How do you write a letter? Not just an email, or a business letter, but the hard-hitting, effusive, old-school letter, like the kind Rilke once wrote to a young poet, or that Winston Churchill wrote to the Duke of Marlborough? First, you need to commit. A good letter takes honesty, emotion and patience. If you can’t provide those things, tap Hallmark to provide them for you. But if you have something noble and pure and important to get across, a handwritten letter might just be the best way to do it.
To start, find a quiet place. Have the right tools — a good pen and stationary are a great start (see below). Put your location and the date at the top of the paper. Choose an appropriate salutation. And as for the letter itself, try this: reject the critical, judgmental part of yourself that tries to invalidate your feelings; the best way to beat it is to outrun it, to write and write and write and write and not stop, even for a second, until you’re done. It takes practice, but you’ll get there. Worried about what might find its way onto paper? That’s a good sign. Ignore it, for now. You’re not sending the letter yet.
When you finish, pick an appropriate sign off and put the letter away for at least a day. If you’re still happy with it in the morning, sign, stamp and send.
Let’s break down a letter done right, written by John Steinbeck to his son.
Focus on Stationary
Part of writing a good letter is the paper you write it on. Setting yourself up with some personal stationery is an excellent place to start. When taking the jump for the first time there are a few things to consider:
The weight: Papers come in different weights. The heavier it is generally the stiffer it is. Heavier paper lends itself well to correspondence cards, lighter paper for longer letters. Always test the paper you’re looking at with your pen of choice to check for bleeding through.
The printing: There are three primary options – letter press, engraved, or thermography. Letter Press is stamped into the front of the paper, engraving creates an embossed (raised), thermography is ink that creates the look of engraving. Engraving is the most expensive, thermography is the least.
The text: Keep it simple here. There’s no need to get too wild. Your first and last name, classic fonts, and black or blue printing are your best bets.
That’s a quick look. Get the full scoop here.
What Steinbeck Wrote
November 10, 1958
A letter should always set itself in time, if only to help future historians turn your work into a coffee table book.
Use the salutation to set the tone for your letter. Since Steinbeck is writing to his son, he uses the word “dear”, which is more formal than the colloquial “hey” or “hi”, but more personal than the god-awful “to whom it may concern”. Also (and this one’s not a concern for Steinbeck) make sure you spell the recipient’s name properly.
We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.
Right off the bat, Steinbeck addresses the reason that he’s writing. It’s a good habit — you never want to leave your reader guessing why you’re writing.
First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.
When you write a letter, it’s because you want to say something. The time and effort required to express something in the handwritten form lend themselves well to asserting your beliefs. As such, don’t lie to anyone in a letter. Also, don’t lie to yourself.
Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.
You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.
But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.
Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.
Surprise yourself with your words. You didn’t know you could write like this, even after producing East of Eden.
The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.
Surprise yourself again.
If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.
Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.
It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.
Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.
We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.
Make sure you address any questions or worries presented in earlier correspondence. You’re writing to someone, not at someone.
And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.
According to the recency effect, a term coined by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, people best remember the last items in a list. This is where you want to put your takeaway. Steinbeck comes back to the core issue and nails home his point.
Since this is a letter from Steinbeck to his son, “love” is an appropriate sign off.