A Better Letter Manifesto v1.0

Write a better letter. Today we text and tweet and update and email and vmail and blog and vlog, but we don’t write enough letters. Or even notes. With paper and ink and stamps.

James Willis Westlake on how to write a better letter

James Willis Westlake on how to write a better letter

Digital communications are proliferating. Children can type before they can handwrite, thumb-text before they can thumb-hike. (Remember hitch hiking? It’s sort of similar to bell bottoms and vinyl albums. All three will be cool again, mark my words.)

I have a special soft spot for the lost art of letter-writing — an art robbed of romance and even basic courtesy in the age of rapid-fire, efficiency-obsessed, typed-with-one-thumb-on-a-tiny-keyboard communication. ~ Maria Popova (Brain Pickings)

How to Write Letters, by James Willis Westlake

How to Write Letters, by James
Willis Westlake (archive.org)

While I’m no Luddite and I’m not proposing a ban on day-in, day-out digital communications, I am challenging you to write a better letter. A better love letter, cover letter, resignation letter, condolence letter, congratulations letter,…

I’m not talking about the glut of letter writing tips available online or even this refreshing tutorial: “to write a better letter, go fly a kite“. Sure there’s still room for James Willis Westlake’s How to Write Letters: A Manual of Correspondence, Showing the Correct Structure which I discovered via the perennially plugged-in and chronically contemplative Maria Popova’s post. (Check out her post, “How To Write Letters: A Guide to the Lost Art of Epistolary Etiquette circa 1896“.) There is still room, ample room, in fact. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about how to compose better personal, handwritten notes and letters. You dig? (That’s a bell bottom, vinyl album, hitch hiking way of asking if you understand me so far.) Here’s how to write a better letter.

Write with a Pen

Handwriting, even when it’s smudgy or loopy or crossed out or misspelled is real. And we crave real, now more than ever. Use a pen to write a better letter. It will look and feel and smell and maybe even taste like you. Well, probably it won’t taste like you, but who’s checking? Your ink-written letter will become slightly unintelligible when the recipient is so moved that s/he sheds a tear. Splash. A blurred word or two. Forever. This is good. It permits the recipient to imagine whatever words they want to imagine in your letter. This is subversive. But it is good. Very, very good!

Write with a Pencil

Scared $#!%less of the pen’s permanence. I know, it takes bravery. Or abandon. But don’t worry. You can still write a better letter even if you’re daunted by indelible pen and ink. Use a pencil to write a better letter. Yes, you can erase and rewrite and waffle, but it’s still pretty darned real. Intimate even.

Cross Out & Correct

A Better Letter?

A Better Letter?

Leave evidence that you are fallible, that you changed your mind, that your emotions and memories are forever evolving. Don’t hide your edits. Include them. They are part of the story. Part of you. Especially if they embarrass you. Digital communications are like airbrushed posters. Slightly fake. Only, its hard to be certain which part is fake and which part is real. That’s not cool. Real is cool. Marginalia is cool. Open up and share!


Don’t take yourself so seriously. Especially if it is a serious letter. Levity is the best therapy. And it’s enjoyable. Doodle even if you are totally self conscious about your artistic abilities (or lack thereof). Actually, doodle especially if you are self conscious about your artistic disabilities. It’s humble. It’s trusting. It’s generous. And it gets easier each time you try. You might even find that you are a natural doodler. I think we all are!

Write Often

Practice makes perfect. Familiar? What about this? Practice gets monotonous. We extol the virtues of practice, practice, practice, and in the process I’m afraid we sometimes stifle enthusiasm and teach risk aversion. Writing (and actually mailing) a letter is still practice. But it’s also exciting. And a wee bit risky. Did we make a mistake? Did we go too far? Did we not go far enough? And it will inspire you to fire off another letter. Write often. Practice will absolutely make you a better letter writer, but remember to send out the letters you write. Write often. Send often. Become a better letter writer!

If you’re not quite ready to practice on your near and dear (I’m thinking of the pencil letter writers) you might want to check out Mike O’Mary‘s note project which would be the perfect way to practice by sending letters to perfect strangers!

The Note Project is an ongoing campaign to make the world a million times better by inspiring people to share notes of appreciation. (The Note Project)

Go. Write. Now!

4 Comments to “A Better Letter Manifesto v1.0”

  1. Linda Dolly says:

    In response to George’s note on notes…
    I just sharpened a pack of multi-color pencils. Why? Because the raspberries, I draw on the side of a number ten envelope, look more realistic when drawn in red. And the recent illustrations, in a note to my sister (Barb) of “ants in my pants” and a “fern” took on an added depth with the richer color pallet.
    On an other topic, the first person to tell me where I can purchase a two pack of disposable fountain pens, which Staples no longer carries and a trip to Lake Placid’s art store left me unsated, will recieve a super duper thank you note, full of pen AND pencil art!
    Additionally, DollyGang, and significant others. All unsent letters and cards hanging around my house will be sent out before the first of April this year! Get ready for some Christmas cards, yup two years worth for some, and much much more.
    xo Linda Dolly
    PS (WRITE ON!)

  2. virtualDavis says:

    Linda, thanks for your comments. Three gold stars! Try Amazon for disposable fountain pens: http://www.amazon.com/Pilot-Disposable-Fountain-Assorted-90029/dp/B00092PRCA I will dream of receiving a handmade note from you some day… :-)

  3. Love this post, George, well done. And you reminded me of my youth and of all the hand-made cards and letters I used to send to friends and family. I loved making them, and each was custom-designed for the recipient. But it’s been decades since I’ve done it. Now, when it’s not a phone call, 99% of my communication is via email. As a result, my handwriting is atrocious. Any time I write in long-hand, I sit back in amazement, for it looks like penmanship emerging from the hand of an imbecile. I kid you not. Using a computer for work and play has severely stunted my fine motor skills. How odd that swirling lines and curves come so easily in my art.

    Your post has stirred a niggling in the back of my brain . . . I think I’ll get back in to personalized card-making and letter writing in the near future. Thanks for the nudge. :)

  4. […] his music is habit forming. Not like dark chocolate. Or base jumping. More like a timely letter (handwritten, not emailed) from a friend that arrives in your mailbox on the same day that you awoke missing him/her. […]

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