TIL : Corresponding with Strangers

As many of you take the InCoWriMo plunge this year, there's a good chance that some of you may be writing to someone that you may not know socially. All you may know about the person is their username handle and their profile picture. So, what are you going to write to them about? Besides the usual small talk about the weather, what is in bounds for appropriate correspondence? Speaking from my experience with InCoWriMo, I stepped way outside my comfort zone to write a number of letters to perfect strangers. I'd like to share my notes on what I had learned from that rewarding experience so you may also enjoy your new pen pals.

Opening Up

I wouldn't label myself an "introvert," but I don't wear my heart on my sleeve or syndicate my entire life's story over a cocktail. Opening up by sharing some interesting (& harmless) details about your life can be a great way to start off a letter. Something like this:

Hi John,

Finally! I get to sit down and relax to write this letter to you for InCoWriMo. I've been non-stop all day, serving tacos on our food truck, taking the kids to karate and running a 5k to fundraise for Breast Cancer. I'm sure you can relate, there's nothing better after a long day than getting a chance to pull out my fountain pen and put ink on a page.


Ask Questions

Think about it: if you're on the receiving end of the first letter exchange, you've got it made! The other person broke the ice and wrote to you first. What makes your reply easier is that it can be a response to what the first person already wrote. So, if you're the first to send a letter out, make it easier for the other person to reply and ask questions. Not boring questions about the weather or anything else you can easily google or find on Wikipedia. Oh, the humanity! Ask how someone is feeling about something. How are they coping? What is their individual perspective on a topic you find interesting?


Do Your (non-creepy) Research

Without becoming a stalker, find out about the person on social media to get a few talking points and a common ground. If they belong to the same fountain pen subreddit, check out the posts they've commented on or articles they've shared. If you're following each other on Instagram or twitter, check out their feed and see what stuff they've liked and shared. If they are active online, you should be able to find a topic worth writing about that they will also respond to.


Small Ask the Celebrities

I once wrote to Neil DeGrasse Tyson during InCoWriMo. I'm a fan of his geeky cool personality and share his love for the stars. I know he, and most other people of note, must get a ton of unsolicited junk. If you're famous, the public is always going to be looking for a handout. However, it's not every day that someone takes the time to write an actual letter, and with a fountain pen to boot! I've read that NDGT is also a big fountain pen lover as well, so I knew that would resonate with him. I was as giddy as Ralphie writing about his Red Rider BB gun. I didn't ask to get a personal tour of the Hayden Planetarium. All I asked him for was if he could include a signed photograph in the self-addressed, stamped envelope I provided in my mailing. It took over a year, but he finally wrote back (through a secretary) and included the signed photo. I was over the moon!


It's Not About the Length

In school, we were instructed that a proper essay had x number of paragraphs with x number of sentences per paragraph, must be this many words and contain at least x number of cited sources.

No. Stop. Just, no.

Writing is a lot easier than that, especially when it comes to communicating with another human being and not the masses (or your Freshman Year English teacher). If you want to fill up the page, then let your mind and pen wander. If it's a struggle just to get through a few sentences, then that's all for this person. The person you are writing to is not expecting a novel to land in their mailbox. They're just happy to get a letter in the mail that isn't from a credit card company. On to the next.


Let's Get Personal

Writing a letter is as personal as modern correspondence gets. Aside from sending full body naked photos of yourself by Snapchat, you probably won't feel as naked as you do when you write a letter to a stranger. Embrace the discomfort, but don't give away too much. As an example, here's what not to do when writing a personal letter:

Hi John,

I'm so glad I receive your reply. Yes, being a taco truck entrepreneur is quite exhausting. Just look at my schedule for next week, including all of the dates and times that I'm not at my home address, which is clearly marked on the front of the envelope I sent you. Also, here is my social security number since you were curious about my credit score.


Make a Copy

This was one bit of advice that I wish I knew about before sending out all my letters. In the e-mail age, we take for granted that every message we send has a paper trail and can be easily called up. Snail mail does not make its own copy. Especially when you're carrying on correspondences with numerous pen pals during InCoWriMo, it can be extremely confusing to keep track of all the conversation threads out there. Take a quick photocopy or scan your letter on your phone to keep a record of your part in the conversation.

So, it's your turn to be part of this one-sided conversation on letter writing. Do you have any helpful things you've learned while writing letters during InCoWriMo? Share them in the comments below and I'll thank you by writing more embarrassing tidbits about myself.


  • I know it’s WAY past February now, but this is the first time I’ve come across this website. This is not an example of writing to someone with a fountain pen, but I have struck up a friendship with a woman who lives in another state. We met through an online knitting site. People share experiences, both knitting-related and not (the personal column), and I don’t remember exactly how, now, but we struck up an acquaintance through that site. I believe we shared the same opinion about something and said so, and it just expanded from there. Then we talked on the “private” section of that site, and eventually we exchanged email addresses with each other.

    So, I have learned how to write to someone I don’t know, and get to know that person. We don’t even talk about knitting anymore; neither one of us is currently knitting! But she has become a friend I would like to meet someday. And who knows, maybe we will. So I can certainly understand the value of writing to strangers, or people I barely know. And a good way to “meet” people to write to could possibly be through shared-interest websites.

    I didn’t even know about InCoWriMo until February of 2017, and I wasn’t too clear on what it was. Now that I know what it is, I’ll probably do it next February. Sounds like a great idea.

  • It’s well past February now but I’m going to comment on this anyway. I’m still corresponding with InCoWriMo pen pals. Additionally, just a couple weeks ago I received an InCoWriMo letter that was written at the end of February and had only just arrived – from Mexico. I keep a correspondence log – it has a few columns: Name (of person I’m corresponding with, and their address below that if it’s their first entry); Date (that the letter is received or sent); Rec/Sent (I mark whether the letter is received or sent in this column); Comments – This is by far the largest column. I make notes here about the contents of the letter – what is written. I do this whether it’s incoming or outgoing. And I try to be pretty complete about it. This way, I never have to go back through envelopes or pages, looking. And all my correspondence, both received and sent is in one book and in order. The log is made using both pages of an open journal. It’s a pleasure to go back and trace a correspondence friendship this way.

    Kit L
  • I’m so glad that I participated in INCoWriMo this year, and felt a real sense of accomplishment when I popped 28/28 into the post. I wrote five of the 28 notes to “strangers”, and they were decidedly brief (limited by the space on the card mostly) but contained nothing more earth shattering than what I would share with a neighbouring passenger on a flight. I’m curious to see if I hear back from any of them!

  • Wonderful post. I’ve been wrestling with the same anxiety about how to approach that first letter to a stranger (or an old friend that you’ve not spoken to for a while, for that matter). These are really good tips — thank you!

    Anthony Newman

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