The Lost Art of Letter Writing

It has become increasingly common for me to find myself in conversations with colleagues where I recognize the reality that I have gone from being a young turk to a budding grayhair. I explain things that seem entirely foreign to the 20-somethings who I work with. For example, I did not have a PC or email in my first job on Capitol Hill. I did not have a cell phone until I became CEO of a company 6 years later. I used the Internet before the World Wide Web existed when everything was text-based. I once used an acoustic coupler modem to get online with a local BBS (bulletin board).

Most of this qualifies as just reminiscing about the evolution of technology. At the end of the day, it doesn’t make a huge difference , other than it does give me what I consider to be valuable perspective to the current digital communications landscape since I have familiarity with the foundation of advocacy communications, not just in the new media world.

But one thing from my past jumps out at me as something that is missing from my younger colleagues’ lives that would actually benefit them.

The art of the handwritten letter has largely fallen victim to the evolution of technology. Communications today have become more immediate and almost entirely digital. When I went off to college, I would communicate with friends at far-flung locations by writing and mailing letters updating them on developments and responding to their own letters. When college classmates would spend a semester abroad, we would exchange letters on special airmail paper that was lighter weight and thus cost less to mail. Phone calls were few and far between — even domestically — because long distance rates were so high.

Today, Skype can be used at low-cost to talk to friends overseas. Email lets you stay in touch with friends in every corner of the country and the globe virtually instantly at no significant cost. Text messaging on cell phones even permit instant feedback on the latest concert or movie — while you’re still in your seat.

What do we lose with the decline of letter writing?

  • Solid Writing Skills. In the hiring that I have done over the past decade or more, the thing that has disappointed me most in the quality of candidates is writing skill. It often amazes me that many recent college graduates have such a remarkably difficult time communicating effectively in writing. Although they have undoubtedly written plenty of term papers, there’s something about letter writing that I think really helps to hone one’s written communications ability.
  • Spelling. Text messaging discourages correct spelling. Email and word processing provides automate spell-checking capability so as long as you type something in the neighborhood of what is correct, you’re probably all set. Writing letters with pen and paper offers no such safety net. It forces you to focus on spelling correctly — or demonstrating your inability to do so in a very glaring fashion.
  • The Value of Words. Words matter. When writing a letter, it is important to consider how the words will be interpreted on the other end by the recipient. Because of the time it would take for the postal system to do its work and for the recipient to respond in writing, a single back-and-forth exchange would easily take at least a week — often more. That doesn’t leave much room to clear up misunderstandings quickly, so it forced us to focus more on what we said. In addition, since it took time to write the letter, stick it in an envelope, add a stamp, and get it to a mail box to go out, there was plenty of time to reconsider the message being sent. Email and text messages are now so easy to send that quick-fire responses that the significance of one’s words is often overlooked, sometimes with negative effect.
  • The Power of Connecting. In the electronic world, we have many more connections, but we often take them for granted. We bounce from one email or tweet to the next and we think we are connecting. And we are. But it isn’t on the same level as if you were to take 30 minutes crafting a letter to someone. While that letter is being written, the person you are communicating with is top of mind. You are focused on that single relationship. Ultimately, that fosters a stronger bond.

Now, I’m not saying we should drop electronic communications and move back to the handwritten letter. But we would all do well to consider what we have lost as this art has disappeared and think about how we might incorporate the best of it into our current communications arsenal.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Send handwritten notes periodically to your connections. I try to send notes to recognize significant milestones, and express thanks for some action, but I could do better.
  • Try to craft more thoughtful emails. There’s value in brevity, but sometimes it would help to provide greater context to an email discussion. There’s no need to turn an email into an essay every time you hit send, but take the time to embellish your thoughts where appropriate.
  • Pause before hitting send. There’s no harm in re-reading an email before you send it. Don’t just look for typos — try to put yourself in the shoes of the recipient to judge how the message will be received. Especially when attempting humor or sarcasm — or when issuing an admonishment — electronic communications can often be misunderstood.

What ideas would you add?

Photo credit: a.drian via Flickr

  • donbates

    Another good post. I would add the following: Put a bunch of stamped, ready-to-go small envelopes near or on your desk, along with a stack of matching note paper. That way, you've got everything at hand for an immediate hand-written message. And you're right: You only have to say a few words to make your point, like “Thanks,” “You're the best,” “I appreciate your support,” “Good luck in the new job,” etc. The thought is what counts, not the verbiage.

  • Thanks, Don. Since handwritten notes and letters are so rare these days, they really stand out — no matter what the content.

  • Another good post. I would add the following: Put a bunch of stamped, ready-to-go small envelopes near or on your desk, along with a stack of matching note paper. That way, you’ve got everything at hand for an immediate hand-written message. And you’re right: You only have to say a few words to make your point, like “Thanks,” “You’re the best,” “I appreciate your support,” “Good luck in the new job,” etc. The thought is what counts, not the verbiage.

    • Thanks, Don. Since handwritten notes and letters are so rare these days, they really stand out — no matter what the content.

  • Keara Fallon

    Nice reflection. There is a tremendous potential effect that the decline of handwriting will have on our future history for sure. I'm actually starting a book about the subject – I've been talking about it for 12 years!! Finally ,I'm putting it down in words. Thanks for writing!

  • Keara Fallon

    Nice reflection. There is a tremendous potential effect that the decline of handwriting will have on our future history for sure. I’m actually starting a book about the subject – I’ve been talking about it for 12 years!! Finally ,I’m putting it down in words. Thanks for writing!

  • vchandran

    My wife and I are in complete agreement with you-You are absolutely right! I would rather have a letter than an electronic mail. In todays world this seems to be a rarity!

  • vchandran

    My wife and I are in complete agreement with you-You are absolutely right! I would rather have a letter than an electronic mail. In todays world this seems to be a rarity!