Only when a technology becomes obsolete can we begin to truly appreciate it—think of candles, or wooden boats, or homemade bread. Today it’s handwritten notes that are now so archaic. It’s time to bring these notes back lovingly into our lives for the unique benefits they bring.
Making time in your busy life to pen a few lines to a friend can become a rewarding ritual you won’t want to live without. Your own handwritten note, sealed inside a hand-addressed envelope, has the power to impress, or to caress, in a way no other form of communication can. Email, texting, social networking—use and enjoy them, but don’t let the digital downpour drown out the quiet pleasures of taking pen to paper. There’s no way quite like it to be so out of date and yet so in touch.
Now, I know that most of you are perfectly amenable to this advice, yet in hearing from many customers over the years, I also know that certain things stand in the way of people taking up their pens and writing by hand those notes that would be so appreciated—even cherished—by others. Most of these barriers are ghosts of classrooms past and deserve to be erased forever. See if I can persuade you to do just that as we walk through these six tips:
Tip No. 1: Don’t fret about your handwriting. Really. It’s fine.
Okay, I may get testy letters from the National Handwriting Association (neatly written, of course), but I’m risking it. Just write like nobody’s watching. Write any way you can. Don’t worry about not forming your Qs correctly or that a forensic handwriting expert might report you to Homeland Security. (Actually, one of the things I came to admire about President Kennedy in publishing our book about him was his truly atrocious handwriting. Such an articulate mind and such an illegible hand.)
You don’t even have to actually write: printing is just fine. (It’s all I do and people tell me they like my handwriting.) It pains this merchant of reading and writing tools to admit it, but good handwriting just doesn’t matter. Beautiful cursive handwriting, which some people still have, is a lovely thing, and by all means aspire to it if you wish and flaunt it if you’ve got it. But it’s kind of like the ability to make your own flaky pie crusts or saw fine dovetail joints in your woodshop—nice, but not necessary. Fine handwriting is a craft I find delightful and thoroughly enjoy when I see it, but it’s no longer important for today’s professionals.
Most of us endured handwriting classes as youngsters, and we can still remember those long banners of perfectly formed upper- and lowercase cursive letters parading around the heights of our classrooms. Perhaps we cling to a vague guilt that we don’t measure up. It’s time to let it go and move on.
That said, you might try slowing down a bit when writing with your pen and see if you like the result. Type fast, text fast, but when writing by hand to friends or lovers, slow down. Relish the pensive pause.
Tip No. 2: Keep it short—for your sake and theirs.
Just a few lines can make someone’s day. Think of text messaging and how much you can convey in a few words and symbols. And Twitter has demonstrated how millions enjoy communicating in 140 characters or less. To free your mind further, here’s a bonus fact from the dusty pages of writing etiquette: it’s bad form to write on the back side of a card—just use the front.
And a bit of shameless commerce here: you’d be surprised how a nice-looking 3 x 5 card is just as much canvas as you need to say what you want.
If you do have a lot to say, type it instead and then adorn your printout with your signature, a handwritten postscript and maybe even a few underlines in different color inks. Helen Gurley Brown is famous for doing this on her many personally typed letters emanating from her office at Cosmopolitan Magazine.
Tip No. 3: Don’t worry about having nice stationery and a good pen. (I can’t believe I’m saying this.)
We sell lots of nice pens and cards at Levenger, and if you like using fine pens, I like you already. It does add to the pleasure (see below). But the bald truth is: you don’t need fancy stuff. Don’t let a lack of pleasing pens and decent stationery be any barrier to writing. Use whatever’s handy—including free stuff like leftover envelopes and hotel stationery. Or take a sheet of copy paper, fold it twice, tape the edges and stick a stamp on it. As long as it conforms to the basic dimensions and you put enough postage on it, the Post Office will deliver it. Sure, there are times when you want something more respectable. But just the act of a physical note is so extraordinary today, don’t sweat the small stuff.
Tip No. 4: Use relaxed, conversational language—write as you speak.
