Personal letters may still be preferable to email communication in a number of contexts. This includes, but is not limited to, letters of complaint, travel correspondence, and holiday letters. Letters can create different impressions on readers when compared to other forms of correspondence. Given that letters take a greater effort to write and to send, they often create the sense that more time and concern went into them. This can, depending on the context, highlight the degree of disappoinment (as in a letter of complaint), or the intimate sense of community between the reader(s) and the writer (as in holiday letters).
This resource discusses some of the basic conventions of personal letter writing. This will include brief discussions of opening salutations, complementary closings, and formatting. Some rhetorical considerations when writing personal letters will also be presented.
Common Letter Writing Conventions
The context in which the personal letter is written plays an important role in what to include and in how to structure your letter. Give the bredth of letter writing contexts, this resource is not comprehensive in nature. Rather, it will discuss a few of the conventions that are common across different contexts.
There are a number of opening salutations available to letter writers; these vary greatly based on audience and purpose. For example, Dear can be used in almost any situation, and it does not connote any real degree of intimacy between the reader and the writer. Other opening salutations that could be used are Good Day or Hi/Hello both which are considered to be relatively neutral in terms of their level of intimacy, but they tend be less formal than using dear. Something like Season's Greetings can be a festive way to start a personal letter during the holiday season. The first letter of any opening salutation that you decide to choose should be capitalized.
Following the chosen opening salutation, you should provide the name of the person you are corresponding with. It is best to use either last names or full names. Titles like Mr. Mrs. Ms. and Dr. should all be capitalized. If you are writing to an individual who holds the rank of professor in a university, or the rank of father in the Catholic church, do not abbreviate these titles.
Complimentary closings appear at the end of a personal letter before the signature. In general, the number of complimentary closings available to a letter writer is more varied than the number of opening salutations. A closing like Regards can be seen as maintaining a greater distance between the reader and the writer. Something like Sincerely Yours or Cordially may somewhat shorten the perceived distance between the reader and the letter writer, but are both still relatively neutral. Depending on the reason for writing, closings like Get Well Soon (if the recipient is not feeling well) or Happy Holidays (during the holiday season) may be more appropriated and may create a sense of closeness between the reader and the writer.
Many personal letters have four basic parts, and the information contained in these parts varies greatly depending on context. These parts can include the heading, the opening, the body, and the closing.
The heading of the letter may have the most variation based on the purpose of the letter. For example, a letter of complaint's heading might include a return address and a date line, while a personal correspondence may only include the date.
The opening of the letter includes the opening salutation and information identifying to whom the letter is addressed, whereas the body of the letter contains all of the information to be communicated.
Finally, the closing of a letter contains the complimentary closing and the letter writer's signature. Your signature may also include institutional affiliations, job titles, and/or a post script (P.S.).
There are many rhetorical concerns when it comes to writing in general, many of which apply to letter writing. There are also a few that are specific to letter writing. For example, how to open and close the letter are specific to letters and merit special attention. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that every letter has a specific audience, and that audience should be kept in mind while writing the letter.
In the opening and closing of personal letters, special attention should be paid to what is being written in each section. For example, ending a letter of complaint with something like "Best Wishes" or "Cheers" may negatively impact your overall message because these two closings create the impression of some intimacy with the reader. Likewise, opening a letter to a close friend from college with something like "Dear Ms. Mary Smithe" may create a sense of distance and alienate the reader.
One thing to keep in mind is that every letter has a specific audience, and that audience should be kept in mind while writing the letter.
Sabin, William A. The Gregg Reference Manual. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.Print