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Posts tagged ‘The Art of Letter Writing’

The Art of Letter Writing: Sympathy Cards

Even in writing, offering your condolences for a friend’s of family member’s loss is a difficult and daunting task. However, don’t let your fear of saying something wrong stop you from sending a sympathy card; a well-intentioned letter is always appreciated, regardless of its level of eloquence. Here’s some tips to get you started:

  • Begin with a name: Always mention the deceased by name, though it may be painful. It ensures that the sympathy card comes off as personal rather than sterile.
  • Offer sympathy to the letter recipient:Address the letter recipient specifically. Let them know that they are in your heart.
  • Share a memory: If you can, speak of your experiences or favorite memories of the deceased. Be specific. Letters last a long time, and creating a written record of a memory of their loved one is sure to be appreciated. It not only shows that their loved one continues to live on in your memory, but also ensures that the experience lasts in their memory as well. If you were not familiar with the deceased, try to remember what you have heard from the letter recipient about them: “You always told me how John could make you laugh in any circumstance,” or, “I know how much you looked up to Cecilia; I remember when you told me once. . .” This creates the same personal effect that a memory might.
  • Offer specific ways in which you would like to help: Almost every family dealing with loss speaks kindly of the food left by thoughtful friends and family members. Try to think of things that make good leftovers, like lasagna or enchiladas. If you’re not a whiz in the kitchen, offer to run basic errands–driving a child to an activity or school or buying groceries. Any little bit helps, but offering your aid without specifying how you can help can be too overwhelming in such a difficult time.
  • End with a sincere condolence, again, and a warm send-off. Try to make your letter meaningful, but not too long. The most powerful letters often are those that knew what to leave out.

Writing a sympathy card is not an easy task, but in following a few basic guidelines, you can create a letter that is not only appropriate but also meaningful.

The Art of Letter Writing: How Soon. . .


I’m just about as guilty as everyone else of procrastinating writing the seemingly endless amounts of Christmas thank you notes, but it’s always good to at least be aware of the deadlines your missing! I’ve put together a short list of deadlines (from research in Etiquette and elsewhere) you should strive to meet:


-Wedding RSVPs

-Party RSVPs

Within 3 Days:

-Birthday Cards

Within 1 Week:


Within 2 Weeks:

-Thank You Notes for holiday gifts

-Thank You Notes for birthday gifts

-Thank You Notes for other small gatherings

Within 1 Month:

      -Thank You Notes for larger parties: Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, Graduation Parties, etc.

      Within 3 Months:

      -Wedding Thank You Notes

        The Art of Letter Writing: The Permanence of Letters


        While scanning through Emily’s Etiquette today, looking for inspiration, I came across her word of warning on the permanence of letters and was immediately struck by it:

        For all emotions written words are a bad medium. The light jesting tone that saves a quip from offense can not be expressed; and remarks that if spoken would amuse, can but pique and even insult their subject. Without the interpretation of the voice, gaiety becomes levity, raillery becomes accusation. Moreover, words of a passing moment are made to stand forever.

        Anger in a letter carries with it the effect of solidified fury; the words spoken in reproof melt with the breath of the speaker once the cause is forgiven. The written words on the page fix them for eternity.

        Love in a letter endures likewise forever.

        Admonitions from parents to their children may very properly be put on paper-they are meant to endure, and be remembered, but momentary annoyance should never be more than briefly expressed. There is no better way of insuring his letters against being read than for a parent to get into the habit of writing irritable or fault-finding letters to his children.”

        I’ve put my favorite parts of her warning in bold–it is so very easy to jot off a letter quickly in moments of anger or other types of overwhelming emotion. Indeed, when it is writing a letter any more attractive than in moments of impulsivity?

        On the other hand, however, isn’t what is so attractive about letter writing as a medium its permanence? Its ability to freeze a single moment of emotion for eternity?  That, I believe, it what makes them such a powerful form of communication. To lose the everlasting memento of a love letter out of fear of its permanence would be a sad thing indeed!

        However, in our age of technology, Emily’s words ring all the more true.  Email is not at all forgiving to those of us cursed with excessive emotion of impulsive tendencies. Before you send off an email, or jot down a letter, make sure to ask yourself:

        • Would I want these words to endure forever?
        • Would I care if my family or friends saw this?
        • What would I think of this message 20 years down the line?

        While it isn’t exactly realistic that you’re going to consider such grave questions every time you hit the send button, a touch more awareness wouldn’t hurt! I certainly wish that I had paid closer attention to what I wrote down every now and again.

        Look forward to more letter writing tips (and Emily Post wisdom) next Tuesday!

        Emily Post quotes from her book Etiquette, published in 1922.

