A note or letter is like a story - it needs a beginning, a middle and an end. This is a form with which everyone is comfortable - from our earliest memories of bedtime tales to the movies and books we consume, we are, whether we know it or not, story-oriented. So try to think in a three part structure - be it three sentences or three paragraphs - if you're thinking three pages, you're already a letter writer and can skip ahead to the next section.
Introduce your message. State your message. Close your message. If you follow that simple format, you will fulfill everyone's unstated (and sometimes unconscious) expectations.
Let's say you have a young niece or nephew who's gotten a promotion at work. Here's an example of a brief congratulatory message:
Just a short note to congratulate you on your recent promotion to assistant manager of the _______. Your hard work has been noticed and your company has shown its appreciation. You should be proud of this accomplishment as all of us in your family are proud of you.
Three sentences - introduce the purpose of the note (accomplishment noted), indicate your recognition of the achievement (and what it entailed) and congratulations extended (with a warm note of familial affection). Simple, direct and something for the lucky recipient to look back on fondly.
For a longer example, let's use three paragraphs to extend thanks for a wedding present. And remember, a thank you must be timely - two months after the wedding your thank you notes should be done.
We're so glad you were able to be with us on our wedding day. It's such an important day and the presence of those nearest and dearest makes it just perfect. It's a memory we'll long treasure.
Thank you so much for the lovely bed linens. They are beautiful and will look so nice in our new home. Having such thoughtful gifts around us makes it seem homey and warm, even though we've only just moved in.
We hope you'll be able to come visit us sometime soon. As much fun as the wedding was, we were so busy all day, we never had enough time to spend with you. Thank you again for sharing our special day with us and for your wonderful gift.
Three paragraphs, three sentences each. A beginning, a middle and an end to the letter and to each paragraph within it. And sentiments that will bring a smile for years to come.
So keep it brief, keep it personal and keep it filled with the warmth of connection. Write it and send it as soon as you can, while the happiness is fresh in your memory. The people you favor with these messages will appreciate it more than you can know.
Now, on to some specific occasions and how best to address them.