The Earl of Chesterfield, the 18th-century British statesman and patron of the arts, had a number of concerns about his illegitimate son Philip, but one he revisited often in his posthumously published letters to the boy is about Philip’s correspondence. This species of worry ranged from handwriting (“shamefully bad and illiberal; it is neither the hand of a man of business, nor of a gentleman, but of a truant school boy”) to the boy’s prose style (“one principal topic of our conversation will be, not only the purity but the elegance of the English language; in both which you are very deficient”).
The latter became a particular concern after Chesterfield went to the trouble of setting the boy up in the world. In December 1751, he offered Philip some delightfully modern-sounding advice on his business correspondence:
The first thing necessary in writing letters of business, is extreme clearness and perspicuity; every paragraph should be so clear and unambiguous, that the dullest fellow in the world may not be able to mistake it, nor obliged to read it twice in order to understand it. This necessary clearness implies a correctness, without excluding an elegance of style. Tropes, figures, antitheses, epigrams, etc., would be as misplaced and as impertinent in letters of business, as they are sometimes (if judiciously used) proper and pleasing in familiar letters, upon common and trite subjects. In business, an elegant simplicity, the result of care, not of labor, is required.
In case Philip might mistake his meaning, and perhaps reasoning that a demonstration of his recommended prose style was worth much more than a mere description of it, His Lordship added, “Let your first attention be to clearness, and read every paragraph after you have written it, in the critical view of discovering whether it is possible that any one man can mistake the true sense of it: and correct it accordingly.”
Lord Chesterfield’s advice on business writing, published in 1781, joined a heap of careful and voluminous 17th- and 18th-century attention to business correspondence. Titles such as The Young Secretary’s Guide, Or A Speedy Help To Learning; The Complete Art of Writing Letters; and Every Man His Own Letter-Writer were immensely popular bestsellers; The Young Secretary’s Guide went through more than 20 printings and piratings, from 1703 well into the 1750s. And if imitation is the highest form of flattery, we can gauge something of the book’s status in the fact that in 1730, someone got the bright idea to call his version The Young Secretary’s Guide Compleated: Being the Speediest Help to Learning. (This time, with 57 percent more learning.)