The Art of the Handwritten Note: A Guide to Reclaiming Civilized Communicationby Margaret Shepherd
When you receive the daily mail do you jump to open the handwritten envelopes first because you can’t wait to see who has written and why? Or do you hold those letters aside to savor and enjoy after you are done sorting your bills and tossing the junk mail? Whatever your approach, you no doubt recognize the importance of the note that comes in a unique envelope with distinct handwriting and possibly a decoration or two. Indeed, in an age when even birthday greetings are sent by e-mail, the personal letter is appreciated more than ever before.
For those who enjoy writing notes, or those who value doing so but find themselves intimidated by the task, acclaimed calligrapher Margaret Shepherd has created both an epistolary tribute and rescue manual. Just as you cherish receiving personal mail, you can take pleasure in crafting correspondence. Love, gratitude, condolences, congratulations–for every emotion and occasion, a snippet of heartfelt prose is included, sure to loosen the most stymied letter writer.
Not only providing inspiration for the content of the missives, The Art of the Handwritten Note gives thorough instruction in the specific details that give so many men and women the jitters when it comes to correspondence that can’t (or shouldn’t) be produced on a keyboard. From overcoming illegible penmanship to mastering the challenge of keeping straight margins, avoiding smeared ink, and choosing stationery that is appropriate but suits your style, this is a powerful little guide to conveying thoughts in an enduring–and noteworthy–way.
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Read an Excerpt
Good Reasons to Stop Making Excuses
Writing by hand makes you look good on paper and feel good inside. Even an ordinary handwritten note is better than the best e-mail, and a good handwritten note on the right occasion is a work of art. It says to the reader, "You matter to me, I thought of you, I took trouble on your behalf, here's who I am, I've been thinking of you in the days since this was mailed, I want to share with you the textures and colors and images that I like." And that's just the unspoken messages, the pleasure anticipated before the reader even reads the words that the pen and paper have inspired you to choose. The reader can reread what you sent and save it and think good thoughts about you. A note can deliver all this for less than a dollar's worth of materials and ten minutes of your time.
Now ask yourself, do you write enough of these notes? Do you write any? If not, why not? There's no excuse not to write a handwritten note; but many people who love to receive notes still let themselves get bogged down with excuses not to send them. Perhaps you'll recognize yourself in one of the ten major whines below; if you do, you can use the suggestions to inspire you to solve what's holding you back from writing the notes you'd like to send.
Take a minute to tell yourself, honestly and in complete sentences, what keeps you from writing. Now read on, to see if your reasons turn out to sound just like everyone else's excuses.
1. "I'm too busy." It's not just the five minutes it takes to write, address, and stamp the note--the average telephone call takes longer than that, even without all the phone tag. You probably make time to do other nonessential activities like cooking for guests, sports, woodworking, watching television, instant messaging, Net surfing, needlework, reading, playing cards, decorative table-setting, social dancing, and gift wrapping. Anyone can find an hour once a week to write. You could write a couple of notes every day if you used the hours you stare at your computer screen and the minutes you spend on hold. Plan ahead to make time to write.
2. "Nobody writes notes anymore." People may not be writing as many routine notes as before, but for any special occasion a note is still the very best way to communicate. New technology doesn't always push out the old. People still draw when they could photograph, go to a play although a movie is available, go to movies when they could stay home and watch television, knit sweaters when they could buy them, bake cakes when they could purchase them, cook from scratch when they could order in, sing when they could turn on the radio. And they still write by hand. If you think people don't write notes anymore because they're not writing to you, just try writing a few notes to them. When they start to write back, you'll see why a note in the mail is such a special treat.
3. "My handwriting is terrible." Virtually everyone finds fault with their own handwriting, even professional calligraphers like the author of this book. (People often feel the same way when they hear a recording of their own voice.) First, your handwriting is probably not that bad once you've warmed up a bit. You're just out of practice because you don't write a lot every day. Second, your writing probably looks fine to the recipient because they're not as critical of it as you are. Third, people are so pleased to get a handwritten note, they will cut you a lot of slack when it comes to handwriting. They probably like your handwriting because they like you. Fourth, this book offers you a chapter on handwriting improvement techniques that will help you refine, repair, or rescue your script.
4. "I don't have the right kind of stationery." This is easier to fix than handwriting. One simple basic notepaper style will cover almost all your correspondence. And as with handwriting, if you have made a reasonable effort to choose paper that is nice to look at, most people will meet you halfway with a reasonable effort to enjoy what you've written on it.
