or scorn – the reply went like this:
Dear Mr Cooper,
I have been asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury to thank you for your recent letter, the contents of which have been noted.
I am sure that you will not be surprised that Dr Carey is unable to advise you on how to found your own religion. If in approaching him you are seeking the help of the Church of England to meet your own spiritual needs, the Archbishop would advise you to approach your own local clergy, or other Christians in whom you have confidence.
See… polite even if sensing mockery, scorn, rudeness or a complete lack of understanding.
So, in my letter to the headteacher, am I going to start:
Dear Mr Brown,
I am writing to you to tell you how pointless and outdated education is?
Dear Mr Brown,
Have you ever thought about what a colossal waste of time school is for us today? We can find everything you teach us on Wikipedia. Education is pointless.
Nope. Not in the slightest.
So I’m going to:
- state who I am and my reasons for writing
- express our common ground
- be polite
- explain what prompted me to write now
So it might look like this:
Dear Mr Brown,
As a student in Year 11, I listened with interest to your assembly about planned changes to the school building to make sure it is ready to cope with students’ needs in the future. I share your enthusiasm for high-tech laboratories and art spaces that will help St Bernard’s students prepare for life in the real world. At the same time, I had some thoughts about how the subjects we are offered in school may perhaps be developed alongside these structural and physical changes, ensuring students have the most competitive edge when entering the workplace.
So you can see I say who I am first off. It saves the reader having to read to the end of the letter to find out who they are and why on earth they’re writing.
I do a little thing to explain why I’m writing now – it is in response to an assembly. I made that bit up. But it is there to show why now.
I do a little making of common ground, with the ‘sharing enthusiasm’ bit.
And when I write my purpose, I’m so mild and gentle that nobody could mix that up with hostility and confrontation. I have a discourse marker that is non-confrontational. It’s not an ‘on the other hand’, but an ‘at the same time’, as if what I want to say is an extension, not an opposition.
Ones to avoid are ones that mean ‘but’: on the other hand, in contrast, despite this, nevertheless, for all that, in spite of and so on.
Why I avoid them is they are confrontational. They are ones for the middle-end bit where you have got your reader listening.
I don’t want to say, “Dear headteacher, your ideas are rubbish.”, not even if I dress it up prettily and politely.
I’m trying to make out that my challenges are in fact only small modifications, a slight detour or addition. Not that I think he’s wasting his time and money completely on technology that will be obselete in five years. Soften the blows.
I’ve got conditional modal verbs: may, might, could, would be.
Keep your forceful obligations to yourself with your musts, have tos and shoulds. They have a place in persuasion, but not in explaining my views unless I want to aggravate this poor headteacher.
Add some softeners: perhaps and possibly add another level of speculation and politeness.
Extend your contractions. “I am” is more formal than “I’m”. It’s not a time to show off your apostrophes for omission.
And say please, but don’t beg.
- I would be very happy to explore these ideas with you further.
- Please do not hesitate to get in touch if you would like to discuss these ideas further.
- After long consideration, I feel that…
- I hope that…
- I would suggest that…
- Could I suggest that… ?
- Do let me know if…
- I enclose further details that may be of interest…
- Some ideas that may possibly be of interest…
- Perhaps the following ideas may be of use…
See? Helpful, friendly and subtle.
How we finish letters is also interesting. I like to always leave them open to response, and we often say things like, “I look forward to your response.”
I do like that. I like “I very much look forward to your response.”
“I await your response” – now that’s cold and unfeeling!
For the very final line, we’ve moved on from “Yours faithfully”, and sometimes “Kindest wishes” or “Warmest regards” can set a more friendly tone, especially if you want something from them.
True story: once, my editor changed, and my new editor finished his first email to me with “Best”.
“Best what?” I thought. How rude! Are you really so busy that you can’t even be bothered to write “wishes”? Needless to say, I was prickly in response.
Let’s have a look at an email enquiry I had about lessons (because emails follow many of the same conventions as letters)
I have followed your blogs with interest for some time now and they have been very helpful for my son, who will be entering Year 10 in September. They seem to have hit the right note with him, which is an achievement in itself. I know you may not have any tuition time available at present, but would it be possible to book a series of lessons from September? He is currently working at Grade 5.
We’ve moved beyond the 80s, and it’s fine to address people by first names (sometimes) unless they are more powerful than you. No first names for anyone who is in a position of power, eg headteachers, mayors, leaders of councils. It’s just rude. Hello and Hi are fine if you are writing to a friend. Dear Sir can be sexist and Dear Sir or Madam suggests you haven’t got the foggiest who I am. If you’re writing to a friend, use their first name by all means.
