How (and Why) to Write a Personal Letter

Why write a personal letter?

In this day and age the idea of sitting down and writing a letter may seem strange and archaic. It may even go so far as to sound ridiculous for any purpose other than looking professional to a potential employer or client. With faster more efficient modes of communication at our fingertips such as email, phone calls and texting letter writing has become allotted almost entirely to a few scribbles in a birthday card.

A few years ago when I was first starting eighth grade I starting writing to a pen-pal. While the communication was short-lived due to the procrastination and inattentiveness of twelve-year-olds a new love was born inside the aspiring writer. A love of letters.

Letters are unique to communication in that they show, without a doubt, how much love, care and respect you have for the person you’re sending the letter to. Letters have a certain sentimentality that transcends all other available forms of communication. And for writers, letters give us a wonderful opportunity to stretch our writing muscles, try out new phrases and perfect the pitch of our voice.

As letters have faded into the past, so has the simple steps that go into writing a letter. To help revive the custom of letter writing, and hopefully to inspire my own generation to put pen to paper instead of thumb to keys I have compiled these step-by-step instructions on how to write the perfect letter.

Steps 1-3

Step One: Brainstorm
Before you write the letter take a few moments to consider what you want to say. Is there a specific purpose for the letter? Or are you just saying hi to a family member or friend? If you need to jot down the main ideas of the letter before hand so you don’t leave anything out.

Step Two: Contact info
Many people will put their address and contact information only on the envelope and not on the letter itself. In case your recipient decides to toss the envelope it’s a good idea to put your name and maybe even your address on the upper right hand side of the page. This way if the recipient wants to write back, they don’t have to call you or check their address book to figure out where you live.

Step Three: The greeting
Your greeting goes under the address on the left side of the page. You probably want to skip a line before the greeting. For informal letters the most common greeting is ‘dear’ but you have a lot of options. The greeting you choose depends on your relationship with the recipient, choose one from the list below or make up your own. Make sure you put a comma after the recipients name.

Ex. Dear James, Hello James, My dearest James, My friend James, or simply James,

Steps 4-8

Step Four: Opening paragraph
This may be your first speed bump on the road to a finished letter. For a lot of people it’s hard to know where to start. Relax, your opening paragraph can be brief, you only need a sentence or two to start the letter. It can be as simply asking how the recipient is doing, or mentioning briefly why you are writing the letter.

Ex. How have you been? How is fluffy? Are you still enjoying school? There is so much to tell you I hardly know where to begin.

Step Five: The body
This is the best part of the letter, the reason for writing it at all! Great, so where do you begin? If there really is so much to tell that you hardly know where to begin consider making a list before you get to this point. If you jump from topic to topic too much it may be hard for your reader to follow your thoughts.

You want reading your letter to be as pleasant as possible so it might be nice to put the thoughts into some kind of order that is easy to follow. If your relating the events that have taken place since you last saw the recipient you may want to try chronological order. My personal favourite is listing the least important events first and leading up to the most important event.

Ex. My cat turned twelve, I bought a gorgeous pair of shoes, I finally finished reading that massive novel you suggested, and I hated it, my mom came down to visit last week, and I just got engaged.

Letters fall into a middle ground of formality. Write conversationally. Try to imagine the person you are writing to in front of you and use similar words and phrases you would use with them. Feel free to employ slang, contractions and curses if that’s what they’re used to hearing from you.

Also feel free to insert random things into your letters. Once while writing a letter C.S. Lewis wondered why it was so much easier to draw peoples faces than to draw animals. You don’t have to restrict yourself only to “important” things. Feel free to describe how you misplaced a shoe only to find it later in your dog’s bed, if you think you‘re reader would find that at all interesting. Speaking of interesting it’s also good to remember that it’s more interesting to describe small things in detail, than to describe big things generally.

As far as formatting your paragraphs goes you have options. You can choose to indent the first line of every paragraph. Or you can leave a blank space between each paragraph, or you use both together to allay any possible confusion.

Step Six: Closing paragraph
The closing paragraph is your chance to wrap things up. The is the prefect time to mention a couple of things. You can remind the recipient that you would love to hear back from them, and tell them how.

