One Hundred Years of Advice: An Analysis of the Style and Content of Dear Abby and Dorothy Dix

Ellen Kanervo 
Austin Peay State University
Clarksville, TN 37044

Ted Jones 
University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-6010

Jeff White 
Austin Peay State University
Clarksville, TN 37044

SUMMARY 

This paper compared the style and content of the advice columns written by two of the Twentieth Century's most popular columnists: Dorothy Dix and Abigail van Buren. It found that, stylistically, Miss Dix's columns were about three times longer and used sentences about 25% longer than Miss van Buren's columns. Miss Dix's columns were written on an eighth to tenth grade level while Miss van Buren's were written on a sixth to seventh grade level. Neither columnists's style changed much over the span of their careers.

In content, both columnists advised against liaisons with married partners and against marrying when the couple have difficulties while dating. They appeared to disagree over marriages between people with different backgrounds. Other differences between the two columns are (1) Miss Dix appears more authoritative and less likely to have her advice challenged by readers; (2) Miss Dix's column had as its central function offering advice to readers about their relationships with others--romantic, familial, collegial and platonic; (3) Miss van Buren's column offers such advice but appears more often to serve as a clearing house for information, a forum for reader opinions and sometimes even a place to publish poems and reminiscences; (4) Miss Dix's correspondents tended to be teenagers, young adults and middle-aged people seeking advice about relationships, while Miss van Buren's correspondents tended to be older adults offering their own advice to readers. 

One Hundred Years of Advice: An Analysis of the Style and Content of Dear Abby and Dorothy Dix

Newspaper advice columns may not have the glamour of investigative reporting or the prestige of political opinion writing, but they are a staple of American newspapers and of American culture. In fact, the advice column as an integral component of newspaper journalism dates back some 300 years to the beginning of what one today would recognize as a newspaper. In the late 17th century, a bookseller named John Dunton inaugurated The Athenian Mercury, a journal strictly for answering the reading public's questions. Much in the manner of Dear Abby today, Dunton answered questions on a variety of topics, seeking advice himself in areas outside his specialty. He consulted the likes of the Rev. Samuel Wesley for religious and literature questions and Richard Sault for mathematical and science questions (Hendley, 1977). The next advice column with any journalistic significance, according to Hendley, appeared in Daniel Defoe's Review, a public affairs journal he started in 1704. However, this success was not intentional. The ever-increasing mail addressed to this section eventually forced Defoe to publish a separate paper, The Little Review, to handle only questions and answers. Around 1716, a few years after Defoe's death, a column coined The British Apollo added a new twist, bringing sarcasm and wit to a more affluent readership (Hendley, 1977).

The influence of these early columns can be recognized, if not acknowledged, in today's versions. Whereas Dunton foreshadowed the modern day advice columnists by seeking expert advice in certain areas, Defoe was the first to answer confidentially. The popularity of The British Apollo was evidence that advice columns appeal to all social classes. Advice columns appeared with more or less regularity throughout the 18th and 19th centuries (See, for example, Reese, 1989). And although in the 20th century there have been a number of specialized advice columns in syndication, two writers have dominated the field. An entire generation is familiar with Dear Abby, whose regular readership numbers 65 million (Hendley, 1977). And just a generation ago advice columnist Dorothy Dix was the most widely read journalist of her day (Kane, 1952). This current research proposes to look at the history of the advice column through the work of two of the twentieth century's most popular newspaper counselors: Elizabeth Meriweather Gilmer, better known as Dorothy Dix, advice columnist and crime reporter, and Pauline Esther Friedman Phillips, also known as Abigail van Buren, better known as Dear Abby.

Miss Dix began writing her advice column during what some call the Golden Age of newspapers. With greatly expanded literacy and improved national communication systems, newspapers had become a truly mass medium by the time Miss Dix joined the staff of the New Orleans Picayune in 1894. And the rise of newspaper syndicates in the 1910s enabled her column to have a global impact. The Lynds (1929), in their famous 1925 study of Middletown, America, suggest Dorothy Dix "is perhaps the most potent single agency of diffusion from without shaping the habits of thought of Middletown in regard to marriage and possibly represents Middletown's views on marriage more completely than any other one available source" (p. 116). Ten years later Lynd and Lynd (1937) note that "Dorothy Dix's face, ageless as Lydia Pinkham's, smiles benignly at the head of a column indistinguishable from its 1925 predecessor" (p.375). They note she is still a major force in shaping the ideas of Middletown, suggesting, for example, "Middletown men appear to distrust and not to know what to do with women not reared in the Dorothy Dix tradition" (p. 180).