        The Art of Letter Writing: Ending On a Good Note


        There is something so inevitably awkward about closing a letter. Often, if the letter is any good, it has begun to deviate from its initial purpose, winding off into some rambling–albeit probably interesting–route.  This rambling makes the letter that much harder to close in that if a letter has already strayed from its express purpose, what’s to stop the writing now?

        Emily Post recognizes this issue, and offers some great and timeless advice:

        • Firstly, resist the urge to end abruptly: “Just as the beginning of a letter should give the reader an impression of greeting, so should the end express friendly or affectionate leave-taking. Nothing can be worse than to seem to scratch helplessly around in the air for an idea that will effect your escape. ‘Well, I guess I must stop now,’ ‘Well, I must close,’ or, ‘You are probably bored with this long epistle, so I had better close.'” This kind of hasty close is the opposite of subtle; your recipient is sure to notice!
        • End an intimate letter in the same manner it is composed: Emily clarifies, “An intimate letter has no end at all. When you leave the house of a member of your family, you don’t have to think up an especial sentence in order to say good-by. Leave-taking in a letter is the same.” She suggests you try, “‘Good-by, dearest, for to-day,”Will write again in a day or two,’or ‘Luncheon was announced half a page ago! So good-by, dear Mary, for to-day.'”
        • Try ending with a personal anecdote or image: Emily dictates, “It is really quite simple, if you realize that the aim of the closing paragraph is merely to bring in a personal hyphen between the person writing and the person written to,” continuing, “‘The mountains were beautiful at sunset.’is a bad closing sentence because ‘the mountains’ have nothing personal to either of you. But if you can add ‘-they reminded me of the time we were in Colorado together,’ or ‘-how different from our wide prairies at home,’ you have crossed a bridge, as it were.”

        Look forward to more letter writing tips (and Emily Post wisdom) next Tuesday!

        Emily Post quotes from her book Etiquette, published in 1922.

        The Art of Letter Writing: A Wedding Invitation Faux Pas


        I read this over at the Martha Stewart Wedding Blog, The Bride’s Guide, today, and I just had to share it with you all (especially as Emily Post makes no mention of how to deal with unwed couples, for obvious reason!):

        “A friend of mine and her longtime live-in boyfriend told me this recent disaster story. A wedding invitation from a good, good friend of theirs had come in the mail,  addressed to the boyfriend –“and Guest.”

        She was pretty hurt (she was actually surprised how much). Her boyfriend was livid! And when he complained to his friend, this is what he found out:

        The groom — poor guy! — had lost a long argument with their stationer / calligrapher. The woman insisted that unless a couple was married, etiquette required the “and Guest” format. (Which is not true, as we know.)

        My friend’s not mad anymore, but that’s because her boyfriend was pushy enough to inquire, so they now know it wasn’t a deliberate snub. How many of those other couples on the guest list are going to be insulted — but quietly so?

        That stationer really did him a dirty trick. She’s a pro; she  should have more accurate research. And that’s why you need to do your own independent research first.”

        I can easily see myself falling prey to such an easy error–I often find myself debating over similar problems in writing this column weekly. As letter writing etiquette, let alone letter writing at all, has seemed to fall to the wayside, it has yet to be definitively updated to contemporary situations.  While Emily Post’s Etiquette is helpful more often than not, when do I begin to judge her rules as outdated, or even, as was the case above, offensive? Is Martha Stewart (and her very large corporation) a modern day Emily Post? And if they aren’t, who do I turn to for contemporary etiquette guidance?

        On a semi-related note, here’s an excellent place to start in terms of Wedding Invitation FAQ–a resource from the amazing wedding website, The Knot.

        Do you have any suggestions for modern day etiquette resources?

        The Art of Letter Writing: Writing a Formal R.s.v.p.


        While most couples adhere to the formal phrasing that a wedding invitation traditionally requires, few invitees take the time to respond in an equally formal manner.   It seems to me, though, that if society is going to bother to word wedding invitations so precisely, we may as well respond in kind.

        Before the formulas, however, a word of warning from dear Emily, as I know that so many of you are bothered by the hundreds of invitations you receive daily:  “Acceptances or regrets are always written. An engraved form to be filled in is vulgar—nothing could be in worse taste than to flaunt your popularity by announcing that it is impossible to answer your numerous invitations without the time-saving device of a printed blank. If you have a dozen or more invitations a day, if you have a hundred, hire a staff of secretaries if need be, but answer ‘by hand.’ “

        Now, the formal responses of acceptance:

        Mr. and Mrs. Donald Lovejoy
        accept with pleasure
        Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s
        kind invitation for dinner
        on Monday the tenth of December
        at eight o’clock

        and regret:

        Mr. Clubwin Doe
        regrets extremely that a previous engagement
        prevents his accepting
        Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s
        kind invitation for dinner
        on Monday the tenth of December

        Look forward to more letter writing tips (and Emily Post wisdom) next Tuesday!

