01 September 2022
For World Letter Writing Day, here are seven reasons why writers should love letters
Centuries before there were emails, or SMS, or social media of any kind, people’s natural human urge to communicate with each other found expression in letters. People would stay in touch with loved ones by letter, sending news and updates, or just letting someone know they were thinking of them. We still send all these messages, just in different and largely digital ways. Not many people write letters by hand these days. But as today – 1 September – is World Letter Writing Day, let’s have a look a the way letters can be of benefit to creative writers of any kind.
The tone of a letter is entirely personal. The contents of a letter are intended for one person’s eyes. The sender is writing to a particular person, using the voice and register that they use to communicate with that particular person. In a novel, letters or snippets of letters can be used to reveal a relationship from the inside, showing something important to the reader without labouring the point. But don’t overuse it as a device – it’s popular because it works, which means a lot of writers employ it.
• Letters preserve memories of a different time and place
The message in a letter might seem banal at the time – your grandmother sending you her recipe for bread sauce, for instance – but years later, re-reading that letter will evoke the time it was written with startling immediacy. If you’re looking for a starting point for a new piece of writing – particularly life writing or memoir – mining saved family letters will generate ideas.
• Letters convey matters that are important
Think of love letters – they’re treasured for very good reasons as their recipients keep them and re-read them to remember the joy of falling in love. But equally, letters can convey information – quite possibly bad news – that has a significant impact. People sometimes write things in a letter that are of profound importance – letters to be read after a death, for instance, revealing the secrets of a life that the writer didn’t dare to tell while they were alive. All of these moments of heightened emotion make dramatic moments in creative writing. How could you use a letter to precipitate a turning point in your fiction?
• Writing epistolary stories
Letters, in the past, were such a valuable form of communication, and revealed so much about the lives of the people writing them, that the first novels were written in the form of an exchange of letters. In the 18th century, the epistolary novel became hugely popular as a genre, and it’s a form still by contemporary authors including Ocean Vuong, Aravind Adiga and Jennifer Egan, although the written communications involved have expanded to include any kind of written message, up to and including WhatsApp messages! If you were to write an epistolary story, how would you use letters? Who would be exchanging them, and what would they be saying to each other? If you’ve never written one before, why not start an epistolary story to stretch your writing muscles?
• Letters are valuable for research
People tend to keep letters – by their nature, they're permanent objects rather than throwaway disposables, and they stand the test of time. They convey the texture of life at the time they were written – the tiny details of daily existences that can bring a scene to life. The kind of research you‘re doing may vary – in the historical past, everyone, wrote letters, from formal government missives to accounts of domestic life – so chose the letters you’re reading with care to ensure they involve your time period and subject matter. Reading letters written at the time you’re writing about will also give a true flavour of how language was used at the time.
• Letter writing skills are useful to a writer
There are times in our writing life when we need to write formal letters, introducing ourselves and our work. And even if we’ve published books, that introductory letter is never easy to write! Writers need to be able to craft letters to agents and publishers, and being able to express ourselves in a letter can make a difference between establishing a professional connection or being overlooked. Like any writing skill, we can improve our letter writing with practice.You can read more about how to write these vital letters as part of a submission package.
• Writing a letter by hand is a great creative writing exercise!
Writing by hand makes you consider carefully the words you will choose, and the connection between your hand and the paper allows your ideas to flow. Why not write a letter to someone today? It could be a letter to someone from your past, or in your present, or even your younger self. What would you like to tell that person? It’s World Letter Writing Day – what better day to put pen to paper in a letter? (You could even write to us, and let us know how you got on!)
Has thinking about letters sparked your imagination? Why not try this writing exercise about the arrival of a lost letter?