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The Etiquette of Putting Thoughts on Paper

Jane Austen once wrote that she had "now attained the true art of letter writing, which, we are always told, is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth." Two hundred years later, this sort of chatty communication is conducted primarily by phone and e-mail. Letters, meanwhile, "are reserved for the most intimate and difficult emotions," says L. Sue Baugh, author of the "Handbook for Practical Letter Writing" (NTC Contemporary Publishing, 1993). Nevertheless, Ms. Baugh is sanguine about the future. She sees younger people delighting in old family letters, and she predicts that "kids in the next generation will discover letter writing and claim it as something of their own."

As they do so, they will also discover that letter writing, like e-mail, has its own etiquette. When a friend announces his engagement, you might in person be able to hint that you are not too crazy about his intended. It's not as easy to communicate this with words penned on paper. Unlike eloquent 19th-century letter-writers, "People today are losing the ability to articulate," Baugh says. But this can be remedied. She recommends a school exercise in which students pretend they are a character in a novel responding to an event. Say, Rhett spelling it out to Scarlett. Or Juliet explaining Romeo to her parents. "Of course," Baugh says, "you are accessing your own feelings and emotional responses without being implicated."

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