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letter writing

Jacques Barzun, The Energies of Art (Vintage, 1962)

Definition:

The exchange of written or printed communications.

Distinctions are commonly drawn between personal letters (sent between family members, friends, or acquaintances) and business letters (formal exchanges with businesses or government organizations).

Letter writing occurs in many forms and formats, including notes, letters, and postcards. Sometimes referred to as hard copy or snail mail, letter writing is often distinguished from forms of computer-mediated communication (CMC), such as email and texting.

In his book Yours Ever: People and Their Letters (2009), Thomas Mallon identifies some of the subgenres of the letter, including the Christmas card, the chain letter, the mash note, the bread-and-butter letter, the ransom note, the begging letter, the dunning letter, the letter of recommendation, the unsent letter, the Valentine, and the war-zone dispatch. See Examples and Observations, below.

See also:

Examples of Letters:

Observations:

  • "The test, I think, of a good letter is a very simple one. If one seems to hear the person talking as one reads the letter, it is a good letter."
    (A.C. Benson, "Letter-Writing." Along the Road, 1913)


  • "'The art of beautiful letter writing has declined' with our supposed advances, [Alvin Harlow] lamented--a cry we have been hearing ever more often in the eighty years since his book appeared. Those of us with a strong inclination toward the past must remember that, to its early writers, the handwritten or even chiseled letter must itself have seemed a marvel of modernity, and surely, even in Queen Atossa's time, there were those who complained that letter writing--by its nature a 'virtual' activity--was cutting down on all the face time that civilized Persians had previously enjoyed."
    (Thomas Mallon, Yours Ever: People and Their Letters. Random House, 2009)


  • Literary Correspondence
    "The age of the literary correspondence is dying, slowly but surely electrocuted by the superconductors of high modernity. This expiration was locked into a certainty about 20 years ago; and although William Trevor and V.S. Naipaul, say, may yet reward us, it already sounds fogeyish to reiterate that, no, we won't be seeing, and we won't be wanting to see, the selected faxes and emails, the selected texts and tweets of their successors."
    (Martin Amis, "Philip Larkin's Women." The Guardian, Oct. 23, 2010)


  • Historical Records
    "So much of what we know of the world stems from private letters. Our principal eyewitness account of Vesuvius derives from a letter from Pliny the Younger to the Roman historian Tacitus. Our knowledge of the Roman world has been hugely enriched by the discovery in the early 1970s of inky messages on oak and birch discovered not far from Hadrian's Wall in Britain. The letters of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn and of Napoleon to Josephine show infatuation, weakness and anger--useful additions to rounded character portraits. The list carries on to the present day, with recently collected correspondence by Paul Cezanne, P.G. Wodehouse and Christopher Isherwood adding nuance to influential lives."
    (Simon Garfield, "The Lost Art of Letter-Writing." The Wall Street Journal, November 16-17, 2013)


  • The Future of Letter Writing
    "All communication is 'human-made'--based upon some form of technology. It is not that some forms of communication are free from technology but rather that all modes of communication are based upon a complex relationship between the current cultural practices and the material resources necessary to support the technology. . . .

    "Though CMC [computer-mediated communication] may, for those with access, replace letters as a means of rapid personal communication [the] lack of material fixity ensures a continued role for letters. By making a physical mark in the process of communication, letters for the moment support a number of social practices and conventions where authorship, authenticity and originality need to be ensured (e.g. in legal or business interactions)."
    (Simeon J. Yates, "Computer-Mediated Communication: The Future of the Letter?" Letter Writing as a Social Practice, ed. by David Barton and Nigel Hall. John Benjamins, 2000)


  • Jail Mail
    "In prisons across the country, with their artificial pre-Internet worlds where magazines are one of the few connections to the outside and handwritten correspondence is the primary form of communication, the art of the pen-to-paper letter to the editor is thriving. Magazine editors see so much of it that they have even coined a term for these letters: jail mail."
    (Jeremy W. Peters, "The Handwritten Letter, an Art All but Lost, Thrives in Prison." The New York Times, Jan. 7, 2011)


  • Electronic Letter-Writing
    "When I sift through my past week's electronic in-box, I find easily half a dozen messages that qualify as letters in every traditional sense. They are coherently structured, written with care and design. They enlighten, they illuminate, they endear. They even follow the old epistolary ritual of signing off (not 'yours ever,' but some venerable variant: 'yours' . . . 'cheers' . . . 'all best' . . . 'xo'). . . .

    "[T]hese messages would probably never have come my way if the senders had been obliged to take out pen and paper. Indeed, it is the very facility of electronic communication that makes the Luddite soul tremble. . . .

    "Even in the age of tweets and pokes and blasts, the impulse to bring order to our thoughts and lives persists, and at the risk of sounding like a technojingoist, one might argue that technology facilitates this impulse as much as it impedes it."
    (Louis Bayard, "Personal Compositions." The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2010)
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