For most of us, the daily mail brings bills, advertisements, a magazine or newspaper, political circulars in the appropriate season, and the occasional holiday or birthday card.
But a personal letter is as rare as a blizzard in July.
For two centuries, the U.S. Postal Service has maintained a dead letter office, the cemetery of undeliverable mail. Today, the practice of writing letters is itself nearly as dead, the victim of phones, emails, and texts. These means of communication are faster, less expensive, more dependable, and generally more convenient than sitting down to write out a letter to, for instance, a daughter at college, affixing a stamp, and getting it into the mail.
Before we close the lid on this mode of correspondence, however, let’s consider the value of a letter written by hand and dispatched via snail mail to a family member or friend.
There’s the element of surprise, of course. Texts and emails are commonplace, but the rare arrival of a note in the mailbox is an occasion. Moreover, the recipient of your written words knows the fuss and effort a letter entails as compared with tapping out a few lines into your phone while watching a baseball game on TV. Finally, handwriting a letter, or, if necessary, typing one, is a more formal and intimate act than sending a digital message. We tend to record our thoughts more slowly and with greater deliberation when writing longhand, and so we become more reflective in what we say.
Here are some tips to enhance these compositions.
Date your letters. Often the recipients hold onto them, a bit of treasure, a keepsake, and the date will help them remember when you sent this special gift.
Write the letter. Only resort to the keyboard and printer if your penmanship is completely illegible. The note written by hand is warmer and more personal than a typed letter.
Unless appearance matters—a love letter, a note of condolence—feel free to scratch out mistakes or word changes. Here’s a case where attempted perfection will drive you crazy. Just mark through the offending word, and move on.
And speaking of perfection, pay attention to grammar and spelling, but don’t get hung up on exactitude of thought and emotion. As Mark Twain once wrote, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Let your heart speak to the paper through the pen and let the words flow.
Unless you are giving a note of encouragement to a coworker, put the letter in an envelope, slap on a stamp, and send it via USPS. It doesn’t matter whether the letter’s going cross-country or to Grandma in the house next door; the idea is for that person to get a real treat in the mail instead of another ad from a real estate agent.
And your payoff for this effort?
Your letter will bring sunshine to your 6-year-old granddaughter’s day. It will do the same for your 75-year-old grandparents. A message of gratitude to an old college professor may offer a much-needed shot in the arm for that week’s teaching. Your note to a friend may arrive at a hard time when this little boost is good medicine. Whether she’s your wife or a significant other living hundreds of miles away, a letter to the woman you love can melt her heart.
This is part of the delight and the adventure when you post that letter. The odds are good that you’ll bring someone at least momentary pleasure. The odds are almost as good that your note will turn someone’s day from darkness into light.
Emails and texts are great most of the time, but a letter—that’s a handshake or a hug made of paper and ink.