Writing Well: Stamp of Approval

Stamp of Approval

Because personal letters express your own ideas, you generally have a far wider choice of content with them than you do with business letters. However, an effective personal letter must still be clearly organized and carefully thought out. The following tips should make your task easier.

Ten Tips for Writing Great Personal Letters

  1. Never apologize for not having written or for running out of ideas. You're not on trial here.
  2. Reread any recent letters you received from the person to whom you are writing. This will help you answer the person's questions and include items of interest to the reader.
  3. To make your ideas come alive, use vivid sensory impressions, descriptions that appeal to sight, hearing, smell, and so on.
  4. Also include figures of speech, such as similes and metaphors.
  5. Dialogue makes your writing more specific and interesting, too.
  6. Never assume that your reader knows the complete cast of characters in your life, especially newcomers like your daughter's boyfriend (the one with the ring in his navel and hole in his head). Identify all unfamiliar people and places you mention.
  7. Check your grammar and usage carefully. Even though your letter is informal, you want to get it right and prevent misunderstandings.
  8. Reread for errors in spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and logic.
  9. Make your letter easy to read by typing or writing clearly.
  10. Try to end your letter on a positive note. Avoid lame endings like, “Well, that's all I have to say” or “It's late so I'll end this letter.” A strong ending leaves your readers thinking the good thoughts—and thinking well of you.

Return to Sender, Address Unknown

When you address the envelope, follow the style you used in the letter. Here are a few more guidelines:

  • If you typed the letter, type the address on the envelope. The style should match.
  • If you wrote the letter longhand, write the envelope longhand. Be sure your writing is legible: Don't make the post office play 20 Questions.
  • Addresses are electronically scanned, so center the recipient's name and address in the lower middle quadrant.
  • Don't use Mr., Mrs., or Ms. when you write your own name on the return address.
  • Use only standard abbreviations for streets, states, and countries.
  • To insure speedy delivery or return, include the zip code in both the recipient's address and your return address.
  • Be sure the envelope is large enough to meet postal service regulations. Otherwise, they won't accept it.
  • Use sufficient postage. If in doubt, have the letter weighed at the post office.

Zip It Up

Following are the standard US Post Office abbreviations for the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, and a few other handy places. Notice that the zip code abbreviations for states aren't followed by periods.

State Zip Code Abbreviation
American Samoa AS
Arizona AZ
Arkansas AR
California CA
Colorado CO
Connecticut CT
Delaware DE
District of Columbia DC
Florida FL
Georgia GA
Guam GU
Hawaii HI
Idaho ID
Illinois IL
Indiana IN
Iowa IA
Kansas KS
Kentucky KY
Louisiana LA
Maine ME
Marshall Islands MH
Maryland MD
Massachusetts MA
Michigan MI
Minnesota MN
Mississippi MS
Missouri MO
Montana MT
Nebraska NE
Nevada NV
New Hampshire NH
New Jersey NJ
New Mexico NM
New York NY
North Carolina NC
North Dakota ND
Ohio OH
Oklahoma OK
Oregon OR
Pennsylvania PA
Puerto Rico PR
Rhode Island RI
South Carolina SC
South Dakota SD
Tennessee TN
Texas TX
Utah UT
Vermont VT
Virgin Islands VI
Virginia VA
Washington WA
West Virginia WV
Wisconsin WI
Wyoming WY

Never use any abbreviation if there is the slightest chance of a misdelivery or misunderstanding. In that case, write out the full place name.

Short and Sweet

The following list gives some of the most common abbreviations for geographical terms. Notice that unlike zip codes, these are true abbreviations, since each one ends with a period.

Place Abbreviation
Avenue Ave.
Building Bldg.
Boulevard Blvd.
County Co.
District Dist.
Drive Dr.
Fort Ft.
Highway Hwy.
Island Is.
Mountain Mt.
National Natl.
Peninsula Pen.
Point Pt.
Province Prov.
Road Rd.
Route Rte.
Square Sq.
Street St.
Territory Terr.

Now, let's turn to a specific type of personal letter: the social note.

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.