Letter writing becoming a lost art in the age of electronic communication

Erik Potter

Last month, the Whitman Public Library hosted a letter-writing event as part of its “Community Reads” promotion. The library planned to give postage stamps and envelopes to everyone who stopped by to write a letter home or to a loved one far away.

No one came.

In a world of e-mail and Facebook, texting and tweeting, it seems there are fewer and fewer people who take the time to write a letter, longhand, to anyone.

The number of first-class letters sent through the U.S. Postal Service last year shrank 15 percent, according to spokeswoman Christine Dugas. And that is on top of a 7 percent fall in 2007.

The postal service doesn’t categorize first-class letters by type, such as those from private individuals versus from businesses. And at least part of the drop in demand comes from the rise of electronic statements and online bill paying, as well as businesses looking to cut back during a recession, Dugas said.

But some is due to a decline in plain old correspondence as fewer people write letters to one another.

Young adults who grew up using technology for communication triggered the trend, experts say, but many senior citizens learn to use computers so they can e-mail far-flung loved ones, rather than compose letters that take longer to arrive and cost them postage.

Even in the military, soldiers may check their e-mail accounts as often as they wait for postal deliveries to arrive.

“I think eventually, more or less, people won’t (write letters) at all,” said Stonehill College sociology professor Patricia Leavy.

While that could be a good thing for the environment as e-mail is certainly more efficient than paper mail, Leavy said, “the down side is that nobody saves a romantic e-mail all that long like they would a romantic letter.”

Indeed, it has been love letters, preserved through the centuries, that inform historians about the personalities and lives of historical figures, from poet John Keats’ missives to Fanny Brawne — to John and Abigail Adams, whose correspondence shed light on their marital partnership and the American Revolution.

These days, it’s e-mail, Twitter, Facebook and texting, but they are not the only alternatives to longhand writing. They’re just the most recent.

Jim McGill, a 65-year-old retiree from Stoughton, Mass., uses the phone when he wants to communicate.

“It’s a lot quicker than writing a letter and going to the post office,” he said, and a lot more conversational. “The last time I sent a letter was probably when I was in the service 40 years ago.”

But don’t write off cursive just yet.

Letter writing is still taught in many schools, and children are learning it still serves a function that text messages can’t replace. Schools in Brockton, Easton and West Bridgewater are among the many that include hand-writing assignments in their lessons, such as writing letters to soldiers and getting involved in pen-pal programs.

“Most of our skills are done in handwriting, even though we do try to incorporate some technology,” said Julie Andrade, a coordinator of literacy and social studies for the Brockton public schools.

Some young adults see the value in a personally penned note or letter.

Caroline O’Brien, a 19-year-old student at Stonehill College, doesn’t write regular correspondence, but she does pen thank-you notes when she receives gifts and sends holiday cards with personal notes to her parents.

“I just wrote four Halloween cards to my family,” she said recently — and not the e-card kind. She prefers the real thing.

“I know they appreciate it,” she said. “I just think it’s more sincere.”

Leavy, the Stonehill sociology professor, said writing longhand also helps force authors to consider their words carefully.

“I think it totally changes the way people write,” Leavy said. “I think it’s a totally different process when you sit down with pen and paper and you only have one draft — you can’t hit delete.”

Not only do you have to be more sure of what you want to say when writing longhand, but it physically takes longer to write, forcing you to slow down, and in some cases, calm down.

“As a professor, students put something in an e-mail that they would never send in a formal letter or say in person. And I’ll get another e-mail five minutes later saying that they regret the first e-mail,” Leavy said.

Back at the Whitman Public Library, director Inglis didn’t give up after last month’s letter-writing program was a bust.

She offered another one last week, this time during the day, hoping to attract a different audience. But the second time was no different.

“Nobody came,” Inglis said with disappointment. “We do this to reach out, and we hope for the best, but, you know.”

Enterprise intern Erin Shannon contributed to this story.

Tips for saving digital letters

— Remember to ask yourself if a correspondence is worth preserving. If you don’t decide to save it, it won’t get saved.

— Name files and folders and have a system for organizing them so you can find electronic correspondence later.

— Keep digital files in multiple places and move them to updated storage formats when current ones are obsolete. To be extra sure, make a paper copy.

— Refresh data, check to see if the computer can still open outdated file formats, make sure CD-ROMs, which last about five years, aren’t corrupted.

Source: Stonehill College archives department