The lost art of letter writing

As a child of the baby boomer generation, I was taught that it was polite to send hand-written thank you notes to those who had shown kindness and generosity in its many forms.

I remember vividly, primary school exercise books dedicated to practising my handwriting with page after page of duplicated, individual alphabet characters produced with a dip ink nib pen which had an uncanny knack, for me at least, of spraying the vibrant turquoise ink everywhere.

Fast forward a few years to writing passages spoken out loudly by our teacher and then on to writing comprehension pieces which expanded in length and complexity once at secondary school, and where essay writing joined the written tasks.

There was no delete key in these exercises, no cut and paste, no potential to write first and think later, so thought and sentence construction were required in advance. And we were coached to ‘plan’ what we intended to write.

I still recall the sense of calm as one emptied the brain to focus on the task in hand and the sense of anticipation that accompanied it. Brain ready, now to the pen.

Fast forward to the late-80’s, and the ad agency that employed me at the time had invested in the first, commercial Apple Macs for every employee within the business.

I went on to set up one of the first, if not the first Apple-enabled design studio in the UK and goodness me, that was a challenge.

None of us really knew what this technology was capable of and for many they were seen as no more than an electronic typewriter with the added benefit of being able to delete, cut and paste.

But in my view, these 3 keyboard sequences have a lot to answer for.

Who would have thought that you could have email wars.  But we did – between individuals sitting a few feet away from each other. And each response often met with an increasingly aggressive counter as ill-constructed communications were fired off just as fast as the individual could type.  No thought, no planning, no calm. Just anger.

A few years earlier, this technology had created much more widespread disquiet – firstly, the massive redundancies suffered by the two long-established print unions when Rupert Murdoch closed down the Fleet Street operation of The Times and moved it to Wapping, where skilled typositors lost their jobs to electricians. And then the swathes of talented illustrators, calligraphers, font designers, photographers and retouchers whose careers were cut short with the advent of digital design technology.

We had also entered the mobile phone generation with the launch of early handsets in 1985 followed by the first text-talk phones in the early 90’s before the genius that was Steve Job and Apple went on to give us the iPhone in 2007.

Here was a device that enabled the user to compose and send messages incorporating images through its super-fast QWERTY keyboard using full-length words and conventional sentence construction – and in the age of instant gratification, we couldn’t get enough of it.

Computer and mobile technology grew at an exponential rate, as did the sophistication of design software and the movement that Rupert Murdoch had started was to be wholeheartedly embraced within the creative sector as it moved from ink and paper to mouse and keyboard.

And there is the rub.

Great creative ideas are not instantaneous. They are not the first thing to enter ones mind – they require a rigour comprising of challenging the fundamentals, lateral thinking and the linking of human emotions to a concept.

Creativity requires the artistic skills of letter writing, painting or drawing and consideration – not the physical combination of key-strokes undertaken as rapidly as possible.

But it seems the world of instant gratification demands an instant response. We click send first, and think later.

As a consequence, creative originality has massively declined. Time to consider and expand ideas are seen as wasteful and taking ‘too long’.

Increasingly, the first ideas get through – not just in the millions of text and email communications created every day but in brand, packaging advertising and marketing concepts too.

So we need to introduce a forth keystroke – pause.

We need to plan, to structure, to consider, utilising the emotive right side of our brain before we let the practical left side take over.

We need to pause so we can focus, plan and consider. If we don’t, creativity will continue to decline, as will our relationships and friendships and our World will be a worse place for it.

Last Updated on 17/03/2023 by Eddie Stableford

2 Thoughts

  1. Interesting and thought provoking Eddie. As usual. I would also add that the art of conversation is on the wane. No one (obviously I generalise and exaggerate) wants to pick up the phone and talk, pretending to let the text do the talking. And that also breeds a text and forget philosophy, with the last to text holding the moral high ground. It’s a shame I reckon.

  2. Thanks for your feedback Steve and indeed, I wonder whether we’re seeing the same behaviour move into conversations.

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