Writing Letters

In Anguilla Rising, The Anguilla Revolution Social Club by admin

penEarly in my career I wrote system descriptions, operating and maintenance procedures, and training materials for the commercial nuclear power industry. It was hot stuff, pun intended.

Actually, it was good stuff, and it was a great experience for me at many levels, including the writing part. I was an expert nuke, not an expert writer, but I was a good enough writer to play with technical information and put it into whatever form was needed for its audience, whether in the form of an operating procedure, training module, or a system description.

I’ve always enjoyed writing. When I was a kid, maybe fourteen, I wrote a couple of articles for a popular snowmobiling magazine. They went on to select me to be a junior editor for the magazine. When I discovered activities like photography, skiing, work, and girls my interest in writing took a back seat, but it never went away.

As I moved deeper into my career, delivering on project work quickly led to management responsibilities, which meant my writing shifted to writing proposals, reports, and letters. The writing and editing skills gained from that earlier work came in handy for writing winning proposals and reports.

I think my best “big” report was written for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (the state’s EPA). I received a Letter of Commendation from then Governor Arne Carlson for that work, which was done for a Governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force. The report, which came with recommendations to make a division of the agency more efficient when it came to reviewing pollution permits, came in at about 50,000 words.

My biggest writing project involved writing a set of system descriptions and procedures for a company whose innovative technology was being demonstrated in the U.S. EPA’s Superfund Innovative Technology Evaluation (SITE) Program. When the project was done my writing filled the pages between many dozens of engineering drawings and schematics, which were presented inside three (3) six-inch binders. Probably 300,000 words.

Some of the most important things I’ve ever written sit inside reports that a team of people contributed to. One report that comes to mind was a project I supported that was aimed at improving the way the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission identified and monitored poor performing nuclear power plants.

Writing letters is a different skill altogether; and, the more our communications become truncated, the more letter writing seems to have become a lost art. Writing something important on a single sheet of paper, or maybe a sheet and a half, is hard work, especially with all the paper space lost to headers, footers, and salutations, etc.

Tragically, more an more businesses are giving up on letters. Emails and text messages are the new rule. Humbug!

If you’ve ever read any of David McCullough’s books (think John Adams and The Wright Brothers) then you already know he’s a master writer and storyteller whose techniques make extensive use of letters either written to, or by his subjects. The letter writing between John Adams and his wife Abigail, for instance, was prolific. They shared their intimate thoughts in letters, and Mr. McCullough shares them with us in his equally intimate story.

What if there were no letters?!

The same holds true in The Wright Brothers, where we become intimate with Wilbur and Orville’s exploits through letters written between the brothers and their sister, Katharine. David McCullough is an expert on many things, including good letters.

By now, if you’ve read any of my other blog posts, you already know that I wrote a letter to Mr. McCullough in June of 2014 to ask for advice about a historical conundrum I’m still sorting out.

When I met with him at his home later in the year, I asked him why he agreed to meet with me, i.e. what was it about my situation that piqued his interest enough to want to invite a stranger into his home to discuss it. His answer was short and succinct. “You wrote a good letter.”

I still enjoy writing letters. I take it as a very high compliment that a man who knows a thing or two about letters thinks I wrote a good one.





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