Unwritten letters (Mistake #121)

There have been paeans to letters before, of course, and I’ve written a few myself too, but when a recent one by writer Beatrice Charles captured some of the many charms of letters (and postcards) and indeed the joy of writing them, I felt moved to produce another.

In the second of my writing e-guides, 50 More Mistakes Beginner Writers Make, I wrote this:

Many writers love to write about what they think or believe — essentially, to share their opinion. Letters pages — which showcase letters from readers, sent to the editor — are excellent outlets for just that. Were it not for letters pages, there would not be many out there, at least not many open to new writers.

Like Bea, I too am glad magazines and newspapers still publish readers’ letters, not least because they offer a good opportunity for an aspiring writer to see their name in print. She also makes the point of what a good writing exercise letter-writing is: you need a good subject, to fit the target publication’s style, a good hook, reader engagement, a good ending, all within a (usually) tight word count. She quotes a top quip by French philosopher Pascal:

I have made this (letter) longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.

Exactly! Good letters need to be edited. They need to be crafted. It’s a skill.

Letters: write them, and keep them (especially those from those who call you ‘possum’)

But why have they fallen out of favour? I don’t think we can fully blame email and texts, Skype and Snapchat. Writers certainly can’t: not when those opportunities in publications remain, sometimes offering prizes or even cash for a letter of the week or month.

Another extract from my book follows. This one was inspired by years of tutoring writing students, a sizeable minority of whom I sensed felt that writing letters was a little ‘beneath’ them and their writing goals, especially once they’d published articles or other more substantial pieces of work.

Some writers feel that [letter writing] isn’t ‘real’ writing, and view it as a trivial pursuit. By definition, the readers’ letters page is open to the masses, and therefore isn’t exclusive nor special. It’s the product of the people. A letter is seen just as ‘junk’ filler material, not to be respected or even noticed.

You don’t stop writing short stories when you have written novels because you feel you’ve got too big for their boots. You don’t stop writing articles when you have written non-fiction books because you feel above them. Similarly: never stop writing letters, writers.

What to write about? Something that moves you. Something about which you have something to say, and perhaps which nobody else has thought — or had the bottle — to say. It has to be meaningful, and sincere. Comment on something you’ve read in the target publication, perhaps, but make it thoughtful, original and concise. Don’t necessarily agreeI’ve written about agreeing before, and it doesn’t make you stand out from the crowd.

Real writers always should … Being contrary will do that!

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