5. "I don't know what to say." Most people don't know what to say at first. Human beings are not born knowing just what to say on paper. For centuries, people have used books just like this one to get them started with phrases, shortcuts, encouragement, and advice. Go to the pages that give you specific wording to get started on a specific note. Use the words you learned in kindergarten: please, thank you, I'm sorry, good luck, I miss you. The basic things you say out loud will make your point; the effort is appreciated far beyond the exact words you choose. As you write more notes, you will gain confidence that your own voice can speak on paper.
6. "I'm going to see (or telephone or e-mail) them before the note would get there." And believe me, you're going to cringe. Think about all the lame excuses you will be making, compared with how pleasant it will be to hear them start with "Wow! Thanks for that nice note." If you see them immediately after you've mailed the note, you can still glow with the contained happiness that comes from both writing and seeing someone, and just tell them to watch their mailbox.
7. "It won't get there in time." Some messages won't wait even for the two to three days some mail can take. A handwritten note may not be the best way to arrange a quick meeting or confirm that a parcel arrived, but it can be surprisingly more efficient than phone tag for a lot of messages. You can e-mail or voice-mail a quick message that says "note follows" while sending the note too. And some notes can be hand delivered.
8. "I won't have a record of what I wrote." Many people start with a checklist of topics to include, which forms a record of what they wrote. For anything important, especially when you begin to write notes, write or type a rough draft to get the phrasing right and save it. Or photocopy your handwritten note. Or scan it in and e-mail it to your file folder. Or just file it in your brain, the way you remember what you have said out loud to people in conversation.
9. "It's a girl thing." Reaching out to other people is the highest form of human endeavor. Real men write notes, lots of them: for business, in their volunteer work, in their hobbies, in their social life, and within their families. It's the glue that keeps life from fragmenting and lets you show that you care. In recent generations, women may have taken responsibility for staying in touch, but today men can enjoy the experience and rediscover its rewards. (Guys who write notes, like guys who do child care, get extra credit for being savvy enough to know that this is not exclusively women's work.) From Napoleon Bonaparte to George H. W. Bush, the guys in charge have been tireless note-writers. If they could do it, you can too.
10. "I've waited too long and now it's too late." This is the only serious problem on the list, and even then this book can offer you some encouragement. Just do it. Sometimes a guilty feeling of being a little late can paralyze you; it may not be as late as you fear. Most people are so pleased to hear from you on paper that they won't hold a serious grudge. And consider the alternatives--either an awkward apology in person next time you meet them (and you will), or an inferior substitute like a phone call or e-mail that are by now just as late as the note, or the awkward stunting or ending of a friendship, where you feel guilty and they feel offended. (If you are late with an obligation to a relative, you can't even end the relationship!) So don't think about not writing a note that's late, and don't make a big fuss in the note about your lateness. Just write the same note now that you should have written then, making a very brief apology at the end for being late.
Three Ways to Get Started Writing
Once you eliminate the excuses that have kept you from writing, you can start paying attention to the reasons to write. These can be described by the O words obligations, occasions, and opportunities.
0bligations: notes that you owe
When someone dies, when you have hurt someone, or when you have been given a gift, a handwritten note is the only way to communicate your feelings of sympathy, apology, or gratitude. You don't have to do more than send your words on paper, but you must not do less. You deserve that black cloud over your head when you don't write, because your silence has made someone think you don't care. You deserve that shining halo over your head when you do write, because that note is going to show your reader that you do care. When a note you owe is written, stamped, and mailed, you will rightly feel that you are in a state of grace.
Occasions: notes that keep relationships on track
There are many other times when a handwritten note is the best way to be in touch. You can use notes to celebrate a birthday, a holiday, or an achievement; to congratulate on a minor triumph; or to commiserate on a setback. Once you start to send notes on special occasions, you will discover ordinary occasions that can be elevated into special occasions with a note. Although you can always reach for the phone or e-mail, or buy a greeting card, the note means so much more. And the habit of sending notes on occasions will make it easier for you to be ready to send the ones you owe.
