|Steven Spielberg (above) and Mark Twain (below) would make a good team.|
I just wrote a letter to Steven Spielberg, the movie director. This process raised some interesting questions about writing. Here’s the final version of my letter.
At the bottom of this post is a link to the actual letter in both its original and final forms. Here are some of the writing questions that any letter like this raises, and how I answered them:
|Would you address a fan letter "Dear Mr. Jeter"?|
Q: How formal should the letter be?
A: This question comprises a lot of sub-questions. For example, how should I address Steven Spielberg? This is always a tricky question for letters to celebrities. Should I say “Dear Steven” or “Dear Mr. Spielberg”? “Dear Mr. Spielberg” seems rather formal, considering film fans feel we know him well. Would we write a fan letter to Tom Hanks that says “Dear Mr. Hanks”? Most fans I know would say “Dear Tom.” Likewise, most Yankee fans would write “Dear Derek,” not “Dear Mr. Jeter.” But, as a director, Spielberg is a bit more removed from his fans than an actor like Tom Hanks—slightly higher (or at least less visible) in the film hierarchy—so I chose “Dear Mr. Spielberg.” To have written “Dear Steven” would have seemed presumptuous, as if I were pretending to be his friend. When writing, you must take into account your relationship with your reader, and the salutation of a letter is the first step in defining that relationship.
Another question of formality has to do with contractions: To have contractions or not to have contractions? A very formal letter would have no contractions. I could have started the letter: “I am writing to suggest, if you have not already suggested it to yourself . . .” This seemed a bit too formal for me. I wanted to come across as an ordinary person, not a fuddy duddy, so I used contractions (I'm, haven't). When writing, you must decide what kind of persona (image or impression) you want to establish. Try to establish that persona at the very beginning of a document.
Finally, there was the general question of the formality of the vocabulary: Should the vocabulary be formal/serious/academic or informal/light/everyday? I have a history in academia, but I wanted first to come across as an ordinary film fan. I didn’t use academic terms like “personification” or “narrative arc” or even “cinema.” I didn’t use any words that an ordinary educated person wouldn’t know. On the other hand, I didn’t shy from using terms like “the tyranny of the majority” and “Puritanism,” which are better understood by American studies specialists than by the average person. Such phrases, while not difficult to comprehend, were useful in establishing that I’ve thought a lot about this book. They also help establish my credentials as someone who understands how to talk about the themes of books and movies. Again, I worked hard to have just the right balance of ordinary and a-little-more-erudite-than-ordinary language in the letter.
|Should my letter start with Hemingway or not?|
Q: How should the letter begin?
In the first draft of my letter, I began with the quote from Hemingway and spent the first paragraph making the claim that there had never been a film that took Huckleberry Finn as seriously as I think it deserves to be taken. The opening words of a document are hugely important. If they turn the reader off, the writer will have a devil of a time turning the reader on again. I thought the Hemingway quote made a strong statement, and Hemingway certainly has more credibility for Steven Spielberg than this unknown guy named Ed Weathers.
But then I thought: Steven Spielberg is a busy man. In Hollywood, it is said, you should be able to summarize an entire film idea in one sentence, and in a movie pitch to studio heads, you’d better start with that sentence because that’s all they might listen to. So I decided to begin the letter with the point of the letter: that I wanted Spielberg to make a movie of Huckleberry Finn. In the United States, it is usually a good idea to start a business letter—which, in effect, this is—with your main point. (Note: In many other parts of the world, like Asia, South America, and the Middle East, you should take a more roundabout way to get to your point, lest you be thought discourteous or brusque. More on that in a future post.)
|Should I mention the Mickey Rooney version of Huckleberry Finn?|
Q: How much detail should I put in?
