When was the last time you wrote a letter? A real letter to a friend or family with news and other idle chatter? Letter writing is a skill. These days it’s becoming quaint, old-fashioned as email and typed notes take over.
There is a little formality to letter writing. You start with the date and then add a greeting. It’s easy to forget the date and it may not seem important when it’s a casual, personal letter. But, the date gives it relevance for when they read it later. Even now, it shows when you wrote the letter and how long it took to get through the mail.
The greeting is also known as the salutation. It’s a fancier word for hello. Standard salutations for letters start with Dear. But, that’s quite old now. I think even Emily Post would be ok with an update there. You could write Hello, just the person’s name or something else which would mean the same to the person you are writing to. After all, this isn’t a formal business letter, it’s allowed be personal, friendly and intimate.
The body of the letter is freewriting. Write news, updates about past news, how your day is going, what you’re thinking about, the town you live in, what you did on vacation, whatever comes to mind. Keep it in paragraph format. That just makes it easier to read. Everyone likes a break in reading now and then. Add a double space between paragraphs. Not everyone does this and it’s only become the standard since letters started being typed. But, I think it’s a very practical practice. The clever use of white space can only add to the presentation whether it’s a magazine layout, a website or a family newsletter.
At the end you sign off. This is a time to be really creative. You can wind down your letter with comments about hope you write back soon, hope you are well, how was your vacation, etc. Or this could all be included in the body. But, there should be some sort of wind down to the closing. Still, every letter ends with some version of good bye: “Take care, Laura” That is my standard close to a letter or an email. It’s polite, slightly formal and works for just about anyone I’m writing to. But, I don’t have to stick with that and either do you. Be informal, be memorable or just be personable, it’s up to you. Don’t forget to sign your name though. I once had a letter from a penpal who didn’t sign their name, didn’t mention who they were in the letter and didn’t add a return address to the outside of the envelope. I guessed who they were; the postage was a help since I was writing to people all over the world at that time.
So we come to the last part of writing a letter, the envelope. If you have used fancy stationary you may need to choose the best spot to write the addresses and stick the stamps. Some stationary doesn’t leave space in the right places. The post office likes everything done just the same for their machines to read the letters. This also gives your letter an edge in delivery time. If the machines can handle it all the way it goes through the system faster. If humans have to take over it will be delayed. Anyway, the standard is to put the stamps in the upper right corner, which I’m sure you know well by now. But, did you know they actually like the address and postal code on the low side? I’d usually write them in the middle of the envelope so that the whole address was centered. But, I found that the postal machines are set up to read lower on the envelope, they pick out the postal code and sort it that way. (At least that’s what I was told when I asked here, if someone works for the post office let me know if I’m mislead about this). Don’t forget a return address. You can write it across from the stamp on the front of your letter, the upper left corner. Or you can write it on the back of your letter where there is more space. However, if there is a chance your letter won’t reach your intended destination write the return address on the front. This makes it easier for the letter to be returned to you.
I feel like I’ve just written the Martha Stewart guide to writing a letter. Though this is simple stuff to most people I expect there are some people who have never written a personal letter. You’re missing out on something. Letter writing is a great way of keeping in touch with people and with yourself. When you write about yourself, your life and your feelings you let go of some things and hang onto others that are good. At times it’s like getting to know yourself. It’s therapeutic and it’s almost free.
Also, as writers, we can always use more writing to practice our skills with grammar, punctuation and spelling. More than that, we practice our skills with communicating in words. Letter writing gives you feedback in a way you miss out with writing articles, stories and such. People will reply to letters but you will seldom get feedback from any other writing you do. Another plus, letter writing feedback is tempered with good attitude and their comments about your grammar goofs will be meant well and given from a friend rather than a human dictionary who seems to just live to correct others. Don’t you hate people like that? (Not that I mind learning from my mistakes but spare me the attitude).
One other excellent thing I found about writing penpal letters was how much I learned about the world and the people in it. Other cultures, lifestyles and values are at your pen tip. I always think it’s a shame that some people cut themselves off from the world and live in a very small space inside their own head. There is so much out there in the world around us. Even if you never travel you can be an armchair traveler through your letters. Ask about things, find new ways of thinking, seeing and doing things. Make your life an expedition into the world, even if it’s only through the paper of your letters.