The Lost Skill Of Civilized Society We Desperately Need To Revive
I don’t remember the exact words, but I remember the feeling.
I was thirteen years old. My first ever girlfriend had written me a letter. It was a love letter of sorts. I bounced around my house for hours after reading it.
Before the internet, we wrote letters to each other. They lacked convenience and ease, but they were thoughtfully crafted pieces of communication.
We’ve lost the skill and even the desire to write letters. Today, we opt for clumsy emails, impulsive social media posts, and cryptic text messages.
Letter writing is a forgotten art form. Nobody seems to do it anymore. That rarity makes it all the more special when you receive one.
It was a skill praised by the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Voltaire. Some of the most effective open letters in history are still revered today.
- Letter From A Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.
- J’Accuse by Emile Zola
- Finished With War: A Soldiers Degradation by Siegfried Sassoon
A letter won’t produce miracles, but it’s time we brought back this sacred practice.
The Letter writing basics
I was a frequent letter writer in the ’80s and ’90s. I recently rediscovered the artform as a means of teaching my son how to write thoughtfully. Most rules on writing apply to letter writing, with only a few modifications.
Always write to a specific audience
Direct most letters to a single individual —open letters excepted. It’s always from you, a single human being. Never write as though you were an entity: a company name, department or group.
It’s not about you
Do you have a family, friend or acquaintance that sends you a ten-page narrative of everything they experienced the past year? Be honest. Do you read them? No, I don’t either.
Any personal correspondence should always focus on the recipient. You’re tasking them with reading your letter. Make it valuable to them.
It’s harder than it sounds. Use these two techniques to validate your work.
- Ask a disinterested third party to read it.
- Put your letter away for at least twelve hours. Read it again but pretend that it is addressed to you.
Outline your letter before writing
The power of a letter lies in its thoughtfulness. Create an outline before you write your first draft.
Allow distance between editing
Your completed draft will always look impressive right after you finish. It won’t look as good the next morning. Spending time away from your work allows you to forget it enough so that you can identify the flaws.
Send it when they least expect
Would it surprise you to receive a letter of appreciation after you do a huge favor for someone? Sure, you would appreciate the gesture, but it would not surprise you.
A letter achieves maximum impact when the recipient least expects it. You get dozens of holiday cards in December. How many do you get in August? Zero, right? That’s the best time to send them.
Some situations do not allow for off-cycle delivery but keep it in mind for situations when it makes sense.
Yes, you can transfer your work to email and send it out. What about sending it by snail mail? Or how about messengering it over to your recipient. My favorite technique is FedExing it overnight. This technique works well when the recipient expects your letter. A creative delivery method adds in that touch of surprise.
Get your anger out of the way
When Benjamin Franklin was angry, he would unload all his vitriol onto the paper. And then, he would throw it away. He’d start again and if his words were still filled with anger, he’d throw that one away.
Angry letters read like mindless temper tantrums to the recipient. Get your anger out of the way in an early draft. You can still express anger, but you will find your words more composed and more coherent.
The 5 letters you should know how to write
The basic guidelines apply to all five letters you’ll read about next.
The open letter
The letters I posted above were all open letters. They were published to a recipient or recipients on a public platform. Historical figures used them to call out injustice or bring attention to people who lacked the voice and distribution to make their case known.
In modern days, many folks use open letters as a tool for shaming someone into changing their behavior. These letters might give the writer emotional satisfaction, but they rarely affect change the way they have in the past.
There’s a lot of advice on the internet on how to write open letters, much of it poor. Study the text of the letters I posted above. You’ll notice similarities, despite their difference in style.
- Stick to the facts
- Avoid sanctimonious verbiage
- Express anger but keep aggression in check
The love letter
Love letters have been relegated to plot devices in historical fiction novels. In the age of sexting, we’ve lost the skill of expressing our love with artful, thoughtful and subtle words.
A well-crafted love letter allows the recipient to glean the depths of your love. Show don’t tell works just as well in love letters as it does in fiction.
Compare the difference between these two sentences.
You are the sexiest thing alive.
My sweat glands fire up every time you flick your bangs away from your eyes.
You cannot write a good love letter on the fly. It’s not something you write while waiting in line for coffee. It requires several drafts to get it right.
Start your first draft by writing bullet points of exactly what you want to say. Don’t get cute or poetic yet. Be precise here. For your second draft, ask yourself these two questions. The answers help you evolve your statements into demonstrations.
How could I show it in a way that will let her conclude it on her own?
What example would prove to her that I [fill in the blank]?
The letter of appreciation
Do you remember the last thank you note you received? Of course not. Thank you notes are devices we use to fulfill an obligation. Letters of appreciation emanate from heartfelt gratitude.
When you express your appreciation, you must include the first three components below.
- Specificity about what you appreciate.
- Why you think it deserves your appreciation.
- Give an example of how it benefitted you.
- BONUS: Deliver with grace.
Keep it short and to the point. Be respectful of the recipient’s time.
Almost all apologies, written or verbal, contain a fatal flaw. As a recipient or neutral third party, you see the flaw instantly. The apologizer qualifies his apology.
I apologize for embarrassing you in front of your family, but your obnoxious comment left me no choice. That was no excuse. It was my fault.
You see the problem with that apology, right? He’s trying to justify his behavior within his apology, and transfer some of the blame to the other person. That’s what it means by qualifying your apology.
Here is one more example where the writer sneaks in a subtle insult.
“I apologize for my supposed verbal abuse in the past. My comments were misconstrued.
Follow this simple rule.
Always let your apology stand on its own. Explain what you did wrong and take full responsibility. Your words must be unequivocal. Have another person review it before you deliver it. Make sure the reviewer is someone without an emotional attachment to the situation.
The persuasive letter
Explaining the concepts behind a persuasive letter in a few hundred words won’t be possible, but I’ll provide you with a few key takeaways you can use right away.
Never try to prove your point. Persuasion is 80% emotional and 20% logical. You can’t change someone’s mind. We change our own mind. Your job is to lead your reader to a point where he comes to the conclusion you desire.
Hide your personal opinions
Once you make your opinion known, your reader will see you as a person with an agenda.
Once they know your agenda, you lose credibility.
Once you lose credibility, they treat everything you say with suspicion.
You don’t need a hammer
A heavy-handed approach destroys your credibility when you write to a hostile or even neutral audience. Be on the lookout for adjectives and adverbs that unintentionally give away your opinion.
“When I spoke with the undersecretary, he said no. He remarked that she seemed too sweet for a serious job.”
“When I spoke with the sexist undersecretary, he said no.”
Let your reader conclude that the undersecretary was sexist. The first example does a better job. You want the reader to form her own opinion without you explicitly stating your opinion.
Think of it as a game of connect-the-dots. Draw a picture and connect a few of the dots, but allow the reader the pleasure of finishing it.