Eight Or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing

In 1890, Lewis Carroll Published Rules For Communicating That Still Ring True Today

This week on the Alice Is Everywhere podcast, we discussed at length Lewis Carroll’s Dos and Don’ts for communicating entitled Eight Or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing. I promised my listeners I would publish screenshots of LC’s incredibly complex letter register on the Alice Is Everywhere blog. But why don’t we review his rules in written form as well, for all you non-podcast listeners? After all, just about anyone can benefit from his always wise and often hilarious advice. (Seriously, though, why aren’t you non-listeners listening to the Alice Is Everywhere podcast? All you have to do is click on Podcast on this website, pick an episode, and hit the play button! No iTunes or smartphone required, though you are certainly welcome to listen with those as well.)

First, some background. The essay Eight Or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing was sold as part of a set along with the Wonderland Postage Stamp Case. The Wonderland Postage Stamp Case is a cute little holder for stamps that features an illustration of Alice holding the duchess’ human baby from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on the front. Then when the stamp case is opened, voila! She holds the baby in its more familiar pig form. The stamp case is significant because that is the only place we see Alice holding the baby in human form. That illustration is not in the book. Lewis Carroll declared, “Since I have possessed a “Wonderland Stamp Case”, Life has been bright and peaceful, and I have used no other. I believe the Queen’s laundress uses no other.” And truly, who can argue with that?

wonderland stamp case was sold with eight or nine wise words about letter writing

Observe, the whimsical front…


Cheshire Cat graces the back of thew Wonderland Postage Stamp Case

Discern, the delightful back…


Wonderland Postage Stamp Case Held Different Stamps

Behold, the entertaining innards!

The Actual Eight Or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing

The booklet Eight Or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing starts with a description of the Wonderland Postage Stamp Case. The second mini-chapter is called How To Begin A Letter and reminds you in no uncertain terms to write out the full date, yours and the recipient’s full address, and to have your friend’s previous letter in front of you. Chapter 3 is entitled How To Go On With A Letter and contains the actual eponymous eight or nine wise words. Lewis Carroll does not give the rules neat, pithy titles. Therefore, the following list is my paraphrasing of the rules, followed by a quote or two from Lewis Carroll explaining each. I think you will be amazed at how many of these rules are suitable for today’s electronic communications! Who among us has not hit send without including an email attachment? Who hasn’t had a friend misunderstand the tone of a text or instant message? Just follow’s LC’s simple rules, and these faux pas will happen no more!

1) Write Legibly (Golden Rule)

A great deal of the bad writing in the world comes simply from writing too quickly. Of course you reply, “I do it to save time”.  A very good object, no doubt : but what right have you to do it at your friend’s expense?

2)  Address Your Friend’s Concerns First

The best subject, to begin with, is your friend’s last letter… Your friend is much more likely to enjoy your wit, after his own anxiety for information has been satisfied.

3) When It Comes To Disagreements, Don’t Repeat Yourself

When once you have said your say, fully and clearly, on a certain point, and have failed to convince your friend, drop that subject: to repeat your arguments, all over again, will simply lead to his doing the same; and so you will go on like a Circulating Decimal. Did you ever know a Circulating Decimal come to an end?

4) Don’t Got To The Post Office Angry

…when you have written a letter that you feel may possibly irritate your friend, however necessary you may have felt it to so express yourself, put it aside till the next day. Then read it over again, and fancy it addressed to yourself. This will often lead to your writing it all over again…

5) No Throwing Shade

…if your friend makes a severe remark, either leave it unnoticed, or make your reply distinctly less severe : and if he makes a friendly remark, tending towards’ making up ‘ the little difference that has arisen between you, let your reply be distinctly more friendly.

6) Don’t Try To Have The Last Word

Never mind how telling a rejoinder you leave unuttered : never mind your friend’s supposing that you are silent from lack of anything to say : let the thing drop, as soon as it is possible without discourtesy…

7) Make Sure Your Joke Is Totes Obvs

…if it should ever occur to you to write, jestingly, in dispraise of your friend, be sure you exaggerate enough to make the jesting obvious : a word spoken in jest, but taken as earnest, may lead to very serious consequences.

