Written by hand

Bill Bailey / 01 July 2017

Bill Bailey on why a handwritten letter is so much more satisfying than an email.

I’m doing something ludicrously old-fashioned and archaic. I am writing a letter with a pen and paper.

Watching the characters form as the pen flows across the page is more satisfying than seeing these words appear on my computer screen. Handy though emails are, there is no substitute for the writing and receiving of hand-written letters. It is an enduring provider of happiness.

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The act of writing engages your motor skills and your memory – both good cognitive skills to sharpen the mind. In a study conducted by the University of Washington, students who wrote their essays with pen and paper tended to write more, and faster, and in more complete sentences than those who used keyboards.

Apparently the act of handwriting itself stimulates a part of the brain called the Reticular Activating System, or RAS. The RAS acts as a filter for all the different stuff the brain is trying to process, helping you to concentrate, and one of the ways to trigger it is the physical act of writing.

Writing letters is good for you!

Aside from these practical benefits, for me there’s an intimacy about a letter, an emotional power. I love the feel of the paper, the crisply folded sheets. The imprint left by the writer, the telltale character of their unique handwriting, the odd slip of the pen. I once received a letter from a friend who liked to smoke, and when I opened the envelope, I inhaled the unmistakable aroma of her clove cigarettes. This exotic fragrance had attached itself to the paper, and as I read her words, her physical presence momentarily entered the room. 

I have a collection of letters from my grandmother, and my mother, who were both great letter-writers. These letters have become keepsakes, mementoes. Letters can have great power, and lasting influence. I don’t see anyone printing off emails and framing them any time soon.

After I met the woman I would later marry, we wrote to each other. I sent her some flowers. She wrote to thank me. I then wrote back, and we continued our correspondence for a year, before she finally moved from Edinburgh and joined me in London. It was our courtship, if that’s not a too preposterously archaic term. And it was conducted via letters.

It won’t come as any surprise though that writing by hand is on the decline. A recent survey confirms this. Of the 2,000 people who took part, one in three hadn’t written anything by hand in the previous six months. Nothing – not even a Post-it note. Because let’s be honest, can we be bothered to write letters? Email is so much more convenient. Just the process of writing and posting this letter is a right palaver. Collecting the paper, the pens, the envelope, the stamp, walking to the postbox… blimey, in that time I could have written a dozen emails, ordered a multipack of hiking socks, booked a holiday, watched a YouTube clip of trawlers in high seas, renewed my parking permit. And not have left my desk.

In a mid-autumn festival at Nanjing University, staff suggested to the students that they handwrite a letter to their parents. It was the first time that any of them had ever done such a thing.

One mother wrote back to her daughter after she’d received her letter, saying it was the happiest day of her life.

So I urge you, make the effort. Take a stroll to the stationer’s.

Gather the letter-writing paraphernalia. Order it online if you have to.

Go through your address book, and put pen to paper.

It will make someone happy.

Mainly you.

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