Monday, February 2

Handwriting letters: the humane art

I used to write letters by hand. I enjoyed selecting the writing paper I would use, picking out the pen. When I fell in love with fountain pens, I enjoyed taking the time to make sure the pen was ready to use and, because I have more than one, selecting the pen I wanted to use. While I was going through my preparations, I'd think about the person to whom I was going to write, what that individual liked, our history, what I wanted to share with him or her. Because writing a letter is a personal act.

“A letter should be regarded not merely as a medium for the communication of intelligence,” advised an 1876 guide to the art of epistolary etiquette, “but also as a work of art.”

Oh yes. I cannot and will not attempt to argue with that. And that was in 1876 when writing required a LOT of work. Quill pens were still being used in the 1850s, but the use of steel nibs was on the rise. Even so, using a dip pen requires practices. And the first truly practical fountain pen was not invented until 1884 by Lewis Edson Waterman.

Virginia Woolf called letter writing "the humane art."  She acknowledged the peculiar power of a handwritten letter.

Today a letter might seem an excessive waste of time when it's so much easier to send a text or post a tweet or even one's status on Facebook. While a text can be specific and personalized, so often it isn't because it's a means of conveying something quickly and with convenience. A letter, even one written on lined paper and with a ballpoint pen, takes time. But it also conveys a message that the letter writer is willing to invest time, has given thought to the words used, and has considered what it is to be shared and to what extent.  Letters say "you matter enough to me that I want to invest this time and this though in you."

An article published in Harvard Business Review in 2013 affirms the value of the handwritten note for business purposes. Sure, the handwritten note could be a smokescreen, but it could also be genuine in that in generally "notes of gratitude, civility, and appreciation that reach beyond the conventional thank-you."

Handwritten letters take time, but they convey so much to the recipient. When I left a job not too long ago, I left handwritten notes for each member of my team and for some specific others who had been important to my success in my work. I wanted to be sure to convey that to them and I wanted it to be personal. Writing each note by hand made it personal, and being able to say something particular about their work with and for me and what they meant to me made it even more personal. Though it took time, it was worth every second. And that the gesture and the content made a difference to many of the recipients simply reinforced the value.

I am reminded of the power and pleasure of a handwritten letter, and encouraged to make the time to write more such letters.

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