The dying art of handwritten letters: Why we should revive it

Illustration of a map of the United States in which New York and California are connected by a trail of letters tracing a heart
Jericho Tang/Staff

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When I left for college, I made a resolution of sorts to get into as many good habits as possible and stick to them. One of those resolutions was something my friends and I made together — to stay in contact even when we got busy. A few of us decided to do something a little different and write one another letters.

The concept seems obviously antiquated when there are myriad superior alternatives for keeping in contact with loved ones — texting and using Snapchat, or calling when there’s something important or lengthy to talk about. It’s no secret that mail is a dying form of communication, and for understandable reasons.

But letters are unique in a few ways, and taking the time to compose them made me appreciate writing more than any school assignment ever did. 

Letters compose a long, uninterrupted monologue (in that way, it’s almost like a diary entry) with a purpose: to communicate with someone you aren’t seeing in person. Unlike texting and calling, you can (and for the sake of efficiency, have to) convey a lot of information and send it off without immediately getting a response from the other person.

That brings me to my next point: Letters take a few days to reach the other person, and it takes a few days to hear back from them. And letters are a physical memento; with messy penmanship and little doodles, they contain a personal, unique touch that no phone call or text ever will.

With this in mind, my friends and I put a certain amount of thought and effort into the letters we wrote one another that we didn’t need to devote to a text conversation. 

The sentimental reasons were why I first appreciated sending and receiving letters. But as I continued to take the time to write on my own, I realized how much I enjoyed finding my own literary voice. Even though my tone was pretty informal, I noticed my writing improve.

My sentences began to flow more naturally. I learned to easily outline in my head the general direction of what I wanted to talk about without putting anything down on paper. And I was able to write much faster.

I had always been the type to stare at a blank page for a while before knowing where to start, but getting into the habit of sending letters actually reduced the time I spent on essays. Writing had always been something I reserved for school assignments; I didn’t usually take any joy in it because there was always the looming pressure of a deadline behind it.

But doing it for fun, on my own, with no limitations or rules on a topic I had to stick to or a word count I had to meet gave me a never-before-experienced genuine love of writing. 

With everything going on right now, people are missing social interaction more than ever. I know when I’m feeling sentimental I’ll look back on the paragraphs my friends wrote me with advice and stories about their love lives, or with their worries and gripes, and see snapshots of moments in my life that I will forever cherish.

I’ll also remember how therapeutic it felt to compose my responses — it made me realize that trying something in a low-pressure environment is sometimes necessary in order to enjoy it.

Right now, the postal service so many Americans depend on — not just to send letters, but also to supply food, relief checks and prescription drugs — is in crisis. The spread of COVID-19 has simultaneously cemented the already-struggling USPS’ position as an essential service while choking off its main source of income: businesses sending mail.

People are buying stamps in an attempt to mitigate the service’s financial struggles. And while that won’t replace a desperately needed bailout from Congress, if there was ever a time the 55 cents was worth it, it’s now.

Pick up a pen and write something to a friend or family member — a greeting, a question, a life update, anything. Hey, it’s not like we have much else to do anyway.

Contact Ananya Thyagarajan at [email protected].