Alice Roberts, our On The Road editor, shares some tips on letter writing, a peculiar and concise form of communication which is often forgotten by many.


It is a particularly strange situation we are in, regarding the postcard, and a particular type of agony that appears when one is confronted with it. Most of us have not grown up writing letters, but then, when excitement bubbles over and you just cannot help but share your elaborate holiday plans with a friend the conversation will very likely terminate with: ‘So, will you send me a postcard?’ Due to the flawless social conditioning adhered to by most of us, the likely answer is: ‘Sure!’.

But then a boring postcard is a terrible thing. Now, let us look back to the Victorians for advice: letter writing is a complex art, and must be adapted to the recipient, however, it is also true that there are certain rules to help deliver a sparkling, innocuous letter every time. Here are seven tips from the bottomless wisdom of D.H. Jacques in ‘How To Write’ (1857):

  • For men, be sure to use assertive, bold script. For women, flowery or otherwise appealing drawings are recommended, these can be done in the margins or at the bottom of the text.
  • However, in all cases avoid a flourishing or excessively elaborate handwriting style. The text of a letter should simple be ‘elegant’
  • For female to male letters, do not shy away from a spritz of perfume
  • Do not erase or cross out misspelled words in a letter. Should you make a spelling error, the letter should be rewritten.
  • Never write an anonymous letter. It is the sign of a coward. Anyone who receives such a letter should not give any consideration to its content.
  • The invention element of a letter requires ‘originality, talent, judgement and information’ – the letter must flow and ideas must be composed in an orderly fashion
  • Ensure that the letters sign off is appropriate to the closeness of the relationship, and perhaps offer a compliment

However, as you have probably noticed, our central concern remains elusive. The question hovers: how to condense this to a postcard? Well, writing drafts is likely to be your best bet, five or six should suffice – adjectives are inessential unless being used to set the scene and be sure to use words with shared connotative meaning (with the recipient that is) for extra conciseness. Use initials where possible for names of towns (this has the added benefit of keeping your whereabouts a mystery) and try Hemingway’s golden technique of cutting every third word out. Better yet write in code – a knowledge of Morse in the recipient cannot always be assumed, but one can only hope!

Also, a bold opening is a good idea (endorsed by Virginia Woolf) – dazzle your reader with images, especially if you feel your style or sense of rhythm is lacking. Never open a postcard with the word ‘I’, and challenge yourself (despite lack of space, and unlikeliness of an answer) to offer one question to the recipient – be it feigned interest or not. Furthermore, although it probably goes without saying, be sure to choose an interesting, memorable post-card picture.poisson-davril-2-used-1906-w

I wish you luck on your attempts at this peculiar and concise form of communication, and leave you with one last suggestion: write tiny.


Alice Roberts