Recently I found myself writing a letter to a friend who resolved to be a better letter-writer this year. It’s been almost a year since I myself started my letter-writing project (the first anniversary is in March), and while I’ve written more letters over these past eleven months than I have in the rest of my years combined, I know I too have room for improvement. However, I’ve also developed a system that helps hugely in the turnover rate of my correspondence. This how-to post serves not only as advice for pen-friends looking to streamline their postal process, but as a reminder to myself of the reasons why this blog even exists!
1. Find a Container
Get yourself a box or a special, durable folder in which to stash your correspondence gear. Portability is a top priority here, but if your container is also attractive and unique you’ll use it more often. I have an A4-sized cardboard document folio for this purpose, emblazoned with a map of Germany, which not only serves as a quick reference tool but is also a good conversation starter! My friend Maria gave it to me and I think they are fairly common in Germany, sold as Sammelboxen or Heftboxen. These cardboard boxes also work well as a lap-desk if you take your kit to go.
Here is a German-language site where you can order all different kinds of cool Heftboxen, including the one pictured above! I like this one with black and white flowers, this map of Europe, and the map of the world. But I’d add the Rolling Stones one to my collection in a heartbeat.
Assemble the Essentials
Then assemble a collection of everything you need to write AND SEND a letter:
- Beautiful stationery.
- It doesn’t have to be the high-quality stuff you keep in your top desk drawer, and in fact I’d recommend keeping your boxed set of Crane’s paper in the desk, especially if you plan on making this a portable correspondence kit! Your correspondence kit should contain, rather, all-purpose stationery that can hold up to a little shuffling around in your Heftbox. Notecards, postcards, or a colorful stationery set from Papyrus or — better yet — an independent seller on Etsy will do very well.
- A favorite pen.
- If you’re not the type to carry around a fountain pen wherever you go, at least put one in your correspondence kit. A Kaweco Classic Sport with a fine nib is inexpensive, small, takes international cartridges, and makes writing a fine and special experience that will inspire you to write more.
- A pretty address book.
- I use a Roterfaden address book: it’s size A6 so it has plenty of room for collecting all the addresses I will ever need to use.
- A book of cool stamps.
- Your local post office should have some variety. I like ordering online because there are so many more to choose from! American customers, go to the USPS website. A word of caution: Buying stamps can become a bad habit.
An anecdote: just as I was writing this, my supervisor sighed and muttered to herself, “No stamp.”
“Do you need a stamp?” I asked her across our desks, trying to conceal my eagerness and failing pretty badly.
She said yes, starting to laugh at herself. She told me she’d gotten this important letter all ready to send off but had completely forgotten a stamp at home.
“I have stamps!” I offered. “What kind would you like?”
“Oh, just a plain first-class forever stamp.”
“Yes, but what kind?” I prompted. “I have Year of the Ram, Batman, Jimi Hendrix, famous choreographers, Harry Potter, Civil War battles, birds, flowers, 2013 and 2014 Christmas, and Hudson River School stamps….” I didn’t even mention the international and alternate denominations. “Plain” is not a word that exists in my stationery vocabulary.
I keep extra fun things in my letter kit, especially stickers — check out those Karas Kustoms decals and the puffy fox stickers! I have a transparent file to hold my stamps and stickers, and an accordion file (not pictured) for note- and post-cards, plus any interesting flyers or paper ephemera my penpals might like. Also: nifty canceled stamps from far-off friends. These are fun to decorate envelopes with.
When you get a letter, if you can’t answer it immediately, put it somewhere you can’t forget about it. I’ll often put mine on my laptop or at my place at the breakfast table, where I take care of most of my correspondence.
As soon as you get a chance, sit down at a table or a desk with the letter and your kit and answer it. Try to do it all in one go. Don’t worry about your letter not being long enough; sometimes you just have time for a couple of pages. Anyway, when was the last time you got a letter and were disappointed because it wasn’t eight pages long?
Seal, address, and stamp it immediately and go stick it in the mail. If you’re like me, the process gets hung up at this stage, so be extra vigilant here.
Et voila! You’ve become a prompt penpal!
The advanced letter writing kit also contains:
A writing mat
Rubber stamps and multicolored stamp pads
Crayons, colored pencils, or markers
Custom address labels and/or address stamp
Letter Writers Alliance membership card ($5 for lifetime membership!)
Guide to postage prices (ask or leave a note for your post person)
A guide to correspondence etiquette (take it with a grain of salt or leave it)
Familiarity with a few topical/epistolary novels, e.g. The Sorrows of Young Werther, Love in the Time of Cholera, or Ella Minnow Pea (just kidding — but it’s good to have a couple of relevant passages memorized that you can whip out and impress your penpals with!)
I also keep a record of incoming and outgoing mail. To get the Penventory look: order one $10 set of Field Notes’ “Ambition” edition. Use the olive-green ledger to record each piece of mail that passes through your fingers. Like so:
At a single glance I can see if there are any letters that need replying to and I also have a physical record of my productivity! And the subject helps me keep track of dozens of conversations (because who can remember what they cooked for dinner last night, let alone whether they’ve told a penpal XYZ?).
The most important element of your correspondence kit: creativity! Feel free to “think outside the envelope” when it comes to writing letters. Avoid the dreaded “How are you? I’m fine” opener. Wax lyrical on your favorite breakfast item. Write an ode to your cat. Compose an entire letter without once using the letter “E.” Make up fanfiction about your grade school music teacher who was, you were pretty sure, an undercover international spy.
And get personal. Handwritten letters are intimate. They’re a little piece of your soul, gift-wrapped for another human being. Think deep thoughts and ask hard questions. Let your letters expand you and your correspondee to encompass worlds of words.