The Art of Correspondence: Letter Writing 101

Not one modern communications marvel can replace a letter. It is more than a communication. It is a gift. A letter can have special powers. It can be more intimate and touching than even a conversation. It can be more personal than any telephone call. Think you can't make your words work on paper? Here's how to write letters that will touch the hearts of those who read them.

Open and shut: The letter format
Some people have trouble getting started but, once started, can continue comfortably. It's a good idea to mentally go over the main things you want to say before starting. You can begin with a bit of good news: "You will be glad to hear that ..." You can also describe what you've been doing that day or depict the room in which you're writing. You can also refer to the most recent correspondence or the last time you met the person you are writing to.

Don't open a letter by apologizing for not writing sooner. You can say something like: "You may have thought I'd forgotten all about you, but really, you have been in my thoughts often lately. It's just that there's been a lot going on. For instance ..."

Letters, by their nature, convey news. Therefore, in the body of the letter, talk about what has been happening to you and to those you both know. Talk about shared interests. Keep the tone conversational, and let it flow.

End formal letters with a "Sincerely," and progress toward familiarity with "Yours truly, regards, best wishes, affectionately, love" and so on. The most informal and affectionate letters may end with "Miss you," or "Write soon," or More later."

Tips on writing specific letters

Thank-you letters: These notes can be boring -- boring to write, boring to read: "Thank you for the nice present. It was nice of you to think of me." To avoid that sort of letter, you can follow my foolproof three-step formula:

1. Be sure to thank the person for the specific gift and mention the gift by name.
2. Acknowledge the effort and energy the giver put into selecting, buying or making the gift.
3. Let the giver know how you have used or will use the gift.

When thanking someone for a gift of money, don't mention the amount in your letter of thanks. A reference to "your generous gift" will suffice.

When you refuse a gift, a letter or at least a note is required. It should say that you don't feel you can accept the gift (perhaps in the case of a woman receiving expensive jewelry from a male acquaintance) but wish to give thanks for "your thoughtfulness."

Condolence letters: A letter of condolence should do three things:

1. Acknowledge what a terrible loss the death is for the bereaved and that you sympathize with their suffering to some degree.
2. Convey a sincere desire to help in some way during this time of grief.
3. Praise the accomplishments, character and devotion of the deceased.

Remember that this letter may be read by a number of people and saved as part of the family archives. So although it will be personal, the style should at least be somewhat formal. And finally, avoid stressing how much you feel bereaved. The purpose of the letter is to comfort others, not to have them feel sorry for you.

Apology letters: If you have offended someone and are sorry for it, the best thing to do is apologize in person and follow it up with a letter. In any case, the letter must say clearly and humbly that you are sorry. If there is some way you can make amends, promise to do so.

"Dear John" letters: The overriding objective in this case is to end a romantic relationship with as little pain to the other person as possible.
· Start with a straightforward statement giving the reason for the letter.
· Apologize and offer an explanation that does not blame the other person but rather something -- if possible -- that is beyond the control of either of you.
· If there is blame involved, blame yourself.
· Don't lie.
· Don't leave the door open even a crack.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Etiquette by Mary Mitchell with John Corr (Alpha Books). © 1996 by Mary Mitchell.

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