The Internet Is Killing the Art of Writing. Or Is It?

In a visual and digital world, what’s a fan of the written word to do?

by Tim Cyrol and Todd Lombardo

When was the last time you received a handwritten letter? We’re not talking about the standard four dollar Hallmark card handed out once a year on your birthday, usually with a quick cheers or jeers for getting older. We’re talking about a legit letter sent through the mail for no reason other than to say “Hi. Miss you. Wish you were here.” We’re guessing it’s been a while for most of you, maybe even never for some.

One of us (Tim) has a friend who actually still writes letters. Granted, he also prefers to pay people back with a paper check instead of Venmo, yet nothing beats opening up the mailbox and finding that handwritten letter for no other reason than his enjoyment of sending them. You can’t help but smile when looking at the carefully penned out words in cursive, letters joining letters into a story, with a simple stroke of the pen.

Usually the letters are filled with random thoughts and well wishes, something you’d find more frequently in a Facebook post or Twitter feed. These platforms have become our new normal for day-to-day communication, announcing life-changing events, or expressing some form of creativity. We’re not including Instagram or Snapchat, since those are both much more visually focused…but maybe we should. After all, it’s often easier to see an event as it happens (especially if its live streamed) versus describing it in a handful of words that may not accurately capture what transpired. And herein lies the issue: we’re losing the art of writing by relying solely on photos, snaps, tweets, and texts.

And herein lies the issue: we’re losing the art of writing by relying solely on photos, snaps, tweets, and texts.

As we write this, we know we are just as guilty. While everyone is engaged on social media in various degrees, it really is just more fun snapping a photo of a #californiasunset, that plate of brightly colored uni, or a beloved dog doing nothing more than sitting in his favorite spot. And then adding a cleverly thought-out filter just to garner a handful more “likes.”

Not since the days of hieroglyphs and cave paintings has a society relied on visuals to capture an important moment or tell a story. We’re no longer teaching cursive in some states, (but thank you California and others for attempting to save this literacy dinosaur).

Such is the challenge in today’s Modern Media Culture, where the written word feels second tier. Even The New York Times is giving grammatical errors a pass in the “age of Twitter,” our president can’t be bothered to spell check, and the comeback du jour is a meme of epic proportions.

Comeback via Giphy.

We are not the only people to mourn the loss of the old-school written word. Anatole Broyard, writing for The New York Times on May 23, 1982, lamented what the telephone had done to letter writing:

When did we stop writing letters like these? With Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh? With E.B. White and Flannery O’Connor? I try to imagine a letter from Donald Barthelme or Renata Adler. In many of the writers who are younger than they are, there seems to be a scantiness, a reluctance of language — certainly nothing left for letters.

What’s a serious and thoughtful marketer who still cares about the written word to do?

All is not lost, because the written word isn’t dying…it’s just evolving. What used to be pen to paper to envelope to stamp to post office is now a text. Isn’t that more efficient? And who hasn’t smiled at a 😀 or 🐶 or ❤️.

For marketers, our timeless job is still the same: to communicate. To inform. To inspire. And now more than ever, to listen. Thirty years ago — what was it? A 1–800 number or mail in postcard? Today, brands have an opportunity to be fast, to engage in real-time dialogue, to hear what they are getting right — and wrong. Twitter serves as useful customer service. Facebook tells us if a movie is going to be a hit pretty much right away. Instagram lets us know what products people really, really love…and share. And you can tell us what you think of this article right down there in the comments.

We’ve been hitting the “two-way dialogue” drum for years now. Brands have to be set-up to react quickly, to think like marketers AND think like newsrooms. Monitor comments to understand sentiment. Be real-time ready. The information is there, in the form of the written word, ours for the taking, if only brands are set up to do so.

In other words, the written word matters more than ever.

Now we’re going to close the laptop and pick up a pencil. It’s time to write.

Tim Cyrol is the Director of Human Resources at Mistress. Todd Lombardo is a Digital Strategist at Mistress.