The purpose of this essay is to examine through examples how letter writing has changed over the past 20 years. This essay will start by highlighting letter writing and features about it which were common 20 years ago before the advent of the digital computer revolution. With the remarkable change of communication over the past 20 years comments will also be made on the distinctive features of what letter writing has arrived at which is digitally communicated electronic mail or abbreviated as ‘email’. Further mention of handwritten letters sent by post and emails electronically sent through computer networks will emphasize the differences. Within this transition from the almost archaic written form of letter writing to the innovative typed keyboard form, remarks will also be made to the positive and negative features of this letter writing transformation.
Handwritten letters take a while to write. It is not that common to just write a short note and go all the way to the post office to post it. Letters are not just quick messages. It is a time to collect thoughts on what is needed to be written. The writer has to understand clearly who the recipient is and the type of letter they are going to write. There has to be careful thought to the tone and content of the letter. People are concerned with what they are saying when they write their letters.
20 years ago telephone calls were expensive and for people with pen friends, relatives abroad, and business contacts while not forgetting those smitten lovers, this was one of their only ways to express their thoughts and keep in touch. These letters were often detailed and long. Letter writing was a product of school. Students learned certain formal structures for letters. For example, a common formal letter written in the past had the recipient’s address which was in the top left-hand corner of the letter, and the sender’s address in the top right-hand corner while not forgetting the date below. This was followed by a space and then the use of ‘Dear’ on the opposite side of the page with the receiver’s name. Then another line was left which then had the first paragraph which was indented. Salutations were imperative, the use of ‘Dear’ plus the recipient’s name usually with Mr, Miss, Mrs, or Ms was the norm while not forgetting the closing remarks such as ‘yours faithfully’ or ‘yours sincerely’. All these little details were imperative thus sending and receiving letters by post had a positive impact because you knew that that person had taken time out and used their narrative abilities.
Furthermore, in the business world managers would write their letters and have their secretary type them up, then they would re-edit them again. This was a process that could take 2-3 days to get the letter into the post. These business letters also followed a format and were often stilted and too formal with long introductions. Much of the letter was usually filled up with superfluous sentences. Like business letters and in many other cases of letter writing 20 years ago, this way of writing was a literary vehicle that arguments, thoughts, ideas, and plans were laid out cursively on a blank sheet of paper for direct communication.
Nowadays, keeping in touch is far easier. People do not write letters of great length they drop people e-mails which are just short messages. The quickness and urgency to send information is more of an important aspect these days. Emails are extensions in many respects of conversations already had face to face or ongoing started through email messages. Emails are concise and written impromptu without the need to be formally edited. These days, no one wants a lengthy email that takes a while to read, particularly at work. For example, it is actually a courtesy in a business email to get to the point even to the extent of using imperatives such as ‘please send details’ instead of the over-polite ‘would it be possible if you could send’. There is a lack of officialdom of an email message. The sender’s and receiver’s email addresses are already shown which cuts out formal headings. The message usually starts with the salutation ‘Hi’ or ‘Hello’ and a closing of ‘Regards’ which nowadays actually suffices without repercussions. With the broad ignorance of formality, there is not really a chance that there will be a literary resurgence of writing because the swiftness of information through email is the essence. In this regard, a single email can be sent around the world to one or many people at the press of a button, and once on the computer of another person can be forwarded on to other people. The circulation of these letters can rapidly travel the world within the hour. It is no wonder the younger generation has taken to it while do they actually know what letter writing was like many years back?
Of course, major differences can be seen between the two forms of letter writing. Firstly is the instant gratification that email gives. Short messages are sent and received in minutes especially with the advent of the Blackberry mobile phone where handheld emailing can be done. This may well appeal to the younger generation who have no time to sit down and ponder their thoughts but in some cases, an email will not suffice as formal communication such as an official written apology or termination of employment which a handwritten letter is a correct format. There is certainly an emotion that can be taken from reading a handwritten letter. People can read between the lines that can be certainly lost on emails. In this respect, the handwritten letter writer has time to mull over what they have written. In addition, handwritten letters offer that private token that is written by someone to the individual and can be saved for future viewing or reference. Emails on the other hand zip off into cyberspace and are snippets of conversations or messages, that the next day, are pushed down the priority list to be forgotten memories. They can be sent round to many people where even their understanding can be misconstrued. For example, jokes written on emails can be taken the wrong way within the workplace. The older generation would agree both forms of writing are worthwhile but the younger generation would not agree.
So there are many positive and negative aspects with letter writing past and present. Speed has to be number one these days. It would seem odd for someone to take time out to sit down and write a cursively written letter and take it down to the post office for mailing. With respect to day-to-day correspondence people would not hesitate to quickly write an email, send it and get on with the rest of their day. The negative side of this though is that there can be a lack of development of ideas and quality which, in most if not all cases, is not commented on by the email receiver thus instant meaning takes precedence over quality. This was the positive aspect of letter writing that care was taken and events were usually clearly written about. The problem of quality and clear expression is not a real issue as emails are read, sent, and deleted regularly thus creating a very impersonal global communication system. Email writers will without worry send an email that drops punctuation and capitalization while using lots of ellipsis and incomplete sentences. It also seems the use of ‘Dear’ has been left behind by the informal email salutations ‘Hi’ and the more formal ‘Hello’. Often these concise email messages are returned within minutes of the receiver reading them. This of course is a great bonus that it speeds up correspondence where letters would take days and annoy someone if they were hesitantly expecting your reply. People these days are impatient for new information.
Furthermore, for example, if an email message is received and then sent back straight away by a person who got angry by it there can be repercussions because the availability of instant messaging the sender avoids time for contemplation. In addition, these un-proofed emails are sent over cyberspace. No one really knows where they end up. Another example is an employee sending an angry letter about their boss to their friends via internal company emails. This can end up having their message on the boss’ desk and all the staff reading it.
The fact people are sending emails has to be one of the major positive aspects of this generation of letter writers. On any given day any email user can come home and find their inbox full of messages. In most cases, people who usually would not have been one to send handwritten letters do not mind sitting behind a computer and writing an email to their friends. The vast amount of email messages written on the computer and mobile phones each day can not compare with the number of letters sent and received by post 20 years ago.
In the 21st century, an evolution of letter writing has been brought to the world of communication. It has been shown that email has taken over from letter writing. The world now strives for instant gratification from the information. Email writing may not be an example of perfect diction but the point is made by the sender. Have the computer generation got time to complain about someone’s lack of sending a perfect email? Nostalgia does not play a part and from this essay, it has been commented how email has taken precedence whatever style it is has ended up as. This essay’s little snippet of the recent history of letter writing has shown it to be fine art but unlike letter writing there will not be a museum full of famous emails sent. In a throwaway culture there will always be positives and negatives on how communication moves forward but can anyone stop progression?