        Emily Post quotes from her book Etiquette, published in 1922.

        The Art of Letter Writing: Asking for an Invitation

        art-of-letter-writing4How and when is it appropriate to ask for an extra invite to an event? Is there any tactful way to bring an unexpected guest along? Emily enlightens us all once more.

        The Don’ts:

        • Never ask for an invite for yourself (“One may never ask for an invitation for oneself anywhere!” Emily announces emphatically.)
        • Don’t bring along a guest to a meal: “And one may not ask for an invitation to a luncheon or a dinner for a stranger. But an invitation for any general entertainment may be asked for a stranger—especially for a house-guest,” clarifies Emily.  While I generally agree with this rule–especially at larger, more formal events, I doubt it follows for small family gatherings.  Chances are, your family will be more than pleased to have some extra company. Hold off on asking at friend’s dinner parties however.  Weddings, baby showers, and any other similar event are a big no-no as well!

        The Do’s:

        • Emily’s Example: “Dear Mrs. Worldly,
          A young cousin of mine, David Blakely from Chicago, is staying with us.
          May Pauline take him to your dance on Friday? If it will be inconvenient for you to include him, please do not hesitate to say so frankly.
          Very sincerely yours,
          Caroline Robinson Town.
        • What you can learn from it:
          • Keep it short – There’s no reason to add many superfluous words or excuses.  Doing so will only add pressure to the host to accept, or make the added guest seem like a larger burden than they truly are.
          • Introduce the guest – List their name, how you know them, and where they are from.
          • Make sure to include a question – Instead of phrasing your request as a statement (ie I was hoping to bring David as a guest to your event on Thursday, if you wouldn’t mind), use a question.  It’s less presumptuous and gives the host greater freedom to politely refuse. And don’t forget to use “may” instead of “can,” of course!

        Look forward to more letter writing tips (and Emily Post wisdom) next Tuesday!

        Emily Post quotes from her book Etiquette, published in 1922.

        The Art of Letter Writing: A Note on Foreign Words


        In going through Emily’s Don’ts For Correspondence, I was both amused and torn over this piece of advice:

        “Never sprinkle French, Italian, or any other foreign words through a letter written in English. You do not give an impression of cultivation, but of ignorance of your own language. Use a foreign word if it has no English equivalent, not otherwise unless it has become Anglicized.”

        On one hand, I love her complete disdain for snobbishness; there is something about the  insertion of foreign words into letters that immediately separates the writer from the reader. On the other hand, though, I’m not sure this situation is quite as cut and dry as she sets it out to be. So, I’ve compiled my own list of Do’s and Don’t’s regarding foreign language in letters.


        . . . use a smattering of foreign words in your postcards from far-away lands. So long as you provide a quick English translation in parenthesis, I see no reason why a little dose of the local culture wouldn’t be welcome. It would help to capture and convey your unique experience.

        . . . use common knowledge French terms when no true translation exists. Especially nowadays, where letters aren’t exactly common, I don’t think it hurts to elevate the tone a little bit.  A couple french phrases only add to the old world vibe of letters. But don’t over-do it! Keep it to phrases that don’t translate well, or short, well-known words. Some acceptable ones: comme il faut (as it must be), coup de grace, coup de foudre, coup d’oeil, cri de coeur, en plein air, en route, ennui, entre nous, facade, faux, film noir, gauche, je ne sais quoi, joie de vivre, mot juste, nom de plume, patois, pret-a-porter, raison d’etre, sang-froid, tete-a-tete. . . Read more here! But, make sure to not use more than 1 or 2 per letter.

        . . . maintain restaurant names. Why say Italian wine bar when you can say enotecca? Or French casual bar when you can say brasserie?  Tiny Italian Place when you can say osteria? Mexican taco joint when you can say taqueria? When the original name is more succinct, keep it that way.


        . . . use Latin, ever. Not only is it a foregin language, it’s a dead language. The only reason one would ever use Latin is to show off your schooling, and you should be able to do that well enough with your English prose.

        . . .use the foreign word over the English form. Have you ever heard someone order a croissant by demanding a “cwoissahn”? It definitely sounds a little obnoxious.  Avoid this in your letters. Instead of à propos, use apropos. Say thank you instead of merci, goodbye over au revoir.  The phrases  may be common knowledge, but they’re overused and mildly pretentious. There are plenty of charming ways to say thank you and goodbye in English!

        Look forward to more letter writing tips (and Emily Post wisdom) next Tuesday!

        Emily Post quotes from her book Etiquette, published in 1922.