At one point in the composition of this letter, I decided that I should list all the movie versions of Huckleberry Finn that have been made in the past. This seemed useful because I knew that Spielberg wouldn’t make a decision about this until he had seen the previous versions of the story, and I wanted to make it easy for him to find them. Try to answer all your reader’s questions, and try to offer useful information, even if your reader may not think to ask for it. I thought one of Spielberg’s questions might be what other films had been made of Huck’s story. Besides, I know from reading about him that Steven Spielberg likes to watch movies, and a list of previous versions of the story would show him that I, too, am a movie buff. Try to learn as much about your readers as you can, so you can appeal to them as effectively as possible, with information they might want and arguments that might persuade them.
I also know, for example, that Spielberg loves the movie Lawrence of Arabia, which happens to be my favorite movie of all time. I considered mentioning that in the letter, too, for obvious reasons.
In the end, I didn’t put in any movie history or say anything about my love of Lawrence of Arabia. I didn't even mention that I wrote my Master’s thesis about Huckleberry Finn. Why not? Simply because it would have taken up too much space, and that information didn’t seem necessary to make my point. Like any busy businessman, Steven Spielberg isn’t going to give a letter like this much time. Most business letters should be no more than one page. No doubt you might see some things in the letter that you would have left out to make the letter even shorter.
(The question of how long a document should be is not to be taken lightly. My blog posts, for example, like this one, are always longer than they should be. This is a result of my self-indulgence and shows, in a sense, a lack of consideration to my readers. I apologize.)
|Should I mention that Lawrence of Arabia, one of Spielberg's favorite movies, is also my favorite?|
Q: What arguments would be most persuasive?
At the heart of most writing is the need to be persuasive. You are trying to convince someone to do something or to change the way they think about something. What did I need to say to have the best chance of persuading Steven Spielberg that his making a film of Huckleberry Finn was a good idea? (Note: Being a realist, I will not judge the success of the letter by whether he actually makes the film. I could have made the best case in the world, and he might really want to make the movie I want him to make, but there are a thousand reasons he won’t or can’t. Sometimes, as a writer, you can be as persuasive as humanly possible and still not get what you want. Live with it.)
In the end, I decided to keep the focus of my argument on the book itself. First, I had to show that the novel is worthy of being a film. This was easy: the Hemingway quote, the list of the novel’s themes, and the fact that it had been the subject of so many other film versions made that point sufficiently, I thought. I call this the “positive” argument—the argument that says why my position is correct.
Second, I had to address Spielberg’s most likely objections to making a movie of the book. Those objections were, I believed, 1) it’s already been made into a movie and 2) it’s just a lightweight children’s book. The heart of the letter, then, including the Hemingway quote, is devoted to explaining that this is a book to be taken seriously—it is not just a humorous kids' book—and that the films that have been made previously have not captured the book’s true spirit. Always address your reader’s possible counterarguments. This is an indispensable part of powerful persuasion. I call this the “converse” argument: it explains why potential objections to my position are weak.
Of course, knowing Spielberg’s movies, most of which include action and humor, I also needed to point out that Huckleberry Finn also has both of those characteristics, in addition to its serious side. It is also, as I mention, a book with a child as the protagonist—something that Spielberg has focused on in nearly all his movies. When you can, appeal to your reader’s values in your argument.
Q: Should I flatter Steven Spielberg or not?
This is another difficult question when you write, especially when you write to people in positions of power and fame (including your boss). Be respectful, but don't come across as an obsequious sycophant. (“Obsequious sycophant” is more or less redundant, but it was a favorite phrase of my high-school English teacher Mr. Cates, who clearly understood its redundancy and who always said it with a sly grin while subtly accusing one of being just such a thing.) If your reader thinks you’re just flattering him to get your way, your motives will be called into question and you will lose all credibility. A writer who loses his credibility will also lose his reader. In this letter, this question—how much to flatter Mr. Spielberg—was easy to answer: all I had to do was tell the truth. The truth was this: I like his movies, especially Empire of the Sun, and that’s why I want him to make the definitive movie version of Huckleberry Finn. This was absolutely sincere on my part. If you write sincerely, your credibility will rarely be called into question—nor should it be. I also think the mention of one specific film—Empire of the Sun—will help convince him of my sincerity here: it shows I know his films pretty well (this is not one of his best-known ones), and it has a subject—a young boy trying to make his way in difficult circumstances—that is apt to Huckleberry Finn. In any writing, relevant specifics are powerful additions to a strong argument.
|Is it sucking up too much to mention that Empire of the Sun is one of my favorite movies?|
Q: Should I mention my own credentials or not?
