Letter Writing Etiquette: How to write your first letter

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Quite a while ago now I wrote about my old school hobby of letter writing. As modern technology takes over our lives it can be quite challenging to pick up an old school hobby, particularly when modern life doesn’t necessary engage with some skills needed for letter writing. Today I am going to share my advice for perhaps the most difficult challenge associated with letter writing. Writing the first letter.

So if you read my last post and were quite interested you’ve probably found some new people and you’ve exchanged a couple of instant messages and got a few addresses and now you’ve sat down and you have no idea what to do, you’ve filled with excitement to stop but you have writer’s blog. Well follow my step by step guide and you should be well on your way to writing a successful first letter.

Step:

  1. Start by writing your first name and surname and your address neatly. This could be either in the top left or right corner, traditionally it’s done on the right but it really doesn’t matter. The important thing is to make sure it is neat. The reason for doing this is so you can get a reply. You may have exchanged details in the past but they get lost etc. So just write it clearly on your first letter, then you know that your new penpal has your address.
  2. Date your letter. This is optional, I know some people do not do it because they don’t when they wrote the letter in case it took them a very long time to post it. It’s very rare for me to write a letter in one go, I often come back over a day or a week to do it. So I like to date each day I write something to the letter. I think it’s nice and it can also be helpful when a letter gets lost in the post (yes it happens). Once it took over a month for a letter to arrive to me, so it was great to see the date. It also helps when you say in your letter, next tuesday I am…then your penpal can follow up if they know the event has now past.
  3. Optional: You can put the time you wrote the letter or maybe the weather which I think is a nice touch, but again it’s optional.
  4. Start with your greeting, if you don’t want to be too old fashioned and use Dear, you can start with Hi, Hello, etc. Whatever you prefer.
  5. Main body:

Paragraph 1:

Now it’s time to start your letter. I also make sure I ask how my penpal is at the start of a letter, it think it’s polite and it is also one of the most important questions I want my penpal to answer. I would like to know how they have been in between letters. Now for the more interesting part, actually starting the letter. You have to remember that you are as much of a stranger to your penpal as your penpal is to you. So start with an introductory paragraph. Say your name, if you are an Elizabeth but no one except your Grandmother calls you that give your nickname. Tell your penpal when your birthday is, ask them for theirs. Then you can exchange birthday cards. You can state where you were born too…not anything too detailed just the city. If you no longer live in that city, say why you currently live in that city.

Paragraph 2:

Once you’ve got through that you need to start to begin to build a relationship with your penpal. If you want to get replies you need to make sure your letters are interesting. If you followed my advice on my last email you may have placed an ad for a penpal or you replied to one your penpal wrote. It’s good to check that advert and expand on those a little more. For the purpose of this post I am going to use my penpal Dennis for an example of things to write. I read this advert and firstly emailed Dennis before getting his address. His advert was:

I’m a man and I was born April 23, 1987.
My name is Dennis; I live in Freiburg, which is a city situated in the far southwest of Germany.
Some of my hobbies are reading, travelling, sports, photography and music. I have many interests so there should be always plenty of stuff to write about.
I would like to know about your country, its culture, about different things of life and so on. Snail Mail is such an interesting way to meet new people and to share our thoughts that it would be really great to find somebody preferably from Canada, France, Australia/New Zealand and Brazil. But people from other countries are of course welcome too; also from Germany itself.
The languages I know are German (native speaker) English (fluently) and French (basics).
I have to say, please only contact me if you are interested in a long lasting friendship, otherwise it would not make any sense in my opinion.
I am looking forward to your messages,
Dennis

It’s a nice advert, but it’s not very detailed. For instance, from this advert I don’t know what sports Dennis plays or his favourite music or books. There should be some things you have in common on the list.

So firstly you could maybe pick a topic that you would like to find out about Dennis, for me I am quite interested in German culture, so I wanted to know a little bit about where Dennis lived. So I could explain a little bit about where I live, my city, some of the things that are interesting to see in my city, maybe one or two fun facts, or something it is famous for. Places you like to eat etc. In return you could pose some questions to Dennis asking what his city/town/village is like, if they have any strange traditions or so on. I explained a little bit about my own city of Birmingham and that we have a regional dish called a Balti. In return, Dennis told me about a regional dish of his Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, if your German is good you’ll be able to know that that is Black Forest Gateau. I think Dennis was quite shocked to know that I knew it well (and also that I hate cherries!). This in time can lead to some exciting things, currently we are exchanging histories of our cities with photographs.

Paragraph 3:

Move on to another topic and repeat the same process as in the above paragraph, remember to write a little of your opinion but also to exchange with your penpal and ask questions. Some topics might be:

  • Your job/education
  • Family
  • Pets
  • Your past week
  • Your hobbies
  • Your religion
  • Some quirky facts, you may be Vegetarian or you won a competition when you were younger. Anything.
  • If you like films, maybe you can write about the last film you watched and whether you would recommend it. Don’t give too much away about the plot line though.

