A Beginner’s Guide to the Radical Art of Letter Writing
We’re living in a wild time where everyone is physically distanced. As social creatures, we are in need of fulfilling emotional connections now more than ever. Thankfully, communicative technology is at its most efficient and accessible. But screen fatigue is a real thing, and sometimes we want to do more. Feel more, and connect more than we can via text or chat application.
Let me ask you — when was the last time you wrote a letter? How old were you? Who was it to? How did it make you feel to send it?
Letters are one of the most thoughtful and meaningful gifts you can give another person (check out my previous blog to learn why). That’s what makes art of letter writing so timeless. More importantly, it’s easy. It’s cheap. And you can get started right now. All you need are a few supplies, a few ideas, and something to say.
There are some key tools you’ll need to craft and send a letter. Paper, of course, to write the letter on. An envelope to send the letter in, and a stamp to pay for its voyage via the USPS. That’s it. A good pen is useful and a ruler might help, but everything else is gravy.
Of course, there are plenty of additional options to explore if you’re curious. Here are some additional supplies that I would recommend:
Stationery is a hot commodity that is endlessly customizable, and I often suffer from analysis paralysis anytime I browse the vast expanse of the internet for it. My advice is to narrow your choices down based on your personal aesthetic. Do you want something flowery? Something antique-looking? Something minimalist or modern, maybe with your initials as the header? Feel free to explore and see what suits you. I personally like vintage and vintage-inspired stationary, and am drawn to paper that looks old, even if it isn’t.
Don’t want to bother with stationery? That’s totally fine. Plain old notebook or printer paper will get the job done. You probably have it in abundance already, and it certainly takes the pressure off making too many mistakes on a fancier, more expensive piece of paper. However, if you’d like to spice it up, why not decorate it? Personally, I like to sketch flowers in the margins of my plainer stationery (see above). A friend of mine paints watercolor borders on hers. Another friend makes tiny collages out of stickers. There’s no right or wrong here. Do what you like to make it yours. Just remember — any decorative elements you decide on will speak volumes of the additional effort you’re putting forth to make your recipient feel special.
Once it’s safe to shop in person again, I also recommend checking your local craft stores, paper goods shoppes (think Hallmark), and post offices for supplies — or at least ideas. In the meantime, you can do the same AND support small businesses by perusing writing supplies on Etsy.
At the end of the day, what you’re writing in your letter is a hundred thousand times more important than how the letter looks. However, a pretty looking piece of mail certainly never hurt anybody.
Washi tape is a decorative adhesive tape often used in scrap-booking and bullet journaling. I primarily use it to decorate and seal my envelopes, and sometimes to seal letters. I like it better than scotch tape because it is easily removed without damaging the paper its attached to. It also comes in an endless variety of designs that suit a wide range of aesthetics and needs.
I get my washi tapes from local craft stores — with the recent closure of AC Moore, JOANN is my current favorite. You can find it online just as easily, and on the cheap.
Who doesn’t love a good sticker? I mean, we’re taught as children to covet them as trophies for good behavior and reaching our goals. They’re also ridiculously affordable depending on the style and the source. Again, craft stores are a great place to start. I also subscribe to something called STICKII Club.
For $10 a month (plus $1 domestic shipping), STICKII Club sends me a themed stationery package with 6–8 sticker sheets, 1–2 packs of sticker flakes, and a few other assorted paper goods that I use to personalize my outgoing mail. I’m currently subscribed to their Retro pack since it fits in with my vintage/antique style. They also have Cute and Pop packs that feature more modern and kawaii designs. If this sounds like a dream come true, feel free to use my referral link to get a discount on your first pack.
Don’t feel like subscribing? You can still purchase individual items from their online store. Sticker sheets average $1– $3 dollars apiece, and there are constant sales that often drop costs below a dollar. The selection shifts on a monthly basis, too, so you’ll find new designs every few weeks or so to choose from.
Because STICKII Club has sent me so many beautiful sticky-note pads over the last year, I’ve started using them as address labels. I absolutely love how they look, and they’re easy to securely attach to my envelopes with scotch tape or glue. You certainly don’t need to subscribe to a stationery service like I do to do this — any decorative post-it or note sheet can be fashioned into an address label. Feel free to experiment with shapes and styles. You’d be surprised how much of a visual impact this one small touch can make.
Ink stamps make for another creative and versatile tool to up your stationery game. A pad of ink costs on average between $2 — $6 dollars and lasts for months so long as it’s kept sealed between uses. Rubber and wood stamps come in a million different styles for different purposes, too. They do vary greatly in price (anywhere from $4 — $30 dollars apiece), but they are reusable and easy to maintain.
I recently invested in a custom return address stamp from this Etsy shop (2Impress) and I’m already crazy about it. I also love this shop (BloodyNose) for small, decorative stamps, too, though shipping to the US is on hold because of COVID.
You can also make your own ink stamps with a few craft supplies. Check out this awesome YouTube tutorial using stuff from the dollar store.
Last, but certainly not least, are the postage stamps you’ll use. Yes, any stamp will do so long as the monetary value is correct. But the USPS offers a collection of beautiful stamps beyond what they typically have on hand at the post office counter. This isn’t news to any seasoned collector, but for lil ol’ me, it was an exciting discovery! A brief visit to usps.com showcased a gorgeous catalog stamps — domestic and international — that aligned to my hobbies, interests, and aesthetic. I was embarrassingly thrilled.
