Emily Post Had it Right

The Etiquette of Correspondence©

Perhaps contrary to popular belief, there is still an art to corresponding with your faculty, staff, and other individuals who may be supporting you through national scholarship application processes, helping you with establishing connections at your own institution or at the national or international level, and/or mentoring you through related activities. And, there is an etiquette involved as well, which we happen to think, is rather invaluable.

So, in spite of a world of communication styles fitted to social media, Twitter, Instagram, text messaging, and e-mail, here is a little guidance on how to make your correspondence a pleasure to read and, heaven forbid, even a pleasure to write (perhaps, gasp, with pen, ink and paper).

The Art of Correspondence

The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.”  – Walt Whitman

Whether you are hand-writing a thank you note, crafting a more lengthy letter, or typing an e-mail, there is a certain art to how you go about constructing your correspondence.  Brevity is valuable in nearly all cases, so if necessary, write out a draft or two before penning your final note, letter or e-mail, and edit as needed. If you are writing about a particular opportunity, soliciting specific support, asking for guidance, resources, or an introduction to another possible connection, keep your writing clear, to the point, and both formal and informal in tone. Introduce yourself briefly, if necessary, and then speak specifically to the nature of your inquiry. Treat your writing, meaning your grammar, structure, spelling and so forth, with every seriousness, as it is an indication of your commitment to the purpose behind your correspondence. If you are hand-writing a note, select stationary that is elegant, professional, and, if appropriate, reflects something of the sender. Stationary needn’t be expensive and your hand-writing needn’t be perfect (though legible is good); sometimes the simple fact of taking time to hand-write a note, sends a message worthy of pause and consideration. There was a time when letter-writing was an art, a regular practice, and, in fact, a necessity. If you ever have the chance, or maybe as a product of your research efforts you will need to consult archival materials, take a moment to look at the hand-written papers – letters, notes, journals – of those who, right up until our most recent past, did in fact put pen to paper and left us a remarkable record simply in the curve of their script and the ink blots that reminded the reader of the humanity on the other side of that piece of paper. It is nearly a lost art, but it really shouldn’t be. Write your correspondence from a place of grace and respect.

 And, Yes, She Did Have It Right…

For nearly a century, the name Emily Post has been synonymous with proper etiquette in all things. If you want a solid footing in all things etiquette related, consider picking up copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette, now in its 18th edition! But, for our purposes, the primary purpose behind any consideration of the etiquette of correspondence fundamentally rides on respect. Etiquette is, in principle, an act of respect and in the case of writing letters, emails, texts, or communicating in any other fashion with your mentors, faculty, advisors, colleagues, peers, and others who support your efforts, it is an indication of the value you place in that exchange and in that relationship. So, take time to understand the relatively basic principles of letter writing etiquette and translate them to your emails, twitter, and other forms of communication with the world. 

  1. Use a standard correspondence format:
    Date
    Name, formal title and address of recipient
    Professional salutation
    Body of correspondence
    Professional closing salutation with your signature and appropriate contact details
    An indication at the bottom of your letter of any additional materials enclosed or attached.
  2. Edit, revise, and spell-check your correspondence, including your e-mails. Grammar and punctuation should not be dictated by the speed with which you are able to dictate your ideas.  And, please, do not write as though as sending a text or tweet; use full sentences, spelling, and don’t abbreviate. It’s not cute, hip, or pithy in this particular context (or in any). And, be mindful of jargon or a tendency to write in a colloquial tone. Use proper English and avoid slang (oh, and please, avoid the over-use of the word ‘like’. Technically, there are about three actual and proper uses of the word ‘like’ and, chances are you aren’t using a single one of them. For more on the over-use of the word ‘like’, have a look at Christopher Hichens’ piece in Vanity Fair).
  3. Always write with your reader in mind. This means doing your best to write concretely and directly, even if writing about future plans, dreams, and hopes. We have tendency to get lost in the abstract when writing about future opportunities and it is important in your correspondence, just as it is in your personal statement, to balance your abstract thinking with actual examples, requests, and ideas that are easily accessible to your reader.
“Good manners [and good correspondence] reflect something from inside-an innate sense of consideration for others and respect for self.” – Emily Post