Epistle: what it is, definition, types of letters, origin, how to write a letter and more


What is the subgenre of the epistle?

The epistle, also known as the letter, is one of the most important subgenres of the didactic genre, since its primary intention is to weave a communication between the writer of the letter, who becomes the sender, and to whom it is addressed, who would be the addressee. The content of the letter is very varied, everything will depend on what the sender wants to communicate.

Many experts agree that the epistle is a mixture between private correspondence and a public discourse. Letters are addressed to a specific type of audience, situation or moment.

Meaning of the subgenre epistle

The term epistle, comes from the Latin epistŏla, and this, in turn, from the Greek epistolḗ, which refers to -letter-. While epistle is formed by the prefix epi, which refers to “about” and from the lexeme “stole”, which means -to place-. Thus, it is defined as a letter, written in prose or poetic composition in which the author addresses someone or a specific group.

Definition of the sub-genre epistle

Epistle is synonymous with letter and refers to a type of text that seeks to establish a channel of communication through the written form, being the most used means of communication throughout the history of mankind. Often the letter is used with the intention of expressing ideas, thoughts, feelings, wishes, etc.

Definition of the sub-genre epistle

What is the function of the epistle?

It is the most used form of communication, it is used with the purpose of communicating feelings, emotions and ideas in a direct and clear way in relation to a specific receiver or a group of people. In addition to expressive purposes, it can also have practical purposes, this will depend on the communicative intention of the sender.

History and origin of the epistle subgenre

The birth of the letter has its origin in Ancient Egypt, as it was part of the work performed by the scribes, who were in charge of writing, accounting and classifying the types of written texts of the time. In turn, their writings were organized in a literary genre of the time called Sebayt, a kind of instructions that focused on ethical teachings dating from the 25th century BC.

Thus, it will gather a large number of epistles created, then, by writers and philosophers of great importance for the literary and cultural development such as Plato, Epicurus, Philostratus, Julian, St. Paul, Seneca, among others. On the other hand, the Greek Holy Fathers will also be writers of large numbers of epistles, among them St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Basilia, St. Gregory of Nyssa, among others.

Particularly during this first stage of the emergence of the epistle, the main characteristics of the literary subgenre begin to be established, characterized by its proximity in structure to the dialogue but with a higher degree of elaboration. Thus, in this first moment, letters contain a simple style, they use expressions of friendship, they are adapted according to the person who receives them, they are concrete and short, they maintain their own themes with a simple style.

During the Golden Age it becomes a frequent resource among writers, such as Garcilaso de la Vega, however, it manages to remain cultivated by other authors such as Voltaire, where it will gradually become much more important for the possibilities of expression that it allows, despite the fact that its use has been substantially reduced at present.

Characteristics of the epistle subgenre

Now let’s see what are the main characteristics of the epistle:

Form of composition: it is a subgenre that frequently uses the first or second person to write, so it can be considered as a type of oral conversation presented in written form, which is why it is full of a particular spontaneity in which the author writes in a natural way expressing what he wants to communicate.

Poetic elements: another aspect to take into account is that letters often have poetic elements, such as the presence of metaphors, rhetorical questions, similes or comparisons, speeches addressed to someone outside the context, paradoxes or other resources that generate this varied poetic image.

Obligatory paragraphs: in many cases this becomes one of the most important rules, since they are necessary to mark and make clear the changes of thought that arise in the development of the epistle. The length depends on what you want to say, but they are very important to establish these changes and express the different ideas of what you want to express.

Parts of the sub-genre epistle

Although the format or structure depends on the type of letter being written and to whom it is specifically addressed, it is often said that its order occasionally arises from the emotional impulse when writing, especially when it comes to letters expressing feelings or ideas that the mind does not let go. However, it is possible to recognize an order that is usually present in their composition:

Opening: in this first part, especially in the upper right zone, most of the times, the author leaves there his names or the names or the name of the person he is going to address followed by a greeting.

Body: in this part the author establishes the introduction of the epistle, expressing all the points he wishes to raise and present, ending with concrete ideas that, in some cases, leave the door open to an answer, since many of them culminate with questions to the receiver.

Parenesis: although it is not always present, it is a kind of moral instruction that may well be the result of what was said in the body of the letter and to which the recipient is invited.

Closure: the author proceeds to end the letter with a final greeting and expressing his wishes to the recipient, whether in response, gratitude, congratulations or farewell.

Types of the epistle subgenre

According to the communicative intention of the author, it is possible to identify several types of letters or epistles, so that in each of them the structure can present variants that are fixed to the spontaneity of the author. These are the types of epistles that exist:

Friendship letter

It is a type of letter that implies a greater degree of intimacy, where the relationship between the sender and the receiver is much closer. It is one of the types of personal letters characterized by the spontaneity of the content, in which appreciation and affection are expressed.

