the lost art of letter writing
February 26, 2008 10:56 PM   Subscribe

Suppose one friend was to send another a letter by mail. What makes for an especially great letter? What elements make a letter newsy enough to be interesting, without seeming to be a catalog of fabulous adventures? What elements make a letter feel emotionally true and personal, without seeming to be the writer's self-important inner monologue? What elements best invite a response? What elements encourage a feeling of connection in the reader?
posted by xo to Human Relations (19 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: While I can't offer any specific advice, I would approach this by reading collections of letters that (evidently) were good enough to be published.
posted by alexei at 11:35 PM on February 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Humor and personal anecdotes.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:08 AM on February 27, 2008

Dear xo,

These days, an especially great letter is any one that is sent by mail.

Posted letters have such significance now almost as a function of their rarity in the age of email or (worse) "text." I think the very fact of having a letter arrive on one's doorstep is often enough to encourage the sorts of feelings you are looking for. I know this answer is likely not what you were seeking, but I offer it to reinforce the worth of your query, and to say "good work" to letter-writing mefites everywhere.

I remain, in any and all correspondence, typed or otherwise, yours in solidarity,

PS. "The medium is the message." M. McLuhan
posted by roombythelake at 12:36 AM on February 27, 2008

One thing I really like to get in letters are things that might not come through as clearly in an email - things that maybe even show some side of the writer that you'd not really considered before, or that make it clear that the letter was written by a human being and an interesting one at that. For example:

- If you're going to share a bit of news (and I'd save the details for a phone call or email, IF the person upon reading your letter then asks you about it via phone or email), instead of just reporting the event, add in a few doodles to illustrate it!
- Or if doodles aren't your thing, maybe affix some strange but relevant item, say perhaps a magazine clipping of monkeys (maybe with you drawn in somewhere) if you'd gone to the zoo (or are commenting - in a lighthearted and brief way - on things your coworkers are doing to drive you nuts).
- Depending on the nature of your friendship, if it's not too dorky, throw in a few random jokes or interesting quotations in the margins.

Those are just examples and certainly aren't everybody's style, really I'm just suggesting you try to think of things that go beyond just what you can include in an email. Nevertheless, I think these next two suggestions might be more universally applicable:

- Don't just write about what you've been up to; also ask specific questions about them as well - ideally about things going on in their life, although now it occurs to me that maybe more speculative "what if?" or "if you could X, what would you do?" questions could be fun, too
- In sharing your feelings, see if you can connect them to something going on in your reader's life - "Loved the story about you knocking over all those cans at the grocery store and I think it's really neat that you handled it with such aplomb, I always get so embarrassed over little things like that" - eh, not necessarily so superficial but hopefully you get what I mean, people seem to find one another's feelings a lot more interesting when their own are acknowledged, too, you know?

I guess overall, then, I like letters that both seem like they came from an actual human being, AND that make me feel they were written specifically to me and aren't just the same letter that would have been written about the writer regardless of who the audience was. Treat it more like a conversation with someone you're interested in and want to know more about, and I think you'll be doing well. Have fun =)
posted by zeph at 12:36 AM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

In my opinion it's best to just sit down and write, without an agenda or worry about the content. I do a good bit of letter writing and receiving, including a bit of mail art and odds-and-ends projects of the like, and the pleasure is in receiving something from someone else, not in being entertained by the content. The times I've laughed out loud reading a letter have all been the result of the person's, well, you know...being themselves. My only advice is to write it on good quality paper (I like card stock and a pen that flows nicely) so that it's easy to hold and read.
posted by farishta at 12:39 AM on February 27, 2008

also, I've always wanted to include a web address in a letter, in blue hyperlink-colored ink. Maybe to this post?
posted by farishta at 12:41 AM on February 27, 2008

Getting a letter via post office is enough that what you write doesn't really matter. When I'm trying to write a "real" letter to a friend, I write whatever I feel like telling them right then. Past, present, future, whatever. Then I ask them questions about themselves. Quesions I really wonder. "Last I saw you, you were doing X, how's that going?" I'd appreciate that letter from any of my friends. Self-important inner monologue is good. What the hell else are you going to say? Write whatever you feel like writing. What major things are going on in your life? How do you feel about those things? Tell them. If nothing huge, tell about something that happened to you on the way to work. Whatever. People who know and like you will enjoy anything you have to say. See, what I'm writing vs. anything a friend wrote to you in a letter is way better. If all it said were, "Hey man, remember that time you and I went..." you'd love it WAY more than what I have to say.