You don’t have to write forever, I usually aim for 2 sides of a4 paper, or an equivalent (4 sides of a5 paper). You don’t want to spend ages writing tons of things and make the letter massive, that can be quite daunting to read. You also don’t want to make it so short that your penpal has nothing to work with when replying. So a healthy dose of questions (nothing too invasive) and an equal measure of sharing about yourself (again nothing too personal) is a great start.

Now there are some golden rules we should address, let’s go through some dos and don’ts.

Do

  • Write neatly. your penpal may not have english as a second language but even if they do it is important to write clearly. There nothing worse than having to spend ages trying to figure out what people are writing. I have had badly written letters in English and German, and they just aren’t fun to read or reply back to. It’s a sure fire way to not get a reply back.
  • Spell things correctly, again, same reason as the first. I know spelling can be difficult to some people so if you worry about it. Write your letter first on a computer, then write it out.
  • Keep it to a reason length. Not too short or too long. You need to write enough to engage but not too much that your penpal will find it intimidating to reply back to. If success, you will have a lifetime to find out about each other.
  • Be patient. Letters are slow. Once you’ve sent off your letter if could take a week to get there, depending where you are, a week for them to write the letter back (sometimes longer) and a week to get the letter sent to you. So that’s three weeks minimum. This is a slow method. So if you write 5 letters in your first week, if could be a while before you see letters come back to you. Just keep it simple. One or two penpals and build it up. It can be quite daunting when you begin but over time letters start to spread out. I usually get one a week to reply too. At the beginning it could be like 6 in a week – which is quite a lot and it takes time. Start small and build your friendships.
  • Maybe you are arty and like to draw things. Why not make your own stationary. Some pretty envelopes or some nice paper to write with. These can be great but please read my last point in the dont’s…
  • Write your envelopes in waterproof ink. Fountain pens are lovely to write with perhaps not the best option to write an envelope with, especially as they can get caught in the rain. So maybe stick to a Biro or something that won’t smudge.

Don’t

  • Don’t be too personal. Remember this is still a complete stranger. If you are sitting at a bus stop and engage causally to someone sitting next to you…would you divulge every little secret or everything bad that has ever happened to you? No you wouldn’t so don’t do it in your introductory letter.
  • Don’t moan. Yes your husband/boyfriend/family member may have pissed you off just before you started writing or you had a bad day. Constantly being down in the dumps or moaning makes for a letter that is not really fun to read, so it’s not going to be enjoyable to your penpal. Over time, once you’ve established a friendship you can add these things, but for now; be upbeat.
  • Don’t ask for stuff. By stuff I mean gifts. There are people and penpals out there who exchange small things, like note paper, or sticky notes, small items. Tea is a very popular one. These are great, but leave it a couple of letters before you exchange things and ask if it is ok to exchange small things like tea bags. For me, I don’t drink tea, so getting tea in the post makes me feel obliged to go out and get tea to send back to them – when I don’t drink it. So maybe you can find something that you would be interested in swapping, but wait until you have found that your penpal is a good match. The last thing you need is to spend money organising a gift swap that your penpal you do not know very well has no intention to replying too.
  • Don’t go crazy with design. When I first started, I had no idea of designing letters. I wrote on boring plain white paper, because I was just interested in writing letters. I have since received some very beautiful letters on great stationary. They look fantastic. I have also received some ones that are not so nice. I have had some ones that have random stickers on them that don’t match a theme of the letter paper and they have bad handwriting, the envelopes are decorated too. To put it bluntly it looks like a five year old did them. I don’t mean to be rude but they can be quite of an eye sore. I am not much of  a decorator but I will show some nice ways to decorate some letters in upcoming posts.

Do you penpal? Or you new and need some advice? Perhaps you are a pro letter writer and want to share some feedback or great introductory letters you had or

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5 responses to “Letter Writing Etiquette: How to write your first letter

  • Dennis

    A good instruction with many hints;) But with the not so detailed example: I think it is important not to make an advertisement too long, because the reader should become interested in you as a pen pal. So there are plenty of things that can be asked already in the first letter, and specialised in the further letters;)

    Like

  • Dennis

    Ok, that would be the worst case.
    All in all it is not so easy to see just by an ad if it will become a good friendship or not. Mostly it can be seen after some letters; in the best case already after the first letter. What I cannot stand is if people ask to become a pen pal, but don’t write more about themselves except a few superficial lines or scammers and so on. That is something where I do not respond in general.

    Like

  • Susanne

    Thank you for these awesome tips. When I was young, I was an avid letter writer, but then again, there was no email at that time. I still write cards for all occasions, but would love to find a penpal to continue letter-writing. Your post has reminded me, that I should pick this up again.

    Like

    • Emma

      In my previous post there are some websites you can use to find a penpal. I really like letter writing although I seem to find that my letters are slowing down at the moment. I may have to look for some new ones.

      Like

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