The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Email has us rudely rediscovering the lost art of correspondence in much the same fashion one “rediscovers” a lost thumbtack while visiting the bathroom in the dead of night.

Travis Charbeneau, “Relearning the Art of Correspondence”

There is a very good reason why women of privilege kept bedrooms separate from their husbands – they served as domestic headquarters, or home offices. Running large households with numerous social engagements (and entanglements) required a woman to have her own desk, her own files, her own closet and dressing area, her own space, simply put, to sit and think – to organize the day before it began in the morning, and to deconstruct and evaluate it in the evening. This has gone out of fashion in the past 30 years, and so has the practice of correspondence.

This article intends to cover the ways and styles of proper, old-fashioned correspondence.

Jackie Kennedy was famous for her thank-you notes and kind letters. They inspired French President Charles DeGaulle, they moved Pakistani President Ayub Khan, and they comforted Kathleen Graham after the suicide of her husband. Her correspondence secured and endeared her in many situations that would benefit not only her, but her family and friends, either immediately or in the future.

A lady writes by hand. A quick one-line thank you for a casual BBQ may seem appropriate in this age of technology, but because it is so easy to dash off, it doesn’t stand out. It’s completely forgettable. Sitting down with pen and paper requires both time and concentration, and people immediately recognize that when they receive a hand-written note in the mail, no matter how brief. And it’s true that everyone loves to receive personal mail, especially when it’s become a bit of a novelty – a well-written letter can often be more effective than sending flowers.

Choose Your Stationary

Formal Correspondence

Jackie wrote on Smythson of Bond Street’s Nile Blue stationary with white embossing. In fact, this was the exact stationary of choice for many upper-class women of that era. Personalization like Jackie’s will run you from $350-$1,000.

Or, you can fake it, like I do. Smythson’s plain writing paper and envelopes (no personalization) are actually quite affordable. I pay $47 total for 50 sheets of Nile Blue writing paper, 25 envelopes, and shipping. The plain envelopes and letter sheets are still watermarked with “Smythson’s of Bond Street” to give you that classic edge.

Then I use an embossing stamp purchased from Expressionary.com for $60 to emboss my name and return address. I chose the Wallace design, but they have plenty to choose from. If you move often (a college student, for example), then be sure to invest in a stamp that just has your name and no physical address.

If you really don’t care about embossing, but would still like some personalization on the top of the letter sheet or on the envelope flap, Expressionary also makes monochrome and multi-colored ink stamps for this purpose. I save this good stuff for corresponding with my grandmother, my husband’s family members, acquaintances that I don’t know intimately, business associates, and anyone else to whom I might want to present an elegant, cultured picture.

Casual Correspondence

For my casual correspondence – dashing off a thank-you note for a Memorial Day BBQ, or a birthday gift from a close girlfriend, for example – I use Felix Doolittle, and no one else. He designs original watercolor stationary that is both classical and fun, with a slightly old-world, Gold Coast touch. He does both personalized ($70 for 50 letter sheets and envelopes) and plain ($50 for illustrated letter sheets and envelopes) stationary, as well as his wedding collection, which I think strikes just the right chord between contemporary and sophisticated. He also does more creative things that I adore, such as book plates, baker’s labels, and calling cards, and he has an extensive children’s section. And sign up for the mailing list – I get a notification almost monthly about 20% discounts on everything from his letter sheets to his address labels, so I can stock up at one time and save money.

If Felix is a little too rich for your blood, there’s also Nicole Balch over at PinkLovesBrown, who does crafty, fun personalized stationary that is still high-quality and won’t break the bank. My favorites are her Monogram Stationary ($32 for a set of 30) and her Dressmaker Cards ($12 for 6), but she also does adorable bookplates.

Miscellaneous: Invitations, Calling Cards, Etc.

I used WeddingPaperDivas for my more casual post-wedding brunch invitations, and have been hooked ever since. Since they’re fully customizable, I use their designs for all sorts of things – Christmas parties, summer shin-digs, and anniversary celebrations. (And, unlike Smythson and Felix Doolittle, you can edit and view your personalizations right on the screen!)

Their average invitations will run you between $50 and $60 for 25 (envelopes included), but they’re gorgeous and completely personalized – no tacky “fill in the blank” invitations here! They’re also great for certain events, like weddings, that require multiple pieces of information (like Save the Dates, or direction cards). They’ve also partnered with William Arthur (a leading stationary designer) to form their Letterpress Collection, which is more expensive (average $300 for 25).