8) Attach That Attachment First

When you say, in your letter, ” I enclose cheque for 5 pounds “, or ” I enclose John’s letter for you to see “, leave off writing for a moment—go and get the document referred to—and put it into the envelope. Otherwise, you are pretty certain to find it lying about, after the Post has gone!

9) Don’t Cross-Write, Just Get Another Piece Of Paper

When you get to the end of a note-sheet, and find you have more to say, take another piece of paper—a whole sheet, or a scrap, as the case may demand : but, whatever you do, don’t cross! Remember the old proverb “Cross-writing makes cross reading “. ” The old proverb ? ” you say, enquiringly. “How old?” Well, not so very ancient, I must confess. In fact, I’m afraid I invented it while writing this paragraph. Still, you know, ‘old’ is a comparative term. I think you would be quite justified in addressing a chicken, just out of the shell, as ” Old boy ! “, when compared with another chicken, that was only half-out.

Okay, so maybe that last rule isn’t exactly email-friendly. After the Eight Or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing are dispensed with, Chapter 4 How To End A Letter tells you how to do just that with tips such as don’t put your main idea in the postscript. Also, carry your letters in your hand on the way to the post office (if you put them in your pocket, you’ll forget they are there, doncha know). Then comes Chapter 5, the absolutely mind-boggling On Registering Correspondence.

Lewis Carroll was a rather organized fellow. He kept a register of all the letters he sent and received from the age of twenty-nine, all the way up to six days before he died at age sixty-five. The last entry in his letter register, dated Jan 8, 1898, was numbered 98,721. That number is not a typo. He numbered the letters and dated them of course, and recorded who each letter was to or from. He included a summary or precis of each letter. And he had a whole system of cross referencing past letters as well. I am going to quote the entire chapter for you, because I promised my podcast listeners that they could come to the blog to learn how to make their own letter register. But it truly makes one’s head swim, so I certainly will look the other way if you decide to scroll down to the pictures and only read every tenth word or so.

“Let me recommend you to keep a record of Letters Received and Sent. I have kept one for many years, and have found it of the greatest possible service, in many ways: it secures my answering Letters, however long they have to wait; it enables me to refer, for my own guidance, to the details of previous correspondence, though the actual Letters may have been destroyed long ago; and, most valuable feature of all, if any difficulty arises, years afterwards, in connection with a half-forgotten correspondence, it enables me to say, with confidence, “I did not tell you that he was ‘an invaluable servant in every way’, and that you couldn’t ‘trust him too much’. I have a précis of my letter. What I said was ‘he is a valuable servant in many ways, but don’t trust him too much’. So, if he’s cheated you, you really must not hold me responsible for it!”
I will now give you a few simple Rules for making, and keeping, a Letter-Register.
Get a blank book, containing (say) 200 leaves, about 4 inches wide and 7 high. It should be well fastened into its cover, as it will have to be opened and shut hundreds of times. Have a line ruled, in red ink, down each margin of every page, an inch off the edge (the margin should be wide enough to contain a number of 5 digits, easily: I manage with a 3/4 inch margin: but, unless you write very small you will find an inch more comfortable).
Write a précis of each Letter, received or sent, in chronological order. Let the entry of a ‘received’ Letter reach from the left-hand edge to the right-hand marginal line; and the entry of a ‘sent’ Letter from the left-hand marginal line to the right-hand edge. Thus the two kinds will be quite distinct, and you can easily hunt through the ‘received’ Letters by themselves, without being bothered with the ‘sent’ Letters; and vice versâ.
Use the right-hand pages only: and, when you come to the end of the book, turn it upside-down, and begin at the other end, still using right-hand pages. You will find this much more comfortable than using left-hand pages.
You will find it convenient to write, at the top of every sheet of a ‘received’ Letter, its Register-Number in full.
I will now give a few (ideal) specimen pages of my Letter-Register, and make a few remarks on them: after which I think you will find it easy enough to manage one for yourself.

Absolutely, SO easy LC!!! Also, do you really know Aunt Jemima?!