Dorothy Dix influenced generations of readers from 1894 through 1949, as she offered solutions to their problems. Dear Abby has carried on that tradition of influence, beginning her column in 1956, five years after Dix's death. Although they are women of different generations, their careers show some parallels. Both came relatively late to the occupation of journalist. Dorothy Dix was 33 years old when she first walked into the news offices of the New Orleans Picayune; Abby was 37 when she approached the San Francisco Chronicle in 1955, offering to write an advice column. They have both enjoyed a popular following over long and successful careers. Dorothy Dix's career had spanned 57 years when she died in 1951 (Kane, 1952). Dear Abby has been offering advice for 35 years and at age 72 has announced no plans to retire (Pradt, 1991). But there are differences in their backgrounds. Dorothy Dix had a strong interest in writing. She had won a number of writing contests in school and she secured the Picayune position on the basis of her writing samples. She came slowly to the task of offering personal advice through the newspaper (Kane, 1952). Dear Abby also wrote for her high school and college newspapers, but part of the basis for wanting to write for the Chronicle was her background as a Gray Lady for the American Red Cross. She says being a Gray Lady gave her a chance to "give patients something most of them hungered for--someone who would listen to them" (Pradt, 1991).

This current research will be divided roughly into two parts. First we will look at their writing styles, to see whether Dix was influenced by authors she read and to see whether Abby may have been influenced by Dix. Then the content of each writer's most recent columns will be examined to see if patterns of similarities or contrasts exist. We will compare Dorothy Dix's advice columns from the 1940s with Dear Abby's columns from the early 1990s. These latest works of each writer were chosen, assuming they represent a philosophy of life worked out over decades of offering advice. 

STYLE

First we will look at their writing styles. What constitutes good style? Are there elements that can be pointed out which take some subjectivity out of evaluating good writing? Have accepted ideas of what constitutes good style changed from the days when Dix wrote to the present? Douglas Wood Miller, in a widely used journalism writing text in the 1950s, said, "The style of a news story should be correct, simple, concise, objective, interesting" (p. 50). Correctness and objectivity may be important, but they would be difficult to evaluate as one goes back through columns written more than a half century ago. The quality of being interesting also would be difficult to evaluate since we cannot poll Miss Dix's readers. We can, however, assume that her writing was interesting to her readers since at the time of her death in 1951 she was the most widely read columnist in the world (Kane, 1952). 

Under his discussion of simplicity, Miller (1950) suggests, "This necessity for simplicity touches every element of the news story--word, sentence, paragraph" (p. 51). He also quotes Miss Dix's mentor at the New York Evening Journal, Arthur Brisbane, who wrote of fine writing: 

The FINEST writing is the SIMPLEST writing. The most famous passage in the English language, perhaps, is made up of ten words, all very simple. To be or not to be; that is the question. You couldn't make that MUCH simpler.... Powerful, good writing you will find in a hundred writers, and you will notice that all of them write simply...." (pp. 51-52). 

Miller also comments that simplicity can be achieved through the use of common and familiar words; compact, declarative, relatively short sentences, and short paragraphs.

