You Should Know How To Do This: Writing a Thank-You Note

On Tuesday, I had one of the best mail days of my young life. I got a care package, I got an unexpected refund from my car insurance, and I got not one but THREE letters. Needless to say, I was so excited I nearly perished.

Now, three of these people probably knew they were making my day (when you send unexpected presents in the mail, that’s almost certainly your intent), and one of them was automatically generated (unless Flo is now personally sending out all the Progressive statements), but one of the notes was a little thank-you card for some minor favor I had delivered some weeks before. It was a really simple letter– maybe three sentences– but I felt like showing these people around town had been an appreciated, worthwhile task and that they liked me.


You, too, can inspire these very warm feelings in others with almost no effort at all.

When I was really little, I remember my mom telling me about Princess Diana, the most photographed woman in the world. Apparently, the Most Serene Lady of Windsor would write her thank-you notes for whatever party/fundraiser/gala/coronation she’d attended before she went to bed that night, regardless of how tired she was. Her logic, if I recall correctly, was that there was no way she’d remember nice details the morning after, so she’d better do it now or she simply wouldn’t do it at all.

I was 8 when Diana died, so I had a pretty limited concept of what the social obligations of a head of state might be, but I now understand that she was attending several thousand events a year. There is absolutely no way you’re busier than a princess or Barack Obama (I have heard he also does this), so you should be writing thank-you notes early and often.

You have different notes for different occasions, but I want to underscore one point before we begin: emailing a thank-you note is a last resort. Do not ever think, even for one second, that texting “thank u!” cuts it. I once emailed a thank-out of desperation, and here were the circumstances:

I was 20, returning from my junior year abroad, and I was pretty emotional (read: crying) because, I don’t know, I was 20 and stuff is just so hard when you’re a privileged white girl who just spent a significant amount of time in Europe. I had had some struggles that morning at the airport that were both byzantine and quotidian, so I was crying by the time I boarded my 4:20 AM flight. My seat was the last one in the last row, and I guess I just looked terrible, really wrecked.

This kind of older guy in a suit asked if I spoke English, then without a word, asked me to switch him seats because mine was so far away. Yeah, turns out that was in first class, and this guy just gave me his first class ticket because I looked so sad and unkempt, asked nothing of it, and then disappeared forever. The airline wouldn’t tell me his name or details (which is fair), but passed along my email of “THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU” to this anonymous person to whom I am forever grateful. Sir, if you are inexplicably reading this, you missed out on a great pan con tomate, and I still think of you fondly.

Is your reason for considering email good enough at least that confusing? No? Break. Out. The. Letterhead.

I strongly prefer engraved/personalized flat notes with a pretty, two colored envelope, but I’m not using it for today’s example because it seems somehow creepy for you to know my middle name. Crane makes some very good, very classic ones. If you like something a little bit more small batch and unusual, Hound Dog Press did my letter-pressed business cards and they’re beautiful. There’s also this great roundup of personal, offbeat stationers you could peruse.  If you think that personalized stationery is too fussy, you’re a freak and I want you to stop reading my blog. That said, I really love Rifle’s ready-made line and that is what I’m using today.

A good rule of thumb is that the more recent the event, the shorter the thank you note needs to be. Write it the next day, and even if someone presented you with the Hope Diamond, two sentences are great. Wait a month and you need to explain not only why the note is late, but also why _____ was the best ever and how it changed your life forever. You also look like a jerk.

Another thing people ask is “When do I write a note?” Different people have different thresholds, but I’m very conservative in this regard. A gift of any kind? Note. Hosting a party on your behalf? Note. Inviting you to a party? Almost always a note (not for raucous house parties, weddings, or funerals). Wrote you a letter of recommendation or hosted you overnight in their home? A note and probably a gift. Did something that really stands out in your mind as being helpful or kind, whether professionally or personally? Note. When in doubt, it’s better to be a little overzealous with your thank you notes than not.

I have two notes to write today. They’re to people with whom I have significantly different relationships and did significantly different things for me. One is also much longer than the other because I am horrible. Let’s start easy. This one is to my best friend from college who sent me a care package this week because I was sad. It contained some tasty treats, bacon floss, a bizarre ice cube mold, and lots and lots of pictures of baby animals. I’m really just telling you this to make you jealous of how my friends are superior to yours. I’m sending this note in a very timely fashion, so it needn’t be long. Here’s what I wrote.

notes 001



It’s eleven a.m. Do you know what Colonel Dixie is doing? Having a bourbon with bowler hat rocks. Thanks for thinking of me– I’m so lucky to have you. 



Right, this girl is someone who has held my hair back while I’ve vomited and is the first person I call with good news, so I can be informal and jokey and a little irreverent. It’s to the point. It lets my girl know that I really liked what she sent (note: I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but if you DON’T like the gift someone sends you, don’t…say that.), that I’m using it, and that the gesture of sending someone a silly present when they’re down meant a lot to me.

The next note is to the lovely, wonderful couple who took me to the Derby. I’m a month late, and I’m just mortified. Like, couldn’t be more embarrassed. I moved the morning after Derby, and I thought I had done this, but I found the note I had originally written them, stampless, in my backseat earlier this week.

I don’t know these people very well, and I’m very, very contrite, so I’m sending this note inside a box of Charleston delicacies because that is how bad it can get when you don’t send a note. Here’s what this note should look like:

notes 002

Dear Ms. Ann,

Just a note of thanks for being the model hostess for the 139th Running of the Roses. I apologize that this is all so late in coming; I completely spaced a lot of things the week that I moved, and have only just now unearthed my stationery. I am just mortified, but no less grateful.

I had more fun at the Derby this year than in all the years prior combined! Brunch was amazing, the seats were spectacular, and everyone was lovely, to say nothing of your beautiful afterparty. 

Please enjoy these Charleston treats with your family! Any time you’re in the Palmetto State, give a shout and allow me to return the favor of your hospitality! I appreciate your kindness and generosity; Charlotte and I are so lucky to have people like you in our lives!



See how much longer that is? Even when you don’t account for the added formality of my note, I needed to say a lot more. If I had remembered to write this three weeks ago, it could have said a third less and accompanied a thank-you gift that I dropped off at her house. But no! I got disorganized and now I look 1. so disorganized and 2. like her gift of her time, thought, and money was not a big deal to me (which it was; that note is completely honest! I LOVED going to the Derby with these people!).  Don’t be like me: send your notes the next morning (or Monday, if it was a Saturday), and make people feel happy.

So that’s what you do. No excuses. It’s the single easiest thing, and a handwritten note goes a very long way.

What questions do you have? I can answer all your thank-you note questions, and they’re my favorite kind.

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