The mail has arrived! You flip through it hesitantly, anticipating the new stack of bills, the usual junk mail. Then something unexpected catches your eye, and you give it a second look: an envelope addressed by hand. Holding the note in your eager hand, you find a secluded spot and surrender to the simple joy of reading your letter.
Anyone acquainted with personal letters knows they contain an almost old-world charm that is lacking in most other areas of life. In this day of information technology, however—especially with the advent of e-mail—personal letters have become increasingly rare.
Yet, in a way, letters are more “real” than their electronic counterparts. You can hold them in your hands, maybe guess by the handwriting the mood of your correspondent. You can save love letters in a box, tied with satin ribbon. You can burn them if love goes wrong (how much more satisfying than simply hitting “delete!”). Letters are a tactile and visual treat—you can write them on anything from scraps to stationery, from paper placemats to postcards. You can write with pens or pencils, lipstick or crayons.
Personal letters demand intimate details that e-mails, which can get intercepted in cyberspace, hold at arm’s length. Yet for all the impact that a personal letter conveys, writing them is really a very simple art.
Here are 5 key elements to consider when you’re composing a letter.
• The salutation, lacking in most e-mails, is your chance to make an immediate impression. Find ideas in great letters of history. Disdain the commonly dry “Dear” for a more evocative salutation: “My Best Beloved,” “My Dear Friend,” “Excellent Sir,” “Gentle Reader,” “Mine Own.”
• The body is the heart of the letter. To begin, peruse your correspondent’s most recent letter. Address his questions before launching into your own news. Be creative—this is your chance to share your soul. What cries out to be told? What should be left unsaid? Finally, be courteous to your correspondent—write legibly!
• The closing should be personal and warm. How warm? As Lewis Carroll advised, “If doubtful whether to end with ‘yours faithfully,’ or ‘yours truly,’ or ‘yours most truly,’ (there are at least a dozen varieties, before you reach ‘yours affectionately’), refer to your correspondent’s last letter, and make your winding-up at least as friendly as his. In fact, even if a shade more friendly, it will do no harm!”
• Don’t forget to put a return address and date on your letter. Though you know where you live and what day it is, these details will be very helpful to correspondents when they prepare to write back.
• Be creative in choosing the writing implement, paper, envelope, even the stamp. Use textured paper, colored pencils or markers, artwork, photographs, quotes, or drawings to make the letter your own. Check the post office for appropriate commemorative stamps.
Throughout history, letters have served many purposes—sealing a friendship, sharing good news, ending a romance, starting a war. The following letter, concluding with a quote by the poet John Jay Chapman, was written by Anne Morrow Lindbergh to Charles Lindbergh on July 2, 1944.