Letter Writing: How to Get Started

Letter Writing: How to Get Started

Published by Caroline Weaver on Apr 26th 2021

Did you know that April is National Letter Writing Month? As you might expect, we're big fans of snail mail around here and love promoting analog communication, especially this time of year.

When we post about writing letters on Instagram, one of the most frequently asked questions is: what do you write about? For those who aren't in the practice of writing letters, it can be an intimidating form of communication but it doesn't have to be! Let's break it down:

Who do I write to? It could be a friend, a grandparent, or a person you'd like to get to know better. I have pen pals who are friends in my own city, family members I don't see often, people I've never met in person--you can write to anyone!

Getting to know someone: I think it's a good idea to compose a letter that's 75% writing about yourself, or things that you're interested in and 25% asking about the other person. No one wants to feel like they're being interviewed, and by writing about your personal interests and experiencing, you're giving the other person a good place to start in finding things to reply to and talk about when they reply. 

The objective is to get to know someone with no urgency (it is called snail mail, after all) and to take your time and trust your train of thought. You don't have to tell you pen pal everything about yourself or what's going on in your life. In fact, I have some pen pals who I know very little about their personal lives because we have such a rich rapport about cultural experiences, books, and other things.

Adjusting expectations: Keep in mind that everyone has a different style of writing and speed at which they reply. In general, I think it's best to keep all letters to four pages or less. Sometimes, it can be stressful or overwhelming to reply to a suuuuuper long letter and can kind of kill the fun. 

Letter writing is a generous act. It's important to remember that it's supposed to be fun! Don't be upset if it takes longer than you think it will for a reply. Maybe something really exciting is happening and they'll fill you in later! Or maybe your pen pal is having a tough time and doesn't have the mental energy. We're so in the habit of instant communication, it can be hard to adjust expectations. 

Types of snail mail that are fun, easy and doesn't require anything in return:

Mini stories: Especially with friends I see IRL frequently, instead of writing letters for the purpose of catching up, I sometimes like to write whole letters just telling them a story about a thing I experienced or enjoyed, usually something that reminded me of them or that I thought they'd appreciate. This is a nice way to share something with someone else and doesn't make them feel obligated to reply, or perhaps inspires them to share something with you. 

Quick notes: It's totally okay to send a card or postcard with just a quick note if there's something urgent you want to tell someone! Or a quick thought you'd like to share. In restaurants that paperclip bills to postcards, I like to immediately write a quick note to a friend about something I just ate, or a description of a scene in the restaurant. If you're a nerd like me, you keep stamps and a writing tool on you at all times and might find this to be a fun thing to do at the end of the night.

Sharing something: If I'm reading a magazine and see something I think a pen pal or friend might enjoy, I tear it out and send it to them. The same goes for stickers, packets of seeds, bits of ephemera -- it's a lovely gesture to send someone something easy and flat that they might enjoy.

I'm writing to a brand new pen pal. Where do I start? 

The worst thing you can do is bombard them with questions! Trust that they will share about themselves when they reply. Don't try to give them your whole life's story up front because that's tedious and also eliminates some of the fun of getting to know someone slowly. Instead, write about something cool that you saw recently, tell them about a book you're reading, or share a funny story about something you experienced. Anything to encourage a natural conversation! Approach it as you might a first date. Just share things about yourself that the other person might find interesting and they'll pick up the conversation there. 

How quickly should I reply? There's probably official etiquette to follow here, but I personally don't think there should be strict expectations. In my letter writing practice, I write about 3 letters a week and reply in the order in which I receive them. Sometimes that means I reply in 1 or 2 weeks, or sometimes maybe 1 or 2 months. Occasionally, I just don't feel like writing letters and it takes me longer! It's totally okay.

Everybody loves finding mail in their mailbox that isn't a bill or junk mail. Even if the person you write to doesn't reply, you can trust that you made them smile while sorting their mail. 

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