If you ask a young person (Gen X – Z), “Did you send a handwritten thank you note?” they look at you as if you just asked them to take their smart phone and dunk it in a glass of water — “WTF?” Those who are part of older generations remember the simpler times — you know: before cell phones, email, instant messaging, and social media — when people actually took the time to send handwritten notes and letters, written from the heart, to one another. Biographers know that without archives of personal correspondence, many of the notable people in history would remain largely unknown or not fully understood in the context of their time and relationships.
But there are those who refuse to believe that the handwritten note is a dead — perhaps an endangered species, but certainly not extinct. Enter Margaret Shepherd, a calligrapher and author of The Art of the Handwritten Note: A Guide to Reclaiming Civilized Communication. Particularly in the Age of Google, when most if not all communication is digital, the handwritten note or letter is more precious and more appreciated than ever before.
“The handwritten note,” observes Shepherd, “has so many virtues that you ought to reach for pen and paper first, before you pick up the phone or move the mouse. In contrast to a phone call, a handwritten note doesn’t arrive demanding to be read when you’ve just sat down to dinner; it courteously lets you know who sent it even before you open it… And in contrast to email, a handwritten note looks beautiful and feels personal; you won’t get an electronic virus from opening a handwritten note nor find a list of last week’s lamebrained jokes. You can still write a note by candlelight when your electricity fails, and mail your note while your server is down. The handwritten note has been around for hundreds of years, and it’s not going to die out just because some of its everyday functions have been taken over by email and voice mail. Adapting to the needs of every fresh generation, it continues to connect people. In fact, a handwritten note is even more vital now than it was a few years ago because it’s less routinely used. A note in the mail brightens a dreary landscape of junk mail, form letters, and prefabricated greeting cards, and it shines through a virtual blizzard of abrupt digital memos and disembodied voice chat. When a handwritten note comes in the mail, people pay special attention to what it says. It announces beyond a doubt that reader really matters to you. Your handwriting insures that your words will be read and thought about in a way that can’t be mimicked by print, email, or voice. Handwritten notes are not going to die out, because people still love to receive them and they value each note more as they receive fewer of them.”
Shepherd believes that beyond being rare, the handwritten note has the ability to enhance a message and make a lasting impression on the recipient: “[A handwritten note] upgrades a wide variety of messages, transforming ‘Oops’ into ‘Please accept my apology,’ and ‘Got the money’ into ‘Thank you for your generosity.’ Ink on paper is still the classiest way to express the thoughts that really matter, on the occasions that really count. And sometimes it’s the only way; your words will carry sympathy and gratitude with a special kind of sincerity when your reader sees them on paper in your writing… It says to the reader, ‘You matter to me, I thought of you, I took [time] on your behalf, here’s who I am, I’ve been thinking of you in the days since this was mailed… The reader can reread what you sent and save it and think good thoughts about you.”
Writing a handwritten note also helps you become a better writer. Shepherd elaborates: “[The] handwritten note does more than inspire the reader who reads it it inspires the writer who writes it. Your words not only look better when you write them, but the act of writing them enables you to choose better words. You’ll probably be pleasantly and mysteriously surprised to find that the flowing line of pen and ink lets you express yourself in ways that key tapping just doesn’t allow.” One is reminded of the memorable tagline that appears on the cover of the American Heritage Dictionary (4th edition): “You are Your Words. Make the Most of Them.” Amen.
Finally, Shepherd believes that a handwritten note is inspiring art form: “Corresponding on paper lets you elevate a simple pleasure into an art form. And art has always survived technology. A handwritten note is like dining by candlelight instead of flicking on the lights, like making a gift instead of ordering a product, like taking a walk instead of driving. Handwritten notes will add a lot to your life. You can still use the telephone or the Web for the daily chores of staying in touch, but for the words that matter, it’s courteous, classy, caring, and civilized to pick up a pen.”
OK. I know what you are thinking: “What if I don’t know what to write?” or “Sometimes I am not sure what to write during difficult times (eg, illness, death, divorce, etc.). No worries. You can turn to the perfect companion books written by etiquette experts: Just A Note to Say… The Perfect Words for Every Occasion by Florence Isaacs or Personal Notes: How to Write From the Heart for Any Occasion by Sandra Lamb. These small books offer hundreds of suggestions for all of life’s major occasions, the happy and the sad, to help you get started in writing meaningful notes.
So the next time you want to express your gratitude or your concern for someone, put down your smartphone or step away from your computer, pick up a pen, and write a handwritten note — surprise someone with the precious gift of your thoughts. Undoubtedly, it will bring a smile to their face and a profound sense of gratitude and affection as they read it and think of you.
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Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Mrs. Bixby
Wallace Stegner’s Wilderness Letter
Harper Lee’s Letter to Oprah on Love of Books
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Writers are Defined by the Words They Use
For further reading: The Art of the Handwritten Note: A Guide to Reclaiming Civilized Communication by Margaret Shepherd
Just A Note to Say… The Perfect Words for Every Occasion by Florence Isaacs
Personal Notes: How to Write From the Heart for Any Occasion by Sandra Lamb