Category Archives: epistolary (letter writing as a genre; letters as examples of good writing)

two letters of condolence; and how (in my opinion) to write one


Two letters of condolence are posted here:

from my father to the wife of a deceased relative

from me to the wife of high school classmate of mine



Dad's letter of condolence.jpg


my father, Alan W. Smith

December 1971


Dear Carolyn,

I don’t know when I’ve been so saddened by news as I was at that of Arthur’s death. We saw at the marina and Chart Room [where my father was pianist], just one small segment of his activities, I know, yet when I think of the way the room lighted up when he entered, I realize what a void there will be in many, many places.

Elinor and I extend our deepest sympathy to you.

With affection,

Alan Smith



Roger Smith to Carol Minkwitz [a high school classmate, wife of Russell Minkwitz]

October 2015


Dear Carol,

Hello. I had some contact with Bob Seavey via email this weekend. I wanted to get in touch with him.

I heard back from him about Russ’s passing. In high school, we used to call him Rusty.

I was awfully sad to hear the news. It has affected me all day. I knew Russ was very ill, since you told me about it at our 50th reunion. I knew he had ALS, a terrible disease, as we all know. Still, his death comes as a shock.

I remember Russ from our 45th reunion. He was one of the people I was most glad to see. He looked great then, and no doubt no one knew then of his impending illness.

You know, at events like a reunion, you can be a bit apprehensive about seeing people again after all those years. With Russ, I felt completely at ease right off the bat. I was so glad to see him. He was so friendly, so well spoken. He made it plain that he was glad to see me.

And, of course I remember Russ from high school. What do I remember about him? That he was handsome, a great athlete, and a very good student. He was a true scholar-athlete.

What else do I remember about him? Russ was a truly nice person. He was soft spoken and modest. He never had a bad word to say about anyone. He was good natured in general and took kidding well.

We were in Mr. Badoian’s math class together (along with you), and Russ really liked the class and Mr. Badoian. (I think math was his favorite subject.) Mr. Badoian, in turn, liked Russ. When he found out that Russ had a girlfriend, he used to kid him about it. Russ, as usual, took the teasing modestly and well.

At our 45th reunion, Russ told me a little about his student days at Penn State. He played under Coach Paterno, I believe. He said he really regretted quitting football because of an injury. I appreciated Russ’s candor. I could relate to what he said because there are things I regret (don’t we all) not having done when I was young, when I had the opportunity.

I can’t imagine what a loss it must be to you, Carol. I am truly sorry. I hope your children and grandchildren can be some consolation to you.

I have great memories of Russ, who was one of my favorite classmates. Please know that he lives on in my memory.

I will make it a point from here on to stay in touch with you.

Warmest regards,




My advice for writing such letters:

keep it simple

don’t say or invent things that are not true

don’t effuse, especially if you didn’t know the person well

use details, especially those that call the person to mind

Don’t effuse. Note that my father observed this principle in his letter, but he wrote a kind letter that was not cold or impersonal.

Use details, especially those that call the person to mind. This last principle seems to often get overlooked. It is my belief that these little details give comfort. And, the letter writer is giving a kind of offering, better than flowers. Because, if you can think of details about the deceased person that you remember with pleasure, and you share them with that person’s family, they will have something to add to their store of memories. Such details can be comforting and help to preserve the person’s memory.

An example of this last principle (use details) is provided by a eulogy by her former minister given at my mother’s memorial service in 1973. It was not a letter of condolence — it was a eulogy delivered in a memorial service — but the minister’s words on that occasion are worth quoting. He said:

I can remember Elinor sitting with Alan [my father was church organist] each Sunday in the balcony of the First Parish Unitarian Church of Canton. I felt she was cheering me on, and I never really got over the disappointment of not seeing her there, during the years of her illness.

I can remember Monday mornings spent over a cup of tea in the Smith kitchen. The warmth of that kitchen was Elinor’s warmth: it was the warmth and strength of her concern and her caring. Were I to return to that room now, I would still feel it.

I too remember my mother’s kitchen. But, what the minister said reinforced and strengthened that memory, and I was very glad to realize that others felt the same way about the special place she made it.


— Roger W. Smith

   September 2017




RWS condolence letter 10-20-2018

I have added here (above) as a Word document another letter of condolence written by me. I think it shows how to write a letter of condolence when the deceased individual is someone whose family you have not been acquainted with for a long while.


— Roger W. Smith

   October 2018

a great letter (from an elementary schooler)


“Here is a letter written in 1992 by a ten-year-old girl to her parents. Countless girls write such letters from camp every summer. … We can make no claim of fame or masterpiece status for Elizabeth’s letter. This is but a scrap of writing, a page grown from the welter of human life like a leaf on a tree, born with countless others to be borne away by winter’s first blast. Elizabeth repeats herself, she misspells, and she’s focused on home, not art. Yet Elizabeth is sublime, and her letter glows with life; Shakespeare would be hard put to surpass her girlish passion. No matter how inexpert or unknown the pen, such writing will never die.” — Michael Lydon, Bad Writing (Patrick Press, 2001)

(Note: I have quoted from Michael Lydon’s book to corroborate the point of this post, but I have not posted the girl’s letter, discussed by Lydon, here. The letter which the title of this post refers to is posted below and is a different one.)