Under the topic of conciseness, Miller advises journalists to omit unnecessary articles, avoid redundancies and use direct statements (pp. 50-53). Curtis MacDougall, who wrote probably the most popular text on news writing in the 1960s and one that made it into its ninth edition in 1987, says "conciseness" is the most important element of journalistic style. To achieve conciseness he recommends omitting superfluous detail, words, phrases, and clauses. He promotes active voice and simple word choice (MacDougall and Reid, 1987, pp. 129-135). By the 1970s, textbook authors like Melvin Mencher (1977) were telling budding journalists that in writing sentences "the shorter the better" (p. 178). Mencher cites a UPI table (p. 178) which rates the readability of sentences according to length as follows:

Average Sentence Length  Readability
8 words or less Very easy to read
11 words Easy to read 
14 words Fairly easy to read 
17 words  Standard
21 words Fairly difficult to read
25 words Difficult to read
29 words Very difficult to read

He does qualify this advice by adding that writers should also strive for variety in sentence length to avoid monotony. The Missouri Group in 1985 were telling students that good writing has five characteristics: 

  1. It is precise. 
  2. It is clear. 
  3. It has a pace appropriate to the content. 
  4. It uses transitional devices. 
  5. It appeals to the reader's senses. (pp. 242-244) 

Their first rule under clear writing is "Rely on simple sentences," which they define as short sentences (p 245). What do we know about Dorothy Dix's own thoughts on writing style? We know from her biographer Harnett Kane that she worked very hard on her writing style all during her six decades as a journalist. Kane quotes her as saying, "I wrote and rewrote, put it down, came back and rewrote again. Once I did a thing over fifty times. Toward the end it suffered, but not until the forty-first or forty-second time." To this comment, Kane notes, "she added something that she would repeat another time: "Hard writing makes easy reading" (Kane 60).

We also know from Kane that the two editors who had the most influence on Miss Dix's writing urged her to work toward a simpler style. "The Major (Major Nathaniel Burbank who headed the Sunday department of the New Orleans Picayune) also encouraged her to work toward a simpler style," Kane notes. Several years later, Kane reports, New York Evening Journal editor Arthur Brisbane would encourage the same: 

Brisbane called Dorothy to his desk and spoke in sharp staccato sentences. He approved of her approach, her feeling. Still...he suggested a greater simplicity. He had been truly delighted to see Miss Dix's work free of the curlicues and fripperies of most writing. Nevertheless, he shook his fingers at her.

'Remember that a newspaper is read mostly by very busy people, or very tired people or uneducated people. None of them is going to hunt a dictionary to find out what it means.' Dorothy looked solemn, and he went on: 'If you don't hit a newspaper reader between the eyes with your first sentence, there's no need of writing a second. I always write with my old German housekeeper before me, and if I think she'd miss the meaning of a sentence, I write it over again, in a clearer form, with fewer big words' (Kane 112-113). 

Besides her two mentors and her own hard work, what other influences might have contributed to Miss Dix's style? She herself commented on the influence of authors she read as a child. "I had no mushy children's books to read," she said, "and so I cut my teeth on the solid meat of good literature, for which mercy I thank God." Kane comments that by age 11 she knew Shakespeare, could repeat passages from Scott and "had made a joyous acquaintance" with Charles Dickens. Miss Dix recalled, "Before I was twelve...I had read Smollett and Fielding and Richardson, had even toyed with the works of Josephus and Motley's Dutch Republic and other airy little trifles" (Kane 28). 

Therefore we went into this project with several questions in mind: 

  1. Could we find any evidence of influence of her favorite authors within her writing style? 
  2. Would we see changes in Miss Dix's style over the fifty-five years of her career as a journalist? 
  3. After the interest in the late '40s and '50s in developing readability formulas, would we see simpler writing in the work of Miss Dix's successor, Abigail van Buren?
  4. And finally, as newspapers see themselves in competition with television for consumers' time and money, would we see newspapers emulating television with simpler and shorter writing as evidenced by even simpler writing over time in Dear Abby columns?
 

We chose a relatively new computer package to help us look at these questions. With its debut in 1980, Grammatik was the first grammar analyst and style checker available for personal computers. It bills itself as "a sentence analyst, style and usage guide, spelling checker, readability analyst and proofreader all in one easy-to-use electronic writing tool" (Grammatik IV, 1990). Grammatik claims to help users communicate more effectively. It is being widely adopted for use in college computerized writing labs and has a potential for influencing large numbers of future writers. 

