Virtual Voices

The importance of writing letters

Communication

Texting has given the human race a medium that is ideally suited for transmitting short bursts of information ("Out of milk," "U left water running," "Hurry hm, dog barfed on crpt"), but electronic messaging has its limitations. It tends to discourage the development of rich, extended thought, and it's a poor substitute for the composition of letters.

Christians-people of the written Word-should not lose the skill of writing letters.

Not long ago, I happened to re-read a series of letters I exchanged with our son Mark in 2002, when he was a university student. He was taking courses on art, literature, and the history of Western civilization, and for several months we carried on a lively correspondence that covered a wide range of topics: the purpose of art, the purpose of writing, and how the entire process relates to someone who views human experience through the lens of Judeo-Christian Scripture and tradition.

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Looking back I realize that many of the ideas I developed in my book Story Craft took shape in the letters to and from Mark. In some cases, the text in the book matched the text in the letters, almost word-for-word.

The book didn't come out until 2009, seven years after the letters, but clearly the letters served as the book's first draft, years before I started writing it or even thinking about it.

It has been said that journalism is the first draft of history. Letters can serve as the first draft of both. Letters make ideal first drafts because they occur offstage and out of the spotlight, giving us the chance to develop ideas and arguments, and to practice our skills in front of a friendly audience. We're talking to someone we know and trust, using language that doesn't strain for effect.

I'm inclined to think that the honesty and simplicity of the letter-voice brings us closer to "good writing" than a voice that is trying to impress an editor we've never met. Apprentice writers don't always produce good stories or essays, but they usually compose good letters, and it's a short step from a well-written letter to a well-written article, essay, sermon, Sunday school lesson, or family history.

A good, thoughtful letter is one of the nicest gifts we can give to our children when they leave home, to a friend who has experienced suffering or death, to an aging parent, or to a teacher who made a special contribution to our life. Pastors appreciate them, too.

Sometimes letters are good enough to publish just as letters. We're all familiar with the work of a traveling missionary who composed a series of letters to his friends. He probably never dreamed they would end up in a book, yet they have survived for 2,000 years: the Pauline Epistles.

How different our world might be, had the apostle sent them out as txt msgs.

John R. Erickson
John R. Erickson

John is the author of the Hank the Cowdog book series. He and his wife, Kris, live on their cattle ranch near Perryton, Texas.

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