Keeping Track of Letters

When you have only one or two regular pen pals and you all respond relatively quickly, it isn’t too hard to keep track of where you are in your unfolding conversation. But what happens when you start collecting many pen pal relationships, or life happens and you fall a bit behind in your responses (looks around sheepishly)? It can quickly get difficult to track what you’ve said to your pen pal or even when you last wrote. At a certain point, you need some way to organize yourself in order to keep all those different postal conversations going!

I reached that point last year when I branched out from only a couple of pen pal connections and started writing many new people on LetterMo. I started trying to research different ways to track correspondence, but came up largely empty-handed! While it is a need many of us have, it seems that most people are left to figure out something for themselves, and very few people, if anyone, shares their solution online for others to find.

So, today I’m here to change that. For the past year I’ve been keeping a correspondence journal that has helped me to be a better pen pal. Perhaps you have a similar system, or maybe you do something entirely different–I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

The Need

Knowing what you want from a letter tracking solution is the first step. I wanted a way to record when I received a letter from a pen pal and a quick summary of what they wrote. I also wanted a way to track when I wrote them back and a quick summary of what I wrote in response. I toyed with the idea of linking their actual letter to the record, which would require either doing something with a computer or having a very organized physical filing system. However, I decided that if I had a decent enough summary, that would be enough to jog my memory and provide an overall contour of past letters to keep the conversation going.

Digital or Analogue?

The next step was to decide whether I wanted to keep a correspondence journal on my computer/phone or as a physical journal. I looked around for apps, computer software, or even a website, that would do this for me, but found very little out there, and nothing that I liked. The more I thought about it, though, the more I liked the idea of having a physical journal–it could travel with me when I was on the road and it would require turning on my computer when writing a letter. I’d already have my pens out, I could easily update my journal entry at the same time.

Putting it Together

I spent some time thinking about how best to format the journal, and then realized I was overthinking it. Running with a hint I had come across on some website, I grabbed a new notebook from that drawer in the house that always seems to have such things in it. This one comes from Muji I think, and is a bit smaller than standard letter size, but any notebook will do. I then divided the page into two columns, and labeled the left column “RECEIVED” and the right column “SENT.” When I get a letter in the mail, I write the date in the left column, along with the name of the sender. Underneath I write 2-3 bullet points about the letter–a story shared, a question asked, anything I want to remember. When I write a response, I note the date in the right column, next to the entry for when it was received. I then summarize, again in 2-3 points, the topics I touched on my letter. Once that is done, I draw a line underneath, the pair, marking a new row ready for the next letter.

It is a stupidly simple system, and it works remarkably well. Some of the benefits I’ve noticed:

  • It is really easy to see at a glance who it is I still need to respond to–the missing SENT entries make them stand out on the page.
  • It is simple to scan back through the pages to remember what my correspondence with a particular person has been in the past. It is also easy to spot people I haven’t heard from in a while and to get started on a letter to them.
  • Being a physical journal, I can tuck letters waiting for my response in the pages so that I can refer back to them when I sit down to write. It keeps me from losing letters and helps me when travelling.
  • It’s cheap! I already had the notebook, but even if you had to buy one new, it wouldn’t cost more than a dollar or two.

I’ve been using the journal since LetterMo 2023, and I’ve stuck with it. In my notebook, I can fit about 8 rows of correspondence per page, so I already have a few pages filled up. I like the idea that as I fill up this notebook and start new ones, I will have a record of my friendships over the years.

Do you have a method for organizing your correspondence, or are you looking to start one? Let us know in the comments!

1 thought on “Keeping Track of Letters”

  1. Wow! That’s impressive!
    I have record cards in a box, for names and addresses. There I jot down interests etc. Sometimes people don’t include their addresses later or are illegible, so I can refer back.
    To keep track of letters in/out: I keep the letter I’ve just replied to with a note on it of the date. These are in date order, and regularly I clear out each person’s older letter/s. If it seems a while since I heard from someone I can check when that was.
    I don’t go as far as recording conversation points, relying on (poor!) memory, so, as in face to face conversations, do find myself saying “was it you who was…” “remind me about…”

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