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It’s cliche to say that letter-writing is a “lost art,” but try to think of the last time you sat down and wrote a personal letter. Nothing to do with business or networking—an actual letter to another person in your life for the purpose of communicating information, messages, and checking in. For most of us, it’s been quite some time.
If you’ve decided that this long stretch of winter is the ideal time to put pen to paper and catch up with your correspondence, you may be wondering where to start, or even what to say. Here’s some expert advice to get you on the right track.
The format of a personal letter
First, you have to decide how you’re going to write the letter: By hand, or electronically (typing or using voice dictation). There’s also a typewriter, but we’ll skip that one today.
The medium is completely up to you; just be aware that writing a letter (or anything) by hand is much harder than you remember. Not only is there no way to delete what you’ve written (other than Wite-Out, crossing sections off, or just scrapping the whole thing), but you have no way of editing or moving the text around without it getting confusing or becoming illegible.
As far as its structure, the Emily Post Institute has a helpful post that breaks down the three basic parts of a personal letter: the opening (address and date), the body, and the letter ending. But again, it’s up to you to decide how formal you’d like to make your letter.
How to write the body of a personal letter
Once you’ve written the greeting (i.e. “Dear Person” or whatever you’ve chosen to start off with) it’s time to tackle the tricky part: The body. According to the Emily Post Institute, the body of a personal letter is the place to “share news and information, mix good with bad news, respond to the questions asked or news shared in a previous letter, and ask about the recipient.”
Speaking to NPR in August 2021, Courtney Taylor, a senior writer at Hallmark Cards, shared a few tips for writing the body of a personal letter, including these three:
Be vulnerable and curious
Lead with both vulnerability and curiosity. Specifically, Taylor says you should commit to the story you’re telling someone by not only giving them the facts of a specific event or situation in your life, but also providing the reader with some insight into how they made you feel. Then, ask the person open-ended questions to learn more about their own experiences, and express interest in their life.
Include ‘universal specifics’
According to Taylor, including “universal specifics” in a personal letter means writing about scenarios that most people can relate to, but providing specific details about your own experience. For instance, if you recently traveled somewhere and ran into problems and annoyances on the way, you can describe what happened to you, knowing that they’ve likely been through something similar.
When writing cover letters or other types of work-related communications, it makes sense to present the best version of yourself. But Taylor says that writing personal letters is a chance to show more of yourself (figuratively). “Even if it’s professional, I’d say you still want to be true to yourself and everything that you write, no matter what form it is, and no matter who the audience is, if the intent is for them to get to know who you are,” she told NPR.