How to Write a Letter: With Mr. Boddington

I have come to the conclusion that I miss pen on paper. For my "real" job, I work remotely, making it difficult to have any real connection to others while I am behind my screen. Not a phone talker by nature, I avoid calls at all cost.

In my last post for Mr. Boddington, I created a primer on notes. And while I think they have created me the opportunity to show my love, support, and sympathy, they do not always get to the heart of my intention. They are brief, concise, scrawled and popped in the mail.

But sometimes there is more to say to friends and strangers and strangers who become friends. I am verbose by nature, and so I want to say a lot. And so I write a lot. And so I describe a lot. Ask a lot of questions. Occasionally repeat myself. And so I write a letter.

As with the previous post, and my subsequent newsletters since, I have been invested in the Mitford Industry still. Earlier this month, I finished a book of letters between Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, the eldest sister. These letters were long, illustrious, and a little sharp on the edges. I flew through the pages. At the pool in the Poconos over 4th of July, tanning oil smeared the pages and still I read on.

And it inspired me to write longer letters. Letters with no predicate. Letters for the sake of letters and as an ode to friendships and old coworkers and the "just because" moments of putting good faith into building more than what's behind a screen.

And so I hope Mr. Boddington inspires you, too. I have put together a few guiding principles I use.

How to Write a Long Form Letter:

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Letters, for me, allow me to do two things: establish a greater appreciation for my friendship with another, and to practice my own wit (ha). While I try to put too much of myself into a letter, it is fun to be able to dance around from topic to topic, all the while keeping my reader's enjoyment in mind.

Earlier this Summer, I cast a net out to others on social media, thinking of those who I may want to correspond with outside of the ebbs and tides of my interaction with Instagram and Facebook. Two old coworkers and three other friends agreed. I originally wrote my first letters on my Mr. Boddington paper that I received earlier this year (specifically the Tulum set and the Leopard set (both spoil me with their beauty). 

So when I sit down to write, I think about a few items below. While these tenets are in no way exhaustive to the actuality of conversational correspondence, it gave me a few good practices to keep in mind as I went along.

Parts of a Letter

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Of course, there are many parts to a letter, and this format is completely scalable to how much you want to write to your friend. The intention of a longer form note is different than the short response-based notecard we had previously discussed. 

A letter should flesh out your relationship over time. It should offer jokes, side-stories, fears and successes. But, at the heart of a letter, one should always make sure that the reader is the priority - so I always try to bring the focus to them throughout. This is best set up using the format I outline in the chart to the right. 

Here, you see that there are five main components to a letter which can best establish the relationship you are aiming to create:

  1. Date - we will not address this one here, but I did in my previous post
  2. Salutation
  3. Intro/Reason for letter
  4. Story paragraph(s)
  5. Concluding paragraphs
  6. Closing

I will go through each in the below sections, with help from Mr. Boddington's lovely book.

Salutation

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I think that the greeting sets the tone of the entire note; but I also think that it's often overlooked. As Mr. Boddington put it, "Using the classic Dear Frida, is completely acceptable. Other favorites are DearestGood Morning (or Afternoon), My friend." I've been known to simply put the recipient's name for more formal notes, or a pleasant greeting ("Hi you guys!") if I'm setting it up for a relaxed letter.

Intro/Reason for letter

Where you really tee up the letter and how long it will be. Since letters mailed can take days for a response, it's nice to remind the reader where you last left off and why. It also gives the reader the opportunity to know the tone of the letter. If you begin it with "I just had the most amazing week in Costa Rica" then one may expect some highlights from the trip along the way. I always take the road of being light, grateful for the conversation, and empathetic to whatever emotion my correspondent left behind in their last letter. 

I've included here a good example of how the Intro/Reason paragraph can be simple, straightforward, and addressing the main point of the letter to which I am responding. Note further, by introducing the idea that my week has been busy, one may also infer that the letter will be parsed down for brevity, due to my schedule.

This letter's template is from Mr. Boddington's Leopard Desk Set, whose suite includes writing paper with little prompts (absolutely love the favorite animal note at the bottom!).

Story Paragraph(s)

The real beauty of Waugh and Mitford's correspondences was their ability to paint vivid stories to one another for fifty years, living countries apart. And while my life is a lot less exciting than theirs, I was inspired to do the same. I've included an abridged note from Nancy Mitford to Evelyn Waugh, to show exactly how I think story paragraphs should be. 

To me, they should have the following, or do the following:

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  • Paint a picture of your life, illustrating your day to one who is not witness to it often

  • Answer any of their questions here, being sure to write that they were the one interested in the first place ("To answer your question about my trip to Vienna...")

  • Ask your own questions! Nancy, in the example, did this by asking why Evelyn's castle was never bought.  This helps move the response along and keeps you invested, laying the groundwork for further correspondences.

  • Bring details of the reader into your prose. Things that reminded you of them, things you know about them, etc. Again, Nancy does this in the example, but it can be as little as, "I know your birthday was six weeks ago, and I never did ask if you went into the City or not".

  • Pepper in details about you, too. Often, if I ask a question, I may respond to my own question from my perspective. This will help cut out the "And what do you think" in their reply

  • But I also try to avoid talking too much about myself, unless there is a story or note to be told. I'm a believer that a reader is more interested in hearing and talking about themselves, so I like to build that ingratiating rhetoric throughout

  • And finally - keep it loose. Let the paragraphs flow as they come into your head. There's no need to formally outline anything, but have fun writing as you go. Mr. Boddington's book gives great prompts throughout their book that have been inspiration for me as I sit down at my desk to write.

Concluding Paragraph

This doesn't have to be a long apology, but it should be leading somewhere. "I have to go clean the barn now" or "I have to get back to work, though I'm hoping for an easy day ahead!" These both give a picture of where the day went after the letter was finished for the reader, and also explains why your note was 2 pages versus 20.

In the example, Nancy had been writing to Evelyn for over 20 years at this point. Her "Much love - WRITE" was sufficient to their relationship.

Closing

How funny that the formality and occasion of a note dictate how it should close. Due to the alliteration of my name, I'm fond of using "Best" for most scenarios. But a quick "XOXO" will do for my loved ones. It's hard to be creative when there are the standard-bearers of typical closing words ("Sincerely", "Yours", "Always", "Regards"), so perhaps try to be a bit creative here.

The signature need not be anything but your first name in whatever style you sign it. I like to do it a tad differently in script than my note (larger, or more flourished). As Mr. Boddington points out, for more formal or new acquaintances, use first and last.

 

None of these are revolutionary points, but they are good primers for where to get started. I believe in celebrating the ordinary, appreciating my friendships, and understanding that the few minutes I write may just make the day of someone else.