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On the Importance of Writing Letters by Hand

The Art of Manliness’ Brett McKay explains why writing letters by hand is more important than ever today and offers some tips for getting started.

In our hyper-connected world, with its text messaging and its Facebooking and its Twittering, the good, old-fashioned handwritten letter has nearly become extinct. Which is a shame because when it comes to sharing one’s true thoughts, sincere sympathies, ardent love, and deepest gratitude, words traveling along the invisible digital superhighway will never suffice. Why?

Because sending a letter is the next best thing to showing up personally at someone’s door. Ink from your pen touches the stationery, your fingers touch the paper, your saliva seals the envelope. Something tangible from your world travels through machines and hands, and deposits itself in another’s mailbox. The recipient handles the paper that you handled and they see your personality and individuality conveyed in your handwriting.

So what keeps folks from taking advantage of the marvels of letter writing? Laziness, primarily. But I also think there’s an intimidation factor in play. Thanks to Ken Burns documentaries in which talented voice actors read eloquent 19th century correspondences, a misguided belief has formed that if you’re going to write a letter by hand, it needs to be filled with ponderous gravitas. Both roadblocks can be eliminated with a bit of preparation and education.

The Letter Writer’s Toolkit

Good stationery. You don’t need nice stationery to send a handwritten letter. A piece of notebook paper will get the job done. But quality stationery makes the experience a bit more distinguished and increases the recipient’s level of delight.

A fountain pen. Fountain pens are actually easier on the hand than ballpoints. And they’re just dang classy.

Stamps. This is the big sticking point. People don’t send letters because they don’t want to go to the post office and stand behind a bunch of old ladies to buy stamps. Thankfully, the USPS has entered the 21st century and sells stamps online.

Wax Seal. Not needed, but certainly lends a boatload of panache to your envelope.

The Letter Writer’s Approach

You probably know the technical form of a letter: date it in the right-hand corner, start off with “Dear____”, and sign off with “Love, sincerely, respectfully, etc.,” depending on the level of intimacy with the recipient. Once you get the technical form down, to write memorable and enjoyable letters follow this one rule:

Write the way you would talk. A letter is but talk on paper. Just as you would in real life, adjust the style and formality depending on your intimacy with the recipient. If it’s a business contact, maintain a more formal tone. If it’s your girlfriend or an old buddy, be as informal, intimate, and breezy as you would be if they were with you in person. Your goal is to have your voice reading your letter to them in their head. It’s much easier to create that effect if you write how you actually talk. Just as you don’t overthink when you talk, don’t overthink when you write a letter.

Brett McKay,

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