Tips for writing an actual letter — the special thing to do for someone you love this year

An email works too!

An email works too!

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

As we enter our 10th month of pandemic-necessitated restrictions, many of us have seen our social circles shrink to only a handful of close friends and family — if that. The rest of our relationships have been exiled to digital mediums, relegated to the errant 'How are you?' text or a 'like' on a story. 

If these dribbles of connection just aren't cutting it anymore, you might want to consider setting aside your phone altogether and going a more classic route. Try writing your distanced loved one an epic letter. 

A letter makes a strong statement to a friend: you've been thinking about them and you appreciate your relationship enough to put it in writing, and that this communication has a different significance than the rest. This doesn't mean ordering up some scented paper or perfecting your flowery cursive (although, go for it if the mood strikes). It's the thought and effort that counts here — and an email will serve just as nicely as letter mail.

It's not hard, but if you'd like some guidelines, here are some simple suggestions to follow when writing a letter to a friend or loved one.

Make a draft and start simple

As J. Willis Westlake wrote in his 1876 book How to Write Letters, "In all kinds of composition, there are two things necessary: first, to have something to say; second, to say it."

You might find it useful to brainstorm a few key points before getting started. What do you really want to say to your friend or loved one? And how do you want them to feel while they're reading it?

The trick is to speak plainly and honestly, advises Dr. Jane Greer, a New York-based therapist and author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship. "Just start with: Dear so-and-so. How are you? I've been thinking about you, and I'm wondering how you're doing." 

Don't shy away from the reality of the situation, especially if this letter is coming a bit out of the blue. According to Greer, "You can immediately say: It's been a long time since we spoke, and I'm really looking forward to it because we have so much fun together when we talk."

Speak from the heart

Greer points out that your letter's ultimate purpose is to celebrate the bond you share with the person you're writing to. "Tell them that they're important to you," she says. "Whether it's to say: I really missed you. Or: I think of you so often and it makes me happy."

The more specific you can be, the better. Do you love their smile? Do you appreciate their support? Now's your chance to really flex those words of affirmation, aiming for positive sentiments such as: I'm so proud of… I love it when… I'm still laughing at…

Take a trip down memory lane

As for the meat of your letter, it can certainly be nothing but compliments and love for your friend, but everyone likes a little plot to keep things moving along. Consider revisiting specific memories you share with the person you're writing to. Celebrate those moments and make it clear that you still remember the good times.

"You can say: Remember when we did this?" suggests Dr. Greer. "The idea is to capture a shared memory that tells them that even when they're far away, they're always close in your heart." 

"News and gossip, the sticks and straws out of which the old letter writer made his nest, have been snatched away," wrote Virginia Woolf in 1940. "The wireless and the telephone have intervened. The letter writer has nothing now to build with except what is most private; and how monotonous after a page or two the intensity of the very private becomes!" Today, mainstream news and social media have probably already caught your loved one up on the basic details of your life — and the risk of monotony in lengthy private stories is higher than ever. So consider focusing on what they might not already know, and jazz it up a bit with animated descriptions! 

Consider your words, but don't sweat the grammar

You shouldn't think of your letter as being perishable, even if it's 'just' an email. Consider that the recipient might hold onto your letter for a long time. They might treasure it and read it more than once. They might read it at your funeral — no pressure! — as a testament to your relationship at this exact moment.

That said, this project should be fun and stress-free. Little typos here and there won't take away from the strength of your message.

Make plans for the future

If you're writing to a friend you haven't seen in a long time, try to include your hope to see them again once this is all over.

Dr. Greer suggests saying this directly: "I'm really looking forward to when we can spend more time together." You can even bring up the last time you hung out, marking that as an important moment in your friendship.

Writing a letter to a friend might seem like a whimsical one-off, but there's a lot of value to be had in taking the time to reflect on a friendship worth preserving. You might even rediscover things you love about your friend in the process. Keep it simple, and have fun!

Chloe Rose Stuart-Ulin is a freelance writer based in Montreal. Her most recent works on tech, gender, and finance have appeared in CBC, Quartz, and Lift.

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