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The Disappearing Art of the Handwritten Letter

Apr 09, 2013 12:38AM ● By Erin Frisch


Before iPads or iPhones or eBooks or eReaders, there was paper, and there was ink. Official documents were handwritten by the most talented calligraphers and scribes. Can you imagine the Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence typed in Times New Roman 12-point on a sheet of copy paper? They wouldn’t have the same awe-inspiring air as they do inscribed in scrolling font on crinkly parchment. For most of the last century, handwritten or typewritten letters were the only means of correspondence by mail. And handwritten notes were preferred by those in the know when it came to social niceties. Now that e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and other ways to stay in touch have taken center stage, writing letters, thank you notes, or even invitations is rare in the twenty-first century. But that’s not to say that the skill involved and the pleasure to be found in handwriting a card or note—not to mention the pleasure of receiving such a missive—have disappeared. It’s so exciting when a friend goes away to camp with no cell phone because it’s an excuse to write letters. Most of us would love a reason to send someone a hand-written note because just as much joy can be found in writing a letter as in receiving one. But you don’t need a reason to send a letter; sending the letter is a reason in itself! It’s sad to imagine a future where people don’t have any use for a signature because everything is done electronically. The sacred and comforting practice of writing by hand doesn’t have to be a lost custom.

Take a few simple steps to make writing letters by hand a habit. First, it’s important to always have stationery on hand—anything from monogram-embossed cards to your children’s artwork folded in half. Whatever you use, pick something that you like, that flatters your penmanship, and that’s appropriate for the recipient. Have on hand a large selection of birthday, holiday, thank you, and thinking-of-you cards. Or if you prefer, stock up on attractive cards with nature scenes, animal photos, floral themes, or things you love like old cars or American quilt designs. These blank-on-the-inside cards can be used for a variety of occasions. Even a lined sheet of paper, covered in elegant writing and folded neatly into an envelope, will have an impressive effect. Ultimately, the content of your letter and the fact that it’s handwritten will create a greater impact than the type of stationery you use.

Choose your recipient. You could write to someone you haven’t seen for years and rekindle an old friendship. Everyone appreciates hearing news from a friend. The recipient could also be someone you see often but would like to connect to on a more personal level. My best friends and I kept up a running correspondence of letters throughout our middle-school years. We spent seven hours together at school everyday, but finding a colorful envelope decorated with stickers in the mailbox at the end of a long day made us feel cared for. Maybe you want to write a thank you note to a gift giver or a letter of congratulations to a colleague. I recommend handwriting a thank you to someone who has done an important favor for you or could make an impact in your professional career. A handwritten letter says, “I took time out of my busy life to show my special appreciation for you, and I hope that you might be willing to give me some of your time in the future when I might need it.” Few other things make as strong an impact as handwritten letters when you want to make a good impression. They show that you are intelligent, traditional, skilled, and considerate.

Now, just begin writing. Letters are so wonderful because you put a little bit of yourself in the envelope through your message. Free yourself up and just write as if you were talking to the person to whom you are writing. Write like you’re having a conversation; describe events that have happened in your life since you last saw him or her, and ask specific questions about the recipient’s own life (this is also a good way to encourage a response). Don’t be afraid to use up the whole card and the back, too. Unlike in e-mails or phone calls, rambling on for a bit is totally acceptable. In fact, it will increase the joy of your reader, and almost guarantee a reread. He or she will want to know the details, so share them. Send a little bit of your personality in the letter. Add a joke or a smiley face, or a big, sappy heart next to your name. And of course, don’t forget to add your perfect and unique signature.

Cicero, Emily Dickinson, and Vincent van Gogh are just three among the large group of notables we have learned about through their copious correspondences. Through their speeches, writings, or paintings, we learn about their professional lives. But by reading their personal letters that describe their daily lives and inner thoughts, we can begin to understand who they really were as people. Perhaps this is the tragedy of the age of technology. Certainly e-mails, tweets, and text messages are more efficient than letters, especially when things get busy. But how often would you write an e-mail to your friend or your mom or your child at college just describing the simple joys and sorrows of your day? And how often would such a note get tucked away to become a treasured keepsake?

What is the most memorable letter that you have ever received?

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