Wish you could write more than your name at the bottom of a card to a good friend or special someone? Andee Tagle and Janet W. Lee from NPR‘s Life Kit team talked to a senior writer at Hallmark Cards. Read the story or listen to the podcast to learn how to better your personal writing skills and surprise the person receiving your handwritten note.
Good tidings and warm affectations to you! I write this letter today to tell you: personal writing is tough.
Sure, elementary school might have taught us about structure and form — the textbooks say a well-composed letter consists of a greeting, an intro paragraph, a body and a conclusion. But writing for impact? Steering clear of blunders like platitudes, generalities, opacity and the like? That’s a whole different ball game.
Be it snail mail, a text message, a work email or a birthday card to grandma: good personal writing can foster authentic connection, boost your creativity and “brighten someone’s day,” says Courtney Taylor, a senior writer at Hallmark Cards.
“It’s an invitation to a conversation” and an opening for vulnerable communication without assumption or mandate, she says. When done right, “It feels like someone’s really seeing you.”
And all it takes to get there is a little time and intention.
So if you’ve been dying to send that perfect letter but haven’t found the words, read on for some tips from the interview to get you started, or listen to the podcast at the top of the page.
Lead with vulnerability and curiosity
In any form of letter writing, we’re looking to be affirmed, says Taylor.
That affirmation starts with “committing to telling your story,” and being open and vulnerable with the person on the other end of your message — meaning not just sharing the cold hard facts of our lives, but the feelings behind them.
Say, for example, you’d like to share that you received a promotion at work. “I don’t want to just talk about the event itself,” Taylor says. “I want to talk about how it has changed my mental health or my sense of confidence or how it’s altered the free time that I have.”
(And if that feels like too personal an ask for you, that’s OK! Taylor advises being selective about when and to whom we send personal messages. You don’t have to use your best writing energy on everyone!)
From there, she says, ask open-ended questions and let your own personal experience inform your curiosity. Instead of just asking about the weather, you might ask the receiver if they’ve had a similar experience, or if they could offer you advice.
By offering your audience a window into your personal experience, you’re also giving them space to do the same.
Aim for “universal specifics”
Finding “the universal in the specific” is a common tool in the writing world — but it’s much easier understood than accomplished.
“The idea is that you want to talk about detailed experiences, but experiences that everyone can relate to,” says Taylor. For example, instead of just saying you’re tired or unprepared, you might talk about the feeling you have on the last day of vacation before going back to work.
“Putting something like that in a card, it’s specific. So it feels like it’s substantive,” she says. It’s a technique Taylor often employs when aiming to make her audience feel seen and understood. And just like any great greeting card, being specific in your personal writing will help create a fuller picture that better reflects your story and your relationship with the reader.
To find the right tone, know your audience
Focus less on the occasion and more on the relationship you have with the person you’re writing to, says Taylor. If your best friend loves a good laugh, it’s absolutely OK to lean into the humor with a cartoon-laden singalong birthday card. But if you’re writing a thank you email to your new boss? Maybe it’s not the best time to try out your stand-up routine.
When trying to connect emotionally, don’t be scared to go all in. “I think the easiest way to talk about and uplift someone is to point to how they’ve impacted your life, how they’ve brought great days for you,” Taylor says.
Share your favorite memory with your reader, and how they made you feel. Let them know you want to return the favor. “Leaning into those memories you have with that person, I think is the best way to send a very heartfelt message to celebrate them on special occasions,” she says.
Tell your authentic story, regardless of medium
When writing to loved ones, it might be easier to write as yourself without airs or self-consciousness. But writing to an acquaintance, a co-worker or an anonymous stranger can feel like a much bigger task.
“I know it’s very tempting to be the best version of ourselves,” says Taylor, but with a new audience that sometimes results in “being kind of a false version of ourselves when we’re trying to make a good impression.”
It’s natural to second guess yourself when treading into unfamiliar territory: You’re not alone in padding emails and text messages with friendly exclamation points and emojis. But Taylor says that anxiety shouldn’t hold you back from honest communication.
“Even if it’s professional, I’d say you still want to be true to yourself and everything that you write, no matter what form it is, and no matter who the audience is, if the intent is for them to get to know who you are,” she says.
That’s not a blank check to say whatever you please though, cautions Taylor. You should always make sure the language you use and the stories you share are appropriate for the setting — just don’t be scared to infuse at least some of your personality into your writing.
Not quite sure you’ve got it right? Save your draft and come back to it later. Taylor says making space to rest and revise whenever possible is a big help to her process.
To write more letters, set goals and craft your space to encourage creativity
Sonia Cancian is a historian specializing in migration, and an expert of immigrant letters and love letters. Her work has also made her a letter writing evangelist of sorts.
“What you say in a letter you will not say in a WhatsApp, nor will you say it in a text message, nor will you necessarily say it in email,” says Cancian. “Because the letter itself…will compel you to write in another way. … There is a cultural memory of what a letter requires in our ability to convey what’s on our mind.”
Taking the time to actually put pen to paper lights up our creativity and stretches our vocabulary in ways that other forms of communication don’t, says Cancian. If you’d like to get into that habit, she suggests populating your work space with items that encourage writing and make it fun.
For Cancian, that means using her fountain pen every day. For others, it could mean using special stationery, journaling, actually using those fun postcards you bought on your last vacation or finding a pen pal.
If full-on letters feel like too much, “Keep it simple. Start with maybe a quick note in the mail and then see where that goes. Or if you’re traveling, send a postcard and get started on that.”
And you don’t have to wait for that special occasion or the spark of inspiration. The most important thing, stresses Cancian, is to just start writing.
The podcast portion of this story was produced by Janet W. Lee, with engineering support from Kwesi Lee.
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