Lesson #260: Effective advice on ‘How to Write a Letter’, by Elizabeth Turner

📜’How to write a Letter’

Maria intended a letter to write,
But could not begin (as she thought) to indite;
So went to her mother with pencil and slate,
Containing ‘Dear Sister’, and also a date.

‘With nothing to say, my dear girl, do not think
Of wasting your time over paper and ink;
But certainly this is an excellent way,
To try with your slate to find something to say.

‘I will give you a rule,’ said her mother, ‘my dear,
Just think for a moment your sister is here,
And what would you tell her? Consider, and then,
Though silent your tongue, you can speak with your pen.’

– by Elizabeth Turner

This is one of the poems I read and liked as a child, and whose lines I still repeat to myself whenever I am writing a letter!

Since the vocabulary for this poem is fairly straightforward – ‘indite‘ simply means ‘to write or compose’ and a ‘slate‘ was a flat piece of hard material that was used for writing on – we will start with a few words on the poet herself. We will then analyse how the poem’s advice can help us become more effective writers, regardless of whether we want to write letters, emails, or anything else! 🖋️

A writing slate for children
Image Credit: Congerdesign, from Pixabay

🕯️ ELIZABETH TURNER (1774-1846)

Elizabeth Turner was a very popular children’s writer in England in her time (born in 1774 – the year before Jane Austen was born – and died in Salop, Shropshire in 1846, the year before Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre).

We know very few facts about her life: merely (only) that she was English (though where she was born, or what her maiden name was, we do not know), that she wrote under her married name (as Mrs Elizabeth Turner), and that she excelled (was excellent at) writing moral stories in verses, which she published and called her ‘cautionary stories’.

🌼 Many of her poetry collections included stories about flowers with human qualities, who learn how to make wise choices in their lives. Some of these books included The Daisy (1807), The Cowslip (1811), The Blue Bell (1838), and The Crocus (1844). Her poetry has been described as having ‘a certain quaint charm’ (Stanley Kunitz). 🌷 ‘Quaint‘ means ‘nicely old-fashioned or unusual’.


In this poem, Elizabeth Turner offers her useful advice on how to write a letter – ‘Just think for a moment your sister is here, / And what would you tell her?’

✍️ This is a practical question to ask yourself whenever you are struggling to write anything in English, including anything from a letter or an email to a short text message. We can break the question down into several parts:

If the person you are writing to happened to be nearby and you could speak with them, you would need to clarify:

✏️ 1. Who are you speaking to? What would you want to tell or share with them? Figure out this / these point(s) in your mind (‘Consider, and then …’ as Elizabeth Turner puts it) before you try to write anything down.

✏️ 2. How would you share that information, news, etc. – in an informal or familiar tone (as when writing to a sister, close friend, or someone you know very well) OR in a more formal, professional tone? This is the second step of the process because once you are clear about what you would like to say and to whom, you will find it easier to approach the task of penning (writing down) your message.

✏️ 3. Brainstorm any suitable keywords or expressions that you can use. This is where you will discriminate (decide between) which words sound friendly or professional or whatever tone you want to use with your correspondent.

To return to our poem, the poet gives the example of what it is like to write to a sister – in other words, someone we are familiar with and might want to share a lot about our lives. The mother’s suggestion to Maria is to imagine that her sister is present, sitting there at the table, and listening. ‘And what would you tell her?’ she asks Maria. In other words, after you have considered the message or information you want to share, just treat your pen as if it were directly transcribing (copying down a speech in written format) whatever you would say.

✍️ Of course, the last step of the process is to read over what you have written and edit it fully! This step, although not described here by Elizabeth Turner, is worth mentioning because we all make little mistakes when writing and you always want your communication to be as clear and effective as possible!


Not only does Elizabeth Turner offer us some practical suggestions on how to write a good letter, she also does this through a memorable short story. We do not need to know who ‘Maria’ is, or her sister or mother for that matter, and yet all the same we can imagine the realistic scenario (scene, situation) of a young girl going to her mother because she is struggling to write a good letter to her sister. We can visualise mother and daughter discussing all this over Maria’s slate (a board on which children used to practice their writing with a chalk).

I find that this narrative (telling a story) form or structure makes it easier for readers like us to assimilate (absorb) and remember the advice that the poem contains. I know that the story of Maria and her mother made it easier for me, as a child, to remember/memorise this poem and its key line:

📜 ‘Just think for a moment your sister is here,

And what would you tell her? Consider, and then,

Though silent your tongue, you can speak with your pen.’

What a compelling (having a powerful effect, catching our attention) final line that is! Everyone who learns to write well – in English, or any other language for that matter – has a certain power because they ‘can speak with [their] pen’ and not just their voice! 🖋️

✏️ That is one of the main aims of my Learn English Through Literature Short Lessons: to equip you to write well in English directly from our great classic writers!

If you enjoyed today’s featured poem, you may like to check these other Lessons I wrote on poems that describe a poet’s personal experience or tell a story (narrative poems).

Lesson #244: ‘We should be kind while there is still time’: Reflecting on Philip Larkin’s Poem ‘The Mower’
Lesson #239: Connecting with the past through memories: Thomas Hood’s famous poem ‘I Remember, I Remember’
Lesson #209: ‘Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening’: Reading aloud in English (and enjoying poetry at a new pace)
Lesson #187: ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’: How a Poem by Longfellow Tells a Story from American History
Lesson #181: Remembering a lost paradise: Christina Rossetti’s Poem ‘Shut Out’
by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)