It’s easy to freeze up when we’re writing for the faceless masses or the random reader who happens upon our words.
What do we say to all those people? How can we speak with heart to a total stranger?
Next thing you know, we second-guess our ideas, our prose, our very selves. We fade to beige without saying what we really think, without being specific, without our signature wit and whimsy.
What would that random person who doesn’t even know me think if I crack a joke?
We lose our creativity, our passion, our joy.
We freeze. We get stuck.
We’re afraid to stand out, so we play it safe. We write dull, ordinary prose that could be penned by anyone at all, even ChatGPT.
Unlock Your Creative Voice: Write a Letter to Your Reader
One way to unlock creativity is to write a letter—a letter to your reader.
And not just any nameless, faceless reader but a specific person you actually know.
When you think of the kind of person you’re trying to reach with your words, does Lissa fit?
Now, write her a letter about a question or struggle that she herself has voiced.
Weave in ideas that can help.
Encourage her with a vulnerable story.
Add a little pizzazz that only you can include—after all, she knows you. She’ll grin at your joke and “get” your allusion.
When you’re done, you can send her the note, if you want.
Or you can cross out Lissa’s name and replace it with the type of person you write for:
Dear Weary Homeschool Mom…
Dear New Gardener…
If that feels awkward to publish, cross off the salutation altogether.
Dear Anthony… Dear Paula… Dear Lissa…
I’ll bet you can find a great hook in your opening lines, and the letter-writing trick disarmed you enough to write fresh and real and personable.
Writing a Letter to Your Reader Frees Your Natural Voice
From the writer’s perspective, writing a letter to your reader can remove that feeling of writing to the faceless masses and instead invite an easy tone and thoughts that convey empathy and intimacy.
J. Willis Westlake, author of an 1800s book about letter-writing, says:
In other [writing] productions there is the restraint induced by the feeling that a thousand eyes are peering over the writer’s shoulder and scrutinizing every word; while letters are written when the mind is as it were in dressing-gown and slippers — free, natural, active, perfectly at home, and with all the fountains of fancy, wit, and sentiment in full play.1
By tricking your mind into donning its dressing-gown and slippers, you can achieve that “free, natural, active, perfectly at home” tone, style, and voice. Your readers will love reading your “fancy, wit, and sentiment in full play.”
Genuine Letters Contain Our Most Interesting Content
And it’s not just our style, tone, and voice that letters unleash; it’s also the content itself.
Westlake continues, “Though written, as all genuine letters are, for the private eye of one or two familiar friends, and without any thought of their publication, they nevertheless often form the most interesting and imperishable of an author’s productions.”2
In other words, these letters contain our “most interesting and imperishable” ideas. So why not write them as letters first?
Discover Epistolary Writing
This letter-writing format is labeled “epistolary” writing. And the epistolary approach is used more widely in published work than you might be thinking. For example, advice columns.
Advice columns like the classic “Dear Abby” and more recent “Dear Sugar” dished out empathetic responses that addressed specific needs that were sent in from readers.
The writer connected directly with the recipient who asked the initial question and with every reader who “listened in.”
Epistolary Nonfiction Books
Then there are nonfiction epistolary books, which invite us to peruse a letter exchange, and as we do, we feel we’re listening in on an intimate conversation.
Recognize these letter collections?
- 84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff
- Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke
- The Letters of Vincent van Gogh
You may have read epistolary novels that rely on this format to create “an intimate space between the characters and the readers,” as the Smithsonian Postal Museum writes. “[Because] letters are usually intended to be a closed communication, the readers are allowed to peer into the relationship created by the author.” “Epistolary Novels as an Intimate Space.” Si.edu, 2023, postalmuseum.si.edu/research-articles/epistolary-fiction-themes/epistolary-novels-as-an-intimate-space. Accessed 23 Oct. 2023.
Here are a few novels in this format:
- Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker
- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
- The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis
- Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
Letters Between Writers
When I was a college student, I wrote to an author whose book gave me hope and instruction when I was struggling personally and creatively. I sent her a long, vulnerable, typewritten thank-you letter explaining how her book gave me inspiration, vision, and tools to pursue my creative life.
She wrote back!
In fact, her response was an exuberant typewritten letter even longer than mine. She included vulnerable details related to her own creative journey and urged me to move forward.
We continued to exchange letters over the years, and each one she sent answered questions and gave me advice for writing…and for living.
Letters Capture Our Most Creative, Interesting Ideas
We almost published these exchanges as a book in the epistolary format—maintaining the format of letters.
Had we published them, the “interesting and imperishable” ideas from my mentor—in the intimate form of our correspondence—would have remained. Readers could have listened in, as it were, to our interactions. They would have received her insights for themselves even though she typed them out first just for me.
So the letter-writing structure can be an interesting experiment if your recipient is open to letting your notes (and possibly their responses) be shared with the wider public.
Write Your Reader a Letter Today
Picture your reader—that specific person who comes to mind. The reader whose specific problem you understand.
Open an email if you need to trick yourself even further and put that person’s name in the recipient line.
Relax. Write to her in a conversational tone. Say what you’re truly thinking. Express empathy, tell a story, offer a couple of ideas.
By shrugging off the sense that you’re writing to “everyone” and instead addressing just one person, you’ll feel free to be creative. Your writing style will produce more authentic and engaging content.
Tweak or delete the salutation, copy the text into a newsletter, social media post, Substack, or blog post, and then…
I’ll bet that genuine, heartfelt note will sparkle with your true voice and resonate deeply with your readers.
- Popova, Maria. “How to Write Letters: A 19th-Century Guide to the Lost Art of Epistolary Etiquette.” The Marginalian, The Marginalian, 21 Dec. 2012, www.themarginalian.org/2012/12/21/how-to-write-letters-1876/. Accessed 25 Oct. 2023.
- Ibid (emphasis mine).