Personal Letter Writing: Definition

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. It's longer than a dashed-off note or invitation and is often handwritten and sent through the mail.

"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," write authors  Margaret Shepherd with Sharon Hogan, who are passionate about the diminishing art form in "The Art of the Personal Letter: A Guide to Connecting Through the Written Word."

They go on to explain: 

"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" (Broadway Books, 2008).

History of Letter Writing

Until just a few decades ago, personal letters (alongside diaries and autobiographies) had been the common form of written personal communication since the 18th century.

It really took off then because of mass-produced paper widely available, a large rise in literacy rates, the advent of systematic message delivery, and the establishment of the postal system. However, the earliest letters date back to 500 BCE and the ancient Persians.

Letter Writing and Literature

One of the first prose collections to be called a novel, Samuel Richardson's "Pamela," from 1740, was actually in the format of personal letters, and that tome isn't the only fiction book that's taken that format in the centuries hence.

The confluence of letters and books doesn't stop there, of course. In nonfiction, families compile old letters into books for future generations, and famous historical people have had their letters assembled into nonfiction works for posterity, either as a matter of record or for historical value. Take, for example, collections of love letters between presidents and their wives, such as the 1,000 letters saved between Abigail and John Adams.  

"Some of the greatest writers have had their personal letters published as major works, often regarded as discussions of literature," notes author Donald M. Hassler. "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" ("Letter." In "Encyclopedia of the Essay," ed. Tracy Chevalier. Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997).

Letter Writing Today

But various electronic communication innovations over the past several decades, such as email and texting, have contributed to a decline in the practice of personal letter writing. It's more uncommon to see hand-written correspondence in the mailbox than common.

Instead of having pen pals, people communicate with others around the country and world through social media outlets. 

Even though blogging communicates in longer scripts than short-form tweets or quickie status updates, blog posts still are more impersonal than letters sent to a specific friend or relative; there's likely an expectation of more privacy, more "for your eyes only" when something comes concealed and wrapped up with just one person's name on it, more like a gift than a broadcast over the airwaves to the known world. 

"Today, personal letter writing is a declining art," writes Robert W. Bly. "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." ("Webster's New World Letter Writing Handbook." Wiley, 2004)