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Hitting the Write Note: A Modern Guide to Letter Writing

Rediscover the not-quite-lost art of letter writing – from setting the right tone to practising your hand

Two clichés are particularly pertinent to letter writing: modern technology has driven us into a constant rush, delivering a blow to postal communications, but it’s still the thought that counts. We may be out of practice with handwriting – yet all is not lost.

Etiquette experts William Hanson and Philip Sykes and contemporary calligrapher Betty Soldi are among the professionals encouraging a renaissance of handwritten correspondence.

“I think that in today’s techno-centric world, letters carry a lot more cache than digital communications,” says Hanson. “With thank yous, people feel validated and appreciated if someone has actually spent time to say so. Sadly, gratitude is a dying art – and there is a growing sense of entitlement, especially when it comes to the millennial generation.”

Writing is a more considered way of speaking, in Soldi’s view. But it is also “about you as the writer taking time to look at your thoughts, and express feelings and emotions”. Soldi has collaborated with Mount Street Printers for many years and recently published Inkspired, a book that – rather than a how-to calligraphy manual – is about rediscovering your own style of writing and the joy of putting pen to paper.

“Nowadays people are quite lost. There are so many different ways you can grow as a person (yoga, detoxing, retreats), but writing is about coming back to yourself and scribbling without judging whether it’s beautiful or correct. For many people it’s about finding the art of writing for your own satisfaction again.”

Inkspired begins with pencil exercises while keeping your eyes shut; then moves on to taking notice of other people’s handwriting and ‘collecting’ ways of writing words; practising how to shape certain letters in both their simplest and most embellished forms. It ends on writing with other instruments “like asparagus, which feels like a paintbrush, with lipstick on a mirror, or even directly onto fruit as place cards”.

Unlike the restrictions and “tightening up” learnt at school, “the whole process is about loosening up and letting go. For me, practice makes progress, rather than perfection – which is way overrated,” says Soldi. “I love celebrating mistakes along the way, which are unique to you and a computer can’t do.”

Rather than starting a letter with “dear”, Soldi suggests writing one large word on a correspondence card to prompt what you’re trying to say. Handwriting is as much a portrayal of our identity as our clothes or the interior design of our homes. “Yet as we grow up and change hairstyles or friends, handwriting is often something that we never review,” Soldi continues.

The power of self-aware penmanship prevailed for Michelangelo, however, halfway through his life the artist changed his scholarly handwriting to a more fluid style. It caught the Medicis’ attention and paved the way for the aristocratic family to commission some of Michelangelo’s most famous creations.

Whether making a conscious decision to switch to cursive handwriting, or simply putting good manners into practice, quality stationery is essential, agree Hanson and Sykes: “it always leaves a lasting impression”. While Sykes prefers a gel ink pen in black or blue, Soldi favours well-worn ink pens for their softened nibs, and coloured inks (“but not blue, which feels rather scholastic”).

Sykes recommends engraved letterheads to really make a statement, with diamond flapped envelopes and matching writing paper. Yet Hanson has a word of warning. “On any personalised letterheads, print just the address of the house and perhaps a telephone number, but not your own name. This dates back to an era when stationery would have been passed to those inheriting a property, and those staying could use the paper as well.”

Letters should always be dated and handwritten on cream, white or ivory paper, with a minimum weight of 110gsm to avoid ink showing through on the other side, says Sykes. “One should not write on the reverse.”

For every good mannered formality, however, there is an equally sincere alternative for correspondence with a creative twist. “If you have a fountain pen in your hand, you’re already a bit more poised to write in a certain way,” says Soldi. Lipstick and asparagus at the ready, then.