You never lose anything with a sentence of pleasantries at the beginning of a letter. Honestly. It stops you sounding too formal. You may want to add a little bit that shows you’ve been following them (in a non-stalker, non-weird way) and this is especially true if you’re writing to someone you already know.
Take this email to a colleague. I wanted some Paper 2s from her.
Can I write:
Please send me all your Paper 2s.
No I can’t. It’d be rude. Well, I could, but Janet would reply “Dear Emma… Bog Off. Love, Janet.”
To use “Dear” with someone I know is a bit rude these days as well. It’s okay. Bit formal.
“Hello Janet” sounds odd.
“Hiya Janet” sounds like I’m from Coronation Street.
“Janet” sounds like I’m angry at her.
“Hi Janet” is where I’m going. It’s friendly, if a little informal.
Now she knows I want something from her; I don’t just write random emails. Sometimes it’s just to know if she’s okay, what she’s up to, or to catch up on the gossip. But it’s just nice manners to say:
Did you have a good Easter? How are the children?
But if I write that to someone I don’t know… well, it sounds weird. Is it appropriate for the headteacher, the mayor or the local council? Not on your nelly.
Dear Mrs Burton,
Did you have a good Easter? Hope the children are well!
Creepy and stalkerish.
So what kind of things work for those ‘why now?’ moments?
- I recently read your review of … and I wish to…
- I recently attended your speech about… and I would like to…
- Having listened to your recent talk about… I would like to…
- In light of recent interest in… I wondered if I could…
- As a [person or role], I was very interested to hear your thoughts about [topic] recently
- Your recent post about [topic] mentioned…
- Having recently [something you did], I thought it might be…
- In response to…
And here’s how they look in practice with that example task:
- I listened with interest to your talk in assembly about how our school will be changing in the future. Knowing how you always try to take on board the views of students, I hope you will permit me to share my thoughts on this important subject
- As a Year 11 student, how our schools will change in the future may not seem like the most vital of subjects. I found, however, your recent assembly to be very interesting and thought I would share my views on the topic.
- Having recently participated in the student council about education in the future, I hoped that you may find some of our key ideas to be of interest.
- Your recent school newsletter mentioned that you were seeking comments and ideas about how our school may develop in the future. As a Year 11 student, I have a great interest in being part of those developments, as a legacy for our younger students.
Nope, they’re not brilliant. They’re not persuasive. They’re not Martin Luther King having a dream or Nelson Mandela having a long walk to freedom. But they sound like letters. And that’s the important bit.
A bit of politeness and letterness at the beginning, followed by all your ideas, then a bit of letterness again at the end, and you’re on to a winning formula.
What things work to finish a formal letter off?
In the internet and print world, we call it a ‘call to action’… what you want them to do. Do you want them to get in touch to discuss further? Do you want them to consider and reflect upon your ideas? Do you want their support? Do you want their practical help? Do you want an interview? Do you want them to call you?
What do you want them to do, urgently, the moment they finish your letter? Hopefully not say, “well, that’s five minutes of my life I’ll never get back!”
These are not always a direct call to action. They’re not a ‘buy my book now’ kind of thing. They’re using conditional verbs and no contracted forms.
- Thank you for considering my ideas. I would be delighted to discuss these further if you find them of interest.
- Many thanks for having taken the time to read my proposals. I very much look forward to your response.
- Do let me know any of my thoughts are of interest. I look forward to your reply.
- Thank you, in anticipation, for your support on this matter. As you can tell, it is a subject which I feel strongly about.
- I would be grateful if you could…
So, if you’re a teacher, pick up a copy of Robin Cooper’s The Timewaster Letters and explore their wonderful examples of appropriate and inappropriate style with your students. And if you’re a student, brush up on those openings and endings to letters that go beyond addresses, Dear Sir or Madam, and whether or not you should put yours faithfully or yours sincerely.
Letters are so much more than just a nod towards stuff that might help you post them and get them opened by the right person. Sure, they’re a blast from the past, but such is life. Remember, this is ONE style of letter writing – a formal style. None of these things would be appropriate if you have a different audience who require an informal style. What goes in the middle may well ressemble an essay or an argument, but what goes around the edges tells your examiner that you know the conventions and appropriate style for a letter. You don’t need hundreds of these stylistic elements, but a handful would certainly show you understand that elusive ‘letterness’.
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