The Lost Art of Letter Writing
by Barbara Renner
With today’s technology, not many people or businesses write letters anymore, but there is an art to letter writing. Believe it or not, I taught an entire course on Business Letter Writing at a career college. Did you know there is a strategy for writing a letter delivering bad news? The writer begins the letter with a buffer to soften the bad news. This explains the situation, or gives background information, before the negative news is presented. Cable companies use this strategy when they inform customers of a rate increase. They begin the letter with all the services they provide and innovations they have created; then, bam, the rate increase is hidden in the third or fourth paragraph.
In all letters, whether they convey bad news, positive news, or a persuasive request, the three C’s are applied. The writer must be Clear, Complete, and Concise. To be Clear, write to express ideas, not to impress the reader with flowery language or jargon that can be misinterpreted. A Complete message is one that contains all the information necessary to get your point across to the reader. This means going back to reread your letter and edit where necessary. Being Concise is writing the message with the fewest words possible. Eliminate repetition. Replace wordy phrases. Limit the use of modifiers. Minimize the use of descriptive words. Use active voice.
One final strategy about letter writing is to avoid the use of negative words. Instead of writing “Please don’t hesitate to call me” write “Feel free to call me at any time.” Replace “Don’t forget to mail this letter today” with “Please remember to mail this letter today.”
Letter writing has been replaced with emailing; however, the same basic principles outlined above apply, only with fewer words. The best way to organize an email is with a salutation, a focus statement, a paragraph containing details, and a closing. The salutation is written “Dear Ms. Jackson:” or “Good morning, Liz,” The focus statement contains a few sentences that state what the email is going to be about. Then the details are added using short, concise sentences. The closing, followed by your name, is simply “Thank you for your help,” or “I hope to hear from you soon,”
I have two final comments about emails. First, use the three P’s for your subject line. Make it Precise, Positive, and Professional. Second, do not use popular slang acronyms such as BTW, NP, or Thx. Using them is not professional, and they could be misinterpreted. Some of you may have heard the joke where a woman sent emails announcing the passing of her aunt. She signed each email with LOL. When her son asked why she was Laughing Out Loud about her aunt’s death, the woman responded that she thought LOL meant Lots of Love.
What does the art of letter writing mean for authors? First of all, authors are used to writing novels and thousands of words and lots of description. It’s difficult for a writer to be concise and precise. Second, authors may have occasions to write query letters to agents. Queries can be snail mail letters or emails, depending on the agent’s required submission guidelines. In addition to following the advice on letter and email writing, here are some tips:
- Include the word “Query” in the subject line along with your working title in all caps.
- Use the name of the agent in the salutation, and ensure the name is spelled correctly.
- Keep your letter to just one page.
- Pitch your story in the first paragraph in 1 to 2 sentences. Include a summarization of the key points of your plot and character names.
- Write copy about your book in the second paragraph. This includes what the protagonist has to face, the tone of the story, and the best explanation of the story set-up.
- Explain the nuts and bolts in the third paragraph. This includes title, word count, and genre.
- Mention why you have chosen this agent in the fourth paragraph. This could go in the first paragraph instead.
- State which parts are included in the email or attached to the letter in the fifth paragraph.
- Sell yourself with a short bio in the sixth paragraph. List your blog, social media, professional organizations, awards, etc.
- Thank the agent for their time and consideration.
- Close with “Sincerely,” or “Best regards,” your signature or typed name, phone number, personal address, and email address.
- Send one query at a time; do not send an email blast to multiple agents.
It’s very important to follow the agent’s submission guidelines with each query, so these tips may vary. The practice of writing letters may be lost, but the art of letter writing can be applied in other ways.
Barbara Renner and her husband have lived in Phoenix for more than 40 years. As “Sun Birds,” they fly away to Minnesota to escape the summer heat – and to fish. While in Minnesota, Barbara became fascinated with its state bird, the Common Loon, and was prompted to write four picture books about Lonnie the Loon, because everyone should know about loons. However, books about loons don’t sell very well in the desert, so she is writing a new series of picture books about Quincy the Quail. Barbara visits elementary schools as a guest author to read her books and share interesting facts about loons and quails. She’s working on other children’s books and a special book about her yellow lab, Larry: Larry’s Words of Wisdom. Learn more about Barbara at RennerWrites.com, as well as on Twitter, Facebook, and GoodReads.