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FINE LINES
CAREFUL WRITING IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A GREAT HOLIDAY LETTER AND ONE THAT SENDS READERS RUNNING

Holiday letters are a lot like fruitcake: People either love them or hate them. But given the right recipe -- an interesting mix of news, holiday greetings and humor -- even the most skeptical recipients enjoy the read.

Just ask John Koplas, a retired English teacher at Lockport High School. For more than 40 years, Koplas and his wife, Dianne, have been sending their own brand of cheer to friends and family via letters. Through the years, their mailing list has grown to about 150 people -- many of whom eagerly await the holiday edition.

"As the years go on, it gets trickier," Koplas, 74, admitted. "We have four children, but I try to keep it to a page and a half. It's hard to do it on one page alone. Unless you're a Churchill or Roosevelt, no one wants to read that much on one family."

The Koplases started writing the holiday letters shortly after the birth of their first child. And while Dianne helps by recording noteworthy events on the kitchen calendar, her husband -- who calls himself a frustrated novelist -- doesn't start composing the letter until after Thanksgiving.

"I write one letter for all," he said. "For people I don't see often, I send the holiday letter and personalize it with another half-page of news. Even people in town mention the fact they enjoy reading our letters. You can let them know what the family is doing without bragging."

Over the years, Koplas has incorporated a sense of humor into his holiday letters.

"I think they're more interesting than just the catalog of events that look like they are applications for the Nobel Prize," he said. "Many of the recipients are former students, and some of the letters go to college friends and Army buddies. When you get to be 100, it covers a lot of people."

The letter chronicles the family's year, from births to deaths and everything in-between. This year, Koplas is happy to report the births of three grandchildren, an event that made his job a bit easier.

"I've got the starter line already," he said: "We hit the trifecta!"

Whether you're like the Koplases -- and have been sending holiday letters for decades -- or are considering writing your first, here are some tips to make yours worth reading:

Make it easy to read. If you use a computer, pick a simple font in at least 12-point type. Use dark ink on light paper. If you handwrite it, print legibly.

Consider your audience. Will you send this to close friends, borderline acquaintances or both? Realize that not everyone wants to know every detail of your life. If you want to include everyone, consider writing different versions of your letter.

Explain the people and places you mention. "Jane had a baby girl" might leave someone wondering who Jane is. Opt for "My sister, Jane, had a baby girl."

Be brief. You may think a route-by-route, restaurant-by-restaurant account of your vacation to Italy is riveting. Most of your readers will think differently. A good rule of thumb for holiday letters is one typewritten page - front and back, if you must.

Avoid cute approaches. A letter written from the perspective of a baby, pet or inanimate object may sound like fun, but only the best writers can pull that off. (And even that's debatable.)

Don't brag. Too many holiday letters read like laundry lists of achievements - you got the promotion, your child's a genius, you added 12,000 square feet to the house, and you never burn dinner. If you ran your first marathon or wrote a book, by all means say so. Just keep it real.

On the other hand, don't be too real. We may live in "Fear Factor" times, but nobody wants to hear every gruesome detail of your periodontal surgery or the things you've learned about projectile vomit.

Offer readers a bonus. We have a friend who includes a favorite recipe with her annual letter. Sharing interesting discoveries - a cool Web site, a new musician, a great low-cost wine - tells readers something about you and also gives them something to check out later.

Include a photo. Even folks who don't read your letter - gasp! - will appreciate seeing what you look like these days. And parents, don't shy away from the camera. Get the whole family in the photo.

Don't omit bad news. If you lost a job, got divorced or lost a loved one, say so. People who care about you want to know the bad stuff, too.

Before sending your letter, let every family member (preteen and older) read it, and allow them veto power. The last thing you want is an all-out family war over something you wrote in the Christmas letter that your spouse or child would have preferred to remain secret.

Include the date. Of course everyone who gets your letter is going to know it's Christmas 2004. But if you save the letters for your family scrapbook, you'll be glad you dated them.

Sign the letter by hand, and if possible include a personal note. Holiday form letters aren't meant to replace good old-fashioned correspondence.

News Staff Reporter Jane Kwiatkowski contributed to this report.

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