If you're struggling with how to write a thank-you note, remember that they're about relationships and gratitude. Focus on being specific and authentic.
I write a lot of thank-you notes. I thank donors of organizations that I support, gift givers after the holidays and birthdays, friends who have invited me over for dinner, guest speakers who come to my classes, community partners who work with my students, colleagues who help me solve problems, and editors and publishers (you know who you are). You probably write a fair number of thank-you letters too (or should), for graduation and wedding gifts, scholarships and fellowships, interviews and recommendations, moving help, and just plain good advice.
Thank-you notes are part of my daily writing practice and something I like to do when I’m still well-caffeinated and relatively creative. Writing thank-you notes involves the same elements of craft as any writing: a clear point, conciseness, and enough detail to show that you have put some thought into the exposition. Email or paper? Often an email is fine for a thank-you, but for many things, I still like the ritual of cards, envelopes, and stamps.
Many of us struggle with thank-you notes. We live in such an age of irony and casual communication—the tweet, the post, and the selfie—that it can feel awkward to express sincere gratitude gracefully. When we fumble our thank-yous, we may fall back on cute expressivity like “Thank you sooo much!!!!” (where the three ooo’s and four !!!!’s are trying do all the work) or archaic gravity like “Words cannot express the depth of my gratitude for your kind help.”
What can you say in a thank-you note besides “thank you”? Be specific about why you are grateful. Be authentic. And let your note fit the action you are thanking someone for and the relationship you have with that person. Here are some ideas and examples (with details changed) that can help you build specificity, authenticity, and good fit into your thank-you notes.
Say why a gift or act is meaningful, useful, or helpful. When someone gives a presentation, you might thank them by writing something like this:
I appreciate your coming to my class to speak about editing—and from their feedback, the students appreciated your visit as well. Having someone who works in the publishing business provide first-hand insights allows us to have discussions that go beyond the textbooks and journal articles we read. Thank you.
Or when you return a borrowed item, you can express your appreciation and explain how the loan affected you:
Thanks for encouraging me to read “Go Set a Watchman” and for lending me your copy. I was undecided about reading it, but when I did I came away with a new regard for Harper Lee. Now I’m inspired to reread “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Another approach to specificity is to tell how a gift was used. For some birthday cash from a relative, you can explain what you bought:
Thanks for the generous gift card, which I used to buy a new jacket—with professorial elbow patches even. I’m planning to wear it to an upcoming conference. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and value your friendship, which I’ll think about whenever I wear the jacket.
Or in the case of a donation to a non-profit, you might explain what that donation does for the organization’s clients:
Thank you so much for your generous donation to the Community Fund. Your gift will help to provide scholarships for youth and seniors, and will bring them together in meaningful arts activities. With support like yours, we’re able to build inter-generational programming and a stronger community for all of us.
Give your note a check for 'cheesiness,' which is variously defined as 'vulgar sentimentality' or 'blatant inauthenticity.'
And if you receive a scholarship yourself or for a family member, you can describe its impact:
I am writing to thank you for the scholarship support for my daughter’s summer arts program. We have had a hard time the past few years and have had to move around a lot. She has always enjoyed the arts and the summer arts program, which we could not afford otherwise, is something she has always hoped to take part in. Working with artists and making new friends will be a life-changing experience for her. Thank you all so much.
We also thank people for favors, acknowledging their efforts on our behalf. A thank-you note is appropriate even when the actions are part of someone’s regular job, but especially if they make an extra effort or if their work has had a significant impact. If a staff member lends her expertise to solving a problem, you might send a note or email like this:
Thanks for your help last week working through all the policy issues with our unruly group. All of us appreciate your thoughtful preparation and the clarity you brought to the effort. Because of your help, we’ve now got a revised document that the Executive Committee has reviewed and approved.
And if someone gives you some resume coaching, you can let them know the result:
I wanted to let you know that I got the editorial internship that I applied for, and thank you again for looking over my resume and cover letter. Your advice enabled me to make a more effective and successful presentation.
Thank-yous are about relationships and gratitude, not give-and-take, but sometimes it’s okay to offer to return a favor.
Thanks again for the ride to the airport. It’s great to have a friend who will wake up at the crack of dawn to help me make my flight. I hope I can return the favor sometime.
Finally, give your note a check for “cheesiness,” which is variously defined as “vulgar sentimentality” or “blatant inauthenticity.” (And check out the Oxford English Dictionary for some interesting etymological tidbits on that word. “Cheesiness,” will lead you to “cheesy” and “cheese,” and a possible connection in some of its meanings to the Persian word “chīz,” meaning “thing.” Who knew?)
Cheesiness is a relative notion, of course, and what sounds inauthentic coming from me might sound perfectly authentic coming from you, so it’s a matter of being true to your own voice and temperament, as well as the situation. But generally speaking, stay away from adverbs and exclamations and from flowery, stilted language.
And thank you for reading this. I appreciate the monthly opportunity to think, reflect, and share in my blog column.