Seriously. Mad props to the old fashioned letter.
posted by smeater44 at 2:18 AM on February 27, 2008

Hmmm, that might be worded wrong. What I write vs. what a friend writes. The friend will always win.
posted by smeater44 at 2:26 AM on February 27, 2008

One of the best letters I ever got was written on an old, yellowed piece of sheet music, with the edges singed off. Hokey, but it was a loooooove letter, so it really touched me. I guess my point is that using non-traditional paper is really pretty cool.
posted by Stewriffic at 3:31 AM on February 27, 2008

As questions if you want responses quickly-ish.
posted by craven_morhead at 5:18 AM on February 27, 2008

My best friend through high school lived halfway across the country and we kept the post office in business, until we graduated high school and drifted apart. My favorites letters from him were those that included little stray bits of things... a poem on a set of chopsticks, handmade "manly" stationary with clippings from comic books, his late-night pondering on friends and family. They were all sealed with wax... melted crayon stamped with foreign coins.

After you get a routine going, letter writing will come naturally and you will be surprised at what you find yourself writing. I have the teenage diary of a young man tucked away in my closet. Somewhere, outside of Chicago, mine might be kickin' around.
posted by wg at 5:34 AM on February 27, 2008

When I went to college, a friend of mine from home sent letters that were like mini works of art... her musings interspersed with sketches, mosaics... whatever she felt like adding. So random and so cool -- I loved them. If you're at all artistically inclined, I highly recommend it.
posted by somanyamys at 6:33 AM on February 27, 2008

Best answer: Check out Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing -- words of wisdom from Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland.
posted by mothershock at 6:40 AM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ooh, you get to use stationery. Have fun at the stationery store! Carefully-selected stationery can help the reader feel connected to you, and can make something _art_.

That's a huge difference between e-mail and postal mail: you can send something _real_, with texture and real color, much finer detail. Enjoy that.
posted by amtho at 6:56 AM on February 27, 2008

The most memorable letters I have received vary from those scrawled hurriedly in biro on cheap paper to those in beautifully laid out copperplate with hand drawn illustrations - what they have in common is that, in their appearance, they have successfully conveyed something vivid about both the writer and the moment when they were composed.
posted by rongorongo at 7:11 AM on February 27, 2008

Best answer: I write letters and postcards a fair amount and am lucky enough t receive them as well. These are my tips for letter writing.

- make an effort to choose nice stationery/envelope. This doesn't have to be something that specifically makes you think of your friend in that "oh look you like boats and I chose a boat-themes paper!" but just something nice and a little fancier than normal paper.

- if you really want to make an impression for some people, pay attention to your stamps. I have a lot of older US postage that I have gotten over time on eBay and the like that have various neat things on them and aren't thos eplastic monstrosities. You may not have this sort of leeway but a nice attractive stamp beats the FOREVER liberty bell, unless your friend likes bells.

- enclosing a photo or two, especially if you've been partocularly nice places or have kids who are growing up fast is neat. I have a little collection of photos on my wall that friends have sent me and it beats the hell out of a link to Flickr, even though I like and use Flickr.

- make an effort with handwriting. If your handwriting is terrible, use a typewriter or even a word processor. While I think word processed letters are a little low on the sentimental scale, they are legible. If you are writing to older people or people with bad vision, up the font size a bit.

