Dennis D. McDonald (ddmcd@outlook.com) is an independent consultant located in Alexandria Virginia. His services and capabilities are described here. Application areas include project, program, and data management; market assessment, digital strategy, and program planning; change and content management; social media; and, technology adoption. Follow him on Google+. He also publishes on CTOvision.com and aNewDomain.

How To Write A Letter

How To Write A Letter

By Dennis D. McDonald

Introduction 

While for most of my workday I sit at computers I also like to hand-write letters to friends and family. They tell me they enjoy reading them. Perhaps you would like to experience the joys of letter writing, too.  Here are the steps I follow: 

  1. Select a recipient 
  2. Select paper 
  3. Select a writing instrument 
  4. Write the letter 
  5. Copy the letter 
  6. Prepare the envelope 
  7. Attach a stamp 
  8. Mail the letter 
  9. Write another letter 

1. Select a recipient 

Probably most people can create a list of possible letter recipients just by asking two simple questions: 

  1. Who would I like to hear from? 
  2. Who might be interested in hearing from me? 

I write a couple of letters per week to friends and family that live around the U.S. My wife and I both grew up in the Midwest and still have friends and family in Michigan and Ohio. Others are located in Arizona, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland, California, and South Dakota.  

It's a wide range of ages and relationships including brothers, sisters in law, the mother and the widow of a deceased friend, a cousin-in-law, former clients now friends, and a childhood friend. I also used to write a couple of times a month to my daughter when she was in the Peace Corps with no access to phone or email. 

2. Select paper 

To be honest, it shouldn't really matter what kind of paper you write your letter on. What's really important is that you write.  

As you gain more experience in writing, though, you might begin to care about what kind of paper you use since the paper is the platform on which you will be conveying your thoughts and feelings. 

I vary between writing on standard 8 ½ x 11 "letter" size paper and smaller 6" x 8" "A5" size paper, usually lined. You can buy special stationery for letters but I have tended to use lined paper in pads or spiral bound notebooks.  

An important feature is whether or not the pen you use "bleeds through" to the other side. This has as much to do with the actual thickness of the paper as with how it is manufactured and the ingredients that went into making it. This will matter if you like to write on both sides of the paper as I do. 

Another consideration is whether the paper has a perforated edge that allows you to remove the paper cleanly from the pad or notebook. That's an aesthetic consideration but it is important to me as I like a clean edge. 

Over the years I've learned what works best for me and what paper to avoid, based on what the actual writing instrument is that you use. This brings us to: 

3. Select a writing instrument 

For letters I'm partial to fountain pens and narrow point (.38 mm) gel pens. Here you will find that the variety of writing experiences is wide with the interaction between pen and paper ranging from scratchy to smooth.  

As far as fountain pens are concerned I have found that at any price point you can have both good and bad writers. In my case this refers to how smooth the writing experience is and how evenly the ink flows onto the paper as the pen travels along the surface.  

My best writer is an old Mont Blanc fountain pen that's more than 30 years old. Without fail it writes smoothly and evenly on a very wide range of papers. I barely have to supply any pressure at all to see the ink flow. At the other end of the price spectrum I recently purchased a Platinum "Plaisir" fountain pen that cost me only $12. It writes almost as well as the Mont Blanc. 

As far as gel pens go I have settled on Uni-Ball "Signo" pens which I usually buy online from sources such as JetPens.com. The 0.38 mm tip is fine but rarely if ever smudges as I've found with wider-tip gel pens such as those commonly available at brick-and-mortar office supply stores. The nice thing about these pens is that they come in a an incredible range of colors which, if you're into pens and ink as I am, is an attractive feature that adds some variety to your letters. 

4. Write the letter 

I ask myself these questions before writing a letter: 

  1. How long has it been since I wrote to X? 
  2. What did I write to X in the last letter? 
  3. What has happened since then that might interest X? 

Regarding number 3 above an important item will be whether you have had any type of communication with the letter's recipient. Have they written a letter or sent a card? Have you spoken on the phone? Have you exchanged emails? Have you met?  

You might decide to match the tone and topic of your letter to the recipient's own state of mind. I've written to some folks who are going through hard times and for whom receiving a letter is a special event. You need to keep that in mind.  

For a while I experimented with keeping a daily journal of major and minor events I thought might also have some use in composing letters but eventually abandoned that as unnecessary.  

Basically I sit down, think about the recipient, then start writing about interesting daily events that have happened over the past week, usually concentrating on domestic, neighborhood, and family affairs. Occasionally I'll write about technology or politics but only with those who I think will have a special interest in that. A lot of the time I'll think about what parents like to hear about kids and the funny or interesting things they do (or did). Occasionally I'll even include a photo I've taken to illustrate a point (I'm big on nature photography). 

5. Copy the letter 

You may or may not want to keep copies of your incoming and outgoing letters as I do. If you don't write them by hand but by computer you'll have an easy way to store them electronically. I keep a file folder of all my incoming letters and scan or use my phone to capture an image that I can store electronically of those I hand-write.  

I remember when my own parents were alive I wrote to them on a regular basis and saved copies of all the letters and later on created a booklet of them. The booklet is interesting to look at now and provides a record about what my wife and I were doing as young parents, our house building adventures, and our domestic and foreign travel.  

6. Prepare the envelope 

I mention this since it has come to my attention that, nowadays, not everyone knows how to address a letter, i.e., where you put the return address, the addressee address, the zip code, and the stamp.  

Don't laugh. I don't think they teach this in schools anymore given how accustomed people especially children are to electronic communications.  

The easy solution: use Google to search for "how to address an envelope." 

7. Attach a stamp 

Yes, Virginia, the U.S. Postal Service requires that you place a postage stamp on your envelope when you are mailing a letter.  Fortunately the USPS makes available many different stamps with many different designs called "commemoratives." In recent years these commemoratives have branched out from primarily historic events to popular culture, holidays other than Christmas, birds and animals, even Elvis and Batman.  

I always keep a supply of various commemoratives to provide some variety to the outgoing letter. Admittedly I've been sensitized to stamps since my older brother collects them and I keep an envelope on my desk for him where I place stamps I've cut off incoming envelopes.  

8. Mail the letter 

We are fortunate to live in a neighborhood where we still have mail carriers that go from door to door. One nice thing about that is, after you write your letter and address and stamp the envelope, you can leave the outgoing letter in your door or mailbox. The mail carrier will pick it up and place it in the USPS mail stream for you.  

9. Write another letter 

That's the next step – write another letter. Sometimes you will receive a response, sometimes not. Occasionally you will hear from your less communicative recipients that they do, in fact, appreciate your taking the time to write. That provides a good feeling. And sometimes you might write to people who have difficulty writing due to a medical condition. Keep writing. They appreciate it. 

Copyright © 2017 by Dennis D. McDonald

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