Whoever heard of ethical letter-writing? What are the ethics of writing letters, and why would writing a letter have different ethical norms than any other writing?

For openers, it’s different because it’s not like any other writing. Everything else has its own genre distinctions, style manuals, guidebooks, how-to books, constant comment, push back, and faux pas.

Letters are not only different from everything else, but they also differ from one another. For example, biography is a cousin to memoir; short stories are books’ stepchildren; op-ed pieces are in the same chromosome as political platforms, and legal writing is the bad uncle of joke writing.

I’m not talking about letters as in a character representing one or more of the sounds used in speech, or the symbols in an alphabet. I’m talking about a written, typed, or printed communication, often enveloped, sometimes disbelieved, but always well-intentioned. I don’t mean symbolically, as in keeping with the spirit of the law as well as the letter. Nor do I mean high-brow, as in the world of letters.

I mean the letters that humans have been writing to one another since antiquity. The kind mentioned in the Iliad. Like the ones Herodotus and Thucydides wrote in their histories. Like Abe Lincoln wrote to everyone about slavery. Like Einstein writing to President Truman about the bomb. Like Ernest Hemingway wrote to Marlene Dietrich. Napoleon to Joséphine. Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera. And especially like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

The letters I’m talking about share a common bond. They were remembered, and they were ethical. Collectively, these letters are ethical guideposts for letter writing. They were well thought-out. They were read by the writer, often out loud, before they were sent. They were rewritten before becoming just right. Even when typed, they had a handwritten feel. They chilled for a while before they were sent.

Once received these were opened with great care before they were read. Most were held closely while the readers anticipated the words they would see—the thoughts they would generate—and why this letter was theirs. Once read, they were treasured. Some were kept a secret, others reluctantly revealed, still more savored by thousands. By design, they were never meant to harm or scare new readers.

Most importantly, the writer and the reader were to one another what the truth is to life. Without letters, we live in ignorance and without truth, we live in lies.

Write ethical letters. They save lives.

Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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