Personal Letter Writing Definition

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Smiling young woman writing a personal letter at home
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A personal letter is a type of letter (or informal composition) that usually concerns personal matters (rather than professional concerns) and is sent from one individual to another.

Personal letters (alongside diaries and autobiographies) have been popular forms of personal communication since the 18th century. But as mentioned below, various innovations over the past several decades have contributed to a decline in the practice of personal letter-writing.

Examples and Observations:

  • "Today, personal letter writing is a declining art. The stories of our lives are now told in short, abrupt, unliterary, and ungrammatical e-mails instead of thoughtfully written letters penned in elegant handwriting. Yet people still write letters: brothers write sisters, college students write home to Mom and Dad, parents write loving letters to children who are spending their first summer at sleep-away camp...
    "The overriding instruction for personal letters: Write from the heart in a positive, caring, giving tone. Warm letters have always had a powerful ability to build goodwill. And in an age of computers and e-mail, the old-fashioned personal letter stands out even more."
    (Robert W. Bly, Webster's New World Letter Writing Handbook. Wiley, 2004)
  • "I hold that the parentheses are by far the most important parts of a non-business letter."
    (D.H. Lawrence, letter to Blanche May Rust Jennings, April 15, 1908. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, ed. by James T. Boulton. Cambridge University Press, 1979).
  • "E-mail, iPhones, and cell phones have greatly reduced the practice of personal letter writing. However, letters are still appropriate for many purposes, and they are still valued. Handwritten letters are especially correct for thank-you notes and for letters of condolence."
    (Patsy Johnson Hallman, Creating Positive Personal Images for Professional Success. Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2012)

    How a Letter Is Different From a Note

    "A personal letter takes longer to write than the few abrupt sentences you bang out without proofreading before you click on 'send'; it takes longer to read than the blink-and-delete blitz that helps you purge your inbox; and it digs deeper than the brief handwritten note that you drop in the mail. A letter deals with issues that deserve more than a minute of attention. It aims to strengthen a relationship, not just react to a situation. A letter isn't limited to a specific message like 'Can you come over?' or 'Thank you for the birthday check.' Rather, it can take both the writer and the reader on an excursion that sets off from a home base of mutual trust: 'I know you'll be interested in what I think' or 'I'd like to hear your ideas on this.' Whether it comes into your life onscreen or through the mail slot, the well-thought-out personal letter is irresistible to read aloud, mull over, respond to, read again, and save.

    "Good letter writing feels much like a good conversation, and it has the same power to nourish a relationship." (Margaret Shepherd with Sharon Hogan, The Art of the Personal Letter: A Guide to Connecting Through the Written Word.

    Broadway Books, 2008)

    Types of Personal Letters

    When your message is very personal or you want to create a special connection to the person you are writing to, the best choice is a personal handwritten letter.

    "The following are examples of types of personal letters you may wish to write:

    - Happy-news letters sent for birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, life achievements, and all sorts of occasions.
    - Correspondence that keeps you in touch with friends and relatives.
    - Letters of introduction, initiating a relationship, or observing the etiquette of introduction.
    - Personal letters of appreciation following a death in the family or sent in response to acts of kindness."

    (Sandra E. Lamb, How to Write It: Complete Guide to Everything You'll Ever Write. Ten Speed Press, 2006)

    Garrison Keillor on "How to Write a Letter"

    "Don't worry about form.

    It's not a term paper. When you come to the end of one episode, just start a new paragraph. You can go from a few lines about the sad state of pro football to the fight with your mother to your fond memories of Mexico to your cat’s urinary tract infection to a few thoughts on personal indebtedness and on to the kitchen sink and what’s in it. The more you write, the easier it gets, and when you have a True True Friend to write to, a compadre, a soul sibling, then it’s like driving a car down a country road, you just get behind the keyboard and press on the gas.

    "Don’t tear up the page and start over when you write a bad line—try to write your way out of it. Make mistakes and plunge on. Let the letter cook along and let yourself be bold. Outrage, confusion, love—whatever is in your mind, let it find a way to the page. Writing is a means of discovery, always, and when you come to the end and write Yours ever or Hugs and kisses, you’ll know something you didn’t when you wrote Dear Pal." (Garrison Keillor, "How to Write a Letter." We Are Still Married: Stories and Letters. Viking Penguin, 1989)

    Personal Letters and Literature

    "[I]n the last two centuries the distinction between the personal letter and more public forms of literary expression has become blurred almost beyond recognition. Some of the greatest writers have had their personal letters published as major works, often regarded as discussions of literature. An early example would be the letters of John Keats, which were originally personal, but which now appear in collections of essays on literary theory.

    Thus the ancient form continues to have an intriguing ambiguity of purpose and a vigorous potentiality in relation to the essay form." (Donald M. Hassler, "Letter." Encyclopedia of the Essay, ed. Tracy Chevalier. Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997