FINDINGS

Table 1 shows no evidence of an influence toward simpler writing at the coaching and prodding of her editors Major Burbank or Arthur Brisbane. In fact, the most simply written piece we analyzed was a column published January 12, 1896, in the New Orleans Picayune, written just two years after Miss Dix began her career. No pattern emerges from the readability scores of the seven samples of her work, selected to represent the range of her writing, from advice column to crime reporting to books, and from 1896 to a column published posthumously in 1952. The crime reporting and the books use a little more complicated style than the columns from 1896, 1949 and 1952. But the differences are relatively small. 

Table 1 
Stylistic Comparison of Dorothy Dix, Dear Abby, and Dix's Favorite 19th Century Authors

Article Total Length in Words Average Sentence Length in Words Syllables per Word Flesch Reading Ease Score Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level
Dorothy Dix Speaks 1896  1,347 17  1.36 74 7
Evelyn Thaw Profile1907 1,400 29 1.39 60 12
Hearts a la Mode 1915  1,096 29 1.40 59 12
Marion Lambert Profile 1916 1,491 24 1.36 68 10
How To Win a Husband 1939 1,119 26 1.38 64 11
Dear Dorothy Dix 1949 3,121 21 1.33 73 8
Dear Dorothy Dix 1952 2,613 20 1.48 61 10
Dear Abby 1964 703 14 1.35 79 6
Dear Abby 1991 777 15 1.44 70 7
Dickens  1,522 16 1.42 70 8
Gibbon 868 35 1.63 34 18
Josephus 712 42 1.47 40 19
Motley  1,317 22 1.64 45 13
Richards 1,659 22 1.31 73 9
Scott  1,945 18 1.4 70 8
Smollett  1,072 30 1.38 60 13

Table 2
Comparison of All of Dix's Work, Dear Abby, and Dix's Favorite Authors Combined From Previous Table

  Flesch Reading Ease Score Gunning's Fog Index Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level
Dorothy Dix  66 13 10
Dear Abby  75 10 6.5
Combined Authors 63 14 10

The next question was whether Miss Dix adopted a writing style, at least in terms of simplicity, similar to those of authors whom she read in her formative years. Table 1 shows these authors represent a great deal of diversity in their readability according to the Flesch, Gunning and Flesch-Kincaid formulas. Dickens, Richards, Scott and Smollett come out with a relatively easy-to-read style, while Gibbon, Josephus and Motley are relatively more difficult to understand. The statistics in Table 1 would not lead to the conclusion that she had internalized their styles from her early reading. While Table 1 shows very little in terms of patterns in simplicity of style, Table 2 combines all the authors Miss Dix cites as having influenced her and all seven samples of her own writing. This table does suggest a similarity in level of writing, though again, there is such wide variation in the individual examples it would not be wise to conclude that Miss Dix's writing style was the product of her reading.

The third question dealt with comparing the writing style of Dorothy Dix with that of her successor Abigail van Buren. Tables 1 and 2 show marked differences in the simplicity of their styles. Abby writes at three and four grade levels below Dorothy Dix according to the readability formulas. Not only is her style simpler, but her columns are considerably shorter than Miss Dix's. Miss Dix's advice columns were running three to four times longer each week than Miss van Buren's. Neither Miss van Buren's writing style nor the length of individual columns changes in the thirty-year period her two samples span. So now that we know the formulas indicate Dorothy Dix's writing was easily read by readers with a 10th grade education and Abby's by readers with a sixth grade education, should we interpret that to describe their readers or the quality of their advice? Perhaps it is merely an indication that journalists and their editors are constantly striving for a simpler style. Newspapers in general have been moving toward shorter, more simply written articles, especially in the last decade after the success of USA Today. 

CONTENT

The next question is can we compare the content of their columns in a way that will tell us something meaningful about the two advice columnists? Are they similar? Is Abby truly the successor to Miss Dix's legacy? We know that as a young girl she read Dorothy Dix in the Sioux City, Iowa, newspaper (van Buren, 1991). Did Miss Dix's advice influence Abby's thinking about people's lives and the way they should live them?

