Want to give the gift of a lifetime? Write someone a letter

Create a unique gift to be cherished for a lifetime. Write a handwritten personal letter.

According to a recent CBS News poll, half of Americans have not received a personal letter in the past five years, and 14% have never received one.

If novelty and need are criteria you consider when selecting a gift, then clearly a personal letter would fit both for many.

Fewer letters are getting received because fewer letters are getting written. Less than a third of those polled had written a letter in the past 12 months, 37% had not written and sent a letter in the past five years, and nearly 15% of adults have never written and sent a letter.

That leaves most mailboxes empty of anything but junk and bills. That may be why so many people only walk to the mailbox as a daily constitutional for themselves and their pets, or simply let the unwanted matter pile up for days before they pick it up.

If it has been five years since you received a personal letter, or never, imagine the suspicion you would experience in finding your name handwritten on an envelope. You’d likely furrow your brows and examine it closely to see if it was computer-generated. How special would you feel if you determined someone had actually taken the time to hand write you a personal letter?

I am a fairly regular correspondent, so I meet the day’s mail with anticipation that I just might receive a piece of personal mail. “Wow! Look at this!” I recently exclaimed when I received a postcard from a reader in India who had read my column on writing postcards to encourage others during the pandemic. He sent me a postcard on International Postcard Day to express his appreciation. His handwritten card truly not only made my day, but made my month.

So to whom should you write? Likely, you will choose a friend or relative who lives across the state or country, or even in another country, but you might consider surprising someone with your same address. Who would expect to get a letter from someone with whom you live?

Where to begin? Since many of us are used to writing through an electronic device, you might want to write your first draft on scrap paper. For your final draft, find some quality stationary that expresses your personality or matches the tastes of the person to whom you are writing. I like thick paper with a bit of texture. Select a pen that helps your penmanship look its best. I like to use a Pilot G2-07 or a fountain pen. For my hand, a thicker barrel makes all the difference.

Traditional formats for a letter are worth following. Begin with your own address in the upper right hand corner. This may be omitted with people you write frequently, but even frequent recipients of your letters probably do not have your address memorized or might misplace the envelope with your return address.

Skip a line’s worth of space, and put the date you are writing the letter under your address against the right-hand margin. Decades from now when the receiver of your letter pulls it from its special place of storage, they will need to be reminded of when they received it.

Move to the left hand margin, skipping another line’s worth of space, and write your greeting with the name you use to refer to the recipient. Most people still begin their salutation with “Dear” or another term of endearment and the person’s relationship to the writer, such as “My Sweet Little Niece.” If such emotional words make you uncomfortable, simply use the person’s name. After the name in the greeting, place a comma to separate the greeting from the body of your letter.

Begin the main part of your letter, traditionally called the body of the letter, by stating good wishes for the recipient’s health or inquire about their emotional response to a recent event. Such sentences as “I hope you are well” or “How are you surviving this extreme weather?” establish goodwill and interest in the person.

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The second sentence of your letter typically establishes the purpose of your writing: To express gratitude, to offer condolences for their recent loss, to inform the reader of a life change, to stay connected by sharing thoughts and feelings. Whatever the reason, state it upfront, and then continue writing in your own conversational style. Trust yourself to adjust your words to meet your audience. Few of us speak the same way to our grandparents as we do to our friends.

Close your letter with an emotional sentiment that matches the content of your letter or your relation to the recipient: “Love,” “Gratefully,” “Your Daughter,” or “See Ya!”

Sign your letter with your name or nickname. Nothing’s more personal than your name.

As the American writer Dale Carnegie said, “Perhaps you will forget tomorrow the kind words you say today, but the recipient may cherish them over a lifetime.”

David Stone is a poet who teaches English at Loma Linda Academy.

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