When they’re relevant, it’s perfectly legitimate for a writer to mention his credentials in a business letter. This is one more element that can add to his credibility. On the other hand, you don’t want to come across as bragging. I thought it worth mentioning that I have some expertise in American literature, so Spielberg knew this letter was from someone who has a fairly sophisticated understanding of the novel. I did this as light-heartedly as I could: “Heaven help me, I also have a bunch of degrees in American literature.” In this case, as usual, tone is everything. I also thought it was important for him to know that I had no personal stake in the enterprise—I wasn’t some screenwriter trying to get a gig, for example. He no doubt gets enough of that.
Q: Is the letter visually designed well?
Good writers design their documents so that their readers can read and navigate them easily. (In Professional Writing classes, the two key virtues of good writing are said to be “usability” and “persuasiveness.” Good design contributes to usability. Conversely, bad design can make your writing less persuasive by annoying your reader.) In this letter, I’ve tried to have a conventional block-letter look (no indents, spaces between paragraphs), standard margins, plenty of white space, and relatively short paragraphs, so the page doesn’t look intimidating to read. I chose paper with a simple border—nothing so showy that it would distract from the writing, but fancy enough to suggest that the idea deserves to be on something better than printer paper.
Originally, the ideas in my second paragraph were divided into two paragraphs, but that seemed to result in too many small paragraphs. Too many small paragraphs suggest that the writer is unable to develop and sustain an idea. Too many long paragraphs, on the other hand, suggest that the writer either doesn’t care that he's burdening the reader with text-heavy pages or assumes he has the authority to force the reader to read on. If anything, I’d say the paragraphs in this letter are a bit too short.
Q: How should I end the letter?
I chose to end it by repeating the point of the document (Please make the movie, Mr. Spielberg) and with a brief self-deprecating comment acknowledging his courtesy in reading such a long letter. (I tend to be too self-deprecating in my writing. As in this very parenthetical comment.)
Q: Will anyone else besides Steven Spielberg read this letter?
Obviously, the answer to this is Yes. It will probably be read by one of his assistants first. In fact, when I sent him a similar letter ten years ago, I had a cover letter addressed directly to the assistant, asking the assistant to pass it along! This time that seemed to me a bit too coy. But I did try to write in such a way that an intelligent assistant (probably a film-loving college grad) would appreciate the letter. A good writer always considers secondary readers.
|I didn't proofread carefully enough!|
Q: Did I proofread the letter carefully before I sent it off?
I thought I did. I made sure I had the date on it (something I often forget in letters) and that I signed it legibly. (Some people are offended by a rushed, illegible signature.) I read it aloud twice. But you’ll notice that in the sentence that begins “People die in Huckleberry Finn . . .” I forgot to italicize the title of the book—and that, unfortunately, is how I sent the letter off. Good writers proofread, proofread, and proofread again. Then they set their document aside for a while and come back to it later, for one more proofreading. If you have a good editor among your friends or family, it’s best to have that person proofread for you at the end. In my eagerness to send out the letter, I didn’t do that. I hate errors like this. I hope Mr. Spielberg doesn’t notice.
And I hope, someday, to see Huckleberry Finn on the big screen, directed by Steven Spielberg, faithfully adapted from a novel of the same name.
Here's the final version of my letter to Steven Spielberg. Notice how the second version starts differently from the first, and how it is designed differently.)