Well, that's a difficult question to answer. One might think there are just so many types of problems people could have and that if one reads enough of both columns one will find the same problems and the same answers recurring. However, within the topics, questions and advice, an infinite variety of nuances occur. The way the writer couches the problem and the subtle differences in situations may lead the two writers to apparently different suggested solutions. These variations make similar questions, even with the same column, very much different. In one week's worth of her column, Dorothy Dix advises one person that she must sacrifice her own happiness to help her husband and children (Dix, Jan. 12, 1949), and another that she should not sacrifice by choosing to marry someone she doesn't love in order to have the means to help her brother for whom she is the sole support (Dix, Jan. 14, 1949). While these answers may appear to be contradictory, this advice is in fact consistent with Miss Dix's philosophy that when one marries one assumes an important responsibility to support children and spouse above others. Therefore, finding columns from Dorothy Dix and Abigail van Buren that pose the same problems is difficult. One similar situation we did discover is both columnists consistently advised women to avoid entanglements with married men. Abby has often argued with a correspondent that the man will not leave his wife and family for her, and even if he did marry her, she would have to worry about the next single woman to catch his eye (see, for example, van Buren, Sept. 11, 1991). Dorothy Dix found advice seekers not asking whether to continue seeing the man, but rather seeking help in breaking off an affair they knew was dangerous. She replied to one correspondent, "...each of us has to work his own cure, and I think you can best do yours if you seek a new environment and deliberately make new interests for yourself, instead of brooding over what can never be" (Dix, Jan. 16, 1949). Abby has also advised her correspondents to develop new interests to break old, bad habits (see, for example, van Buren, Aug. 10, 1991; July 20, 1991).

Both columnists most often advise young couples with problems before a marriage to postpone the wedding or to break off seeing each other entirely. They will tell them marriage will not magically make them more compatible; people are not easily changed. Miss Dix tells one young man to look closely at his fiancee and warns, "This is the kind of life, this is the kind of wife, this is the kind of home you will have if you let this woman jockey you into marrying her" (Dix, Jan. 20, 1949). We found one topic in particular where Dorothy Dix and Dear Abby definitely disagree, and this is romance and soldiers. In one column, Miss Dix allows a reader to explain that soldiers in uniform may be attractive to young women but uniforms may often hide major differences in background between the couple (Dix, Sept. 27, 1942). In another, she advises two servicemen not to marry young women from another country or region. She admonishes, "The safest matrimonial bet is the girl back home who has your own background, your own tastes and prejudices...and knows your own way of cooking" (Dix, APSU library).

Dear Abby, on the other hand, recently featured a thank-you note from a young couple who met through Operation Dear Abby, which is a letter-writing campaign Abby conducts for service personnel overseas (Pradt, 1991). Their note told of their wedding plans. In fact, Abby has received dozens of wedding invitations from couples who met in this way, from Vietnam right up through Desert Storm (Pradt, 1991). One assumes Abby heartily approves of their long-distance romances. Other key differences between the two are tied to the time in which they wrote. Dorothy Dix addressed topics that would not be likely to come up in Dear Abby: a young woman who swoons every time she hears Frank Sinatra (Dix, APSU library), another whose father forbids her to wear lipstick (Dix, Jan. 13, 1949), and a third whose husband makes her sit on the street curb for an hour or so every week while he visits his daughter and ex-wife (Dix, APSU library). And vice versa with Abby, who recently answered a wife seeking help over her husband's insistence on videotaping their sex life (van Buren, October 13, 1991), who advocates living wills, and who actually mediated in an argument over whether a dog could serve as ring bearer (Pradt, 1991).

In the winter of 1991 Dear Abby answered a correspondent who deplored the United States' sending mothers to the Persian Gulf: "I agree with you; it is indeed terrible to break up families. But women are in the armed services voluntarily. They are not `drafted' as were men during World War II and Vietnam. Every woman who joined should have been fully aware that she could be called upon for combat duty. And you tell the 3- and 4-year-olds that Mama has to go to war the same way you tell them that Daddy has to go" (van Buren, Jan. 13, 1991). One wonders how Miss Dix would have responded. She consistently advised mothers of young children not to work outside the home. She considered taking care of children an important, full-time occupation. And yet she tended to be quite stoic about the predicaments letter writers found themselves in, admonishing them that they have responsibilities they must see through, life isn't perfect, happiness comes through fulfilling obligations (see, for example, Dix, Jan. 12, 1949). One suspects she would have preferred that mothers not join the armed services, but one also suspects she would have agreed with Abby that they voluntarily took on obligations and they ought to fulfill them. Miss Dix was more likely to receive requests for help from children facing the responsibility of supporting aging parents (Dix, APSU library), whereas Abby more often hears from aging parents who are struggling to support their adult children (see, for example, van Buren, Jan. 2, 1991).

