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The Art of the Open Letter

Want to try writing an open letter? Take a look at these examples for inspiration.

The open letter. You’ve seen ’em before, I’m sure. If not, they can look something like this:

Dear Monday,

I must admit I’m never happy to see you. I dread you in the morning, and on the drive to work, and from what I see on my Facebook feed, no one else likes you, either.

Why you gotta be so gloomy?

Sincerely,
Cheri

Sure, it’s a silly example. But it’s a different, more creative approach than simply typing:

I have a bad case of the Mondays.

Pen and paper image by Arron PattonCC BY 2.0

Here on The Daily Post, we talk about different approaches to your writing — to practice and hone, and to discover new ways to express yourself. The open letter, a popular format we see more and more across the internet, is a structure worth trying for a new post and fitting for all kinds of writing, from social and political commentaries to personal musings. It can be a letter for a large audience, or for a specific individual. Either way, it’s public, intended to be widely circulated.

Let’s see how several WordPress.com bloggers employed the open letter to create their recent popular posts:

An Open Letter to Paula Deen on Afroculinaria

Culinary historian Michael W. Twitty penned this thoughtful open letter to Paula Deen at the end of June, in light of the controversy surrounding the chef and cooking show host’s derogatory remarks of African Americans.

Don’t forget that the Southern food you have been crowned the queen of was made into an art largely in the hands of enslaved cooks, some like the ones who prepared food on your ancestor’s Georgia plantation.

While Michael’s post would have still worked and resonated with readers if written as a straightforward piece of opinion or commentary, the angle he uses is more personal and direct, and much more effective.

Don’t be fooled by the claims that Black people don’t watch you.  We’ve been watching you.  We all have opinions about you.

The intimate yet public nature of an open letter draws readers in, in an emotional way — it can be an effective method to spark a discussion between people who strongly identify (or disagree) with you.

An Open Letter to My Son on His First Birthday on Fueled by Diet Coke 

Writer and mother Lindsay Durrenberger wrote a heartfelt open letter to her one-year-old son, Dax. The post is very personal, and it almost feels, especially with the accompanying photographs of her with her baby, that we’re intruding on a private space. Yet despite the details she shares about his milestones — when he got his first tooth, or when he first said “dada” — she writes something quite universal:

Dax, a year ago, you turned my whole world upside down. You took what I knew about life and love and you shook it all up and rebuilt it into something beautiful, something I don’t fully understand.

Thank you for letting me be your mommy that day a year ago, and thank you for continuing to let me be your mommy today.

When done right, an open letter isn’t simply for the person to whom it’s addressed, is it? Here, Lindsay’s positive, loving letter is for other mothers — especially new ones — and their children, too.

An Open Letter to White People About Trayvon Martin on Opine Season

After hearing about the George Zimmerman verdict,  Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre, a contributor at Opine Season, an op-ed collective of writers, published an open letter to white people — “especially to those white people who understand that something terrible has happened, and has been happening, and will continue to happen, but don’t know what to do.”

We read a number of impassioned responses to this trial — many heated and angry — along with the comment discussions that were generated. We appreciated Kyle’s post, which he used as a springboard to encourage awareness and action. He begins his open letter:

In the next few days, there are going to be a lot of essays and op-eds attempting to make sense of, or grapple with, or process the Zimmerman verdict, from writers who are better than me . . .

And throughout, with patience and hope, he urges us to stop and think:

We also need to act on those thoughts, to cultivate an awareness that can permeate our lives and relationships. When people of color share personal stories about racism, our immediate response has to stop being “but I’m not like that.” Just listen.

Think about handwriting a letter — how you’ve scribbled thoughts onto paper in private, for one specific person to read. It’s an intimate, revealing process, transformed in our digital age as this type of open letter that Kyle produces here. Addressing a post to someone specific (and then signing off with your own name) adds a layer of vulnerability and extra weight to your words. In a way, you’re saying: “Yes, I’m directing this to you, in public, and I stand by everything I’ve said.”

In addition, taking ownership of a letter emphasizes a writer’s unique perspective. After all, your response is just one point of view on a topic. Here, Kyle makes it clear that he’s just one of many writers sharing their thoughts on the verdict, but also hopes his reader spends the few moments to consider what he has to say, too.

