Thu. March 8
The Lost Art of the Thank-You Letter
Letter writing, in our age of instant communication, is a dying art. Why write letters when we have e-mail, text messaging, Google chat, Facebook, and Skype? I have family in Iran, Sweden, and Canada, and a boyfriend in Prague, so I appreciate and rely on the many quick and easy ways that we can all talk to each other, in most cases free of cost. Modern technology, it’s a wonderful thing. Writing letters is antiquated and I certainly don’t long to return to the days when communication-by-post was all there was. Still, I think our fast-paced culture has lost something in giving up old-fashioned hand-written letters for the immediate “hey u” text and “what’s up” e-mail.
A couple of days ago, I came across this piece from the Huffington Post, “11 Amazing Thank You Notes From Famous People.” The letter writers include Roald Dahl (pictured above), Marilyn Monroe, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Audrey Hepburn, Conan O’Brien, John Lennon, and more. Lennon’s letter is pretty funny. The Huffington Post delivers the context, then the letter:
Once upon another time (1974), John Lennon showed up drunk to LA’s Troubadour club and proceeded to heckle the Smothers Brothers during their act. A fight ensued which involved just about everyone, including actress Pam Grier. The next day, she got this letter from Lennon:
I apologize for being so rude and thank you for not hitting me.
P.S. Harry Nilsson feels the same way.
The letter is also pretty scrappy looking, which actually makes it even better:
Marilyn Monroe’s letter is charming for getting straight to the point:
Dear Mr. von Fuehlsdorff:
Thank you for your champagne.
It arrived, I drank it and I was gayer.
But the absolutely best letter of the bunch is from the children’s book author Roald Dahl to a little girl named Amy.
According to the website Letters of Note, where these originally appeared before they were aggregated in the post by the Huffington Post,
One rainy Sunday afternoon in 1989, with encouragement and much-needed help from her father, a 7-year-old girl named Amy decided to send something to Roald Dahl. Taking inspiration from her favourite book, The BFG, and using a combination of oil, coloured water and glitter, Amy sent the author a very fitting and undeniably adorable gift: one of her dreams, contained in a bottle.
Thankfully, the sentiment wasn’t lost on Roald Dahl.
Dahl wrote the girl a very touching response:
10th February 1989
I must write a special letter and thank you for the dream in the bottle. You are the first person in the world who has sent me one of these and it intrigued me very much. I also liked the dream. Tonight I shall go down to the village and blow it through the bedroom window of some sleeping child and see if it works.
With love from,
Part of the reason the letters above are so amazing, apart from the fact that their signatories are quite extraordinary people, is that even the shortest and pithiest ones are still brimming with thoughtfulness and sincerity. Monroe’s letter is a perfect example. It’s so simple and yet so satisfying to read: she thanks Mr. von Fuehlsdorff for his gift, says what she did with it (drank it), and describes the effect it had on her (it made her gayer). Today, when we find ourselves in the position of thanking someone, it is usually because that person gave us a gift—and they want to know that you received it, are enjoying and using it, and–most importantly–that it affected you in some way, that it was meaningful to you.
Dahl’s letter is the best of the bunch because it not only covers the same essential ground Monroe’s note does, and with compassion and tenderness, but it makes the recipient feel infinitely special. Think about your favorite childhood author writing you, and only you, these words: “You are the first person in the world who has sent me one of these and it intrigued me very much.”
With these letters in mind, I’ve put together what I see as the essentials of writing a well-crafted thank-you letter. If I missed anything, let me know!
Do it by hand. If you are thanking someone older than you, they will appreciate the thoughtfulness and care that goes into a handwritten note. They may even expect it. If you’re thanking someone your age, you still should do it by hand for a similar reason. Younger people are so used to electronic forms of communication that a hand-written note will truly stand out to them as something memorable and, even, worth keeping.
Think before you write. Because we are all used to e-mail, where mistakes are easily deletable with push or two of the “backspace” button, we tend to start writing first, and editing later. That’s not how it works with a handwritten letter, where crossing or whiting out a mistake looks silly and sloppy.
Avoid boilerplate. The first instinct of the lazy writer in all of us is to write a note like this: “Dear James, Thank you so very much for the gift that you sent me. It was very meaningful to me. I hope to see you soon. With love, Emily.” That’s not good enough. It sounds like a stock form with very little thought put into it. To avoid that, mention specifics. Mention what they gave you by name, whether it’s the gift itself or an experience you two shared, like a job interview. Mention what you like most about it and briefly explain why. Even Monroe’s short letter contained these elements.
Avoid hyperbole. Not even 7-year-old Amy would believe “This is the best gift I have ever received.” Don’t exaggerate or make the gift or experience seem bigger than it is. It’s transparent and the letter recipient will recognize that. If it’s not true, leave it out. Which brings us to . . .
Be sincere. How did this person’s effort really affect you? What was really meaningful to you about it? This is where you can make the person feel special for affecting you in a unique way. Even if the gift or experience was not all that great, there surely was something about it worth highlighting.
Close well. If you write a considerate, deeply felt thank-you note, it’s probably not the best idea to end it with the casual “See you soon!” or the abrupt “Best” or the stilted “Sincerely.” Think about a way to close that captures the spirit of your letter and your voice. Dahl’s “With love” was perfect in his case, but might not be in yours.