- while there's no specific standard way to write a letter, I think good letters share some characteristics. First of all, think why you are writing. Do you have a crush on someone, are you replying to them, did you hear they had good/bad news, are you relating what happened recently, is it holidaytime and this is the yearly update, are you trying to keep someone from feeling lonely, are you in a new place, are they in a new place? All of these will have slightly different strategies but generally speaking you'll want to greet them and say why you're writing, tell them about what you've been up to, tell them why this made you think of them or something about the two of you together, ask them a bit about how they're doing or ask after their work/family/friends [whatever is important to them and this varies by person] and sign off with something warm and friendly with an entreaty to write if it's convenient to do so, etc.

- in response to your questions, personal letters seem to not only be directed towards me personally but are also about things I'm more or less interested in. I have one correspondent, for exmaple, who hates this current administration and his letters to me have sort of devolved into rants about GWB While I sympathize and care what my friend is going through, rants make bad letters and these don't seem to be directed at me [hey, I don't like him ether!] and make me less likely to reply. Oh course if that's the major thing going on in his life, I'd like to hear about it, but it's really different to hear "Remember when we were in Seattle during the 2000 elections? I'm having the same feeling of despair now that I was then" as opposed to "Man I hate what's happening in politics" One brings me into their story, one is just a flatter "this is what I am thinking" Basically a good letter takes into account who the reader is and tailors news and presentation to fit.

- Good letters are engaging and seem more conversational and aren't just bare recitations of facts. So, "On the second day we thought we saw a tiger in the woods..." beats "then the second day we went to Beijing, we stayed at the Beijing Hilton. It was fun" It's okay to stick to high points and good stories and not worry too much if you're getting all your facts in. Focus on things that may be different from where your reader is. I'm in the dead of winter here, I love getting postcards of places that are warm.

- Some people may not like this, but I love it when letters contain little stuff. Bookmarks, a dried flower, stickers, even a doodle at the bottom of the page.

- A good letter doesn't have to be long. To me, unless there's really big news a good letter ISN'T incredibly long. A few pages of news and stories is great. Eight pages of "this is what has happened since we last connected" can be daunting and decrease chances of getting a reply. That said, some people don't reply, never write back and nothing you can do will change that. Or people may reply to your letter by email. Of course, include your address in the letter -- some people toss envelopes -- to up your chances, but a letter is a gift, not you hope, an obligation given to your friend.

- And last ignore everything I've said if paying attention to detail keeps you from getting your letter out the door. I've found it very useful to keep a handy stationery box with envelopes, notepaper and stamps in my office and I write/address/send letters while I'm thinking of it even if they're just the shortish "thinking of you" variety because at some point the letter that someone GETS is better than the one you just think about sending.
posted by jessamyn at 7:19 AM on February 27, 2008 [11 favorites]

I have a dear friend of many years who wont accept anything other than a handwritten letter as correspondence. Snobby bitch, I love her utterly. We dont trade fancy paper or envelopes but over the years, I've found that a good letter can just be a brief summary of what you've been up to, a little personal anecdote, and of course some reference to what your correspondent wrote about in the previous letter. I think its the effort that counts a lot, especially in this age of e-mail.
posted by elendil71 at 8:50 AM on February 27, 2008

I love letters written piecemeal over a few days, with anticipation and follow-up. It's like having access to someone's diary and somehow feels more connected, as if you're following along in their life rather just getting a glimpse. My aunt overseas even writes her emails this way.

Ask about their families. Share news about people you both know.

Nthing inclusions! You don't have to make a big production of it, but newspaper articles, family photos, cartoons or recipes you think they'd like--anything that shows you're thinking about times other than *right now while I'm writing this letter.*

And illustrations are the best. Drawings, doodles, diagrams. Collages! Rebuses!
posted by hippugeek at 11:49 AM on February 27, 2008

Almost forgot, wax seals are a fun way to personalize things and add an old-world feel. I use them for all of my personal correspondence.

Anybody, Mefi mail me if you want to exchange letters sometime.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:11 AM on February 28, 2008

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