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An Open Letter To 'Open Letter' Writers

An Open Letter To 'Open Letter' Writers
Image credit: Guido Mieth | Getty Images
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Dear past, present and future open letter writers:

I’m just going to come out and say it: Open letters, meaning those intended for wide distribution, have gotten out of hand. What started off as an ideal platform to share valuable opinions, innovative concepts and new perspectives to a wide audience (think: Martin Luther King, Jr.) has since turned into a way to vent, complain and -- in the case of 25-year-old Talia Jane -- get yourself fired.

Related: An Open Letter to Frustrated 20-Somethings

Back in February, Yelp customer service agent Jane penned an open letter to her then-CEO about her less-than-livable salary. The letter was such a lightning rod that it spawned an open letter response and an open letter response to the response. Unfortunately, a vehicle that is typically intended to incite change left Jane without a job and created a whole lot of drama along the way.  

As this case showed, open letters can spiral out of control -- fast.

This open letter you're presently reading isn’t meant to imply that we should stop writing open letters altogether, but rather that we should be mindful about exactly what we're saying and consider the potential implications before we hit "publish."  

So, if you're looking to air some dirty laundry or just a few concerns, but wondering about the potential consequences that can come with an open letter, here are a few things to consider. 

Have you thought about an 'open conversation' instead?

For most people, it’s a lot easier to demand change via a letter than via a face-to-face conversation -- and maybe that’s a good thing. Writing a letter, especially one that's anonymous or backed by an army of like-minded people, allows you to more easily vent and make demands.

But it can also become a platform for "word vomit" -- and that’s the problem. In short, mistakes will be made and consequences will get serious.

Before posting an open letter, then, whether it's to employees, management, customers -- whomever -- strike up a conversation. While a letter allows people to hide behind anonymity or to exorcise their demons, an honest, private conversation is proactive and, in many cases, better received.    

Want to gripe? Know your topic inside and out.

The thing about open letters is that they often encourage other open letters in response (like this one) -- especially when the initial letter was written with emotion, but without full context or understanding. In other words, an open letter is an open invitation for critics and cranks.

To really fulfill an open letter’s intended purpose, step inside the recipient’s shoes. What might come off as an attack on this person or audience? Where might he or she find flaws within the letter? What questions might your letter raise?

Don’t give readers an easy opportunity to retaliate and fill in holes in your letter -- fill them in yourself before publication. That way, it will be clear that the necessary research was done and that the letter is coming from a place beyond anger or frustration.

Come up with a viable solution to the problem.

The single most important step in writing a successful open letter is to offer realistic (keyword: realistic) solutions. Without solutions, the open letter becomes a useless list of problems and complaints. It becomes an attack, rather than something designed to inspire change.

The key here is to be pragmatic and suggest a solution, not a list of demands. Do your best to know what will work and what won’t. Solutions can give an open letter substance; they'll be what encourages the recipient to keep reading.

Related: Sheryl Sandberg, Melinda Gates and Other Influencers Sign an Open Letter Declaring 'Poverty Is Sexist' 

Think twice before hitting ‘publish.’

For many of us, writing can be therapeutic. Simply writing out an anger- or frustration-driven open letter may be enough to tame the beast.

So, after your own long-overdue writing rant, put your pen down and step away for a day or so. Come back after some time has passed, ideally when you're in a better frame of mind (and mood).

Reread what you've written -- again and again -- before you make it public. If your words are going to be read by the general public, be sure you can stand by them 100 percent. Better yet, have someone else -- who can remain objective -- read your message and provide his or her two cents. You’ll be glad you did.  

Related: If You're Not Happy, Stop Complaining and Make a Change

And, maybe, just maybe, after a couple of days, you’ll realize that you’ve already accomplished what you set out to do. You wrote the letter you needed to write for the only audience that needed it -- you.

Your new friend,

John