Recovering the Lost Art of Writing Letters

Time to stop letting junk mail and bills monopolize our mailboxes! Let’s bring back the lost art of letter writing, one lovely piece of snail mail at a time. Letter writing materials

I remember watching a documentary on the Civil War that showed pictures of letters written during the period, and it struck me how distinguished and elegant the handwriting looked in those letters. Fine handwriting has been a lost art for some time, and nowadays letter writing itself is a fading practice!

Handwriting and handwritten letters go, you know, hand-in-hand; the decline of one leads to the atrophy of the other. And the reasons why we write less often are readily apparent: we have email and texts, there’s less emphasis on handwriting in schools, and we’re simply not used to the inefficiency of handwritten mail.

As I’ve done with any of the “Lost Arts” featured on this blog, I like to explore why the lost art is worth preserving and practicing in the first place. Who cares if we still write letters anyway? It’s nice, but certainly not necessary.

And that’s the thing. Our modern-day culture is adept at streamlining and packaging our interactions with media and with each other into bite-sized encounters. But we trim the beauty when we cut the fat. We don’t need to write snail mail letters to say thank you or hello or I’m sorry. We can do all those things quicker and with fewer words–or perhaps no words at all, if we use emojis.

I smiled when I came across this quote recently from My Lady Ludlow by Elizabeth Gaskell. Gaskell’s novel was published in 1858, but doesn’t this bit sound rather apt for today’s world?

“I am an old woman now, and things are very different to what they were in my youth….Then letters came in but three times a week: indeed, in some places in Scotland where I have stayed when I was a girl, the post came in but once a month;—but letters were letters then; and we made great prizes of them, and read them and studied them like books. Now the post comes rattling in twice a day, bringing short jerky notes, some without beginning or end, but just a little sharp sentence, which well-bred folks would think too abrupt to be spoken.”

The case for writing old-fashioned letters is the case for slowing down. For doing a thing deliberately and allowing space for thoughtfulness to bloom. The practice makes us intentional because it requires a little more of us, even if the note we’re writing is only a short one.

Think about being on the receiving end of a handwritten card. Doesn’t it make you feel a bit special? Someone took the time to write to you. They value you. You can give that gift to others, too.

How to Get Back Into Writing Letters

If you want to become a letter writer, first know that you don’t have to have perfect handwriting, you don’t have to have the wit or vocabulary of Jane Austen, and you don’t need fancy stationary! What you do need is something to write with, something to write on, and a little bit of time in your day to do it.

It helps to keep your writing materials handy so it doesn’t seem like a chore. Keep a supply of paper, pens, occasion cards, envelopes, stamps, and an address book or rolodex all in one spot. For an extra splash of personality you can add stickers, stamps, colored pens, even sealing wax and a seal. You can add to these accessories as letter writing becomes more of a hobby or regular practice for you, but don’t wait until you have them to get started!

Letter writing materials: pen, notecards, and stamps

What to write? Here are some ideas…

1. Thank you cards

Send these after you receive a physical gift, yes, but also be liberal about thanking people who have encouraged you, given you their time, or shown hospitality.

2. Christmas or New Year’s letters

We used to receive so many long, newsy letters from friends and family during the holiday season, but this form of personal update has all but dried up now. Reviving the holiday letter not only lets you keep in touch with faraway friends, but it’s a wonderful way to reflect on the past year while you write it. I wouldn’t suggest sending handwritten letters to everyone, of course; for this, typing is fine!

3. Penpal-style letters

There are official penpal organizations you can join, although this isn’t something I’ve looked in to. (Perhaps a reader can recommend a penpal site in the comments?) But you can also write letters to college friends or friends who have moved away. It’s a much more personal and friendship-centered way to keep in touch than merely “seeing” them in your Facebook feed.

I keep in touch with a couple of old friends this way. I don’t write as often as I should, but sending and receiving these letters brings me so much joy! I love opening the mailbox and receiving a real piece of mail from someone I care about…because I do not care about the bank, the electric company, or any of those faithful junk mail correspondents that usually show up in the box.

