In the 1800s, letters took several months to go around the continent by boat, 25 days across the country by stagecoach, and 10 days by pony express to go from the East to West Coast. They’ve definitely speeded up since then, but because of the immediacy of modern technology, letter-writing has largely fallen out of favor. Texts and emails are a great way to exchange information and hammer out logistics as quickly as possible, but, on the other hand, they have shortcomings. Immediate messages are not always thoughtful, less often poetic, and rarely meditative.
That’s where letter-writing has the upper hand! Since it’s ineffective to convey a lot of immediate or logistical information through a letter, you can instead focus on the details—the things that make everyday life worth living—and your thoughts about them. Here are a few ways to enrich your letter-writing experience—or to get started if you’re new to letter-writing!
// Lean into longhand.
Writing by hand is necessarily slower than typing. It takes longer to write each individual word. You also have to pay more attention to how much space you have left on the page, and where your words are on the line (or they will literally fall off the end!). You may also write more slowly in order to make it legible or to use your best handwriting. This forced slowness is one of the elements of letter-writing that make it so meditative. You can’t multi-task when writing by hand in the same way you can when calling, texting, and emailing. Writing longhand helps you stay mindful of the moment because it means you can only concentrate on one thing: putting words down on a page. Since you have to compose more carefully, this is also why letters are often a more thoughtful medium.
// Pick one or two ideas, events, stories, or feelings to discuss in detail.
Briefly mentioning many things can make a letter seem more like a long list of activities you’ve done recently, or some kind of productivity report. Instead, focus on one or two topics and develop them. (If that sounds familiar, it’s because yes, I am an English professor!) Chronicle how you felt about your day, explain your opinion about a topic and question your position, describe the best part of your week, or tell a story that your reader will appreciate. Add a few lines of physical description to capture the feeling or the moment, such as a detail about how your friend turns his head away to laugh, the glint of your blazer buttons in the sunlight, or the half-wilting bouquet in the breakfast nook that you can’t bear to part with. Consider making a simple outline on your topic, even if it’s just in your head, and end the letter with a takeaway, concluding question, or comment.
// Part of the fun comes from the beautiful supplies.
If you write letters often (or plan to), find yourself some pretty stationery, nice fountain pens, colorful sealing wax, return address labels, and fun stamps. You can find beautiful stationery in local shops, chains like Papersource, or many online purveyors such as Letter Seals and Etsy. Look for a nice pen that will glide smoothly across your fine paper. You could use gel pens, fancy fountain pens, or plainer fountain pens from Staples or Blick. Not only do these pens make it easier to write, but the thicker lines made by gel and fountain pens make letters look a bit more old-fashioned and classy. If you really want to turn letter-writing into a creative project, you can also order penmanship workbooks and practice your loops and flourishes while dashing off charming notes to your friends.
Sealing wax and postage stamps are quicker ways to send your letters off in style. Get a package of wax at an art supply store, and look for a wax stamp that catches your eye. You can find monogrammed stamps, as well as flowers, anchors, and many other symbols. Ask for the stamp book at your local post office, or order some postage stamps at USPS.com. You can usually choose from florals, American vistas, historical figures and events, and seasonal designs—all of them are more interesting than the basic flag stamp!
// Gather all the supplies you will need in one place.
This way, you can set them all out in front of you when you want to write a letter, and you won’t have to get up and down to finish the letter or prepare it for mailing. In fact, addressing and stamping your envelope first is one way to ensure your letter gets mailed. Not only does sitting and composing thoughtfully keep you mindful of the activity you’re doing, but using beautiful stationery will bring you joy, and sealing a letter adds a small kick of accomplishment. You will have just completed something that is both a kind gesture and a creative project.
Writing letters is not only a gift to your friends and family, but also a gift to yourself: a quiet, meditative moment in the swirl and speed of digital life.