You found my letter and decided to look at my “assist” in letter writing for beginners, awesome! I’m flattered that you’re trying so hard to learn to write a good letter before you write to me and I’ll do my best to make your foray into letter writing enjoyable from the very beginning. I’m going to suggest some items you should have, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE remember that your personal budget come before anything else, letter writing can get expensive if you start to do it as a hobby, so keep your shopping to a level you can easily afford while still being pleased with your selections. Ignore any advice you don’t like or better yet, try it my way twice and if you disagree try it another way AND tell me in your letter what’s working for you so I may try it!
WHAT YOU NEED:
Have everything you need to write and mail a letter BEFORE you start to write. You’ll need a pen or pencil, paper, an envelope or the ability to make one, a stamp (US FOREVER or INTERNATIONAL if you are outside of the United States of America), the address you are writing to, a hard surface to write upon, and knowledge of a place you can go to write, 15-20 minutes to dedicate to writing.
- Pen: I recommend you get one or two pens you love rather than using disposable ballpoint throw-aways. Get to an office supply store and get something that feels good in your hand and writes easily, or if you want a no-cramp pen go to http://www.gouletpens.com for a fountain pen and ink (see this blog for reviews of inexpensive fountain pens, good starter pens are a Pilot Metropolitan, a Lamy Safari, or if you want to spend a little more but have a pen for life a Conklin Duragraph (modern, not vintage) and don’t forget a bottle of ink, the least expensive high quality ink is Diamine brand, also available on http://www.Gouletpens.com. IF YOU DECIDE TO BUY A FOUNTAIN PEN BUT WANT MORE GUIDANCE OR HELP USING IT E-MAIL ME AT FountainPensInk@gmail.com AND ASK FOR HELP, It’s always my pleasure to help someone enter the world of fountain pens!
- Paper: if you do NOT use a fountain pen, any paper will do. I’ll love a letter on a paper towel or a cloth rag as well as I’d love one on the insanely expensive Crane and Co. engraved note cards. I love paper and stationary and use a fountain pen so I’m a paper snob with my outbound mail and while I appreciate funky, fancy, and fun paper it’s the letter’s WORDS that matters most! DO get paper that’s easy on your eyes (so only get bright white or neon paper if you’ve used it before), and if you like fun, fancy, and funky paper GET SOME because it will make you more excited to write since you get to show off your excellent find. IF YOU TRY A FOUNTAIN PEN, I recommend you use once of these brands: 1. Clairefontaine Triomphe in a4 or a5 size, LINED (ruled) 2. my favorite is Tomoe River size A4 100 Sheet packs (very thin, you’ll write on one side but TOPS for fountain pens!) or 3. Rhodia writing pads. All three are available on http://www.Gouletpens.com or on amazon. a4 size is the width of regular computer paper but about an inch longer and a5 paper is a notepad, better if you’re insecure about your ability to write a long letter at first.
- Envelopes: for standard computer paper, notebook paper, writing paper, or a4 paper use a #10 or legal envelope, or Clairefontaine Triomphe large envelopes, for a5 use C6 or other 114mm x 162mm envelopes like Clairephontaine Triomphe small envelopes or default back to the larger #10. DO NOT USE FOUNTAIN PEN IN ON THE ENVELOPE unless you bought water resistant ink!
- Address to write to: my address until October 2017 is Jocelyn Stengel (next line) PO Box 116 (next line) Durham, CT 06422 (next line if you are not in the States) USA
- Stamp: in the States the cheapest place to buy stamps and get the best design options is right at the post office in person. You can order from USPS.com for a little extra in shipping or Amazon.com, some convenience stores, pharmacies, and gas stations sell them, just ask the cashier everywhere you go and compile a mental list of places to get stamps (important if you become a hobby letter writer!). If you live on a RR route you can leave the money for a stamp in a plastic bag clipped to the stampless but addressed letter in your mailbox and the mailman will stamp your letter and return a receipt and change the next day (you MUST be on a RR to do this and your mail carrier will hate you. You also get no choice of stamps).
- Surface: don’t write on a small surface like a book, it will really make being neat enough to read difficult, unless you have to. I prefer to write at a desk which is at a perfect high for writing (when I sit up, my arms are at a 90 degree angle to my body as the rest upon the desk, this is ideal for comfort and neatness, come as close as you can). Also nice is a comfy chair with a lap-desk, but sit up straight or lean forward slightly, if you lean back in a comfy chair and use a lap desk your penmanship will suffer greatly.
- A place to write and time: Your place should be somewhere you can get at least 20 minutes without being disturbed (if that’s possible in your life). I go into my bedroom with my door closed. Some people like the library or a coffee shop but I find that those places offer too many distractions and, besides, I’m usually at home when the urge to write strikes. Make sure your place is well lit, quiet if possible, and comfortable, it should be a place you are drawn to even if it’s not writing time, or that makes you want to sit and write because you like it so much; if you come to love writing letters this will become your little letter-nest so pick wisely after trying a few spots.
- Optional: a writer’s journal (any notebook, preferably hardcover so you don’t need a hard surface to write). Keep it handy during the days and nights when you can, as something happens, or you see something interesting, or a thought occurs to you go to the page you are keeping currently and jot it down in general terms, add trigger words to remind you about details later, you can use single words or write in outline style. I keep a page for each of my most commonly written to pen pals and jot down ideas to tell each of them as they occur to me so I end up repeating myself from pen pal to pen pal less than I did before I adopted a notebook. THIS REALLY HELPS YOU KNOW WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT AFTER A FEW DAYS OF NOTES. Write down anything you think to yourself about “I’d like to share this with…”.
