To improve my writing and engagement in back-and-forth emails and letters that involve argument, conflict, or dispute, I want to read such writing by conscionable, principled persons (in the past or present). I seek not diatribes fulminations, or esoterica since I'm lay at history.
What's this kind of writing called? How do I find it? I question the term 'belles lettres'.

♦ I seek not only literary writers, but any person with the above virtues who write well.

♦ I prefer a longer chain of back-and-forth exchanges to see more actions and reactions.

Example 1: letters between US Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Robbins Curtis and the 5th Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, Roger B Taney. They're contentious, but still courteous and tactful.

Example 2: User ColleenV beneficently suggested a mother lode previously unknown to me: Amazon.com > Category: Literature & Fiction > Subcategory: Essays & Correspondence > Subsubcategory: Letters.

Example 3: A friend searched for --Correspondences and found another bonanza.

  • It is not clear whether you wish to acquire practical skills that could be employed in a contemporary business context, or if writing with a more literary flourish would also be germane. The rule for contemporary business email is "Keep it polite. But more importantly, keep it brief."
    – TimR
    Oct 3, 2014 at 16:09
  • 1
    You could call it a process of iterative discussion. Or simply an extended correspondence. Oct 3, 2014 at 16:20
  • Belles-lettres refers to literary works (e.g novels) and not to some sort of back-and-forth exchanges or correspondence. The term is borrowed from French, where lettres, like the English "letters" (always plural in that sense) means literature.
    – None
    Oct 3, 2014 at 17:19
  • I don't have specific resources to point you toward, but I would start the search with "correspondence". Amazon has an entire section in their book department dedicated to "Letters & Correspondence".
    – ColleenV
    Oct 3, 2014 at 17:23
  • You would probably enjoy the letters of Bernard Shaw, who was involved in many political and artistic controversies and was the greatest master of English prose of the past two centuries. You might find some of his remarks rather pointed; but you should keep in mind that his correspondents were for the most part close personal and professional friends, among whom teasing was an acceptable mark of affection. Oct 4, 2014 at 0:46

3 Answers 3


Generally speaking the formal name for the field which you describe wishing to study is rhetoric. One of the original Seven Liberal Arts and going back to antiquity, it is still taught in academic institutions to this day. Here's MIT's Open CourseWare rhetoric class.

Another word you may find useful in your search is epistolary which is the adjectival form of "in letters". For instance, an epistolary novel is one in the form of letters written by the characters to one another.

Epistolary examples are not typically used in the instruction of rhetoric — speeches are a more common sort of example text, and when letters are used (e.g. MLK's Letter from a Birmingham Jail) they are not usually studied in a context of back-and-forth. Which is perhaps a failing.

Still you might find "the rhetoric of letters" or "epistolary rhetoric" useful search strings.


If the writing consists of "open letters" (which are meant to be read and thought about by a wider audience"), then the word "debate" can describe such a "back-and-forth, argumentative [correspondence]".

The Lincoln-Douglas debates are a famous example of such a debate. My copy is titled Created Equal? The Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, as edited by Paul M. Angle.

  • 2
    Dialogue is also correct if somewhat archaic, although that goes beyond just correspondence letters. We often think of dialogue as being reserved for writing fiction, but it used to be a very common method of philosophic and scientific writing (e.g., Plato, Galileo).
    – Bacon Bits
    Nov 3, 2014 at 18:33

The term "dialectic" comes to mind.

Often associated w/the Socratic method & Greek philosophy, it's a method of arguing a point logically back & forth, with parties offering arguments and counter-arguments with the goal of discerning truth. This approach specifically aims to use reason, rather than emotion, to solve contentious questions.

Some standard Western European examples would be Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel...

This also brings to mind Zen Buddhist or Rabbinical practices of politely discussing philosophical questions in a back&forth manner, each participant offering questions, citations, and refutations.

Longer, detailed explanations of a position could be called a "discourse". Typically more one-sided, this describes how a person frames an argument using specific terminology and boundaries. They might try to anticipate and preempt objections, but it's not quite the short & real-time back-and-forth you seem to be after. An example of this might be something like the Federalist Papers.

This site offers shorter examples in English of common logical fallacies, which might help you to better recognize them in writing.

If you're looking for other specific (& accessible) texts, I'm afraid I don't have many examples to offer. I tried Kant once - made it about 2 paragraphs. My college philosophy class sadly took place at 7am on Mondays more than a decade ago. I didn't retain much ;)

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