Open Letters and the Madness That Surrounds Them

To my confused peers,

Letters are a thing of the past. The only mail I plan on receiving anytime soon is my absentee ballot (#excerciseyourright!). Open letters are in now. What does this mean? This is a question everyone is asking and no one knows the answer to. Open-letters are not a new genre, but the most recent renditions of open letters have begun to stray from the traditional idea.

Open letters are different from a regular letter in that they are not intended for only one person. They are meant to be read by a larger audience than a singer reader. This seemed like an appropriate direction to take my common application essay. I wanted to explain to the world why I write in this essay. So why not write a letter to the reason I write. I wanted my grandpa to be the recipient of the letter because it would have the most meaning to him, the reason I write. It just made sense. And while yes I could easily mail him the letter and call it a day I know there is a larger lesson at work here. It is so simple and easy for me to make my grandparents day by just checking in. Grandchildren oftentimes don’t realize how easily they could make their grandparents day. This letter’s implied audience is to the grandchildren out there who may need a reminder that having living grandparents is a privilege.

So without any further ado, let’s figure out how an open letter can be successful, and how it can flop and end up not being considered an open letter at all.


  • Do pick a recipient. In my case I have picked my grandpa, “the reason I write.” You can be specific and you can also be vague. Claire Wagner wrote “An Open Letter to anyone having a Bad Week.” Last week I had three midterms over the course of 24 hours and needless to say this letter resonated with me. She didn’t try and pretend she knew me, she picked a subset of people and categorized them and wrote to the category, not the specific people. This is how being vague is okay. I felt like this random contributor to the Huffington Post was giving me a hug. That’s a success in my book.

  • Do be calm when you write your open letter. This doesn’t so much apply to my letter, as I am not discussing an issue with a strong divide. However, many open letters are written regarding politics and other hot topics and usually you’re pretty passionate about the topic if you’re writing an open letter about it. So if you’re feeling angry and heated, take a step back and take a deep breath. Your writing will be better received and considered if you deliver it calmly. I know my brother takes advice a lot better that way then when I yell in his that he’s wrong. We don’t want to make anyone feel defensive, but rather enlightened.


  • Don’t bring up that inside joke. While personalization makes the heart grow fond, I’ve found that too much very personal content confuses the reader of the open letter. This was something I struggled with in my open letter. I wanted my grandpa to feel personal but I also wanted anyone to be able to read it and come out feeling like they understood why I wrote it. All of this to say though, I do like personalization. There are some open letters out there that people find bothersome. Like in this Odyssey article titled “An Open Letter to the People Who Keep Writing Open Letters.” This girl is ANGRY about incorrect open letter usage. I mean look at this-

“So next time you sit down at your laptop to spit out another open letter to whoever changed your life this week, ask yourself- is this for the betterment of society? Does my opinion really matter or am I just complaining because it’s what I’d rather do than deal with my problems in the adult way I act like I do in my open letters,” (

This is a little extreme in my opinion but it shows you that there is a line between too personal and touching, so make sure you watch yourself. I don’t want the wrath of this girl, I don’t know about you.

  • Don’t be upset if people have opinions that challenge yours. Part of the beauty of an open letter is being able to deliver an opinion uninterrupted. If I was speaking this letter out loud to my grandpa he would never let me finish. He would interrupt after I say the freaking title. Just because you can get your thoughts out uninterrupted though, does not mean everyone will agree. You’re writing an OPEN letter so it is OPEN for anyone to read interpret. Listen to others, it can be interesting.


Overall, open-letters are pretty free form at the bone. Yes, people have strong opinions on what an open letter should be but don’t let that discourage you from taking it on in a new way. I know my open-letter is far from traditional, but I am going with it. I am writing to my grandpa but I am writing with the hopes that some other kid will read it and decide to call their grandma afterward. That dual functionality makes it an open letter to me.

Good luck and write away!


P.S. It’s actually pretty comical how many open letters about open letters there are out there. Irony at its finest, let me tell you.


2 thoughts to “Open Letters and the Madness That Surrounds Them”

  1. The concept of an open letter is interesting because it challenges the idea of a letter itself. People exchange letters for the intimate contact it provides, sharing the transfer of a physical thing. In other words, and as you get at, it’s personal.

    The open letter on the other hand is meant to incite a larger audience about a larger topic, yet is still usually addressed to a specific person, group, or entity. This raises questions about who the incited audience is and who the addressed audience should be. I think the addressed audience should be used and chosen to incite the larger audience before they even begin reading. In your case, this happens for college students with grandparents living when they read you’re writing to your grandpa.

    I think another interesting aspect of the open letter is the writer doesn’t get a direct response as the audience addressed usually is not the primary audience for the piece. Instead the writer is hoping to get at larger ideas and strike at a larger theme or pattern society is facing, hoping to create disruption.

  2. I think it’s great to analyze open letters as a genre, because they’re all over the place, and give people a template for expressing an opinion or sharing an experience. One interesting idea you bring up is the balance between making the letter personal while keeping it relatable for a more general audience. It’s definitely important to include some personal details, because otherwise the letter would be vague and probably less impactful. For instance, some of the little stories you tell about your grandfather make your letter resonate more with me emotionally. On the other hand, you’re right that referencing an inside joke is going to drastically narrow your audience. I think the key to striking this balance is choosing personal details that don’t require too much context — if you have to really explain a personal anecdote, you’re going to lose readers. In addition, I think it’s important to choose a broader audience that isn’t too broad. Your personal details are only going to resonate with a certain subset of the larger world, most likely people who have had similar experiences (for example, people who are close to their grandparents).

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