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January 5, 2009

On Being a Letter Writer

By AJ Buttacavoli

A narrative about the importance of good letter writing and its impact on society.

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In 1965 I brought my brand-new Chevy Impala to the local Chevrolet dealership in Tucson, Arizona to have the regular maintenance done on the car. I pointed out to the service advisor that a small portion of the ceiling in the interior had come undone. He looked at me with an expression of disdain and said:

"You see this spectacular dealership that has just opened? Do you think such a dealership could have been built if we had to deal with such petty details like your car ceiling?"

Seeing the logic of his argument I demurred, telling him not to worry about it, but the moment I got back to my dorm room at school, I sat down and wrote a letter to the president of General Motors telling him exactly what happened at the Chevrolet dealership.

Three weeks later I walked into my dad’s store where I worked part-time and he asked me about the letter. I said I had written a letter to General Motors and Dad replied that he received a phone call from Dallas in which he was told that the car should be brought back to the dealership and the problem would be taken care of. It was at that moment that I discovered the power of a well-written letter and I have been writing letters ever since.

Now, of course, we live in the age of email and letter-writing has pretty much become a lost art, but I still write letters because I enjoy the format so much, but it is amazing how many of my letters are never replied to. But that doesn’t bother me in the least, because I have learned over the years that a good letter on appropriate letterhead is a hard thing to ignore. I’ll give you a couple of examples.

I’m a big fan of Donald Trump because I think he’s sharp and has intelligent things to say. When I see him on television I always make a point of listening to him. And he has never disappointed me. I always come away feeling I have learned something new and I can understand why some people would want him to be president. But a couple of things annoyed me about him.

First, were the awful things he was saying about Rosie O’Donnell, who I also admire very much and have since I first saw her in the movies. So I sat down and wrote Mr. Trump a letter at his Fifth Avenue headquarters telling him that a gentleman never denigrates a woman at any time. And sure enough, he stopped it.

Some time later I wrote a second letter to Mr. Trump. I said that I found it difficult to understand whether he was a celebrity clown or a prominent businessman. The fact was, I said, he couldn’t be both and I thought he should decide which he wanted to be. Sure enough, in time, I saw that Mr. Trump took himself more seriously and all of the frivolous headlines associated with him abated. He was, in the eyes of the world, what he should have been all along, a serious businessman.

When Dianne Feinstein became mayor of San Francisco, appalled by her appearance, I wrote her a letter suggesting what she could do to enhance the way she looked. She did not reply to my letter, but her appearance improved overnight and has been exemplary ever since. In fact, I have noticed recently when I see her on television she looked absolutely smashing.

I wrote a similar letter to another high profile television personality making similar suggestions and again she did not reply to my letter, but several years later - after her TV show had been canceled - I saw her on television and she had taken every one of my suggestions to heart, including softening her look by tinting her hair and wearing fabrics and styles that complimented her look.

Nowadays, most of my letters are by email since that’s how letters are usually done, especially letters to the editor, of which I have had many published. All you have to do is Google me to see the variety and extent of the letters of mine that have been published. The reason so many of my letters are published is because they are concise, to the point and pithy. But many of them are controversial because more often than not editors like to publish controversial letters just so they will get a reaction to them.

And some of my letters have definitely received explosive responses. I have been called every name under the sun. In fact, one enterprising individual found my email address on the Internet and sent me a hate email - my first. But he made the mistake of using an address that could be easily traced and I simply forwarded the email to the appropriate company which contacted me quickly to tell me the matter was resolved and I would not be hearing from that person again.

Since I am by nature a writer, and have been writing all my life, letter writing is something that comes easily and is something I enjoy very much. But I have discovered that it is a great way to express your opinion in an age when we tend to think our opinion does not matter.

Letters in any format matter very much. Another example is that I write many letters to corporations either commenting on how well they do things or telling them where they need to improve. Almost always, these letters receive a response and again I have seen where companies have responded to my comments by remedying problems that they were unaware of.

I have learned that in almost every instance a well-written letter sent to the right person always gets results in some fashion. So, over the years, I have become an advocate of good letter writing and I would like to take the opportunity to pass along what makes a good letter.

First of all, there is no question that professional letterhead is important. It need not be expensive, in fact, nice looking letterhead is relatively inexpensive.

Secondly, a letter must be properly formatted. This is easy to learn as there are many places where one can see what a proper letter format is such as on the Internet.

It is also extremely important that a letter is grammatically correct and free of misspellings.

And, a letter should be to the point without exaggeration or tangents.

A letter should always be civil and polite. Even if you are upset about something, you can say what needs to be said without being offensive or rude. This is especially important, particularly since it seems to be a custom in this age to be as obnoxious as possible, something that can be seen almost everywhere, the sort of thing that has resulted in road rage. For example, right here at this site, management has stated in very clear terms that any discourse must be polite and civil. It’s too bad they have to say it, but that’s the nature of our age, the age of rudeness, I call it.

I think if more people collected their thoughts and sat down and wrote a cogent letter they would feel much better about things in general and there is nothing like having your letter published in the local paper to make you believe you are actually impacting the world in some small way.

I recall several years ago, a friend of mine told me my name came up at the Christmas party he went to. When I inquired how that could happen, he conveyed to me that a discussion about letters to the editor came up and so did my name, one person stating how she looked forward to seeing my letters because they always had an interesting point of view. This is perhaps the secret to getting letters published, expressing a view that no one has before, something I make a point of doing as often as possible.

Another person I ran into one day when he learned my name said to me that he had been reading my letters for years in the local paper and wondered who I was. He said he liked my letters because they were brief and to the point and always stated their position strongly. This is another secret to successful letter writing. Believe in what you have to say and say it as directly as possible without emotion. As Mario Puzo said, just tell the story.

And that is the secret of good writing.



Submitters Bio:
I am retired from the entertainment industry however I work for an agent reading scripts. He also represents my own writing. I am divorced and live in Walnut Creek, California. I graduated from the University of Arizona in 1966 with a degree in English. I first went to New York City where I joined a top promotion firm then to Burbank at NBC where I produced promotion. I then went to Wolper where I was also in promotion and worked with David Seltzer who wrote "The Omen". At the Hollywood Reporter I was the special editions editor and produced the issue on the French film industry.

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