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Gifford Pinchot on Writing...

From...BREAKING NEW GROUND, pages 289 - 290...

For the form of a letter is far more important than many people think. Few things show the character and purpose of an organization better than its mail, both incoming and outgoing. The outgoing mail carries the message and the quality of its source. The incoming mail brings the proof of failure or success.

It is of the utmost importance that letters should be alive. Dead, dry, formal, official letters, stamped all over with pallid impersonality, are poison. What the Use Book had to say on this crucial subject is worth repeating:

"Use direct, clear cut language. Avoid unwieldy words where shorter, simpler ones will express the idea equally well. Be concise. Avoid laborious statements, the essence of which might well be expressed in half the space. Never use the substance of the letter received as a preamble to the reply." It was the custom of the Land Office letter writers of my day, who, after addressing the author of an incoming letter as "Sir" instead or by his human name, would acknowledge his communication of such a date "in which you say," and then proceed to recopy the whole of his letter. After which this shining model for genial human intercourse would finish up with "Your request is denied [or granted]. Respectfully yours."

The first object of a letter that does its job is to establish or continue living, moving, productive relations between two persons who are or ought to be interested, and so to get things done. It has to tell somebody something, of course, and do it clearly. But that is only the beginning. It has also to create or maintain good working confidence and cooperation between two individuals or two organizations.

In the Forest Service we held that among the best qualities of a good letter is promptness. The old Roman saying, "He gives twice who gives quickly," is never truer than about the answer to a letter. And close behind promptness comes readability. Short words, short sentences—the kind of language people use when they talk to each other.

You will perhaps remember that something new has been added to that classic of young and old, "Mary Had a Little Lamb." This supplement runs as follows:

"Hurrah for the teacher,
Hurrah for the lamb,
Hurrah for Little Mary
Who didn't give a damn."

That last line is human, and it hits the spot. But the Bureau of Circumlocution might have used, in place of its five short words, some such atrocity as this in characterizing Little Mary:
"Acclamations for Little Mary whose invariable policy it was to maintain a rigid or inflexible attitude of indifference or aloofness to both the remoter and the more immediate consequences of the legitimate or illegitimate results of any action, whether authorized or unauthorized, by any of the participants in any incident with which he, she, or they were directly or indirectly concerned, with regrettable disregard of all those intellectual, moral, and conventional considerations which should always and everywhere animate all persons with proper respect for the accepted formalities of well and duly ordered human intercourse, and which, if official propriety did not forbid, might be alluded to as unfortunate."

To quote St. Paul again: "Except ye utter words that are easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken?"

Many long hours did I spend in rewriting, or showing the authors how to rewrite, letters prepared for my signature. In the end I doubt if any Government organization ever lived up to a higher standard of official correspondence.

USDA Forest Service - Grey Towers National Historic Site
Last Modified: Monday, 16 December 2013 at 14:19:05 CST


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