My father wrote this recommendation for my good friend John Harris in October 1965. John was a 1963 graduate of Canton High School in Canton, Massachusetts.
I feel that my father’s letter of recommendation demonstrates – provides one small example of – how well he could handle any writing task.
I have found that various samples of writing can teach you a lot about writing in general. This includes both good and bad writing.
In the case, of bad writing, I find that it sometimes enables me, by comparison, to become more aware of what the difference between good and bad writing is, and thereby to see more clearly what the ingredients of good writing are.
Similarly, one can learn a lot about good writing both by reading and appreciating the works of the masters – an Edward Gibbon or Charles Dickens, say – and by examining pieces of everyday writing – including those of young people and of adults who are not necessarily of English prof caliber – when it is apparent that there is an innate gift for expression and an ability to convey ideas and feelings. It could be a letter not intended to be “literary,” for example.
What I notice in my father’s writing:
GRACE – his prose is always graceful, regardless of what he is writing about, whom he is writing to, or how important the topic may or may not be.
CONCISENESS – he says just enough, no more or less. There are no unnecessary words.
CLARITY – his prose is crystal clear.
COHERENCE – the sentences and paragraphs are tied together seamlessly, like a well made piece of clothing.
IT FLOWS – the exposition proceeds logically and straightforwardly. There is no discontinuity.
TONE – it is just right for target audience. There is awareness on the writer’s (my father’s) part of who his audience is – whom he is writing TO – and of the kind of language and tone that should be employed for that target audience.
CHOICE OF SUBJECT MATTER – he uses appropriate, telling examples, the best ones he can think of, to get his points across. He has gone through his mental storehouse of impressions and memories to come up with the best examples. He has chosen the ones that best fit. Then, he has plugged them into the letter in just the right places, where they support the key points being made.
ORGANIZATION – the organization is not really noticeable, which is not to say it is flawed. It is not noticeable because it doesn’t require attention. One can follow the logic of the communique with no special effort required. There are a logic and orderliness to the way the letter is constructed. Points follow in the order that makes most sense. (This, by the way, is not true of a lot of writing. Poor organization can tire a reader trying to follow what is being said.)
EMPHASIS – this is something my high school English teacher commented upon that many writers seem to be either unaware of or unable to achieve. The letter is constructed in such a way that key points are highlighted without this being obvious. I believe that the ability to achieve this is a mark of a master writer.
I have thought about writing at this level of excellence (as I deem this short, perfunctory communique to be) and have concluded that in writing, many of the principles that apply also apply to music. For example, a composer must achieve a logical progression to his piece; he can’t be, or at least shouldn’t be, bombastic; he needs to hold the listener’s interest and to be able to convey musical ideas in such a fashion that they are not utterly incomprehensible and “take hold” upon the listener.
Which brings us back to the topic of EMPHASIS.
In good music, you feel that there is something inevitable about the “logic,” the flow of the music. You feel it sort of HAD to be constructed that way. You feel the piece could not have been composed differently.
I would contend that my father’s letter, while perfunctory in one sense, shows some of the same qualities. You get the feeling that there was only one kind of letter of recommendation that would do for this particular individual (my friend) in this situation, and that my father managed to write just that letter.
I myself have often felt, when writing, that there is some kind of abstract, perfect piece of writing — appropriate to, called for, as pertains to — whatever I am writing about – just what needs to be said about this or that topic (say, a book under review) – and that I have to “find” the absolutely perfect words, not only so that they are expressed perfectly, but also that they are just what needs to be said about this or that topic, and that they cover it fully. In other words, it’s a question of both prose (wording) and subject matter (content).
It’s kind of like the search for the Platonic ideal.
So that the examples chosen to make the point are just the right ones. Say, it’s a book review I am writing, for example. This would mean that I have discussed exactly those parts of the book that merit or require discussion, that I have found exactly what passages should be quoted, and have come up with the best analogies or comparisons that must be made to other works with which this book should be compared.
Searching for the best examples, for just the right things to say, can make writing very difficult, indeed exhausting. Many pieces are not written this way. They are tossed off, written in haste. (A writer notorious for this who comes to mind is the historian A. J. P. Taylor; many op ed writers compose in this fashion.) Such writing can be adequate, but it does not have the staying power of a piece that a great deal of thought and effort have been put into.
I think my father did something similar here. He thought of just what needed to be said about my friend. He chose the best examples: marshaled them. Then, he succeeded in presenting them in the most effective possible fashion.
A further word about emphasis. In writing, as in music, emphasis, which is to say putting the weight where you want it to fall — making the reader (or listener) come to attention — can be achieved in many different ways. It could be a short, punchy sentence or phrase (“I recommend him without qualification”) or it could be something elaborate and wordy. It depends.
Variation often helps here, which means variety of pacing and tone and an admixture of the terse and direct with more high flown, wordy, abstract language. Composers do this all the time: a short musical phrase followed or preceded by a long intricate passage.
— Roger W. Smith