For calling cards, I like to go through FineStationary.com, who offers everything from Vera Wang to William Arthur to Crane & Co. The Crane & Co. espresso card is what I currently use for my personal calling cards ($142 for 50).

A note on calling cards: Remember, calling cards are often slightly larger than standard business cards (3.5″ x 2.5″, for example, instead of just 3.5″ x 2.0″), so if you have a business-card case you plan on carrying them in, make sure they’ll fit! And, of course, my favorite guilty pleasure is a Tiffany & Co. business card case ($295).

Cynthia Kling over at Slate covers fancy stationary options in detail in her humorous (and informative) essay, “Paper Swoon.”

Compose Your Note

So you’ve got your fancy stationary, but now you have no idea what to say! This is where the majority of people abandon the letter-writing process altogether. But have no fear! It really is easier than it looks, and it will set you apart from everyone else who still thinks text messages like “thx 4 dnr” are appropriate reciprocation.

Question: When should I write a letter or a thank-you note?

Ideally, within 24 hours after someone has done something nice for you – such as given you tickets to the Opera, invited you to their house for dinner, or sent you a gift. If it is early enough in the evening when I return home, I sit down at my desk and write a thank-you letter immediately, while the gift or experience is still fresh in my mind. If you need to wait until the weekend, do it, but don’t let more than a week (at maximum) elapse.

In situations where you may be swamped with gifts (weddings, graduations, etc), this can get tricky. During the three-month period where I received wedding gifts, I kept a running list of what I had received and from whom each time a package came to the door. Then, each Sunday, I sat down at my desk and wrote out a half-dozen thank-you notes for all the gifts I’d received during that week. (It really does go faster if you knock several out at one time, instead of trying to get yourself into the letter-writing mood several different times over the course of the week.)

Some so-called “experts” say that you may take up to a year to write thank-you notes for your wedding gifts – don’t listen to them. Although this is tempting, it’s incredibly bad taste. Often times, people even wonder if you got their gift at all, which means you’ll need to write a thank-you note ASAP if, for no other reason, to assure them that their gift arrived.

Question: If I’ve already thanked someone in person, do I need to thank them again?

It depends, partially, on how well you know them. If they’re not close friends, then you certainly need to send them a thank-you note in addition to thanking them in person. And often times, we overlook the ones we love the most: after our wedding, I held off on writing my thank-you notes to close girlfriends and family in favor of getting the more formal thank-you notes to my husband’s family, god parents, and distant friends and relatives out of the way first. I knew they wouldn’t mind being pushed back, but I also didn’t forget about them entirely, either. The moral of the story being that even though your close friends and family may not expect a separate “thank you,” that means it’s even more surprising and pleasant when they get one.

Question: Okay, so let’s begin – how to I address the person?

Once upon a time, it was impolite to write the address of a woman using her first name (unless she was a divorcee), hence all the “Mrs. John Doe” stuff. Some older women (like my old-school Italian grandmother) prefer this; many middle-aged and younger women who have made careers of their own do not. When I get a chance to have an intimate conversation with a woman, I usually ask them outright: “How do you prefer to be addressed?” Barring that, here are the simple rules I follow:

  • If a woman is a professional (such as a doctor), be sure to use her pre-fix title, such as Dr. Amy Harrison, or Judge Jennifer Stanhope.
  • If one spouse is a doctor, address it as “Dr. Jane Smith and Mr. David Williams” or vice-versa.
  • If both spouses are doctors, address it either “Drs. Jane Smith and David Williams” or “Drs. Jane and David Smith,” depending on the last name/marriage factor.
  • If a woman is unmarried but over 18, use Ms. (the marriage-neutral form of Miss/Mrs) to be safe. When pronouncing this title out loud, it sounds like “Mizz” instead of “Miss” or “Missus.”
  • If a woman is married, but had kept her own last name, stick with Ms. as well. If the note is being addressed to both spouses who have separate last names, use “Ms. Jane Smith and Mr. David Williams.”
  • If a woman is married, and has taken her husband’s last name, then use Mrs. Jane Smith or, more informally, Janie and Dave Smith.
  • If a young woman is still under 18 (say, your niece), it’s fine to address her as “Miss.” Otherwise, leave off the Miss unless a woman specifically requests it. For example, my childhood friend Marie is 26, unmarried, and has a career of her own, but still prefers to go by the Southern style of Miss Marie Clarke.

