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Formats Unpacked: Letters of Note
How a blog format taps into our voyeuristic habits
I can’t believe I’ve been running Formats Unpacked for over two years and am only getting around to unpacking Letters of Note now. Interestingly, it comes hot on the heels of last week’s Live Blog unpacking. Two blog formats in a row, hey! It would appear there’s life in the old blog yet.
If you’re not familiar with Letters of Note feel free to thank me in the comments for introducing you to one of the internet’s finest formats.
What is it?
Letters of Note (a blog)
What’s the format?
A blog dedicated to paper correspondence that has been celebrating the humble letter since 2009. It was founded, and is still run, by fellow Mancunian Shaun Usher.
The format is simple: a scan of a letter is uploaded to the blog with the text of the letter alongside it. The letters range from funny to sweet to tragic and have been sent or received both by well-known figures and by everyday people.
Over the years, Letters of Note has morphed into a series of books, as well as an event - Letters Live - featuring famous people reading letters to live audiences. Such is the depth of love fans have for the blog, Shaun has managed to get some pretty big names to appear at Letters Live over the years. Letters have been read by Gillian Anderson, Olivia Colman, J.J. Abrams, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Taika Waititi, Brian Cox, Benedict Cumberbatch, Thom Yorke, Stephen Fry, Florence Welch and many more.
But today, we’re mostly talking about the blog and the idea of “correspondence deserving of a wider audience”.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
The magic of Letters of Note is that it is history, told through the mysteries contained within a sealed envelope.
The written letter is like a time capsule. It’s a simple device that can unlock a fascinating stream of stories from history. But unlike similar formats that view history through objects (A House Through Time, Repair Shop, etc.) letters contain something quite unique. They are a pure expression of our internal narratives. Fans of history formats will frequently hear presenters say the words “If these walls could talk…” - well, that’s exactly what letters are doing, they’re speaking the thoughts of the sender. They’re giving the reader a front-row seat to their innermost feelings.
Letter writing can be an incredibly personal and private experience. When we write letters we’re in a very different state of mind than when we communicate through other means. Because of the privacy of a sealed envelope, the one to oneness of letter exchanges, the distance that separates the sender and receiver, we become very open and honest. Using letters, we reveal thoughts and details about our lives that we may struggle to do in face-to-face situations. Because of this, we are a lot more considered in what we write.
So this is the magic - Letters of Note is a voyeuristic experience. Most of these letters were only ever meant to be read by a single person. They were not meant for our eyes and because of that, they become even more fascinating. Usher admits that, even with permission, he occasionally questions whether he should be publishing some of them.
As an audience, we’re more than happy to push aside any such moral questions. All great format developers know there’s nothing audiences like more than getting access to things they shouldn’t really be looking at. We’re all nosy parkers at heart.
But simple voyeurism is not enough - there are two things that make great curators like Shaun Usher truly great. The first is hard work - the unseen effort that goes into searching, finding and filtering. Having published over a thousand letters so far, Shaun must have read in excess of tens of thousands that don’t quite hit the mark. The second thing is taste, which comes, in part, from all that effort. “Taste requires intention, focus, and care. Taste is a commitment to a state of attention.”
As a former copywriter, it’s no surprise that one of Shaun’s favourite letters is this one from another copywriter, Robert Pirosh, who quit his well-paid job and headed for Hollywood, determined to begin the career of his dreams as a screenwriter.
As a former *chocolate factory owner myself, one of my favourite letters is one Gene Wilder wrote to Mel Stuart, the director of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, offering him feedback on the design for Wonka’s outfit.
*I have never owned a chocolate factory. I have probably eaten a chocolate factory.
Thanks for reading.
As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts, feedback, or suggestions for a format you’d like to unpack. Leave a message in the comments or just reply to this email.
If you’d like to talk to Storythings about our Format Development workshops get in touch. They’re really fun and clients find them incredibly useful for unlocking content ideas.
Till next time,