The [Open] Letter to My Father That He Will Never Read on Thoughts of a Lunatic

Erica’s recent letter to her father is raw and honest — like the letters above, it’s intensely personal, and there’s a vulnerability here that attracts her readers, whether or not they relate to the subject matter.

I didn’t blame you for the perils of my life. I didn’t blame you for the molestation. I didn’t blame you for abandoning me. I didn’t blame you for forgetting about me.

Erica addresses this open letter to her father, even though it’s something he’ll never read. So…why write a letter if your addressee won’t see it? This piece illustrates just how powerful the open letter as a literary device can be — you can use it to structure your deepest thoughts, and transform personal musings into a dialogue worth sharing with others. In the best pieces, readers may see their own flaws or hardships, too.

Yesterday, Dad, I found you.
And yesterday, Dad, you turned me away.

Write your own open letter

You can use these examples as inspiration for your own open letter, but also consider different approaches:

  • A humor or satirical piece addressed to a celebrity or person in the news.
  • A piece of constructive criticism (or praise) to a politician, either international or local.
  • A letter to a thing — one of your fears, a habit you’d like to break, etc.
  • A note to yourself at a specific age/year in the future.

What other ideas for open letters do you have?

Whatever approach you take, remember that trusting your unique point of view (and allowing yourself to be vulnerable) can encourage meaningful engagement from your readers. Talk directly to the person or people you’re addressing — refer to them by name in your letter. Picture your addressee in your mind as you type, or better yet, first draft the post by hand, and let that private process of handwriting a letter move you. Above all, approach this piece as an intimate conversation between you and someone or something else — you’ll be surprised by what spills out of you onto the page.

For more open letter samples, take a peek at these posts:

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  1. Wow, you’re riding my wavelength. On my way to work this morning, I started mentally constructing an angry open letter to Chris Jenner. Unfortunately, and in a beautiful stroke of irony, I have to work and don’t have the time to write it!

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      1. That is my general philosophy, but I accidentally saw her defending Kim Kardashian as, and I swear I’m not making this up, “the hardest working woman in the world.”

        I need to remember to turn off the television after Charlie and Nora say goodbye.

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  2. I try to write letters at least in Christmas. One of my best friends remembered me the importance of writting a letter and how nice can be to recieve one. Since that day, I feel very happy and illusionated every time I write a letter.
    I think, this way we transmite more feelings; it’s so creative that I love it. I always draw beautiful things in letters and envelopes; and actually I enjoy it much!

    (sorry for my english; I’m spanish and I’ve tried to do my best)

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  3. I’m a postcard fan personally. I still send them, occasionally even when I’ve been nowhere special instead of a letter, and despite the costs of sending abroad. There’s just something brilliant about knowing they’ll receieve it in the post and pay more attention to those few words and a picture than anything in the flurry of information on the internet that day.

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  4. In my country, due to slow creation of new laws, outdated print news-paper/magazine laws apply to blogs as well. So, will not an open letter become an invitation for a defamatory lawsuit? I am not sure how much humor/criticism is safe and will not get us into trouble (legally).

    Destination Infinity

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  5. Wow! I actually wrote a letter to myself regarding my heartbreak a few days ago! A wanted to write an open letter to my ex but found it more fitting to write to me instead!

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  6. Very interesting post. In my younger years my counselor prescribed I write a letter to my (then dead for fifteen years) father. I asked the same question, “the guy is dead, why bother?” but the answer came in flowing like a river. It was the most emotional letter I have ever written. Did it help me? Nope. But it was a great letter. Yes indeed.

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  7. Wow, this was a great exercise! Thank you so much for this. I don’t usually read the prompts, but this caught my eye and then I got to the part to possibly write a letter to one of your fears and it definitely sparked something deep inside. As an aspiring author and artist I’ve been battling self doubt for ages, so I wrote Doubt a rather heated letter/ eviction notice. Who knew I had so much emotion pent up?

    http://slythranoirvaere.wordpress.com/2013/08/13/dear-doubt-i-rid-myself-of-thee/

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