Post script: how to write a formal letter after the death of mail

Like most people, I was once taught how to write a letter.  There was a set of rules you had to follow if anyone was going to take your letter seriously.  These rules were perhaps annoying, but they were clear.  Follow the rules, wrap it all up in an envelop, and put it in the postbox with confidence.  A few days ago, my wife was sending a formal business letter by email and we wondered, what are the rules now?

Letter writing guidance
How to write a letter in the olden days

Old rules no longer apply

The old rules vary slightly depending on where in the world you come from, but most variations demand that a letter contain the following:

  • Your address
  • The date
  • The recipient’s address
  • The salutation (normally “Dear [recipient’s name]”)
  • The letter’s contents
  • The sign-off (“sincerely” if you know their name, “faithfully” if you don’t)
  • Your signature
  • Your printed name

the ideal is to take advantage of the benefits of technology

All of this used to make sense in a system where physical post was the dominant means of communicating, and when prevailing culture was more polite and formal than ours.  Today, almost none of this makes sense and people rarely abide by these rules in online communication, even of the formal kind.

New rules for a different world

Let’s assume you’re sending a formal letter by email and the ideal is to take advantage of the benefits of technology while still being polite.  Here’s are the rules we don’t need to keep, and the ones that we do.

No: Documents in a container

In the old system, you would write or print a letter on a piece of paper (the document) and put it in an envelop (the container).  In the new system, the equivalent would be to write a letter and save it as a PDF (the document) and attach it to an email (the container).  People do this all the time.

Equivalency here makes no sense.  Attaching a letter in the form of a document to an email is a redundant operation when you can just write the letter in the email body.

No: Addresses

Writing down the physical addresses of the sender and recipient used to make sense.  It might be the only way for the recipient to have a return address, and if the letter ever dropped out of its envelop, the addresses on the letter meant the postal service could still direct it to its destination.

Every email contains an automatic record of the from: and to: addresses

Today, physical addresses are irrelevant.  An email is sent from one cloud server to another; it’s all virtual.

What about writing your email address instead?  Every email contains an automatic record of the from: and to: addresses.  There’s no need to write them down in the contents.

No: Dates

A written date has gone the same way as written addresses.  Every email contains an automatic record of the date it was sent.

Yes: Salutation

A salutation is still useful.  It allows the recipient to confirm that the letter is indeed intended for them, that it has been sent to the correct person.  It’s also an opportunity for the sender to address the recipient with respect.

Yes: Contents

Unless you think it’s appropriate to communicate exclusively via Twitter, the contents of a letter is the one element that really must remain.

Maybe: Sign-off

Under the old regime, a letter must include a sign-off, closing the letter with either “sincerely” if you know the recipient’s name or “faithfully” if you don’t.  These words imply a relationship between the two parties, a relationship that is honest and long-lasting.  This seems increasingly like an anachronism, and even presumptuous.

if that’s the cover letter, what’s in the email body – a cover-cover letter?

Most emails I receive close with the sign-off “kind regards”.  Most of the emails I send, I close with the sign-off “thanks”.  If you are writing your letter to make a request, this kind of sign-off is polite, respectful and simple.  But in many other cases, any kind of sign-off is superfluous and can be dropped safely.

Maybe: Signature and name

A handwritten signature still carries legal force, and yet it’s one of the most pointless (and difficult to create) elements of a modern digital letter.  Your printed name is sufficient.

Acceptance

These new rules aren’t very controversial when it comes to most emails, even business communications.  But suddenly everyone gets confused when it comes to things like cover letters for job applications.

Should it be a separate attached document?  But if that’s the cover letter, what’s in the email body – a cover-cover letter?

Should I still include the physical addresses?  That’s all I was ever taught, and no-one has given me permission to do anything else!

We panic and we revert to the only thing we know to be safe.  We write a letter as if we’re still in the 1980s, and we have to catch ourselves before we lick and stamp a brown envelop.

If you expect an attached document written as though the last thirty years never happened, shame on you

The world needs to accept that formal letters must change.  People need to be given permission to write their letters in a way that makes sense for today.  There are two things we can start to do to project this acceptance and permission.

Teach the new rules

Children should be taught in school the new rules for writing a formal letter and sending it online.  We have successfully taught generations of children the old rules; it can’t be hard to teach them some new ones.

When you ask for a letter, be specific

If you are asking people (for example, job applicants) to send you a letter by email, make it clear exactly what you expect.  If you expect an attached document written as though the last thirty years never happened, shame on you, but fair enough if you make that clear.  If all you really want is an email like the ones we comfortably send each other every day, then please say so!

Comfort or confusion

The whole reason for providing rules for letter writing is to make all the parties involved feel comfortable and to avoid any confusion about what is expected and what should be done.

we have made everybody feel uncomfortable and thoroughly confused

In the bizarre hybrid system we’ve built for ourselves, melding the old and new in a way that’s most ungainly, redundant and self-contradictory, we have made everybody feel uncomfortable and thoroughly confused.  It’s time for a change, and time for everyone to make it clear that this change is accepted.

Go on, write that letter the way emails are meant to be written.  You have permission.

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