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What is an Open Letter?

Niki Acker
Updated May 23, 2024
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An open letter is the opposite of a private letter. It is made available to the public in order to make a larger number of people aware of its content. Such a letter may be addressed to a large group of people — i.e., an open letter to a publication's readers — or it may have a single addressee, such as the President of the United States, whom the letter writer wishes to address in a public forum.

This type of communication may be used to address a single person whose identity the writer does not know, as in the Kids in the Hall sketch in which Bruce McCullough reads an open letter to "the guy who stole my bike wheel." In this case, the open letter is an ideal format because the wider audience gives the writer a chance to meet the intended recipient. Alternatively, it may have no explicit recipients at all, but may simply be used to explain the author's viewpoint or intentions to any who are interested.

An open letter may appear anywhere you would expect to see any public message. Some popular forums include blogs, web forums, magazines, and pamphlets. Many company websites feature open letters explaining corporate philosophy or policies. They may also be read aloud or extemporized on television or the radio, as well as on the stage — or in any public area, for that matter.

Many people find that an open letter can be the perfect way to inform a larger audience about their concerns or to open up dialogue on issues they are interested in. The more people such a letter can reach, the more influence it can have, so consider how many people will have access to the media you choose.

Some famous open letters throughout history include the Pauline Epistles of the New Testament, Emile Zola's J'Accuse!, and Bill Gates' Open Letter to Hobbyists.

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Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By bythewell — On Jan 21, 2015

@Ana1234 - I guess most of the open letters I've seen recently have been ones that were written by celebrities. I have seen a lot of people using the form as a means of complaining about terrible service though, particularly by airlines.

I guess it's a way of making sure a complaint is relatively formal and obviously intended to be shared.

By Ana1234 — On Jan 21, 2015

@croydon - Honestly, unless the person writing it is famous or has a particularly interesting or vital stance on a subject, I don't think it really matters whether they make it an open letter or not. Hundreds of thousands of so-called "open letters" are only seen by a bare handful of people, if that. I'm sure the President alone gets dozens every day and hardly any of them will actually be shared with the public.

And it's not because they are trying to keep secrets. It's because most open letters aren't going to be saying anything new or sharing a perspective that people will want to know.

Occasionally a blogger might compose an open letter that will blow up, but usually they are already relatively well-known and then the letter just goes viral because of their existing connections.

I guess my point is that almost everyone thinks their opinion is crucial and should be heard, and almost everyone else is going to disagree with that.

By croydon — On Jan 20, 2015

In some cases I think it's a bit silly to start a letter with these words though. You don't need to identify it as an open letter if it's already a letter to the editor, which is obviously intended for publication and to be viewed by the public.

With that said, also be careful with what you say when you do send an "open letter" if you don't truly intend for everyone in the world to be able to see it. If it's a letter directed at a particular group, it doesn't need to be an open letter.

Remember that the internet makes it so easy to share things now that if you don't take pains to keep something quiet it might not stay that way.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide...
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