Disclosure letter

This type of epistle is distinguished because it has a much wider audience, since it is addressed to a varied type of public. Thus, it is usually disseminated through other means of communication such as the newspaper.

Informative letter

As its name indicates, it is a letter whose main intention is to provide specific information to a wide audience. It has a polite, formal and direct style in which there is no presence of poetic and affectionate images, it is written with an established structure. Its content may include information for the community, agreements, announcements, decisions and changes, etc.

Family letter

They are usually one of the most frequent types of letters, especially on occasions such as Christmas, New Year, birthdays, weddings and other important meetings in which a family member is at a distance. They are letters that contain a great amount of affection and can be addressed to a specific member of the family or to entire family groups.

Literary letters

These are types of letters that are usually contained within a literary work. Even many works of this type are usually composed by a series of letters that integrate a text, as for example Goethe, who composes a work from epistles in which the characters put in evidence their feelings, ideas and thoughts in relation to the story.

Commercial letters

These are letters that are developed in the midst of commercial purposes. This type of epistle has a fixed structure and a reduced, concrete style, with a polite and formal presentation.

Thank you letter

As their name indicates, these letters are written to express gratitude. They are usually written in a structured format, are formal and polite to the person to whom they are addressed.

Social letter

They are letters that have a common interest, they are similar to informative letters, however they are distinguished for being written to a specific community to whom they express gratitude.

Condolence letter

These are letters that express support and understanding for the death of a close person to whom the letter is written. They are usually a voice of accompaniment for the family member of the person who has died.

Letter or biblical epistle

These are letters addressed to specific groups of people. In this modality we find the letters sent by the apostles to Christian communities. They are part of the New Testament, where they were sent by St. Paul, James, Jude, John and Peter. Within the liturgy of the mass, they usually have special importance when they are read in fragments.

How to write an epistle

How to write an epistle?

Knowing how to write a letter, following a simple structure that allows us to express what we want, taking into account the recipient, is a very important tool due to the need for communication in any format, whether physical or digital. Therefore, we will see step by step how to write a letter.

Define the presentation of your letter

The first thing is to define the format that the letter will have, that is, if it is a formal letter or an informal letter, since several development factors depend on it. Formal letters are addressed to people in a professional, legal or business context, so they use polite and concrete language. While informal letters are usually addressed to friends, relatives, romantic partners, close acquaintances, etc., so their content may vary and express affection.

Formal letters should be typed on a computer and printed for delivery. You can also type an informal letter on the computer, although this is not strictly necessary.

Initial data 

Now let’s start writing. In the initial part you should write the date of the day you are writing or sending it, followed by the address, especially if it is a formal letter, which should also include the name of the company or entity to which it is addressed, followed by the person who will receive or to whom the letter is specifically addressed.

Write the salutation 

With the person to whom the letter is addressed clear, it is time to write the salutation. If it is a formal letter, then it can be accompanied by words such as “Dear,” followed by your first name or last name, whichever you prefer. You can include the position if it is a formal letter.

Develop the content 

Unlike informal letters, formal letters, that is, those with a specific, serious and delicate intention, begin with a statement of purpose, that is, they announce the intention and reason for the letter, while informal letters may begin with extended greetings expressing feelings, ideas, evoking thoughts, etc.

Closing the letter

During the development of the content, the closing of the letter is gradually reached, the part that will end with cordial greetings and serious farewells, if it is a formal letter. Or, if it is an informal letter, it will end with a much more emotional farewell expressing deep wishes and feelings. We can add, in either case, a farewell accompanied by the name of the recipient.

Fix the epistle 

Once you have finished it, review it once again to make sure you have written what you wanted, possible spelling mistakes and so on. The rest is just a matter of preparing it, folding it and putting it inside the envelope, which you will later mark with the data of the person to whom it is addressed or just your name as the sender of the epistle.

Example of the sub-genre epistle

The following is a fragment of St. Paul’s epistle to Philemon, which can be found in the Bible:

“Letter of Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy.”

To our brother, to Philemon, our dear co-worker, to our sister

to our sister Apia,

Archippus, faithful companion in our struggles,

and to all the community that gathers in your house:

“Have grace and peace from God our Father and from Christ Jesus the Lord. I thank my God without ceasing, as I remember you in my prayers, for I hear praise for the love and faith that animate you, both towards the Lord and for the benefit of the saints. May that faith be seen in works and manifest all the good that we have in Christ. For I had much joy and consolation in hearing news of your charity, since our brethren are comforted by you. Therefore, although I have in Christ full liberty to command you what you should do, I prefer to ask you out of love. The petitioner is Paul, now an old man, and now a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and the petition is for my son Onesimus, to whom I transmitted life while he was a prisoner. This Onesimus for a time was not useful to you, but now he will be very useful to you, as he has been to me. I give him back to you; receive in his person my own heart…”