When addressing them in the letter themselves, it’s usually fine to write “Dear Jane.” If it’s a thank-you note for a business purpose (such as a follow-up on a job interview), then use “Ms. Smith” unless she has instructed you to call her “Jane.” The same goes for men.

Examples: Alright already – just show me how to do it!

Follow this formula:

  1. Address the couple warmly
  2. Write what, specifically, you are thanking them for
  3. Jot down something that you particularly enjoyed about the event or gift – why it was special
  4. Thank them for their thoughtfulness
  5. Sign your name with an appropriate closure

For a couple we know quite well who invited us to share their tickets to the Opera:

Dear Jane and David,

Last Friday was the high point of our summer! While Jack and I have both been to the Opera plenty of times separately, this was our first time to attend together since we’ve been married. We’re so glad we were able to share this moment with you. Madame Butterfly was so beautiful; we had such a wonderful time. It was so kind of you to think of us. We hope to be able to return the favor soon!

Love,

Lily Beth & Jack

For a more formal couple (a friend of our parents) who we’ve never met in person, but sent us a wedding gift:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Smith,

We can not thank you enough for the gorgeous pewter serving tray. We used it for our post-wedding brunch and received to many compliments on it – it truly added grace and elegance to our table setting. It was so incredibly kind of you to think of us on our wedding day. We regret that you could not attend, but we kept you in our hearts. I’ve enclosed a program from our wedding. If you are ever in town, please don’t hesitate to call us – we would love to meet you and show you around.

Warm regards,

Lily Beth and Jack

The more tricky things – note of apology:

If you’ve screwed up in some way that adversely affected someone else, a phone call is usually the most sincere route to go. (I know it’s sometimes hard to admit your faults verbally, but if you’ve made a mistake, cowboy up and do it!) Often times, a follow-up note doesn’t hurt either.

Dear Jenny,

I do apologize for having to call and cancel our RSVP to your party on Sunday night. As I said on the phone, I accepted your invitation without realizing we had already committed to entertaining houseguests from Phoenix that weekend. I really should have double-checked my calendar, and I am truly sorry for any difficulty this may have caused with seating or catering. Jack and I were so disappointed we are that we could not make it. We hope it won’t be too long before we see you and Michael again.

Affectionately,

Lily Beth

A final note: Finding your “natural voice” from Emily Post, Etiquette Queen:

Have no fear: You don’t have to excel at writing to compose a good note or letter. The best personal letters are conversational, reflecting both your personality and speech. A few simple steps will make the recipient feel as if the two of you were chatting:

  • Don’t replace phrases typical of your speech with more formal language. Someone who would say, “The buzz at work is…” sounds stilted when she writes, “The topic giving rise to the most gossip…”
  • Use contractions. Since you almost certainly choose “I don’t know” over “I do not know” when speaking, go with the same words when writing.
  • Occasionally, insert the person’s name to add a touch of familiarity and affection. “And, Beth, guess what we’re going to do this summer?” makes Beth feel as though you’re honestly thinking about her as you write.
  • Use punctuation to enliven your writing. Underlining a word or using an exclamation point after a phrase or sentence gives emphasis where you want it. (Just don’t overdo it – and no smiley face under the exclamation point, please.) You can set off phrases with a dash: “We went to a dance last night – what a party!” has more pizzazz than “We went to a dance last night, and it was great.”
  • Keep it as short as possible. The brief tale is always more interesting than the drawn-out one.
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Comments
4 Responses to “The Lost Art of Letter Writing”
  1. writetome says:

    You are wonderful. Your links and paper selections are of wonderful taste. Delicious. I’m going to be spending some time clicking away here.

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  1. […] Addressing rules are covered in The Lost Art of Letter Writing. […]

  2. […] 4 Jun (Looking for an article detailing the art of every-day correspondence and regular stationery? See “The Lost Art of Letter Writing.”) […]

  3. […] Wow. Notes go a long way, y’all, even with people you don’t know well. (For additional info on sending notes of all sorts, see “The Lost Art of Letter Writing.) […]



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