My wife was recently re-watching Randy Pausch’s inspiring Last Lecture, and of the many moving and insightful things he discussed, one stuck out to me in particular: what he called the lost art of writing thank you notes.
In the past four years or so, which included a wedding and the birth of our first child, I’ve written a lot of thank you notes for gifts! Of course, these are the ones that we’re “supposed” to write, because we know they’re expected due to the rules of etiquette and common decency. That probably doesn’t make them any less welcome when they appear, but a thank you note is even more special when it isn’t expected, and a surprising display of gratitude and thoughtfulness will make much more of an impact on the recipient.
Writers often benefit from the kindness and generosity of others throughout our careers, many of whom are more or less strangers. These may include the publishing staff who produce and promote our work, the librarians and booksellers who organize and host events, critique partners, people who offer us advice or opportunities we wouldn’t otherwise have. Of course, you can try to thank everyone in your book’s acknowledgments, but there’s a pretty good chance you’ll forget to include someone, and that can lead to hurt feelings. You also don’t want the acknowledgments to go on and on.
There are also some circumstances where a thank you may not be expected per se, but its absence is noticeable. Many years ago, I critiqued a novel for someone with a quick turnaround — which required no small effort — and I never received so much as a thank you e-mail… After this occurred with a second manuscript, I decided I would never critique for that person again. Bitter? I guess I am. I do hold grudges, but I bet I’m not the only one.
Here’s a counterpoint. Last summer, I agreed to talk to a friend of a friend about the literary agency that represents me, as he was fielding an offer from one of the agents there. I love my agents, and I’m happy to help out other writers, so it was no trouble at all. We e-mailed and spoke on the phone, and he ended up accepting that agent’s offer. Not long after, I received a handwritten thank you card from him, and the classy gesture made a strong impression on me. I’m much more interested in following his work and helping to promote it when I can.
In short, a quick thank you e-mail, or better yet a handwritten note, will never go unappreciated for pretty much any occasion. We’re all busy, but because we’re that busy, taking a couple of minutes to show gratitude will go a long way. Even though most people probably won’t do things for you because they want to be thanked, chances are they will continue to help you out if they don’t feel taken advantage of.
Since my first novel was published, I’ve tried to send a thank you card to every bookstore that invites me for an event. Maybe not right away, but eventually… and I shamefully admit there are still some I haven’t quite gotten to yet. But I do try, and I hope the score so far is in my favor.
I also can’t stress how much you should thank your hardworking, underpaid, publishing team for helping to make your book — the copy editors, proofreaders, publicists, artists, editors, assistants. I made a short video with end credits for Fair Coin when it came out, and from some reactions, I assume some of these staff members had never been thanked by an author before! Sending a little gift around the holidays or when something big happens with your book doesn’t hurt either.
So keep a stack of thank you cards, envelopes, and stamps by your desk, and when the mood strikes you, pick up the pen to thank someone. At the very least, it’s a chance to stretch some different writing muscles and keep your penmanship legible.
Yes, there’s a strategic value to sending thank you notes too, but some philosophers say nothing we do is completely selfless. I prefer to think of it this way: If the roles were reversed, would you be happy to be thanked? If so, take the time to do unto others.
So let’s be honest — when was the last time you sent a handwritten thank you note?