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Writing Well

People Who Like People: Social Notes

Unlike personal letters, social notes generally serve a single purpose. Personal letters dish the dirt; social notes may express thanks, offer condolences, or invite someone to a party, for example. As a key part of good manners, social notes are the glue that holds the fabric of society together. Because social notes have a specific purpose, they have to be organized more carefully than personal letters. Here's how:

Thanks a Bunch: Bread-and-Butter Notes

Write Angles

B&B notes are crucial in the business world as well. It's never a bad idea to send a thank-you letter after a phone interview with someone at a company about employment, an actual job interview, or when you've been offered a job and declined it.

Writer's Block

“Your check is your receipt” doesn't cut it as a thank-you note. Never assume that since you've endorsed the check, your obligation to write a thank-you note is discharged. It's not.

Remember how your mother used to force you to write thank-you letters to Cousin Bertha for those ugly, itchy sweaters? “Aw, Ma,” you whined, “Cousin Bertha won't care. I bet she doesn't even read my stupid letters.” Guess again. It's not only your relatives who are impressed by your good manners; it's friends, neighbors, and social acquaintances as well.

Follow these guidelines when you write a thank-you note:

  • Mention the specific gift or act of kindness.
  • Explain why the gift or kindness was appreciated. Be as specific as possible.
  • Send the letter promptly, since this can help avoid misunderstandings and family feuds, as well as show your appreciation.

What happens if you get a gift you detest, a real stinker? No matter how stinky the gift, it still deserves acknowledgment. Don't lie and gush about the gift. Instead, be polite and more general in your thanks. Remember: A gift is just that—a present rather than an obligation.

I Feel Your Pain: Letters of Condolence

No, you don't, and don't even try. But a letter of condolence is more appreciated than a phone call because it's tangible proof that the person cared enough to write. Many people keep meaningful letters of condolence and reread them in times of pain.

Write Angles

Unless you have a handicap that prevents you from handwriting, letters of condolence should always be handwritten.

Letters of condolence must be written with tact and sincerity. While it's always best to write promptly after the person's loss, a letter of condolence is the rare situation where “better late than never” holds true. If you put off writing the note because you couldn't think of appropriate words of comfort, it's not too late to do it now. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Do …

Author! Author!

Abraham Lincoln was a superb writer, stating his ideas with elegance and precision. In his professional correspondence and documents, Lincoln drew on the cadence and diction of Shakespeare and the Bible. In his personal notes, however, Lincoln was known to use phrases as plain and homespun as he himself was. For example, a woman once asked Lincoln to intercede on her behalf at the War Department. Lincoln declined, saying he could not be of any help in the situation because “they do things their own way there, and I don't amount to pig tracks in the War Department.”

  • Show the person that you care and you have been affected by the loss.
  • Keep the letter sincere. Write from the heart.
  • Use a compassionate and sorrowful tone.
  • Offer friendship or love, whatever the relationship.
  • Include specific details about the person's admirable traits. Tell a brief story about the time the person picked you up from the airport at midnight, for example.

Don't …

  • Try to show that your loss is greater than the person's loss. It isn't.
  • Rehash the tragedy and the gory details.
  • Tell them their loved one is in a better place. They may not share your value system.
  • Offer something you can't deliver.
  • Fall back on stock phrases from greeting cards.

Abraham Lincoln wrote the following letter to a woman who had suffered an unimaginable loss during the Civil War. Notice how he uses a comforting, compassionate, and reverent tone. He doesn't pretend to have known the woman's sons; nor does he offer anything he can't deliver.

Word Watch

RSVP is French for Répondez-vous, s'il vous plaît, meaning “please answer.”

  • Executive Mansion, Washington
  • November 21, 1864
  • Dear Madam,
  • I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
  • Yours very sincerely and respectfully,
  • Abraham Lincoln

It's My Party, and I'll Cry If I Want To

Writer's Block

For fancy parties, it's commonplace to have the invitations printed. If you go this route, be sure to proofread the invitation before it's printed. We're still laughing over the wedding invitation that had the bride's name misspelled.

All invitations must include the social occasion (birthday, anniversary, and so on), time, date, or place. You may also wish to include information about what to wear. Here are some additional guidelines:

  • RSVP. Want to know how many people are coming to your shindig? Write the abbreviation “RSVP” in the lower-left corner of the invitation to request that the person respond.
  • Reply date. Always include a specific date by which the person must answer “yes” or “no” or you'll be getting calls months after the party has ended.
  • Regrets only. Don't want to hear from everyone? Write “regrets only,” which means that only those people who can't attend must call and respond.

Traditionally, all invitations were handwritten in the form of a personal letter. Today, however, many people use preprinted invitations and fill in the relevant information. Whatever method you use, be sure to include all the information the reader needs.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

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