Letter Writing, Part 1: Remember letters? People love getting them as much as ever. Here’s how to impress your clients with well-crafted, personalized notes that won’t take hours to compose.
Long ago in a land that we’ve almost forgotten, television was a new medium, a treat that made the workweek bearable. Families gathered around a snowy screen—and neighbors came over if they didn’t own a set—to watch Jackie Gleason threaten to send Alice to the moon, or to laugh at Lucy’s antics. Actors kissed with their mouths closed instead of attacking each other like feeding trout. Double beds did not exist on-screen. Even the word “pregnant” was verboten, giving way to the euphemistic “in the family way.”
It was the 50s, and Perry Como crooned a sweet ballad or introduced Patti Page, who inquired, ”How much is that doggie in the window?” At the end of each show came the expected filling of viewers’ requests, preceded by a refrain that every viewer knew by heart:
Letters—we get letters. We get stacks and stacks of letters.
Would you be so kind,
To fill a request
And sing the song I like best?
Letters. Do you get them? Or write them? I’m not talking about form letters from your dentist informing you of an upcoming check-up. I’m talking about a communication that’s one of a kind—to you and you alone.
When I was a young bride with a husband in Korea, letters kept me going. Once, when I didn’t receive one for weeks, I was moved to respond with a bad poem entitled, “On Dusting My Mailbox after School.” Letters made a bad teaching day tolerable and beat back the loneliness. When one arrived, I ripped into it with impatience.
These days, the only semi-personal letters I receive are my doctor’s reports—a mixed blessing because, while Dr. Tim checks the boxes on a form letter, he always sends a personal message: You’re doing great on your cholesterol. I wish you would quit smoking.
In the information age, with its bombardment of words, words, words, we are starved for the personal touch. In all that verbiage, we feel like numbers, numbers, numbers: addresses, Social Security, driver’s license, credit rating, a melange of account numbers, PINs (not PIN numbers; that’s redundant).
And in our mailboxes, letters; we get letters; but not really. In fact, we get stacks and stacks of…recyclables.
When an actual hand-addressed envelope lands in the pile, it stands out—like a shiny gold nugget in a rocky stream bed.
Don’t let your letters get lost in the shuffle.
Do you communicate with clients via snail mail? If so, make them stand out…and keep them from going straight to the recycle bin.
Letters should convey an important message simply and directly. But don’t be fooled: Simplicity and directness are more difficult to achieve than they seem. Crafting a letter carefully gives the illusion of simplicity. But it takes more work and thought than a rambling, poorly organized letter. As Mark Twain quipped, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
In your business communications, you can make your task easier by creating a few boilerplate letters in advance and then personalizing them as needed.
I often did this when I wrote letters of recommendation for students applying for college. The deluge of incoming requests sometimes made my job onerous.
I quickly learned to take careful shortcuts. I had a letter for almost every category of student: the gifted underachiever; the dedicated, mediocre student; the academically indifferent life-of-the-party; the leader of men; the top ten percent in my career; the nonpareil of academia; the irritant who was like an itch I couldn’t scratch; the lovable classroom clown, etc.
Letters were carefully reworded, but by no means rewritten from scratch. I documented the use of each letter to avoid detection. To my knowledge, no student ever caught me plagiarizing myself.
Categorizing Your Letters
This process is ongoing as the need arises. Initially, I wrote letters unique to individual students to satisfy requests and took great care in doing so. Only afterward, when I noticed redundancy, did I categorize the letters and consider them as reusable templates. You can do the same.
So. . .here is your homework:
Every time you write a letter, spend the time and energy that it takes to make it stellar. Then take a look at its purpose and think about the possibility of recycling it. You will probably find that your communication tends toward repeated themes, amazingly narrow in scope. (This process also includes emails.)
Is the message an update of an ongoing investigation with little result?
Does it encourage the client and promise concrete results in the near future?
Does it represent a “eureka” moment, with a full report to follow?
Is it a letter intended to market your firm or solicit clients?
Is it a letter of appreciation to the client or subcontractor at the conclusion of an investigation?
Now add one more question:
Does it satisfy its purpose with a subtle touch of PR for you and your firm?
My letters for students also came with a dollop of PR. I often gave each student an unsigned copy of his or her letter. They loved to read about themselves and appreciated the positive comments, even if the best that I could say was that Johnny had great untapped potential and cooperative classroom habits. I never lied, but college officials can read between the lines and recognize what is missing as well as what is included.
The operative word here is “positive.” I avoided using any negatives. (More about that later.)
Now for the hard part.
When you find the opportunity for recycling, simply deleting names and addresses and plugging in new ones will not suffice. You must go one step further by personalizing it in some way—an added detail or a hand-written note after your signature (blue ink preferred).
Voila! Your life becomes easier.
But only after initial agony over finding just the right word or turn of the phrase. You must construct over a strong foundation. That foundation must include several considerations, which I’ll cover in the next article.
Coming soon: Letter Writing, Part 2: Constructing the Boilerplate
The Grammar Examiner taught high-school English for 40 years and was recognized by her citywide public school system as an outstanding ACT-prep instructor.
A tough-love drill sergeant in the classroom, she was affectionately known as “The Dragon Lady” by her students, who dared not call her by this name in person.