Ex. Give me a call some time, I would love to hear back from you, Email me when you have a chance

You can also use the paragraph to ask any parting questions.

Ex. How had Fluffy been since the accident? Is Jenny still mad at me? Will you be able to make it to the wedding?

You can also thank the reader for taking the time to read your letter (if you're particularly gracious orfeeling formal). Remember that people tend to remember most what they read last, so if you have any particularly punchy parting comments now would be the time to make them.

Ex. If you don’t come to the wedding I’ll have to send my fiancé after you, and he’s big!

Step Seven: Closing line
The closing line can be aligned either left or right (I prefer right as it balances out the opening greeting) it should end in a comma. Underneath should be your name. If you are typing the letter you can type your name or print it off and sign it by hand.

Your choice of words here also depends on the relationship between you and the recipient. There are a lot of options for an informal letter, choose one from below or make up your own.

Ex. Yours, Love, Love always, Miss you, Sincerely, Cheers, Talk to you soon, Can’t wait to see you,

Depending on your relationship with the reader you may sign the letter with your first name, your full name or a nickname.

Ex. Anita, Anita Example, Annie, Boo-boo

Step Eight: Post script
You can also add a post script or P.S. to the letter. If there are additional thoughts you need to add at the end. There is also the option to add a P.P.S and so on, as many Ps as you need.

Ex. P.S. Aunt Linda is coming to visit and will be staying with me for the wedding. I think Aiden has an extra room if you need somewhere to stay.

The final product

Anita Example's letter to her friends James, with proper formatting and everything.
Anita Example's letter to her friends James, with proper formatting and everything.

Steps 9 and 10

Step Nine: Edit
Once you’ve finished the letter read over it for errors, check for grammar, punctuation and spelling. You may want to ask yourself a few questions before sealing the envelope, Did I forget anything? How will the recipient feel when he/she reads the letter? Do my thoughts flow logically? Can he/she read my writing?

On hand writing vs. typing: The choice between typing and handwriting the letter is yours to make, and may be based on various different things. First of all. How’s your handwriting? If it is illegible or just ugly as chicken scratch, consider typing the letter.

If you want to type it but give it an informal feel, spring for an informal font. If you are sending a passionate love note and your handwriting is legible, sometimes it’s the better choice.
If you are handwriting the letter decide whether or not you want to use both sides of the page. If your pen makes an impression on the stationary than you may want to use just one side, apologize to the rainforest and move on.

If your letter goes on for more than 2 or 3 pages you may want to consider numbering them in case the pages get shuffled. It’s the same idea as writing your information on the letterhead itself as well as the envelope.

Step Ten: Envelope and Paper
Address the envelope if you are sending it by mail. Your address (the return address) should be written on the upper left hand corner of the front side of the envelope (the side with no creases). The recipients address should be on the front of the envelope right in the middle

Anita Example
111 Letter Lane
Vancouver, BC, Canada
V1V 1V1

James Recipient
222 Reader Street
Los Angeles, CA, USA

You can fold the letter however you like as long as it fits in the envelope. I prefer to fold my letter in thirds. Try to fold it without to many visible creases so that it looks nice.

While everyone likes to get mail, it makes it extra special if that letter from your friend comes on letter stationary, it’s just a nice touch. If you want to get extra fancy, scent the paper. If it’s a love letter a few rose petals go a long way.

Finally seal the envelope and apply the postage. If your not sure how much postage you need take your unstamped letter to the post office and by the stamps there. The clerks will be happy to figure out how much postage you need.

Don’t decorate the front of the envelope as it can interfere with the postal service. You can decorate the stationary or the back (side with creases) of the envelope.

See the final product!

All of this may sound like a lot of work just to get a message to someone. But believe me the recipient of your letter knows how much work you put into it and will appreciate the hell out of it. You may even get a letter back!

Children’s book author Johanna Hurwitz said it perfectly, “A letter is so much better than a phone call. It is there in the middle of the night if I want to reread it. It is there a week or a month or a year later if I want to recall what was said to me.”

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