Lost art of letter writing | Sunday Observer

Lost art of letter writing

18 October, 2020

All letters, methinks, should be free and easy as one’s discourse, not studied as an oration, nor made up of hard words like a charm. - Dorothy Osborne (1627-1695) English letter writer

When I was leaving home to take up an appointment in a government office in Hingurakgoda, way back in the 1960s, my father said, “I am unable to come with you, but write to me.” He said so as if life depended upon letters. If I had not written letters, I would have lost my sense of direction and half of the people I cared about. Similarly, if I did not receive letters, I would feel bereft and miserable. As we had no telephone at the time, I regularly wrote letters to my parents, friends, pen-pals and well-wishers. It was in letters that I kept record of my own years as others might keep theirs in journals. The postage was low and I was lucky to have been born in an age of letter writing. But the art of letter writing is quite dead today.

Real letters cannot be written when you feel pressed, perching on the chair’s edge. After office hours, I had nothing else to do than writing letters which took my time and energy. By letters I mean the opening up and the confiding that feed a friendship, the intimacy of tone and phrases that came when people talk with affection and without restraint. I suspect that most people have stopped writing letters partly because they do not take the time and they also do not feel comfortable. They lack exuberance and confidence needed to write to someone living far away. It is a joy to know that someone is waiting to read your letters and you can imagine how he smiles and raises his eyebrows. To receive a letter out of the blue is a wonderful experience.

A well-crafted personal letter is really a sweet gift which comes in an envelope which is sealed and put into a bag along with other letters. The bags containing letters are carried from one place to another by vans, buses and trains. In a day or two, your letter will be delivered to the addressee by a postman. When the postman rings the bell, you are simply excited to accept the letter and read it several times.

Vague impression

Although we have mobile phones and computers, we need to write letters. Otherwise nobody will know who we are. They will have only a vague impression of us as a nice person, because we do not have the confidence to write a letter and tell them, “Hi, I’m Bumble Bee, let me tell you something about myself.” When you are not in touch with friends through letters, they will only smile and look over their shoulder to find someone else to talk to. If you are a shy person, start writing letters to your friends. When you write a letter, you will be known to another person who is living at a distance. What are you going to write? You may write about your new friends, the book you are reading, what your neighbours are doing, and the new job you have got. The subjects are numerous if you are a little imaginative.

The first step in writing letters is to get over the guilt of writing. You do not owe anybody a letter. Your letter is a gift in itself. Do not apologise by writing, “I feel bad about writing as I have been very busy these days.” When you receive a letter, thank the sender for the wonderful gift. Some of the best letters are tossed off in a burst of inspiration. Therefore, keep your writing stuff in one place where you can sit down and think. There are a few essentials for a letter writer. They are a writing pad, envelopes, postage stamps and an address book. Write fast when your pen is hot! Sit for a few minutes with the blank sheet of paper in front of you, and let your friend come to mind. Write the salutation – “Dear Susan …” and take a deep breath and lunge in.

Grammar and style

When you write letters to your friends, do not worry about grammar and style. Write a simple declarative sentence followed by another and another. Write as if you are talking to your friend. Say how you spent the weekend, the people you met, what you think about them in a few short sentences. If you do not know how to begin, start with the present: “I’m sitting in my room on a rainy Sunday morning … There’s no one at home … The house is very quiet …” When you write to friends, do not try to impress. A letter is only a report to someone who already knows you.

Personal letters have no form, sequence or style. When you come to the end of one episode, just start a new paragraph. The more you write, the easier it gets, and when you write to a friend, it is like driving a car, you just press on the gas. There is no need to tear up a page and start writing on a new page. If you make a mistake, just cross it out and continue to write.

Outrage, confusion, love – whatever is in your mind, let it find a way to the page. Writing is a discovery. When you write more and more letters, you will discover many ways of expressing your ideas. Most people do not throw away the letters they get from their friends. They preserve them in an attic and read them many years later. Your children and grandchildren will be delighted to read about the places you had visited, who you met and what they said. Today, the power and beauty of handwritten communication is being rediscovered. Paul Brown, a teacher in a New Zealand boarding school asked his students to write letters to their parents.

The boys resisted at first and dismissed the request as a stupid idea. However, with a bit of encouragement, they started writing letters to their families. In return, they received long replies along with $10 notes, sport and car magazines. All of a sudden, the appeal of writing letters took on a whole new meaning. Brown, now the head of a boarding school at St Peter’s College in Adelaide, Australia, says letter writing has become a bit of a lot art.


Donald Jackson, the world famous calligrapher, has similar concerns about the future of handwriting. He says, “It is about touch. When you have a computer or phone in between you, you are distancing that heartbeat from the page, from the method of communication. But if you think of that sensory involvement in the words you are putting down on paper, then you have the maximum connection between you and the person who is reading those words.”

Personal correspondence runs parallel to your life, from birth announcements and thank you notes, through love letters. For all this, you need to cultivate a personal voice in your correspondence. It should be light, friendly, sincere, sympathetic, affectionate and loving, according to the occasion and the recipient.

Personal letters inevitably convey your thoughts and emotions, but you need to handle them with care. There will be moments in your life when you will be tempted to open the floodgates of your heart to a correspondent. Such an outpouring will be on permanent record.

Letters to children

Adults often consider whether they should write letters to children. They do not know how to relate to a child’s age and interests. On the other hand, today’s children do not receive letters from their friends. If they get a letter, they will wonder what it is! So it’s worth the effort to introduce a child to the pleasures of intimate correspondence. When you write to children, be inquisitive.

Tell them what you have been doing, where you have been, who you have met and what you think of them. Ask questions about school and friends. Enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope to encourage a reply.

When it comes to love letters, handwritten love letters are preferred. When you type abillet-doux, it has no personal touch. If you get a typed love letter, throw it into the nearest WPB!

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