Unless you’re applying for a job as copy editor, take some chances with sentence construction. You won’t be graded. Write like you speak (not “as you speak”). As that bumper sticker says, “Why Be Normal?”
Finally I slid your new book out from under the leg of my kitchen table and read it. My table wobbles, but it’s worth it. You write pretty good for a professor….
Play with language. Whether it’s the impact of the Internet or texting or blogs, today good writing can be less formal than ever. The important thing is not to let your concern about grammar, sentence construction, or even spelling stand in your way of getting this rewarding ritual into your life. (I do admit to typing words into spell-check once in awhile before writing them to make sure I haven’t made a misteak.)
Tip No. 5: Make it a habit by making it a ritual.
One of the nice things about coffee is the ritual of it—the stirring, the sipping, the cradling of mug in hand. Writing by hand can be much the same. And here is where having a favorite pen and stationery at the ready can help invite you to a task you want to do.
I know some people who set aside a few minutes each afternoon to turn from their screens and take up pen and stationery to write a few notes to customers, friends, or colleagues.
One such person is Strauss Zelnick, the CEO of Zelnick Media, whose portfolio companies employ thousands around the world. “In a fast-food culture, handwritten notes are a homemade meal,” Strauss told me. “They convey—in a way that email specifically does not—interest, concern and appreciation. I write, with a nice pen, on heavy, hand-engraved paper. That’s a brief but rewarding aesthetic experience that I enjoy and I am probably a bit more thoughtful when I write by hand. It makes me feel good that I’ve taken a bit of time to be courteous.”
You might start by making a weekly appointment for yourself for an afternoon delight that involves pen and paper. And join me in my campaign for Send-a-Note-on-Sunday (more on this in an upcoming post).
We humans love rituals, and this is one that’s rewarding for everyone involved.
When you start to send handwritten notes, you tend to get them in return, and can enjoy keeping them around for a while as trophies of affection.
Tip No. 6: When sending physical mail, make it physical.
Do what email can’t—put things in the envelope that are impossible to send electronically.
Start with obvious things like business cards, photos, that parking ticket you haven’t had a chance to pay. But then literally push the envelope.
What’s wrong with, say, a couple Popsicle sticks? They can be handy for all sorts of projects, and you can write on them as well. “Sorry, I had to eat these because they were too big for the envelope.”
Or how about those expired dog tags? “If you see my dog, please get him to wear these; he keeps leaving the house without his collar.”
Or a plastic hotel room key with a picture of some dreamy place you’ve been to and your friend has not? (Is that wrong?)
Or maybe an exotically scented perfume tester strip. Write on it, “Would you believe he was wearing this scent?”
It’s really pretty amazing what you can send when you think about it. Just open up your junk drawer and see what needs to take a trip.
Then think about unusual stationery. Paper placemats are some of my favorite. Before lunch arrives, write a note to your friend. “Wish you were here to pay the bill…”
The unique responsibility of Generation B
There’s another reason why it’s important to keep handwritten notes alive, and why we must do it now or lose our chance:
It’s because those of us over the age of 45 or so are the last generation of humans who lived when physical mail was the thing. We were young when phone calls were expensive and rare, we can remember a world without fax and email. We are the living history of handwritten notes—those notes we received as children from our elders and the notes we sent back.
It falls to our generation to carry the torch forward. It’s not the same torch our grandparents or even our parents had. But it is our turn to show the younger and the youngest how the old form of taking pen to paper still burns bright and carries a warmth all its own. Our transition generation must become the wise elders, and pass on to little hands so facile at texting the joy we know when holding a pen, poised and ready to release our thoughts. “Do you like that fountain pen, Allie? Isn’t it nice how it leaves a line of ink on your paper?”
So how about it, dear reader: have I convinced you to convert to this obsolete technology? I’d love to get your comments. Let me know what tips help you, and please share your own ideas and practices that can help all of us keep alive the obsolete, but lovable, handwritten note. Just click on the Comments link below. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments).
By the way, my physical address is: Levenger, 420 South Congress Avenue, Delray Beach, FL 33445.