This week is officially Write An Important Letter Week! Well, at least in my life it is. I’ve had something that I’ve been meaning to say to someone that I’ve kept putting off and putting off (and putting off). And this is the week to end all that procrastinating and actually sit down and write the dang letter! Perhaps you, dear reader, are in a similar situation. You can make it your official WAIL Week, too! Tell the person you care, or you’re sorry, or you are thinking of them. Or maybe there’s something in the world that’s really pissing you off, and you feel like it’s time to do something besides complain to the steering wheel?
The question is, why is it so hard to get started? If this letter is so important, why haven’t I already done it?? I guess when emotions are big, it feels easier to ignore them than to face them head on. Unfortunately, this means the big feelings can go on and on unaddressed (months, weeks, years!!!). Then, what initially felt easier (ignoring), suddenly seems to make it a lot harder to reverse course and let stuff out. Not good.
I am going to write this letter—this post is my accountability check—buuut I’m not sure where to start. As a further distraction kick in the pants, I figured I’d turn to trusty Google. A quick Google search of letter writing tips seems to turn up interesting, yet not-quite-relevant posts of the “How to Write a Great Cover Letter” and “Write a Persuasive Letter to your Congress Person” types. Helpful for some situations, but where are the tips on writing to a person who’s caused you infinite heartache, or advice for a letter of gratitude to a person who’s saved your life??? Those letters are way harder to write than to some congress person you won’t be passing the gravy to every Thanksgiving for the next 30 years.
If there’s one thing I know from teaching writing, it’s that we can transfer strategies we use in one genre to write in another. So, in case you, too, need inspiration and strategies to write a big, hard, important letter (I know I DO!), here are some tips I gleaned from business letter writing posts that might apply to letters of a more personal nature…
Tip #1: Clarify your goals
One site helpfully recommended starting letter writing by outlining: Why are you writing the letter? What do you hope to accomplish? This seems straightforward enough in a business letter, or even in a “thinking of you” kind of letter, but it can feel trickier if the emotions behind the letter are more complicated (i.e., if you’d like to express a sentiment like, “I acknowledge that I was a complete ass, but you didn’t make it any easier for me, and furthermore, I think you misunderstood my intentions…”)
The writer helpfully outlines several possible goals for letters: to make a request, to clarify an event, to decline a request, to express appreciation, and to create a paper trail.
My letter’s kind of a doozy—years of pent-up stuff, so I’ll have several goals:
1. To clarify events (and feelings)
2. To express appreciation
3. To request action
Okay, goals set! (I feel like the letter’s half done already!)
Tip #2: Purpose drives structure!
My Google search turned up an article called How to write a business letter that gets results. That caught my eye—I definitely want results from my letter! Here’s a tip from the article that I thought might be useful even for personal letters:
“There’s an old copywriting formula that can be very helpful in letter-writing: AIDA. AIDA stands for attention, interest, desire, and action. First you get the reader’s attention, then you get them interested, then you arouse their desire, and then you tell them what action to take.”
The way I see this working in a personal letter might be something like this:
I know it’s been a long time since we last spoke. (Can you believe it’s been almost 4 years?) [Get attention with a question or specific fact.] There are a lot of reasons for this, but one thing I hope this letter will do is to sort out some of the reasons why we’ve fallen out of touch so that we can become closer again. [Get them interested by engaging them in a problem-solving mindset.] I know I miss the laughs we shared and the supportive love we always had for each other. [Arouse desire for taking action by emphasizing the specific benefits.]
(And after eloquently clarifying events in a non-defensive and conciliatory manner, end by telling your friend what action to take…)
I know it might seem easier to just keep going as we are, but I still believe in this friendship, and I miss you. Would you please consider calling me to talk more about how you think we could restore our friendship? [Ask for what you want, baby.]
Tip #3: A picture is worth a thousand words
One of my big goals in my letter is to make sure my reader understands my feelings as deeply as possible. But getting your reader to feel what you feel isn’t easy. As a non-example, take my standard thank you card writing experiences. As I’m on my fourth one, I begin to notice I’m writing “Thanks” and “appreciate” and “grateful” over and over again, and I wonder if my words are really making the emotional impact I want them to… That’s where I think this tip can come in handy.
This conservation website had a great idea about how, when you’re writing a congress person about an environmental issue, you could send a picture of you and your family out hiking on a favorite trail. This would very quickly and powerfully evoke a memorable scene that would both convey positive emotion and arouse a desire in the reader to take action.
So basically, if at any point I want my letter to evoke strong emotion in the reader, I need to paint a clear scene that shows the reader the feeling. Like this:
Dad, you should know that 27 years later, there’s still a little girl inside of me, sitting on a navy couch with my feet not quite touching the ground, watching the door as minutes turn to hours, willing it to open and for you to show up like you promised you would.
So, there you have it. No more excuses. I’m armed with tips and completely freaked out ready to write. Anyone else want to write an important letter with me this week?
**Btw, if you are reading this post, and you are a person who is important to me in real life, you might be thinking, “Is she talking about me? Should I be checking my mailbox soon?” Sorry, but, if you are reading this, you will probably NOT be receiving a letter from me. The person to whom this letter will be addressed knows nothing about this blog… You are still very important to me, though! (And probably deserving of a letter soon!)