So, by and large, finding comparable columns is difficult. For one thing, Dorothy Dix was indeed an advice columnist. Her column was fairly narrowly focused. She heard from young mothers who were having trouble balancing their children's and their husband's demands (Dix, Jan. 12, 1949). Her letters ranged from wives who were jealous of their husband's attentions (Dix, APSU library), to husbands who suffered from the suspicions of their jealous wives (Dix, Jan. 19, 1949); from single people who wanted to date or get married (Dix, Jan. 11, 1949), to married people who wanted to be single again (Dix, Jan. 12, 1949); from parents who thought their children were making mistakes with their lives (Dix, APSU library), to children who thought their parents were treating them unfairly (Dix, APSU library). Occasionally she would get an offbeat inquiry like the one from three elevator operators who wanted to know whether the monotony of their jobs could drive them "insane." Even here she formed her answer around the notion that life is not perfect and told them to look for human drama as it played out before them every day (Dix, APSU library). Clearly she confined her column fairly closely to the importance of relationships--romantic, familial, collegial and platonic.

Abby also offers straight advice, but Dear Abby is much broader than a traditional advice column. Her column often serves as a forum for readers to sound off about anything from magazines having too many advertisements (van Buren, July 19, 1991), television programs offering too much background noise for viewers with hearing aids (Sept. 10, 1991), and dentists' receptionists calling female patients by their first names while referring to males as Mr. So and So (Jan. 13, 1991). She even allows readers themselves to offer advice as parents write in to warn about how children have drowned in buckets of water or nearly died when ocean-side trenches collapsed (Jan. 11, 1991). Or prisoners tell readers not to do as they have done (Jan. 15, 1991), and readers agonize over incest trials (Jan. 14, 1991). Sometimes she even prints items such as a reader's reminiscences of watching Charles Lindbergh take off from a field in Mississippi more than half a century ago (Sept. 15, 1991).

In essence, Dear Abby serves as a clearinghouse for information, consulting lawyers about what constitutes an "attractive nuisance" (Sept. 19, 1991), asking the U.S. Center for Disease Control about how AIDS might be spread (Jan. 4, 1991), and suggesting books on topics of interest to readers. She often turns to professionals herself for answers to readers' questions, and just as often refers her readers to professionals for additional help. And to be sure, one cannot imagine Dorothy Dix considering some of the etiquette matters Abby encounters. Miss Dix would probably have had a hard time believing the couple who asked wedding guests to send their gifts in the form of money to the travel agency handling their honeymoon arrangements (July 14, 1991) or the thank-you note scribbled in one word of "thanks" on the back of the bank deposit slip (Sept. 4, 1991). Of course, Dorothy Dix did discuss proper behavior in various situations, but mainly her advice centered on how to behave toward family and close friends.

Dorothy Dix tended to be more authoritative in her answers and less likely to be challenged by readers while Abby often offers her opinion and then opens the floor for debate from readers. One reason for this difference is that Dorothy Dix's readers were clearly younger than Abby's. Miss Dix received as many letters from young women and men seeking advice on whom and when to marry and on rules of dating as she did from older adults, parents and grandparents. On the other hand, Dear Abby's letters seem to come more often from her peers, with letters from retirees, from parents of grown children, and from grandparents. These readers have lived their lives, made their choices, learned from their mistakes and generally feel less need for advice. They are more likely to want to share experiences and to offer advice to others based on these experiences. With this in mind, the most apparent similarity is that the two writers are loved very much by their readers, but in different ways. Dorothy Dix readers loved her authoritative style perhaps as a "mother" figure, while Abby's readers seem to love her as a "sister" they can go to.

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