Being a good penpal

Penpals are plentiful, there are people out there, of all ages and persuasions, with a myriad of interests and attitudes. Good Penpals are, however, difficult to find. To lose a good Penpal through being a bad one yourself is something that may be avoided if a few bits of advice are adhered to.

Being an Penpal is similar to being a snail pen-pal but, with the added dimensions provided by the internet, the guidelines can be extended to cover use of the additional facilities.

To keep an Penpal you must write things that your correspondent finds easy and interesting to read. The lazy Penpal reads the last piece of e-mail and responds to each item with little more than a comment. What transpires is a one-way information transfer. One half thinks of all the subject matter and the other half uses it. The good Penpal opens up new avenues of discussion.

You may find it difficult to think of things that will be interesting for your Penpal to read. If that is the case, try a simple exercise. Think of things that make you different from your Penpal, of things about the place where you live, the people that you meet, your interests and the things you get passionate about. Think also of past events and how they have shaped the way you live and your attitudes to life. Then put all this down on paper or in a word-processing document and you will find that you have enough bones to flesh out a multitude of e-mails. If you still find yourself short of material, continue the exercise with respect to relatives and friends (enemies even.)

Pace yourself when writing the initial e-mails. It is all too easy to throw facts and figures about yourself into the first exchanges. If you do, you will cause three effects. Firstly you will dry up the fountain of conversation too quickly. Secondly, unless you are prepared to write a small book in each letter, you will provide only superficial details about yourself. Finally, and worst of all, you will frighten off your Penpal with the deluge of data by appearing to be too forward. If the Penpal relationship is to succeed, there will be ample opportunity to cover all the material.

The first e-mail should read a little like a passport form. It must get across the basic details such as name, sex, age, marital status, location, hobbies and interests. However, don’t write it down as a list of details, write it as if you were conducting one half of a conversation. The essential information will ensure that the new Penpal is not going to be put off by something you later reveal.

The key to good e-mail is ‘quality not quantity’. If you can deliver both that’s fine, but concentrate on making the content of your paragraphs worth reading. Obviously, if you are an accomplished author, this will come naturally. To those without a literary bent the task of putting ‘pep’ into your text needs some hints. Try talking to the Penpal as if you were sat across a table, face to face. Put down each sentence word for word. E-mail allows us the luxury of writing in a ‘chatty’ form without the restrictions of formal language rules. Do not worry about getting the wording right. Too much of what you would like to put over can be lost by rewording your text to avoid a ‘difficult phrase’.

When conducting your imaginary conversation, you can put in questions that the absent person might ask and then answer them. For instance, you might write, "I go to the hairdressers once every three days. Why so often? I like the experience of being pampered and they always talk about interesting things." Your Penpal will read this and imagine being the one who thought up that interesting question. This makes the Penpal feel good – and come back for more.

One clever trick is to leave a subject open. Put in some information that almost begs a question. Think about the note which reads "I haven’t been back to that shop since I was wrongly accused of stealing." It leaves the reader itching for more detail.

When you finish your letter, go back over it. There is always a chance that you skipped a word, phrase or whole sentence in the eagerness to get the text down. Nothing is more frustrating than losing the whole crux of a story through one crucial omission. It also helps to pick up the final spelling and typographical errors – though one should not place too much importance on these corrections as they seldom detract from the impact of a good e-mail.

Interesting e-mail should strike a balance between the different subject matter. Put in something about yourself, something about recent personal events (holidays, parties, weekend trips etc.) and something topical such as a major news event or local issue that has an impact on yourself or others. Unless you share a common hobby with your Penpal, you could bore that person with one long diatribe, particularly if the subject is of interest to only you.

Turn your subject matter into questions. Ask your Penpal what he/she thinks about the matters that you raise. Make it less obvious by not making the question too direct. Use phrases such as "I expect you feel the same way about it".

If you want, you can use the anonymity that e-mail provides. Your life may be boring and uneventful from time to time but, unless you intend to meet up with the person or are famous, you can create a much more exciting world to talk about. If your Penpal lives in another country you can cheat by ‘borrowing’ experiences from the newspaper. Look in the Problem Pages of magazines and tell the stories as if you experienced them first hand (from whichever angle you desire).

Avoid the dreaded three topics – Sex, Religion and Politics – unless you have cleared it with your Penpal and are sure that you will not offend with your views. Sport is another matter that is likely to lose an Penpal. Having said that, many e-mail exchanges thrive on the controversy that these subjects generate. It is all a matter of feeling the ground before you embark.

Now on to the technical side of e-mailing.

There is no point in reading or writing your e-mail on-line if you pay for the phone call by the minute. The thought of the cost of the phone call is likely to make you rush and make mistakes. The text window, that the mail program provides, is inadequate for the job. It is small and provides little in the way of tools. All word processors are far better suited to producing a decent letter, so use the features. As well as providing a tool to check the spelling (often as you type) the ‘search and replace’ facility can be a handy feature if you are sending the same material to more than one person. With the advantage of being able to see more of the letter’s text, it becomes easier to check that you have covered all that you wanted to say and in the right order. When reading your e-mail the word processor is more suited to making things easier.

The word processor also acts as a good Penpal diary. You can maintain all your correspondence in a single document. Before sending a letter, you can append a copy at the bottom of the master document and then add your Penpal’s reply. Use a word processor facility such as highlighting or italics to indicate which sections were your’s (sent) and which were received. The document gives a valuable resource of past conversations to which you can make reference (though don’t brag about how much you can recall.)

When you have created your letter and checked it thoroughly, select all the text and perform a Copy command (usually Ctrl+C) to put it in the Windows buffer. Then open your e-mail facility, set up the address block and letter title, then Paste (usually Ctrl+V) the letter from the buffer.

When receiving e-mail the process is much the same but in reverse. Run your e-mail facility and select the entire contents of the letter (usually Ctrl+A) then perform a Copy. Close the e-mail facility and open the word processor ‘diary’ document. Go to the end of the document and Paste the letter. Some e-mail windows copy line breaks into the buffer. When these are pasted they create lots of short lines. Use the word processor’s Replace facility to globally substitute line breaks for single spaces. To avoid the loss of the paragraph and text layout, it is suggested that you perform three separate operations. First replace every occurrence of two consecutive line breaks with a single paragraph break. Next, replace all ‘single space followed by a line break’ with a single space. Finally, replace all line breaks with a single space. In MS-Word the line break is represented by a circumflex followed by a lower-case L (^l) and the paragraph break is represented by a circumflex followed by a lower-case P (^p). This sequence of operations can be stored in a macro to make the process quick and faultless.

To pep up your e-mail even more, put pictures in your e-mail. You will need to get hold of a scanner or video capture device. Both of these usually are supplied with some software that will handle image manipulation. If you do send pictures, convert the image to GIF format and keep the resolution and picture size reasonably low, otherwise the file will take ages to send.

Now you are ready to make a better contribution to the e-mail scene. Don’t spend too much effort working on every point that has been made here. E-mail is supposed to be fun – not work. Just come back to these notes from time to time and see if your methods can still be improved. Happy writing.