Surely it’s not time to write off the humble letter just yet

Border Mail Column Wednesday 17 August 2011

Writing business letters isn’t the most exciting of topics, but is an important one for people whose work involves taking care of the written communication in their organisation.

There is the email, but for many reasons letters still need to be written.

Preparing some training on the topic I went looking for examples of how our business communication has changed over the years.

The search yielded me a gem with the catchy, and I’m sure at the time marketable title of “The Complete Letter Writer –Being a Comprehensive and Practical Guide and Assistant to Letter Writing.”

Published in 1902 its full title went on to promote that the book includes a ‘large collection of letters and forms adapted to all occasions….and embracing also a vast amount of information necessary to correct and make correspondence effective.’

The editor, Charles Walter Brown’s motivation to bring the book to the public was to address the lamentable decline in the art of letter writing.

‘The railway, the steamship, the telegraph and telephone, the science of phonography and the most wonderful instrument the type-writer are all helping to crowd letter writing out of the ordinary occupations of life.’

‘But in these busy days, brief notes – hastily written – telegrams, or telephonic messages, have to take the place of the old fashioned letter,’ he writes.

While not a business letter, this example of a letter from a father ‘remonstrating with his son’ caught my attention.

‘I am willing to believe that your faults so far are the result of thoughtlessness rather than vicious inclination; but you must reform your faults forthwith, or you will incur my serious displeasure.’ Signed, Your anxious father.’

The son responded accordingly, signing off ‘Your affectionate and repentant son.’

But I wonder what Mr Brown would make of our 21st century communication?

Although writing in various forms is the basis of my livelihood, it is some time since I wrote a letter using the simple tools of paper and pen.

My handwriting is not elegant; a fact I blame on years of taking notes when covering news, but it is no real reason for not taking the time to correspond in this way.

A greater challenge may be to find some suitable stationery on which to write these words and more often than not I’ll write an email or make a phone call.

Recently I could have taken advantage of an interactive community art project ‘Snail Mail My Email’ where I could send my email to a second person who  would handwrite my message, and depending on the recipient, add the personal touch of a spray of perfume or cologne or a drawing.

The project’s aim was to cultivate the appreciation for the lost art of letter writing.

Closer to home the Melbourne ‘Women of Letters’ event brings together on a regular basis a diverse range of well known women: writers, actors and other women, and on one occasion men of note, to write a letter.

Audience participation is encouraged and envelopes and stamps are supplied for this creative fundraiser for the Victorian animal rescue member, Edgar’s Mission.

But, according to Pulitzer Prize for Commentary winner, US author, journalist and columnist Anna Quindlen, the reports of the death of the letter may be greatly exaggerated.

‘The age of technology has both revived the use of writing and provided ever more reasons for its spiritual solace. Emails are letters, after all, more lasting than phone calls, even if many of them r 2 cursory 4 u.’

Perhaps the lost art of letter writing is not lost at all.

The Complete Letter Writer –Being a Comprehensive and Practical Guide and Assistant to Letter Writing.” can be downloaded here.




About Robyne Young

Writer, creative writing teacher, editor, columnist. Literary lover. Short story collections, The Only Constant and The Basket and the Briefcase available via website.
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