An Open Letter to Someone Who Wants to Write an Open Letter

To you, a writer, whomever you may be,

If you’re thinking about writing an open letter, odds are, you have something pretty important to say. Because if you didn’t, and only had something to say to a very select audience, a normal, sealed up letter would suffice.

So now, what do you do?

Before you decide, I’ll showcase a few examples of open letters that vary in theme, style, and audience.

First is an open letter in the Huffington Post addressed to “Future Madame President”. Written by HuffPost contributor Janet Bertolus, the letter speaks to this unknown woman or girl, giving her motivation and advice to become the first female president. This text has an obvious greater purpose: to address her disappointment that nominee Hillary Clinton did not prevail in the 2016 presidential election. This open letter is structured in a unique format: the author makes a claim (either a piece of advise or a statement about the qualities she envisions in this future president) in bolded text, and then follows that with a few sentences of further explanation. She also uses informal diction, giving the letter the feel that it can be easily read out loud in conversation. The open letter genre is perfect for this rhetorical situation because she wanted to speak in the second person to someone, she just doesn’t know who that someone is yet. And the content of this letter is also relevant to people across the United States, who also now have access.

Another open letter example that is quite different is written by Arianna Huffington, the founder of HuffPost, written to Elon Musk. This is an interesting twist because Huffington makes it clear that she knows Musk personally, and therefore, she could just convey her thoughts to him privately. However, because her message to Musk is something that could benefit many in American society, she decides to write an open letter. She addresses Musk’s work ethic, which consists of 120-hour weeks, stating that this only does society a disservice. If his brain is overworked, he isn’t able to reach his full potential, which could even more so revolutionize society. She addresses this letter to Musk to use his situation as an extreme example, but to overall convey the message to all of those over-workers in America that getting enough sleep, having time off, and enjoying life are too important to put aside for a job. She also uses historical examples and outside research to convey this message, which are also useful in open letters.

The third example is a letter that was published in the New York Times earlier this year called “Open Letter from Time’s Up”. This letter was signed by hundreds of female celebrities, and it is addressed to “Sisters”, and therefore, the addressed audience is women all over America. In the text, the Time’s Up movement is explained, and the women propose a call to action for how our country should go about addressing sexual assault and gender based discrimination in our society. Later on, the letter also addresses those who should do something about this issue, people such as lawmakers and other executives. So, it is clear that this letter isn’t just written for women and girls in America, but also all Americans, because gender based discrimination and sexual assault is something that affects the progress of our society, and therefore, everyone in it.

As you can see, open letters are a flexible genre that can be personalized in many different ways to best suit your rhetorical purpose. Here are some things to keep in mind as you start drafting your open letter:

  • Know what audience you’re writing for! There are at least two you should especially keep in mind.
    • First, your addressed audience… the “Dear _____,”. Open letters are written in second person, and you should have someone (or something, or a group, or whatever you want!) in mind to direct your writing towards. But you also have your implied audience… AKA the reason why you’re not writing this down, sealing up, and actually sending it in the mail. You want your voice to be heard beyond the addressed audience, so keep in mind who it is you want to reach.
  • Your voice and diction matters, set the appropriate tone. Depending on who you’re writing, you could use informal diction and a relaxed tone, or you could use big, scientific words to prove your point.
  • Play around with different formats. There aren’t too many rules! You can use bolded text, italics, —–dashes, outside research, personal anecdotes. The letter is your oyster! 🙂
  • Think about a platform to reach your audience. Maybe this is just in a social media post, but there are tons of platforms online where you can publish an open letter.

I hope this helps, and that you write an open letter that will change the world!

Best,

Sydney

2 thoughts to “An Open Letter to Someone Who Wants to Write an Open Letter”

  1. Hey Sydney!

    FIrst off, I just want to say i LOVE how you wrote this blogpost like an open letter itself. Genius! I found it really interesting how you brought us through considering the paradoxial concept of the “open letter”. Why make something (letters) that is technically a “private” communication “open” after all? I personally think it combines intimacy with engagement with wider societal discourse, which you give poignant examples of in your blogpost. I had a thought on your point on “playing with the format”. Most open letters I have seen are predominantly text-dominated/prose-heavy and I wonder how multimodal writing could come into play in the open letter. Your origin piece was a video after all, is there a way to make the open letter multimodal to convey your message in a slightly more unconventional way? I guess I ask this because when I think of the physical letters I send home, I love to include the handwritten letter AND attached paraphernalia, like magazine clippings, a cut up fragment of the lovely illustrations from the Zingerman’s paper bags, or photographs, pamphlets, tokens etc., that tell my recipient about my life in a way that words can’t. Since you’re sharing about experiences, I feel like this could be interesting to explore – how might an open letter also capitalize on the intimacies and idiosyncrasies of the letter genre?

  2. I did not know much about the open letter genre, so this was very interesting to learn about! I think there is a lot of opportunity with directing the letter to a specific individual (whether real or fictitious) when actually trying to reach a wider demographic. I like this a lot since it actually translates really well to create a face to an issue (i.e., Elon Musk represents a case example of overworking individuals), which is very powerful for allowing readers to connect with a more humanised topic.

    Because there are not a lot of ‘rules,’ I can see a lot of creative opportunities to reach the audience in the style that you find most effective. Whether it comes from formatting parts of the text differently (maybe experiment with spatial & visual modes?) or really allowing your writing voice to flow out, this personalises the letter and makes your point more compelling. Therefore, I definitely agree that audience is probably one of the most important factors to consider in the letter.

    Great genre choice!

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