Why are letters more daunting than email?

One of the things that I’ve found interesting in the response to the Month of Letters Challenge is the notion that mailing something everyday is too much. The idea that writing a letter, postcard, addressing socks… what have you, is somehow more difficult than other forms of communication.

How many tweets, status updates, and emails do you send in a day? I’ll grant that you do not need to look up an address for those. You do not need to  scrounge for paper, put a stamp on a page, or walk to the mail box. I grant that it is easier to click “Send” than any of those.

I suspect, however, that the physical is the smaller of the difficulties. Because the only personal things that come in the mail now are Things of Import, like wedding invitations or birth announcements, we’ve attached an unconscious weight to mail. If one is going to send a letter, then it seems like it should be something significant.

Not really.

I mean, that’s nice and all, but the significance is the connection and the fact that it is tangible proof that you thought about someone specific. Where a tweet expresses my thoughts about me, a postcard is for someone else.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a heavy social media user and I love twitter. This Month of Letters Challenge is not about dissing anything modern. It is about finding out what the archaic medium of postal mail is good for. Much the same way photography did not replace painting, but taught us what painting was uniquely good at, postal mail is good for something different than electronic communication.

Do you still feel daunted?

Then, let me put this into perspective for you.

  • A postcard is a slow tweet or status update.
  • A letter is a delayed blog post or an email.

It’s just that it is for an audience of one.

Did you know you can support Mary Robinette on Patreon!

12 thoughts on “Why are letters more daunting than email?”

  1. I don’t think “daunted” is exactly the word I would use. I think, for me, it is a matter of pressure.

    When I cover a basketball game, I have to tell the story in one go. Once I send it, I’m done. I can’t use the edit function to fix a mistake, and I can’t add a comment to mention something that I forgot the first time.  I have to get all the important details in, correctly, on the first try.

    (I do have editors, but they aren’t going to catch 100% (or even a majority) of my mistakes when we are all working on a tight deadline.)

    If I send someone an email, and I forget to mention something, I can just send them another email. That takes 10 seconds. Writing a letter, on the other hand, seems like a more formal process. I end up treating them like a work assignment with no deadline, so I get into an endless cycle of trying to make it perfect. That gets stressful, as I change  every sentence a dozen times.

    (As you have probably guessed, I’m doing exactly the same thing with this comment. If this ends up being 300 words long, I’ll have written 1200 to get there. I suspect I’d have made more sense if I had just stuck with the first 300.)

    So writing letters is like going to work, but in a more unpleasant way. 

    There’s also a second issue. To me, a letter should be handwritten – a letter that comes out of a printer doesn’t seem any more personal than an email – but I’m not physically capable of doing that. Due to an old sports injury to my wrist, it is quite painful for me to write more than a few lines. When I took the LSAT 12 years ago, I was in agony for several days from having to do the essay portion of the test.

    So, to do the Month of Letters Challenge, I’m going to have to type everything. I’m going to attempt it, because I’m curious to see where it will take me, but I already feel like I’m cheating.

    1. I have to tell you that I receive letters from two correspondents who write them on the computer and then print them. I will grant that handwriting tells you something additional about a person’s state of mind, but the delight in receiving the computer written ones is no less than the handwritten ones.

  2. For myself, I think I am perhaps daunted by showing off my terrible left-handed penmanship. Though I have become increasingly eager to send/receive items in the mail since moving 1500 miles away from home, I also cringe at my own hand writing which is legible, but prone to occasionally form a word into an inkblot. I blame the teachers.

    Despite my mistakes, I love sending someone that extra touch that an email just can’t convey. I’m excited for February 1st to arrive!

    1. I suspect you will find that your handwriting will improve some with the practice of writing daily. But part of what I love about a handwritten letter is that it shows what someone is thinking. That inkblot? It happens to me when my thoughts run to something different than what I am writing and my hand tries to accommodate both at once. That’s kind of cool, when you think about it.

  3. There is a very real startup effort for me, because I have absolutely zero stamps, paper, and envelopes at my house (we have been paperless with bill-paying and such for years).  I’ll confess I’m a bit anxious about the driving and parking involved in acquiring such items in my area (I am not a very good driver and live in Los Angeles where driving and parking is a hassle even for confident drivers).  I will have to do an internet search to find out where paper and postcards are even sold in this area!  That said, once I get all the stuff (maybe I can get hubby to do the driving this weekend), it won’t be any more difficult, just slower.  I type 90 wpm and write about 20 wpm if I know exactly what I want to say and don’t care if it looks pretty.  That’s easily solved by writing brief postcards or sending random scraps of things like my daughter’s artwork.

    There’s another peculiar thing about email… we don’t tend to think of it as “permanent.”  It could very well be, but since people don’t -tend- to save email and treasure it, we don’t give it the effort that we do physical mail.  I think LetterMo will be about removing the idea that it has to be perfect… much like NaNo that way, actually.  Just get it done, and you’ll find that doing it poorly is still more satisfying (both to sender and receiver) than not doing it at all.

    1. The startup effort is real, I will grant that. However, you can order all of that stuff online — including stamps — and have it delivered by mail to your house.

      And yes, removing the idea that it has to be perfect is definitely part of the challenge. It really does not.

  4. I’ve found out about this from a friend and I’m looking forward to it.  I used to carry little cards in my purse, so I could randomly (whenever I had a few minutes’ wait) write notes and drop them in the mail.  I don’t know when I stopped doing that and I want to go back. 

    I think the ubiquity of email/twitter/texting on one’s phone is part of what’s making little notes disappear.

    I too suffer from the urge to be perfect, and my handwriting only gets worse as I use it (I start out nicely, but am scribbling to keep up with my thoughts by the end), but it’s worth the time.

    So.  I’ll either buy some cute little cards or make some.  I still carry stamps, but maybe there are new, cooler, ones at the post office!  I’ll have to check.  I can’t wait to get started.


Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top