I get asked to write a lot of recommendation letters. Today I’m writing three of them. Perhaps because I have so many other things to do today, I’m wasting time staring at my computer screen, pondering the particulars of letter writing, with which, up until now, I have not unduly concerned myself.
How should I open a letter to scholarship granting organization about which I know little and in whose ranks I know no one? This calls for trying out options. “To Whom it May Concern” sounds pompous and impersonal, not a good combination. “Dear Sir or Madam” sounds like I’m a time traveler from the 1800’s. “Dear Friends” sounds presumptuous. Who am I to presume friendship? I know that friends are merely strangers you haven’t met yet, but I will probably never meet the faceless, nameless recipient of the scholarship request letter I am typing. “Dear Colleagues” has a nice egalitarian ring, but again, it’s kind of presumptuous. In what sense are we colleagues, sharing values and goals and a common mission? “Greetings Earthling” (This is risky, since only 1 in 100 people will not find that ridiculous), “Hey, What’s up?” won’t do. “Dear Person Who Will Read this Letter, Dear Bureaucrat, Dear Scholarship Decider Person, Dear Intern Who Opens all the Mail and Sorts it” – all of these sound snarky despite their accuracy of detail.
And then there is question of how to end the letter.
If it’s to a religious organization, I could say “in Christ,” but that sounds like I’m holding Christ accountable for the entire contents of the preceding letter, which is hardly fair. I could say, “Love,” but that’s way too familiar. I could say “Grace and Peace,” that’s not bad. But if I’m going to go for a benediction like that why not “Faith, hope and love?” or “Peace out?” I could go for the secular version of “Grace and peace,” which is “Best regards.” Or I could go for brevity and just say “Best,” but that seems a little flippant or lazy like I couldn’t motivate myself to type “regards” in addition to “best.”Then there is the time honored “Sincerely,” which is an odd farewell, because if you are really sincere why do you have to remind the reader at the very end that your intention in writing the letter is sincere and that the letter is sincere? That’s the equivalent of people saying “I’m going to be honest with you.” I always, in my mind supply the question (for once?)
And then there is the question of how to sign the letter. “Alyce,” seems too informal. “Alyce M. McKenzie” sounds awfully formal. AM sounds like I’m quoting from Exodus I AM who I AM. AMM just involves too many “M’s.”
All right, I have other things to do; I need to make a decision.
For my standard opening, from now on I’m going to go with “Hey there”
For my standard closing, I’m going to balance the flippant familiarity of that opening with a lengthy, repetitive and overly sincere closing, “Wishing you all the best in the crucial and important work that you do.”
On second thought, I can’t do that. There is too much at stake. Conventions must be met. Jobs and funding are better served by dignified letters devoid of the personality quirks of the author. So I must risk qualities that go against my nature: pomposity “To Whom It May Concern…. and lack of imagination,
Alyce M. McKenzie