“The best letters are often not ‘literary.’ Simplicity and directness are keys. Plain, homely, everyday details make a letter a live piece of human tissue instead of a bloodless specimen.” — Roger W. Smith, “A Walt Whitman Letter; and, What Can Be Inferred from It about Letter Writing in General”




Posted below is a letter I received about fifteen years ago from my older son’s best friend. He was spending the summer in Poland with his grandparents, who had a farm in Poland. He emigrated to the United States in the 1980’s and met my son in the first grade. After receiving his letter, I sent my son’s friend some books to help relieve his boredom. He told me later that he  reed and enjoyed them.

I feel that my son’s friend’s letter illustrates perfectly the points about letter writing made by Michael Lydon and myself, as enumerated in the above quotations.

What I liked and appreciated most about the friend’s letter were his use of telling details and his directness, as well as his honesty.


— Roger W. Smith

   May 2017




Adrian's letter to Roger_Page_1.jpg

Adrian's letter to Roger_Page_2

a beautiful letter


The following letter is currently being exhibited in the Centro Federico García Lorca in Granada, Spain.

The letter was written in 1931 by the famous Spanish poet, playwright, and theatre director Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) to Encarnación López (married name Encarnación López Júlvez; 1897-1945), a singer, dancer, and choreographer known as La Argentinita.

I believe that this brief, beautiful letter illustrates something fundamental about epistolary writing – indeed, about writing in general: that a letter does not need to be “literary” to be beautiful; it does not need to be long or complicated. It goes without saying that the simplest letters are often the best ones.

I found this letter very touching. And, it illustrates to me another fundamental point about writing. What is required in all types of writing situations is that the length, tone, complexity, etc. of a piece of writing be exactly appropriate to the situation and audience. That is the key.

This is something that seems obvious, but is not necessarily easy to achieve. A master writer like García Lorca is here fully equal to the challenge. What he writes is not cold, impersonal, or calculated. Far from it. It is just the opposite. It is a beautifully expressed, warm communique that is just right for the audience, which is to say that we are always aware that García Lorca is not writing to a parent. sibling, or lover.

Within that framework, he wrote something that is warm and touching, the kind of letter that anyone would be extremely pleased to receive, that one would not forget and would treasure, that one would undoubtedly keep.

Also notable in this letter are the sincerity and humbleness shown by García Lorca, a great and prolific writer and a noble person.


— Roger W. Smith

      June 2016





Querida comadre:

Como no pudo despedirme de usted por causa de mi enfermidad, y como me llamó por teléfono y luego no se encontraba usted en casa, le escribo para saludarla con gran cariño y admiración, y para decirla que vivo en Acera del Casino, 31 Granada, para lo que guste mandar.

Yo estoy ahora en pleno trabajo y muy contento de este paisaje y de esta enctandora familia que tengo.

Yo la recuerdo constantemente, pues mis hermanillas, que son fervientas admiradoras de usted, ponen a toda hora los discos que, entre paréntesis, son estupendos.

¿Que es de Ignacio? Déle usted un abrazo de la parte mía. Espero que me tendrá en sus oraciones y no me olvidirá.

Reciba usted, querida comadre e mi arma, el más cariñoso saludo de su colaborador y compañero.

                                                            Federico García Lorca



Dear comadre,

Having been unable to say goodbye to you because of my illness, and then having called you by telephone, but not found you at home, I now write you to say hello with great affection and admiration, and to tell you that my address, should you ever need it, is Acera del Casino 31, Granada.

I am working hard at the moment and very happy to be in this landscape with the delightful family that I have.

I remember you all the time, because my little sisters, who are fervent admirers of yours, are constantly playing your records (which, by the way, are quite marvelous).

What news do you have of Ignacio? Do give him my best regards. I hope he remembers me in his prayers and will not forget about me.

Warmest greetings, dear comadre e me arma, from you partner and colleague.

                                                     Federico García Lorca


a letter of recommendation




My father wrote this recommendation for my good friend John Harris in October 1965. John was a 1963 graduate of Canton High School in Canton, Massachusetts.

I feel that my father’s letter of recommendation demonstrates – provides one small example of – how well he could handle any writing task.

I have found that various samples of writing can teach you a lot about writing in general. This includes both good and bad writing.

In the case, of bad writing, I find that it sometimes enables me, by comparison, to become more aware of what the difference between good and bad writing is, and thereby to see more clearly what the ingredients of good writing are.

Similarly, one can learn a lot about good writing both by reading and appreciating the works of the masters – an Edward Gibbon or Charles Dickens, say – and by examining pieces of everyday writing – including those of young people and of adults who are not necessarily of English prof caliber – when it is apparent that there is an innate gift for expression and an ability to convey ideas and feelings. It could be a letter not intended to be “literary,” for example.

