The Art of Digital Letter Writing (AODLW)

I received a letter from a young friend today. I love the art of digital letter writing (AODLW)! It's not the same as ephemeral email. (You do archive your important email, don't you?) My handwriting is poor (a disability of being left-handed), but I still enjoy breaking out the fountain pen every so often and committing words to paper in my ugly (but unique and personal) script. Script isn't even taught in all elementary schools anymore. May I live long enough to see that trend reversed! Asian culture knows the value of communicating with one's hands. Not all have the ability to write with their hands, but for the able-bodied, typing is not what it means to be fully human.

Here's the first rule of digital letter writing: No TOFU ("Text Over, Fullquote Under"). A letter should stand alone. Most mail apps add TOFU by default. Delete it before sending. Email has meta-data that automatically "threads" replies, anyway. Making every letter stand on its own is more challenging than continuing to top-post replies. It's good to think about style. For daily email -- and even for informal letters -- TOFU helps keep the entire conversation in one place. But I find it liberating to write without TOFU. I can associate freely, and I can choose how much context to include.

There is a risk that the letter writer won't include enough context, and the recipient will have to review previous correspondence. Again, that's what email "threads" are for. Also, don't give up the ancient tradition of saving correspondence for future reference. I twittered about letter-writing a couple years ago (1of2, 2of2). Before email, I made photocopies of my letters. Before photocopies, we used carbon paper, and before that people had to copy letters by hand before sending. Not all practiced such discipline, and more's the pity. Note that we have Thomas Jefferson's correspondence because he made copies of all the letters he sent. Jefferson (not counting his flaws) is one of my heroes. (And Clay Jenkinson is also my hero because he brings Jefferson to life through chautauqua. But I digress.) So the second rule of letter writing is: Archive your correspondence!

I'm already seeing the difference that social media makes regarding the AODLW. Letters in the past century were normally the main way people communicated at a distance. Some might catch up (or get to know a pen pal more closely) with long distance phone calls. But unless they actually met face to face, their lives were relatively isolated. Now it's so easy to stay in touch. Some would say it's too easy, but just because it's easy shouldn't mean one should settle for shallow. Samuel Johnson wrote, "A short letter to a distant friend is, in my opinion, an insult like that of a slight bow or cursory salutation - a proof of unwillingness to do much, even where there is a necessity of doing something." But Johnson didn't have email. The third rule is: Buy time by sending a note or SMS.

It has also become common to send "newsletters" to multiple recipients, and I would argue that's also a good use of technology. I love writing annual letters to include with Christmas cards, and I love getting the same from friends and family. It's more challenging to write to an audience larger than one. But those letters can inspire personal correspondence, phone calls and face to face visits. And as one example of the value of annual letters, I have twenty years (and counting!) of snapshots of family life that I can pass on to my own children.

Finally, to my readers with whom I am behind in correspondence: Please forgive me. Time is more precious than gold these days. May we all live long enough to see that destructive trend reversed! But I do believe technology makes us more efficient with only a minor cost to our humanity. Txt me (or DM me on Twitter) if you'd like to chat!

If this was ready to publish as an essay, I wouldn't post it to my blog. But let's get this project going together! I'm eager to hear how you practice the art of digital letter writing.

Edit: Google doesn't associate this post with me, so I'm making it explicit. The author of this post is Tim Chambers 1E4AF729D5CEFFD0.

153 views and 3 responses

  • Feb 14 2012, 8:15 AM
    Tim Chambers responded:
    cyanmerck wrote, "Glad I found this on Google. You've got fresh details on your post that I think will benefit me a lot since I am working with this subject now. Thanks for posting." Thank you, cyanmerck. Are you the same individual whose Twitter account was suspended? Regardless, I deleted your comment because you dropped a suspicious link at the end.
  • Mar 2 2012, 8:14 AM
    Tim Chambers responded:
    Observations about the difference between a note and a letter. A note is shorter than a letter. It typical has a single purpose. And it's more likely that a note stands on its own and needs no reply. Thank you notes don't need "you're welcome" replies. Same goes for, say, notes of encouragement. But like an artful letter, an artful note is an investment in a relationship. Samuel Johnson wrote, "A short letter to a distant friend is, in my opinion, an insult like that of a slight bow or cursory salutation - a proof of unwillingness to do much, even where there is a necessity of doing something." Perhaps, but surely a thoughtful note to a friend couldn't be taken as an insult? I think Johnson was referring to a "short letter" being insulting as a reply to a long letter from your distant friend. But I'm digressing. My point is, the art of digital letter writing also includes digital notes.
  • Mar 29 2012, 2:32 PM
    Tim Chambers responded:
    A simple observation about hypertext in a digital note or letter: Use! Read "the place of the word wiki in history using WebCite" (following my own advice and citing instead of relying on the Posterous URL).