I begin each page by putting, at the top left-hand corner, the next entry-number I am going to use, in full (the last 3 digits of each entry-number are enough afterwards); and I put the date of the year, at the top, in the centre.
I begin each entry with the last 3 digits of the entry-number, enclosed in an oval (this is difficult to reproduce in print, so I have put round-parentheses here). Then, for the first entry in each page, I put the day of the month and the day of the week: afterwards, ‘do.’ is enough for the month-day, till it changes: I do not repeat the week-day.
Next, if the entry is not a letter, I put a symbol for ‘parcel’ (see Nos. 243, 245) or ‘telegram’ (see Nos. 230, 231) as the case may be.
Next, the name of the person, underlined (indicated here by italics).
If an entry needs special further attention, I put [ at the end: and, when it has been attended to, I fill in the appropriate symbol, e.g. in No. 218, it showed that the bill had to be paid; in No. 222, that an answer was really needed (the ‘x’ means ‘attended to’); in No. 234, that I owed the old lady a visit; in No. 235, that the item had to be entered in my account book; in No. 236, that I must not forget to write; in No. 239, that the address had to be entered in my address-book; in No. 245, that the book had to be returned.
I give each entry the space of 2 lines, whether it fills them or not, in order to have room for references. And, at the foot of each page I leave 2 or 3 lines blank (often useful afterwards for entering omitted Letters) and miss one or 2 numbers before I begin the next page.
At any odd moments of leisure, I ‘make up’ the entry-book, in various ways, as follows:—
(1) I draw a second line, at the right-hand end of the ‘received’ entries, and at the left-hand end of the ‘sent’ entries. This I usually do pretty well ‘up to date’. In my Register the first line is red, the second blue: here I distinguish them by making the first thin, and the second thick.
(2) Beginning with the last entry, and going backwards, I read over the names till I recognise one as having occurred already: I then link the two entries together, by giving the one, that comes first in chronological order, a ‘foot-reference’ (see Nos. 217, 225). I do not keep this ‘up-to-date’, but leave it till there are 4 or 5 pages to be done. I work back till I come among entries that are all supplied with ‘foot-references’, when I once more glance through the last few pages, to see if there are any entries not yet supplied with head-references: their predecessors may need a special search. If an entry is connected, in subject, with another under a different name, I link them by cross-references, distinguished from the head- and foot-references by being written further from the marginal line (see No. 229). When 2 consecutive entries have the same name, and are both of the same kind (i.e. both ‘received’ or both ‘sent’) I bracket them (see Nos. 242, 243); if of different kinds, I link them with the symbol used for Nos. 219, 220.
(3) Beginning at the earliest entry not yet done with, and going forwards, I cross out every entry that has got a head- and foot- reference, and is done with, by continuing the extra line through it (see Nos. 221, 223, 225). Thus, wherever a break occurs in this extra line, it shows there is some matter still needing attention. I do not keep this anything like ‘up to date’, but leave it till there are 30 or 40 pages to look through at a time. When the first page in the volume is thus completely crossed out, I put a mark at the foot of the page to indicate this; and so with pages 2, 3, &c. Hence, whenever I do this part of the ‘making up’, I need not begin at the beginning of the volume, but only at the earliest page that has not got this mark.
All this looks very complicated, when stated at full length: but you will find it perfectly simple, when you have had a little practice, and will come to regard the ‘making-up’ as a pleasant occupation for a rainy day, or at any time that you feel disinclined for more severe mental work. In the Game of Whist, Hoyle gives us one golden Rule, “When in doubt, win the trick”—I find that Rule admirable for real life: when in doubt what to do, I ‘make-up’ my Letter-Register!”

Simple, right?


If anyone out there follows LC’s instructions and makes his own letter register, please please let me know! Even if you cheat and do it by computer. And let’s all try to stick to those Eight Or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing, shall we? As Lewis Carroll said, “The average temper of the human race would be perceptibly sweetened, if everybody obeyed this Rule!”



About Heather Haigha

Heather Haigha is your intrepid guide for all adventures under ground, through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole and sometimes even real life! Read her whimsical musings on the Alice Is Everywhere blog, and hear the melodious sound of her voice on the Alice is Everywhere podcast.