WHAT DO I WRITE/letter writing “process”:
Below I have some topics you may want to introduce to a ‘conversation’ but let me tell you my letter writing process first.
I read every letter the very day I receive it and reply the same day or the next day at latest (1 month is considered by many the longest you should wait to reply to be polite, but I find replying immediately keeps me from procrastinating or forgetting all together and pleases my pen pals). I get out a) my letter writer’s notebook b) my writing supplies and c) my paper dictionary (I don’t use an online dictionary so I don’t have to log on to my computer to look up a word and risk detraction) and go to my desk or comfy chair with lap-desk WITH THE LETTER after I’ve read it.
Starting with prompts from the letter I’ve received (that is the topics they discuss that I am going to reply to their statements about, continuing that line of conversation) and my own notes of topics to write about in my notebook, I write an outline of the letter I want to write.
Outlines are new for me but I find they make my letters longer and more interesting with more detail and take A LOT of the stress I had about “writing a good letter” away because I have plenty of good material with details ready to be fleshed out when I am done with my outline. I outline in the order I plan to write but that order often changes during the actual letter writing so I CHECK OFF each topic as I write about it so I don’t repeat myself of forget a topic or detail.
With the outline on hand I take out a sheet of paper and my good pen. I write only ONE DRAFT in most cases, so I’ve had to learn to SLOW DOWN and write neatly (using an outline helps with this, too, since you have no worry about forgetting your train of thought and rushing because of it). I start with a greeting appropriate for the recipient of the letter Often it’s Dear Name, but some people use words like Greeting, Hello, What’s up Name, etc and usually offer a wish of well being immediately as well as thanks for the letter I’m replying to (this is personal choice of course, but very commonly done by people who write letters often, it’s sort of the standard introduction of a letter but not everyone likes to follow the crowd). Working off my outline I write a paragraph or two about each topic; if I’m replying to a topic in the letter I received I’ll start by reminding my pen pal what their letter said, for example “You mentioned that your mother wanted to see you for the holiday but you couldn’t get there….” and then write my thoughts on the subject or things it has reminded me of in my own life. After replying to all of the topics I care to in the letter I received I use my outline which is based on a few days or weeks’ worth of notes to remember what I wanted to say. Start each topic with an introductory senescence just like you were taught in school for example “Something funny happened to me this week at the library….” or “I thought of you a few weeks ago when I saw…” and so on. A new topic can be anything you like, common topics are: things that happened to you or that you saw happen to someone else recently or in your past, things that are on your mind or memories that help your pen pal get to know you, hobbies/pass times and what you love about them or just tell about the hobby itself with details about what you do and how you do it, work, family happenings, pets, books you’re reading, tv shows and movies you’ve enjoyed (or not) recently, projects you are working on, things you have accomplished or failed at recently, new things you have tried or old things you have become more skilled at, even what your feelings about writing a real letter for the fist time in X years are! Anything and everything are fair game, just remember, the person you are writing to may not share your religious or political views so tread lightly there and most people who penpal are not interested in developing a romantic relationship through it (I’m certainly not).
Don’t be too brief, for example, try to fill at least one side of one sheet of paper (unless brief notes are the only way you can write) as you’ll find yourself writing more short letters in time and, therefore, wasting stamps. Don’t write too much either or you will have too many pages to mail with a standard Forever stamp. I try to write between 2-6 one sided or 1-3 two sided sheets of paper. Leave some blank space between subjects or change ink colors, so your letter is easier on the eye and if your handwriting is illegible, try writing a first draft on cheap paper and then rewriting SLOWLY on your writing paper; many people find printing rather than cursive to be more easily read by their recipients although, if you use a fountain pen, you’ll be drawn to writing in cursive because it’s such a pleasant experience and one can write for very long periods of time in cursive with a fountain pen and never get a sore hand.
After each topic you introduce, if you want your pen pal (ME!) to respond to what you have written, ask an open ended question about your topic, for example “What would you have done in this situation?” or “what are your thoughts about what she said?”.
CAN I INCLUDE THINGS WITH MY LETTER OR DECORATE MY ENVELOPE?
You don’t have to, but they are always welcome. Often inclusions like stickers or other “goodies” come in the first few letters and stop as the letters to a stranger develop into letters to a friend. I have one pen pal from another country who always includes a paper bookmark with a photo of some part of his culture or his country’s history! I have never received nor sent a photo of myself nor have I been asked for one and I prefer it that way; I love to imagine my new pen-friends and what they describe, photo’s are nice but not worth the extra postage unless you really simply can’t describe something well enough. I have received and sent things like little cut outs of pretty birds and feathers (sold in packs using the key word ephemera), temporary tattoos, stickers, and for Christmas I mailed cut out pictures of what I would like to have bought for my pen pal if I were rich from a fountain pen catalog! Inclusions make a letter even more fun to receive but a thoughtful or telling letter is the best inclusion of all.
Many people decorate or even make their own envelopes. You can draw on it, put stickers on it, use washi tape, or get wildly creative. If you decide to make or decorate envelopes check http://www.usps.com or your own country’s postal web site for requirements and limitations, when in doubt, bring a letter to the post office in person and ask if it is mail-able. Decorating or making envelopes is a fun way to add an extra element to your letter, but never expected of you, the only decoration you must have are two addresses (mine and yours) and a stamp!
You know now everything you need to know to get through writing a letter without stress. Enjoy the process and keep this one rule, the only real rule after “use proper postage stamps”: BE YOURSELF AND ENJOY YOURSELF AND DON’T STRESS OUT BECAUSE IT’S JUST A LETTER!
PO Box 116
Durham, CT 06422