The beginner’s guide to letter-writing

Forge connections, sharpen your wit, brighten someone’s day and preserve a little piece of now for future generations.

“The art of general letter-writing in the present day is shrinking until the letter threatens to become a telegram, a telephone message, a postcard,” wailed America’s mistress of manners Emily Post, in her 1922 book Etiquette. Perhaps she’d had a premonition of how text messaging would take over personal communication less than a century later.

Emily wasn’t just clinging nostalgically to a tradition of the past. She saw real value, both mental and emotional, in setting aside time to commit words to paper – benefits that the new-fangled long-distance telephone didn’t provide. And she was right. Today there’s plenty of evidence to show we’re better, smarter and more thoughtful on paper than in person – or on screen.

A 2010 University of Washington study found that primary school-aged children wrote “more words, faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand versus with a keyboard”. What’s more, handwriting engages more sections of the brain than typing, and you’re far more likely to remember something if you write it down rather than type it out, according to a study published in the journal Advances in Haptics.

Writers have long recognised that the pen provides a connection to your thoughts that is deeper than what is offered by a keyboard. “A scrap of paper and a stub of a pencil are more preferable for philosophising than typing the same words down,” said American poet laureate Charles Simic in the New York Review of Books. “Writing a word out, letter by letter, is a more self-conscious process and one more likely to inspire further revisions and elaborations of that thought.” In 1985, novelist Robert Stone told the Paris Review that with a typewriter, you “can rush something that shouldn’t be rushed – you can lose nuance, richness, lucidity”.

Locally, the art of letter-writing is also enjoying something of a revival. “Handwriting does slow you down and force you to consider your words in a different way,” says Moira Clunie, co-director of community art space Alphabet City and the Auckland Letter Writing Club. Moira and partner Erin Fae are doing their bit to bring “mail culture” back to New Zealand – in the face of postage increases and talk of delivery days being cut from six to three.

Although Emily Post offers many delightful musts and must-nots, Erin and Moira take a more relaxed approach, maintaining a letter is a letter – even if the notepaper and envelopes don’t match. On the third Thursday evening of every month, Alphabet City is open for anyone to pull up a stool to the wide table and write. It’s all about connection – with friends near or far and fellow enthusiasts alike. Once, says Moira, two strangers discovered they were writing to a mutual friend overseas. “They ended up sharing the same envelope!” she recalls.

As anyone who takes pen to paper will discover, handwriting communicates a layer of your personality that’s totally erased by digital communication. The paper you choose, the slope and loops of your words, the colour and weight of your ink are to correspondence what body language is to conversation. There’s even a pseudoscience, graphology, dedicated to unlocking what your handwriting reveals about your inner self.

Most crucially, a letter is something that exists in a tangible form. You can store it in a box. When created with care and love, it’s akin to an art object. And if you keep it long enough, it becomes a historical record. Unlike emails, which are prone to vanish into the digital mist, letters of the past stick around, tied in bundles in the bottom desk drawer or, on occasion, hidden in the back of picture frames. Read today, they offer a window into the trials, loves, preoccupations and daily life of another age – reminding us that some things never change, even though the way we describe them does.

“Letter-writing is among our most ancient of arts,” wrote British journalist Catherine Field in the New York Times. “Think of letters and the mind falls on Paul of Tarsus, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Austen, Mark Twain; on love letters written during the American Civil War, or letters written to a parent by a frightened soldier at the battlefront.”

Search online and you’ll find websites dedicated to great missives from the past, such as Letters of Note. There are also collections of handwritten love letters from famous figures of the past, as well as the final dispatches of people such as Robert Scott and Mary Stuart.

It all begs the question of what we might leave to our own grandchildren. The passwords to our email accounts?

Letter by letter

“We now have in our minds the letter has to be an extremely special thing, but if you look at historical correspondence they were very everyday,” says Erin Fae. “People get all worried about making it good enough, and they forget how great it is to receive something in the mail that’s not a bill.”

Erin’s most important tip for new letter-writers is that it doesn’t have to be a big deal. “They shouldn’t worry if it’s going to be good. There aren’t any rules. It doesn’t matter if it’s short or long, just put it on paper and drop it in the mail. The gesture of it alone is enough.”

And what if none of your friends are in the habit of putting fingers to keyboard, let alone pen to paper? “To get a letter, send a letter,” says Erin confidently.

Here are seven steps to get started:

a Choose stationery that you like. If the fussy letter sets in stationery stores aren’t to your liking, head to craft markets, online store Kikki-K (www.kikki-k.com.au) or an art supplies store such as Gordon Harris (www.gordonharris.co.nz). You can simply buy A4 sheets you like and halve them to make plain A5 note sets.

If you have trouble with spacing or writing straight lines on a blank sheet, tuck a piece of heavily ruled notebook paper underneath so the lines show through as a faint guide – something wobbly-handed scribes have been doing since long before Emily Post’s time. Don’t underestimate the elegance of good-quality, slightly textured white paper, though ultimately, anything will do – from refill to sheets ripped from a notebook.

b “Pre-address your envelope and put a stamp on it so that you can pop it in the post when you’re out,” suggests Erin. It helps that letter-writing is a very portable hobby, she says. “I take my letter-writing kit in my handbag. Throw a notepad in your bag and you can write a letter in your lunch break at a cafe down the road.”

c Begin your letter by writing your address at the top of the page, recommends Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “It is an aggravating thing … when a friend heads his letter ‘Dover’, assuming that you can get the rest of the address from his previous letter, which perhaps you have destroyed,” he wrote in the amusing 1890 leaflet Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter-Writing.

And don’t forget to add the date – including the year, he cautions. “It is another aggravating thing, when you wish, years afterwards, to arrange a series of letters, to find them dated ‘Feb 17’, ‘Aug 2’!”

“For most people the difficulty in letter-writing is in the beginning and the close,” notes Emily. Even if your letter is a much overdue reply, beginning with an apology is a “lame duck” that essentially “slams the door” on the reader, she says. Instead, she recommends opening your letter by saying how much you miss, or have been thinking of, the other person.

e Share a bit of yourself. “The letter we all love to receive is one that carries so much of the writer’s personality that she seems to be sitting beside us, looking at us directly and talking just as she really would, could she have come on a magic carpet, instead of sending her proxy in ink-made characters on mere paper,” says Emily. “There is a great deal in the letter about her, not only about what she has been doing, but what she has been thinking, or perhaps, feeling. And there is a lot about us in the letter – nice things, that make us feel rather pleased about something that we have done, or are likely to do, or that someone has said about us.”

“For most people the difficulty in letter-writing is in the beginning and the close. Even if your letter is a much overdue reply, beginning with an apology is a “lame duck” that essentially ‘slams the door’ on the reader.”

f “Write in the spirit of cheerfulness,” suggests the Hills Manual of Social and Business Forms, published in 1821. “A letter is but a talk on paper.” Truly marvellous letters preserved from the past contain not only the news of the family or town but clever observations of daily life; opinion, remarks, advice and philosophical musings.

If you’re composing a reply, you can use your correspondent’s previous missive as a guide. “I’ll make sure I hit upon all the notes in their letter,” says Erin.

g Gracefully ending a letter involves recalling some point of connection between you and the recipient, instructs Emily, whether that’s a shared memory, a common interest or future contact. If the person is someone you know very well, a “ceremonious close” is hardly required, Emily adds, pointing out that when you leave the house of a family member, you don’t have to think up a special sentence in order to say goodbye.

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