Despite the fact that everything about anything is available on the internet, I have a soft spot for libraries. As Matt Damon says in his Good Will Hunting rant: “you blew 150k on an education you could have gotten for $1.50 in late fees from the library.” While I don’t think a college degree is completely useless, there is something to be said for the resources that are available to knowledge-seekers. My most recent foray into the library has been for copywriting books (stay tuned for some Comet Tale advertisement mock-ups).
Typically, I get the call number for one book, head to the general section and browse through the stacks. It’s exciting to look through the sheer number of books written on any given subject, and to come across quirky books that don’t make the college reading lists but that have character. Without browsing the stacks, I never would have come across the gem that is Robert L. Shurter, Ph.D’s Effective Letters in Business.
First published in 1948 and reissued in 1954, Shurter’s book comes with all the trappings of the post-war, Pleasantville era. Just to give you an idea of its tone, here are some excerpts:
“Today, the indented form is practically obsolete because it requires unnecessary stenographic time for margins and punctuation.” They actually used typewriters. How archaic. (writers’ confession: I actually have three typewriters myself)
“For more general purposes, his language is called Gobbledygook (the sound a turkey gobbler makes when it struts) or Bafflegab (‘multiloquence characterized by consummate interfusion of circumlocution’).”
“Can your stenographers take dictation at the rate of 120 words a minute? I can—and I am eager to prove that such speed does not lessen my accuracy.”
The parallels between the business letter and the business e-mail seem pretty apparent so even though I read the book for a fun look into the past, some of the advice was still quite pertinent today. I won’t highlight everything, instead I’ll just mention two of the points that Shurter brings up early.
When writing a letter, Shurter recommends taking the “you attitude.” Rather than focusing on your own needs, phrase your letter so that it keeps the reader in mind. The principle of content marketing takes this idea and runs with it. Rather than use a blog to shout your offerings to the world, provide the world with information that is useful to them. Frame your posts in an entertaining and informative fashion that imparts benefit upon the reader.
In addition, Shurter warns against the perils of jargon. There really is no point in writing if your audience will need to have several encyclopedias and reference books by his or her side to decipher your text. If your epistolary constructions employ copious amounts of legalese, medicalese, or any other –ese, you might as well write in Greek. To connect with your readership, write like your readership.
If you have some free time at your disposal, I would definitely recommend looking through Shurter’s text. Sometimes customs of ages past can be re-incorporated to much effect in the present.