Writing Well: Letter Perfect

Letter Perfect

As much as we use the telephone to reach out and touch someone, there are times when only a letter will do. Personal letters share feelings and information among friends and family, while social notes relay an invitation or refuse one. These letters also express our gratitude, congratulations, or condolences. We also have letters of opinion, sent to newspapers, businesses, and the media. In this section, you'll learn how to write these important and useful types of letters.

Drop Me a Line

Write Angles

You could argue that personal e-mail is essentially the same as a personal letter. However, since e-mail isn't accessible to everyone, letters are still the socially correct form of personal written communication.

Letters are a testimony to the enduring attempts of human beings to bridge the communication gap between themselves and others. Letters pack an astonishingly big wallop for their size. In some cases, they even become the stuff of history.

Author! Author!

E.M. Forester (1879-1970) is most famous for his novels A Passage to India, A Room with a View, and Howard's End. Forster's letters, published in 1980, “provided greater insight into the relationship between his life and art,” one critic noted. (Nearly all his novels have been filmed in luscious if languid versions by the cinematic duo Merchant/Ivory.)

“Of course,” you say, “all those letters the bigwigs write to each other get into the history books.” That's certainly true, but even personal letters can influence the course of events. For example, Abigail Adams (1744-1818), the wife of John Adams, America's second president, was an untiring letter writer. After John left their Massachusetts home to serve in the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, the couple saw each other only intermittently for the next 10 years. While raising the children and managing the family's business affairs, Abigail also became an untiring advocate for women's rights. From her letter of March 31, 1776, came the famous phrase “Remember the ladies!”:

Write Angles

Even though personal letters are not as formal as business letters, they contain the same elements: heading, salutation, body, closing, signature. See “The Professional Edge: Writing on the Job” for model letters.

  • Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

Keep this in mind the next time you write a letter to your spouse or lover. You could be making history.

Dear Mr. Postman

  • September 28, 1909
  • Dear Mrs. Coney,
  • Your second card just reached me and I am plumb glad because, although I answered your other, I was wishing I could write to you, for I have had the most charming adventure.
  • I was awakened by a pebble striking my cheek. Something prowling on the bluff above us had dislodged it and it struck me. It was four o'clock, so I arose and spitted my rabbit. The logs had left such a big bed of coals, but some ends were still burning in such a manner that the heat would go both under and over my rabbit. So I put plenty of bacon grease over him and hung him up to roast. Then I went back to bed. I didn't want to start early because the air is too keen for comfort early in the morning ….
  • —Elinore Rupert Stewart

Personal letters are written for several important and intriguing reasons. These include an urge to record an experience, the desire to respond to a situation, the craving to maintain contact, a wish to offer congratulations or comfort, and the longing to be creative. Elinore Rupert Stewart, a pioneer trekking west at the turn of the century, wrote for all these reasons. Today, letters such as hers offer us a fascinating record of the westward expansion.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

Let's look a little more closely at the reasons why people write personal letters. See which items match your reasons for writing letters to friends and family. (Or why you should start writing them!)

  • Letters as travelogue. People often write letters to record their experiences and share them with one or more friends. Novelist E.M. Forster, for instance, wrote a series of letters to his mother to document his first trip to India, the country that was to play such an important role in his future writings.
  • Letters as statements. Letters can also be sparked by a need to respond to a specific situation, public as well as private. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to answer criticism from eight fellow clergymen. Perhaps you wrote a letter to a friend or colleague to explain your position on a key issue.
  • Letters as social cement. People also write letters because they want to make or maintain a connection with another person. When her big-game hunter husband brought her to Africa, Isak Dinesen sent letter after letter home to her family in Denmark to relieve her loneliness and maintain contact with her kin. We also write to congratulate or console, crow and comfort.
  • Letters as creative outlet. Personal letters are also a way to be creative, especially for people who have a keen interest in writing but are afraid to risk publication or are having difficulty getting published. Letters give us the chance to share our personal feelings. Perhaps you write letters for this reason.

With telephones and e-mail, you'd think the personal letter was as dead as a dodo. It's actually flourishing, thank you very much. Let's review the generally accepted conventions of letter writing.

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.

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