Opportunities: notes that open new ways to connect
The handwritten note opens up an extra way to stay in touch, when you might not have thought of sending or saying anything. If you begin to use handwritten notes routinely, you can then start to use them creatively when inspiration strikes. A handwritten note opens new channels of communication when you write to a small child, stay in touch with the elderly, thank people for kindness, add your own words to gifts, and comment on clippings. A note gives you the opportunity to stay connected with people you care about in ways you might not have thought about.
Getting in Touch with Yourself and with Each Other
People used to write mail conversationally, receiving a letter and then answering it in return. Sometimes the letter got there the same day; sometimes it took months. Today, much of that back-and-forth on paper has been taken over by telephone conversations, printed greetings, e-mail exchanges, and face-to-face encounters. But don't let these convenient shortcuts prevent you from using pen and ink when it would really do a better job.
Your daily regimen of staying in touch probably offers three categories of contact: verbal (telephone and meeting), digital (e-mail and fax), and purchased (gifts and greeting cards). You can learn to use handwritten notes in place of any of these.
Handwrite instead of talk. First, you routinely meet people or talk to them by telephone. Stop and think before you make that phone call or drop by; a note offers you the chance to get your phrasing right, to present exactly the words you want to convey (not more or less), and to catch people at their convenience. You can present your message without all the ums, ers, and extra small-talk that blurs and dilutes it.
Handwrite instead of type. Second, you routinely e-mail or fax to people. Stop and think about what a handwritten note might add to this flavorless format: Your own handwriting makes your personality come through, the paper you choose has texture and tone, the stamped delivery and private envelope send a clear signal that this is not routine. You might keep a stack of note cards next to your keyboard to remind you to upgrade an occasional onscreen note by simply copying by hand what you've typed and send the note instead of, or in confirmation of, the e-mail. If it doesn't need to be there instantaneously, maybe a note would add a touch of class.
Handwrite instead of buy. Third, on important occasions you routinely send a gift or a greeting card with a prefabricated message. Stop and think about what you'd really like to say to the person in your own words. Then write those words. At the very least (and if you think your reader likes conventional greeting card sentiments) add a salutation and at least two whole sentences before you sign your name.
A note can also replace or accompany a gift. It can be much nicer than something you buy; it is unique, priceless, timeless, and personalized. It can stand out in a crowd of gifts at a wedding or birthday. A note to a bride and groom, for instance, about how special they are to you and how happy you are to see them together will create a memento that lasts long after many gifts are used and used up. A note that comes from the heart is the perfect gift for someone who has everything, and it deepens the meaning of any gift it accompanies.
Meet the Author
Margaret Shepherd is a noted calligrapher and author whose clients include numerous headliners. The author of thousands of personal notes and thirteen instructional books on calligraphy, including the bestselling Learning Calligraphy and the just published Learn Calligraphy (Broadway Books, 2001), she has exhibited her work in many museums and galleries. She lives in Boston.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This tiny tome is my newest reference volume. Sometimes the occasion will call for SOMETHING, but one is at a loss for words. Shepherd gently guides with her own fine Italian hand. Another plus is that expenditures on stationary,pens and appropriate postage stamps are completely justified.
Really handy book to pull out on occasions when you don't know what to write on notes (graduations, deaths, etc.). It also has recommendations of the kinds of pens to use, which I found very useful when choosing one.
I bought this book for my husband who has recently taken up writing. We both enjoyed the book. Not only are the reminders of how much we cherish handwritten messages and how important they are inspiring, the tools and advice given for refining one's handwriting and for sculpting a note are useful. Although I already enjoy writing letters, this book inspired both my husband and I to do it more often and with even more care. What a wonderful treasure from the practical how tos to the quotes intersperced throughout the book itself. It was very enjoyable.
Reading Margaret Shepherd's book was like an exquisite dessert that leaves you satisfied, but wanting more! I have been an avid letter writer for years and was immediately drawn to the book for that reason. I was so inspired that I have now taken up writing with a fountain pen and trying my hand at calligraphy! Whether you are someone who is greatly intimidated by writing your very first letter or just seeking fresh inspiration, this is the book to read!
I have written very few letters in my life. But since reading this book, I've turned out several dozen notes. Somehow writing a note is not so intimidating as writing a letter. I even managed a condolence note without worrying if it was done correctly. I would recommend this book be placed on shelve within easy reach. Along with a good dictionary
This is a darling albeit small, reminder of a practice that has been slipping from popular practice. I love this little book and have given it as a gift several times in an attempt to encourage the lovely and always appreciated art of hand writing a thank you note.