As we’re heading into International Correspondence Writing Month, InCoWriMo, some of you may have new pen pals to write to, or people you’ve stumbled across who are also participating in the campaign. Our emails from our pen pal match have already gone out, so hopefully some of you will have some new mail on its way to or from you.
Especially if you haven’t written a letter in a while, it can sometimes be a bit daunting to know what to write.
This is one of those times where it’s not really “more polite” to be listening, like in a conversation: your new relationship is only going to thrive if both of you are contributing, sharing, telling stories and asking each other questions. It’s one of those times where you will see greater returns proportional to the amount of effort you put in, especially at the beginning.
Everything I’m saying are just suggestions – there is no etiquette police, or at the very least I have zero training. (Actually, I think there is likely some sort of proper etiquette on invitations and writing thank you notes, but I’m just talking about ideas on what to write to a new pen pal…)
These tips and ideas are just things you should use if you find them helpful to get started on writing. If you end up doing something differently, that’s still marvelous! The most important thing is that you begin writing, and you begin to get to know someone else from somewhere else in the world.
You should start off with an introduction with some of the facts of your life, your basic information: how old you are, what you do for a living, if you’re in a relationship, any important hobbies, a nutshell life history.
It sounds a bit ordinary, but it’s sometimes easier to get the bones of a person by just coming out and saying it. This helps the person understand a bit more about you – sometimes these things naturally come up in conversations with people you work with or see on a regular basis, or they pick up hints of it just by seeing you physically, but by correspondence, everything the person will know comes directly through what you write.
After you write a paragraph about who you are, you’re now free to share a bit more about your personality and who you are.
Sometimes you may feel like you’re a boring person (you’re not!) or you have nothing exciting to share about your life (you do!), so here are a few ideas.
- The city you live in, and what you like to do around it – parks, cafes, your favourite local shops. For example, I might share about my favourite neighbourhoods in Toronto and they city’s networks of ravines and green trails woven throughout.
- What types of books or TV shows or movies you like. You can list a genre or a few of your favourites, but it’s always nice to elaborate a bit more on a popular favourite, so the person can get to know you a bit better.
- What your dreams are. This one is nice because the person knows nothing about you, so doesn’t know if it really seems crazy or reasonable for you to dream about spending a year on a boat, or quitting your job and taking over a farm. And who knows, the more you write to them, maybe the more you’ll see the dream into a reality, sort of like writing in a journal about your goals.
- Your family members that are important to you, including pets. I often find animal people create an instant bond with other animal people.
- Dream travel destinations. Especially as you are getting to know someone from another part of the country or the world, it can be a great conversation point to talk about places you’ve been or would like to visit and getting to know another culture.
- What a day in your life is like – what the best part of your day is, the part that you dread the most.
Ask questions near the end.
It’s always nice to ask a few questions near the end to give the other person a bit of help, in case they need it. They might not answer all of your questions (in fact, you probably will forget the questions you asked anyways, so you’ll never know!) but it shows that you’re interested in them, and looking forward to their writing back.
You can ask them some of the same questions that you shared the answers to already, so if you share a few places you’d like to travel to, you can ask if they have any countries they’d like to travel to.
Once you get to know each other a bit better, you can ask more relevant questions (did you end up getting that job? How did the big holiday meal go with the in-laws?) but the first time you can ask a few more generic questions that may help you get to know them (what do you do for a living? Do you enjoy living in Turkey?).
How long should your letter be?
I suggest maybe around 2 pages. You may intimidate them or cause them to procrastinate by writing a very long, multi-page letter right off the bat, or you may not give them very much to go off of if your letter is quite short to begin with.
Eventually, as your pen pal and you write back and forth, you’ll fall into a rhythm that’s comfortable for both of you – about the same length that makes it easy for both of you to write back within a reasonable time frame, and also gives enough to go on. I find sometimes the shorter the letter, the more quickly I write back, whereas I need to dedicate a certain amount of time to some pen pals because I know I’ll be writing four or five pages or more, but it’ll all depend on your relationship with your pen pal.
My biggest piece of advice is to not be afraid to share – little stories, funny stories, the sorts of things you might share with a friend you already know.
My favourite pen pals, and the ones that have been the easiest for me to get to know just by their words on the paper, are the ones who have a sense of humour, or some personality that shines through the stories that they tell me, and it also opens it up for me to also feel free to share silly stories or the tiny things in my day – but these are the things that are going to make your pen pal relationship wonderful and long-lasting.
In case you missed our pen pal match up this round (we’ll be having another at the end of summer) here’s a post from a while back on other resources to finding a pen pal. And we also host a monthly Letter Writing Club, no cost, supplies provided, on the second Thursday evening from 7-9 pm. We would love to see you there!