        The Art of Letter Writing: Letter Closings


        I always end up signing my letters one of two admittedly boring ways:

        Best for any sort of professional or formal letter

        Love for friends and family

        While these seem to do just fine, lately I’ve grown bored of these succinct and well-worn closings.  As the letter closing is the last thing that the letter recipient reads, it makes sense to put effort into forming a closing that is just a little more–more sincere, warmer, more unique.  I find some of Emily Post’s suggestions particularly charming, and expect your letter recipients would too!

        For Business Letters:

        • Yours truly
        • Yours very truly
        • Respectfully (but only, Emily specifies, as used “by a tradesman to a customer, an employee to an employer, or by an inferior, never by a person of equal position”)

        For Formal Letters:

        • Sincerely
        • Sincerely yours
        • Always sincerely yours
        • Very sincerely
        • Very sincerely yours

        I am unsure why formal letter closings must all hinge upon sincerely yours, but I won’t question the master.

        For More Intimate Notes (these are my absolute favorite!):

        • Affectionately Yours
        • Always affectionately
        • Affectionately
        • Devotedly
        • Lovingly
        • Your loving

        NB: Emily says that  “Affectionately yours,” “Always affectionately,” “Affectionately,” “Devotedly,” “Lovingly,” “Your loving” are in increasing scale of intimacy.  Also, she notes that their is a large gap between affectionately and devotedly! Take heed!

        Some other tips

        • Make sure to only capitalize the first word! The others, as you may notice, are always lower-case
        • A particularly endearing, albeit trickier closing is one which blends in with a closing remark. Emily doesn’t mention this method specifically, but she does provide a wonderful example of it in a separate section: “If I could look up now and see you coming into the room, there would be no happier woman in the whole State than
          Your devoted mother.”  Isn’t this method absolutely charming? Another similar way to incorporate this personal, rarely seen touch is to change the word order. Instead of Lovingly yours, try: Your loving, your affectionate, and so on.

        Look forward to more letter writing tips (and Emily Post wisdom) next Tuesday!

        Emily Post quotes from her book Etiquette, published in 1922.

        The Art of Letter Writing: Mastering the Sincere Letter Beginning


        In an English course I took a while back, the class was reading a famous letter—who it was or what they were writing about has escaped me now—which began something like, “I have tried to start this letter five times, and torn it up five times.”

        “Look at that beginning!” my professor marveled. “It’s communicates the sincerity, the effort, the importance of the letter with ease, without being overbearing! It’s overwhelmingly perfect.” Since then, I have been entirely too conscious of how I start my letters and notes. How might I make a good impression right away? How can I best communicate my sincerity, whether it be the sincerity of my thanks, my sympathy, or my birthday wishes? The beginning of a letter sets the tone for the rest of it. It colors and shapes the recipient’s reading of it.

        In my quest to better my letter-writing, I turned, of course, to dear Emily. To include her tips for beginning any sort of letter would be too much—for now. Here are her tips on beginning a conversational, everyday letter:

        • When you have neglected to write a letter for a while, or when an apology is necessary, take care that “Even one who “loves the very sight of your handwriting,” could not possibly find any pleasure in a letter beginning: I have been meaning to write you for a long time but haven’t had a minute to spare or I suppose you have been thinking me very neglectful, but you know how I hate to write letters or I know I ought to have answered your letter sooner, but I haven’t had a thing to write about.” Clarifies Emily, “The above sentences are written time and again by persons who are utterly unconscious that they are not expressing a friendly or loving thought.”
        • Instead, “change the wording of the above sentences, so that instead of slamming the door in your friend’s face, you hold it open: Do you think I have forgotten you entirely? You don’t know, dear Mary, how many letters I have written you in thought or Time and time again I have wanted to write you but each moment that I saved for myself was always interrupted by—something. The first one is delightfully sentimental, don’t you think?
        • To help turn a hasty apology from an insult to a compliment, Emily instructs to keep in mind that, “If you are going to take the trouble to write a letter, you are doing it because you have at least remembered some one with friendly regard, or you would not be writing at all.”

        It is easiest to begin if you answer a letter as soon as possible, clarifies Emily, explaining, “the news contained in it is fresh and the impulse to reply needs no prodding. Nothing can be simpler than to say: We were all overjoyed to hear from you this morning, or, Your letter was the most welcome thing the postman has brought for ages, or, It was more than good to have news of you this morning, or, Your letter from Capri brought all the allure of Italy back to me, or, You can’t imagine, dear Mary, how glad I was to see an envelope with your writing this morning.” Not only are these all wonderful, charming beginnings but they highlight the ease of regular correspondence. Don’t put off writing back to a letter. It’s so much easier to respond to a letter freshly read!