At $11 a pop, I encourage you to browse and buy a sheet that suits you. In fact, buy more than you need. Buying stamps and mailing supplies directly from the USPS is the best way for individual consumers to help keep it funded. If you’ve been following the news lately, you know that our postal service is under constant threat of funding loss from the government. Our support is sorely needed, so buy that postage and send those letters to #SaveTheUSPS!
WHAT TO WRITE
Now that you have everything you need, what should you write? More, who should you write to? Let’s start small and make a list of people you care about. Narrow that down to people who you have the address of, or who would be comfortable sharing their address with you. Great, the hard part is over.
As for what you should write, it isn’t a hard science. You understand your own relationships and how they work. You probably already know what’s going on in the immediate lives of your friends and family. Maybe you don’t have much to say other than “I love you” or “I miss you”. That’s a great message and totally worth sending on its own. But, if you feel like it’s not quite enough, consider these tips:
If you expect the person to write back:
Ask questions! If you know the person well, you can probably avoid things like “what have you been up to?” and “how is your family?”. Instead, ask about their hobbies, their plans for the coming weeks, or about their well-being during these trying times. Express how you’re doing, too, so they don’t feel like they have to throw the same questions back at you out of courtesy. By providing answers preemptively, they can ask you questions they’re more genuinely invested in instead. Keep in mind that your letter is conversational, but not in the immediate, so you’ll want to ask questions that require more in-depth explanations.
You can also recount a story. Did something funny happen at work? Did you have an interesting conversation with a parent or a mutual friend? Did an old memory pop up and you want to relive it? A personal anecdote like this is perfect and invites your recipient to share their own in their response.
Lastly, send your love! Lay the compliments on thick. Tell them you’re thinking of them — it’s why you’re sending the letter in the first place! Tell them you miss them, you appreciate them, and that you are excited to hear from them soon. Don’t be afraid to be sappy. Being sappy is an integral part of this process, so get comfortable with it.
IF YOU DON’T KNOW YOUR RECIPIENT WELL, maybe because they’re a new pen pal or a just friendly acquaintance, don’t be afraid to talk a lot about yourself. Getting a detailed introduction in is important to the longevity of your correspondence. It’ll help you both figure out what you have in common, and maybe what you should avoid talking about. Questions will come naturally as you exchange your letters, so stick to talking yourself up for now.
But Roux, how do I get a pen pal? A great question! I suggest checking out these online communities and signing up for a pen pal match:
The Victorian Letter Writers Guild
If you do not expect a response from the recipient:
I encounter letters like this when I write on behalf of charitable cause (linked at the end of this blog). These are letters that I write to people I do not know and who are in need of encouragement and support. When drafting these, I avoid questions. This is because I don’t want to put the recipient in the awkward position of wanting to respond, but being unable to. Instead, I focus on sentiments. I tell the person that I am thinking of them, I explain how I heard about their situation, and I tell them that I believe in them. I avoid making assumptions about them (‘I know you are strong and can get through this’) and try to relate to them instead, (‘I understand what you’re going through’). Since I have such a limited view into their lives, I keep my messages general, short, and kind.
Additionally, I often write one-way messages to folks through Postcrossing. Postcrossing is a global postcard exchange where you receive a postcard for every one that you send. I’ve been participating for a few weeks, and I’ve already sent cards to Germany, Russia, the Netherlands, and Australia. Because I don’t know the person I’m writing to, and because they won’t be writing back to me, I try to include a little bit of information about myself, where I’m writing from, and well wish for their health and safety. That’s all. It’s simple, but effective, and it makes me feel connected to people all over the world. I highly recommend it if you’re looking to learn about different countries, cultures, and people. It’s totally free to join, and the moderators are lovely people.
WRITING VS. TYPING
I’ll be honest with you — I much prefer sending and receiving handwritten letters than typed ones. The whole point of letter writing for me is to disconnect from tech and pour love into a handmade craft. That said, I am privileged to have learned and mastered cursive writing. I take great joy in the feel of a pen in my hand, and the way it glides over my stationery as I write. I am a sucker for fancy writing instruments, and I cherish the smudged ink that always ends up staining my hands, wrists, and forehead for some reason.
That said, you can absolutely type up letters. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It’s much easier to type than it is to hand-write. It lets you say so much more so much faster. You can spellcheck and change your mind about how you’re phrasing things. You can use fancy fonts and formatting, and have a printed copy in less than five seconds.
As I mentioned much earlier in this guide, what you’re saying is so much more important than how it looks. If you don’t want to write your letter out, type it. Be extra like me and buy a typewriter, or just use Microsoft Word. The important thing is to write. To send. To share. Typing out your message doesn’t make it any less valid or meaningful.
Letter writing is radical. It encourages creativity, vulnerability, and empathy. It takes time, effort, a little bit of money, and a lot of practice. It’s a tiny, traditional thing that makes tremendous impacts in the lives of others. It funds our postal system. It spreads love. It can even save lives in certain capacities.
So go ahead. Send a card to your mom. A postcard to your friend from high school. Sign up for a pen pal. Volunteer your time and letters to a charity and help others feel more connected. I highly recommend MoreLoveLetters and Love For The Elderly, where you’ll help to make those who are struggling and isolated feel seen, supported, and important. Buy stamps. Support a small business. Put stickers on everything.