4. Postcards

Postcards let you dabble in letter writing in a fun, non-scary way. Send them home when you’re traveling, or just to surprise someone with a “thinking of you” note. Postcards are also fun to choose and send to nieces, nephews, or other young friends who might not have the attention span for a long letter but would love a piece of mail. Here is a lovely blog post I found on writing perfect postcards.

Encourage your children to write letters

As you make writing a habit, instill the practice in your children as well to keep this old-fashioned art alive. Help them write birthday or “get well soon” cards for friends and grandparents, thank you cards when they receive presents, or write to missionaries or children you sponsor. You’ll be doing more than just fostering handwriting skills; letter writing will help your children be more thoughtful and empathetic.

How to write a good letter: An easy starting point

Letter writing flows easier with practice, but when you’re initially getting into the habit it can feel a bit stilted. If you’re just not sure what to say, try this. With every letter or note you write, think of at least one thing to include that’s specific to the receiver. Did you see/eat/hear something lately that reminded you of that person? Have you read a book that you know they would like especially? Is there a memory you shared with them that you want to mention?

Remember, the point of writing letters is to brighten someone’s day, and you do that best when you show the receiver that you know them.

[question]Do you still write letters and cards? What do you do to make them pretty and personalized?[/question]

P.S. Here is a touching article about how letter writing can be a ministry.

This post is part of my “lost arts” series, where I pick an old-fashioned habit to discuss and talk about why we should blend it back into our modern-day lives. Here are the other posts in this series:

Recovering the Lost Art of Dressing Up

Recovering the Lost Art of Porch Sitting

Recovering the Lost Art of Cooking from Scratch

Recovering the Lost Art of Taking a Bath

Recovering the Lost Art of Analog Living

Recovering the Lost Art of Old-Fashioned Blogging

Recovering the Lost Art of Solitude

And here’s my post on 5 Old-Fashioned Habits That Are Due for a Comeback


  1. My parents had friends in Germany, and they made it a practice to send a postcard to these friends every time they took a trip. My dad kept their address and some postage stamps in his wallet at all times so he could write to them. That was how they stayed connected. I think the German couple did the same and sent my parents a postcard when they traveled.

  2. I write lots of cards and letters. I know that I LOVE to receive mail and the only way to receive is to send, lots. I don’t do anything special, although sometimes I make my own cards with card stock and photos from my page-a-day calendars.

    David McCullough, historian and writer, says that only those who write will be remembered. How would we know so much about the past if they hadn’t written letters, and journals, etc.?

    Thanks for the encouragement! I hope more people will take up their pens and keep in touch.

    1. Yes, I like to save old calendars and wrapping paper and cut out bits to embellish cards. I keep any special letters I receive in a wooden keepsake box, and I love reading back over the memories–especially the mail I received from my husband before we were married.

  3. I love to read about this subject because I am a letter-writer and card-sender from way back! Since email and facebook I haven’t written near as many letters but I always write a little in each card. Now that we have experienced the quarantine I have been writing to older single people in my community as I assume they are feeling isolated and alone. I don’t hear back very often but when I do it really brightens my day. Some extras in the letters include cartoons, jokes, poems, scripture, book suggestions or a wonderful Blog I want to share. Thanks for this post. I hope more people take up this activity.

    1. So good to hear that people like you are still enjoying this lovely practice! What a wonderful idea to bless people in your community that way!

  4. After each of my grandmas passed away, I craved reading the letters that they sent to me as child. I wanted to see their handwriting because it’s such a strong connection to a person. Handwriting is so much more personal than a screen. During the quarantine my kids had fun sending and receiving letters with family members.

    1. I agree! When I was decluttering my home awhile back, the personalized, handwritten notes were the ones I saved. It was fun to rediscover cards from grandparents and aunts and read the messages written just for me.

    1. Doesn’t it? I wish I could hear Ms. Gaskell’s thoughts on the 21st century, but I suspect they’d be similar to what she said about the 1800s(: She was generally leery of industrialization, particularly when it ignored the merits of the past.

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