Columns > Published on March 16th, 2016

7 Tips on How To Write a Better Open Letter

Based on the last couple months, looks like we're in for a long year of open letters. And I can't take it anymore.

Look, I get it. You spilled takeout on your expensive jeans. Your least-favorite football player did something that pissed you off. Or maybe you have a kid who has a disease and you want to tell everyone about some jerk who made fun of her. Or maybe, shooting in the dark here, there's a political candidate you have opinions about. 

Up to now, the quality of open letters stinks. Let me help you get your point across. Please. I can't take this nonsense anymore.

Here's what you need to know and what you need to do.

What's An Open Letter?

No, this isn't the thing where you move into a new apartment and open the previous resident's mail. 

Here's how Merriam-Webster defines an open letter:

A published letter of protest or appeal usually addressed to an individual but intended for the general public.

Now, we're talking the internet, so let's go to the real source, Urban Dictionary:

A method of writing in which an insecure attention whore tries to make it seem as though they care about the person to whom they're writing the letter when really they're just trying to draw attention to themselves.

To synthesize, a letter you write to someone, but more because you want the whole world to know how you feel.

Accept That Your Letter Will Not Accomplish Anything

Not in the traditional sense, anyway. If open letters worked, there would be a Beetlejuice 2 DVD on my shelf right now instead of a Cease and Desist from Tim Burton's lawyer. Yes, it's on my shelf. Yes, it's framed. I don't appreciate the judgment.

It's like this: write an open letter to the guy who practices his guitar inside the coffee shop, but don't do it because you actually want him to stop. Do it because writing the letter will make you feel better. If you want the guitar guy to stop, my suggestion is to get really good at guitar yourself, show up and guitar battle the guy, and then shame him into leaving with your incredible acoustic rendition of the solo from Dio's "Rainbow in the Dark."

Writing letters doesn't fix much, but it can make you feel better, you rainbow in the dark, you. Keep that in mind.

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Answer This: Who The Hell Are YOU?

So many letters contain phrases like this:

"As a parent..."

"As a man of god..."

"As a man with two, side-by-side buttholes..."

Wait, that last one is just a fantasy I came up with because I WOULD BE EXCITED TO READ THAT LETTER, regardless of the topic. I don't really care about alternative energy, but I care about solar power when it's written by someone with two buttholes.

If you're going to criticize an NFL player's post-touchdown dance, you know what would be a lot more effective than the phrase "As a parent"? How about "As someone with deep dance experience" or "As someone who has been swept up by the spirit of dance and fallen off a raised platform at a country/western bar while attempting to Dougie..." 

If you're going to get pissed off about Trump, how about you do it "As a person who has sampled Trump Wines..."

Tell me who you are, and tell me why I'm interested in your angle.


Too many open letters are too damn long.

Take for example, the recent, viral letter from a Yelp employee to her CEO. Let's start with paragraph 3:

I left college, having majored in English literature, with a dream to work in media. It was either that or go to law school. Or become a teacher. But I didn’t want to become a cliche or drown in student loans, see. I also desperately needed to leave where I was living ...

Thanks for the life story. Electrifying.

Look, the phrase "Too long; didn't read" is FOUR words and a semicolon, and we've agreed, as a group, that's too much. The Yelp writer makes good points, but she makes them over the course of 8 pages of 12-point, double-spaced text. That's too damn long, and too damn long is bad and dangerous.

It's bad because people won't read long enough to hear your real point.

It's dangerous because people who DO have time to read your whole letter and respond to it will cherry pick the lines that make you sound like a fool, and then they'll write their own open letters to you.

Keep it brief.

Don't Reinforce What People Already Don't Like About You

There was this open letter to Jerry Seinfeld going around for a while where a college student was berating Seinfeld for saying that college students are too politically correct. Some cherry-picked quotes:

...comedy in our progressive society today can no longer afford to be crass, or provocative for the sake of being offensive.

While it's not the sole role of comics to be social commentators on every issue through their comedy, I believe there is a responsibility, especially when a well-known comic is talking about sensitive topics like race and gender politics, to have an underlying message to be said.

Progressive, responsibility, sensitive topics, underlying message. Regardless of who's right and wrong here, this kid sounds like a TV movie, and not the good kind where a lady inherits a mansion filled to the brim with tiny demons. The boring kind. With lessons.

Writing a humorless open letter about how you're not humorless is the worst way to get your point across. Writing a letter to Jerry Seinfeld about how you, college student, know the most about comedy's role in society confirms what people don't like about you going in.

I'm not saying this kid is wrong. I'm saying that he wrote a humorless, know-it-all letter explaining that he's not humorless and a know-it-all. Not a great way to represent your concerns.

Don't Try To Rap With The Kids

When you write an open letter and try to be sassy, I picture you in a chair turned backwards, your hat turned backwards, and anything that can be backwards on or around your body is backwards. You're really going to get into it with the kids.

Give it a rest. Writing an open letter is not a cool thing to do. It can be a heartfelt thing to do, it can be a meaningful thing to do, it can even be a funny thing to do, but let's not pretend you wrote this shit while blasting across Nevada on a motorcycle or something. Let's not pretend that writing an open letter is the same as throwing a brick through someone's window. You're a dork who typed a couple hundred words about something into a computer. Own that shit.

Don't Make Up A Thing To Write An Open Letter About

People who are single and hate Valentine's Day? Not a news flash. Also, non-problem. I don't think they're blowing up Hallmarks or poisoning chocolates or anything like that.

Don't write an open letter to people who are single and hate Valentine's day. Don't write an open letter to people who spend too much time imagining if dragons were real. Don't write an open letter to people who wear cardboard boxes and pretend to be robots. 

Stop inventing recipients for open letters. There are plenty of a-holes out there who deserve a nice, literary punch to the stomach.

Or, if you insist on making something up, make it something interesting. Stick it to, I don't know, Captain Crunch or something. That guy thinks he's so awesome with those stupid brush things on his shoulders...

Don't Write A Letter By Hand If You Write In All Caps Like A Stooge

C'mon, Tom Brady.

Also, what the hell with the commas in the last sentence. And the double signoff. Gah!

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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