Finding The Right Words

by Florence Isaacs

To mark the special times of a life, both happy and sad, nothing can take the place of a personal, heartfelt note. The card it's written on need not come from Tiffany's. The words need not be poetic to be recalled long after the pithiest of printed messages is forgotten. Here, some tips to inspire you to take pen in hand.

When I had my first baby, after battling infertility for three years, I received a gift at the hospital with a note: "To Jonathan—We’re so glad you’re here." I've always remembered that note—and the person who sent it. My heartache and fear that I'd never have a child had been swept away and I felt an exquisite joy. That little note made me feel that someone else understood my happiness. Oddly enough, she was not a close friend. But at that moment, we shared a special bond.

I learned that day that there's nothing like a personal note. In this age of impersonal technology, of computers and recorded voices on telephones, the hand-written note makes a human connection. And not just to the recipient, but to the writer as well. It feels good to express your sincere thoughts. When you put pen to paper, very important feelings slip out, feelings that you might ordinarily keep to yourself. This is especially true with sentiments such as, "I love you," or "You're important to me," that may seem embarrassing to actually say.

Some of the best notes are written by children, precisely because kids are so open and honest. They're able to express powerful sentiments in simple ways, as my young son did one Valentine's Day: "This comes from the heart, not from the store," he wrote on his homemade card, anxious lest I mistake it for one mere money can buy. On another occasion, he scrawled, "Happy birthday—I'm glad you’re my Mom!"

Notes from youngsters are very special, especially if the recipient is seriously ill. When a 70-year-old man suffered a heart attack, his eight-year-old grandson wrote, "Please get well, Grandpa. Who else will play gin rummy with me? Who will tell me stories? I love you, Grandpa." Did this note help his Grandpa recover in record time? Doctors might not think so, but I do.

Adults often pale at the thought of writing such sentiments, which is why we usually buy printed cards that do it for us. Many of us feel that what we have to say isn't original enough. Afraid of criticism, we tend to edit our thoughts. Which helps explain why the most intimidating note to write of all may be a condolence message. There's the issue of death, which probably isn't anyone's favorite subject. And what do you say to someone who has just lost someone near and dear? What words could possibly bring comfort? Those expressed honestly. "They'll say you'll get over this," one survivor wrote in response to a friend's loss. "They exaggerate. You never will. But it will hurt less one day."

Even notes that just involve simple politeness or courtesy also bind us together. "I always write thank you's. When I was a kid, my mother would kill me if I didn't," says the mother of a two-year-old. Today she feels notes are more important than ever. "If someone took the time to buy my daughter a present, especially a thoughtful gift, I can take five minutes to write a thank-you note—even if it’s four weeks late," she says. There are times, however, when such notes can take some imagination, or even courage. One woman faced such a situation when she moved to a new community. Since she knew no one in the area, she appreciated a neighbor's invitation to a card party one night.

"I was the fourth at bridge and I didn’t play as well as the others. They all wound up annoyed with me, including the hostess. It was awful," she says. Yet she still felt a follow-up note was in order. She wrote, "Thank you so much for including me. I'm really sorry my bridge wasn't in your class. When I improve, I hope we can try again."

In centuries past, people had to write. There were no greeting cards or phones. And maybe without realizing it we miss that exchange of the hand written word today. We all start out feeling, "I can't think of a thing to say." Yet when you put a pen to paper—and resist the urge to judge the results—very valuable words spill out. Isn't there someone you know who would love to hear them? Why not take a chance today?

Tips on Finding the Right Words

1. Identify your feelings about the person and event. Ask yourself, "What do I really want to say?" and "What does this person—and occasion—mean to me?" Then write down your thoughts "as is." Remember, there are no "grades" and spontaneity counts. You can polish, if necessary, afterward. (If it feels more comfortable, try writing on scrap paper first.)

2. Tailor the message to the occasion or gift. Being lighthearted doesn't hurt. When her best friend's husband received an important promotion, one woman wrote, "Cream always rises to the top. With admiration."

A second-time bride keyed her "thank you's" to each wedding present. To someone she barely knew, who sent a painted wooden duck, she wrote: "Marriage is ducky—just like your gift."

3. Consider the person's hobbies or interests. Is he or she interested in sports, books, carpentry, real estate, shopping, food, wine, travel, music? Use the subject as a device for a message. When an avid doubles player was hospitalized, I wrote, "Are you in the wing with tennis court?"

4. Use clippings or photos. Clip and send appropriate articles (on hometown news, for example) to a child away at college or a friend who has moved away. Add a handwritten line or two for a quick, easy, yet personal way to keep in touch.

Send a picture of the kids, the whole family, your home, the dog for almost any occasion. Add a suitable message, such as, "Happy anniversary from everyone at our house."

5. Share a memory. In a condolence note for the death of someone you knew personally, include a mention of any encounter that sticks in your memory. Even the smallest reminiscence will be received with gratitude.

6. Keep an inventory of lines that say a lot. Just four words, "I'm thinking of you," speak volumes and can be used over and over again for everything from sympathy and get-well notes to birthday messages. Use the words "What a" to precede a range of items or activities, as in "What a delicious dinner" or "What a thoughtful gift."

One wife recalls the note she received from a new relative after her wedding. It read, "Welcome to the family. What a wonderful choice Ben has made." You can imagine the glow that gave her. You can do the same for someone you know. All it takes is a pen and paper.

Florence Isaacs is the author of the best-selling Just A Note To Say...The Perfect Words For Every Occasion; Business Notes: Writing Personal Notes That Build Professional Relationships; Here's To You! Creating Your Own Meaningful Toasts And Tributes For Any Occasion; and My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments For Condolence Notes And Conversations Plus A Guide To Eulogies. She is a past president of The American Society of Journalists and Authors. Her website address