What I notice in my father’s writing:

GRACE – his prose is always graceful, regardless of what he is writing about, whom he is writing to, or how important the topic may or may not be.

CONCISENESS – he says just enough, no more or less. There are no unnecessary words.

CLARITY – his prose is crystal clear.

COHERENCE – the sentences and paragraphs are tied together seamlessly, like a well made piece of clothing.

IT FLOWS – the exposition proceeds logically and straightforwardly. There is no discontinuity.

TONE – it is just right for target audience. There is awareness on the writer’s (my father’s) part of who his audience is – whom he is writing TO – and of the kind of language and tone that should be employed for that target audience.

CHOICE OF SUBJECT MATTER – he uses appropriate, telling examples, the best ones he can think of, to get his points across. He has gone through his mental storehouse of impressions and memories to come up with the best examples. He has chosen the ones that best fit. Then, he has plugged them into the letter in just the right places, where they support the key points being made.

ORGANIZATION – the organization is not really noticeable, which is not to say it is flawed. It is not noticeable because it doesn’t require attention. One can follow the logic of the communique with no special effort required. There are a logic and orderliness to the way the letter is constructed. Points follow in the order that makes most sense. (This, by the way, is not true of a lot of writing. Poor organization can tire a reader trying to follow what is being said.)

EMPHASIS – this is something my high school English teacher commented upon that many writers seem to be either unaware of or unable to achieve. The letter is constructed in such a way that key points are highlighted without this being obvious.  I believe that the ability to achieve this is a mark of a master writer.



I have thought about writing at this level of excellence (as I deem this short, perfunctory communique to be) and have concluded that in writing, many of the principles that apply also apply to music. For example, a composer must achieve a logical progression to his piece; he can’t be, or at least shouldn’t be, bombastic; he needs to hold the listener’s interest and to be able to convey musical ideas in such a fashion that they are not utterly incomprehensible and “take hold” upon the listener.

Which brings us back to the topic of EMPHASIS.

In good music, you feel that there is something inevitable about the “logic,” the flow of the music. You feel it sort of HAD to be constructed that way. You feel the piece could not have been composed differently.

I would contend that my father’s letter, while perfunctory in one sense, shows some of the same qualities. You get the feeling that there was only one kind of letter of recommendation that would do for this particular individual (my friend) in this situation, and that my father managed to write just that letter.



I myself have often felt, when writing, that there is some kind of abstract, perfect piece of writing — appropriate to, called for, as pertains to — whatever I am writing about – just what needs to be said about this or that topic (say, a book under review) – and that I have to “find” the absolutely perfect words, not only so that they are expressed perfectly, but also that they are just what needs to be said about this or that topic, and that they cover it fully. In other words, it’s a question of both prose (wording) and subject matter (content).

It’s kind of like the search for the Platonic ideal.

So that the examples chosen to make the point are just the right ones. Say, it’s a book review I am writing, for example. This would mean that I have discussed exactly those parts of the book that merit or require discussion, that I have found exactly what passages should be quoted, and have come up with the best analogies or comparisons that must be made to other works with which this book should be compared.

Searching for the best examples, for just the right things to say, can make writing very difficult, indeed exhausting. Many pieces are not written this way. They are tossed off, written in haste. (A writer notorious for this who comes to mind is the historian A. J. P. Taylor; many op ed writers compose in this fashion.) Such writing can be adequate, but it does not have the staying power of a piece that a great deal of thought and effort have been put into.

I think my father did something similar here. He thought of just what needed to be said about my friend. He chose the best examples: marshaled them. Then, he succeeded in presenting them in the most effective possible fashion.

A further word about emphasis. In writing, as in music, emphasis, which is to say putting the weight where you want it to fall — making the reader (or listener) come to attention — can be achieved in many different ways. It could be a short, punchy sentence or phrase (“I recommend him without qualification”) or it could be something elaborate and wordy. It depends.

Variation often helps here, which means variety of pacing and tone and an admixture of the terse and direct with more high flown, wordy, abstract language. Composers do this all the time: a short musical phrase followed or preceded by a long intricate passage.


Roger W. Smith

     April 2016



Robert W. Tighe, letter of condolence 12-9-1989


Tighe Condolence Letter


This letter, dated December 9, 1989, was a letter of condolence from my former English teacher in Canton, Massachusetts (and the English teacher of my two brothers), Robert W. Tighe. It was written in response to news of the death of my father, Alan W. Smith, and was addressed to my older brother.

Mr. Tighe was an outstanding teacher of writing. It is interesting to have a sample of his writing. He writes very well, without pomposity. What is notable is the clarity and directness of expression; and how he avoids maudlin sentimentality while writing a forceful, direct letter that both expresses condolences and reflects on one’s mortality.


— Roger W. Smith

   December 2015