Epistle as writing practice

I am often asked by my peers why “young people” do not come to college with exemplary writing skills. Because I feel protective of my students, I wish to defend them–not always an easy task. My first response is that they have not had enough practice in writing to develop adequate fluency, and I generally follow that by admitting that many of my students have never really read books for leisure or out of passionate interest and that they are quite adept at other forms of communication (social media, looking at you!).

Last year, I decided to spend one class period on epistolary writing. I recognized that one way I developed confidence in expressive writing was by writing letters. Lots of them. Every week to my parents, almost as often to my sister, to my best friends, to sweethearts, grandparents, anyone I cared about. Probably 30 years of letters, which later morphed into lengthy emails as the technology developed.

Letters. Who writes them any more? Certainly not today’s college freshmen, if my students offer any objective measurement of their generation.

The epistolary mode offers students a chance to exercise the use of second-person as a governing pronoun, a style that formal academic writing shies away from except in certain forms of persuasive writing–the opinion column, for example. Teaching my students NOT to employ “you” is such a constant effort that I thought letting them write letters would give them a much-needed break from prescribed academic conventions and allow them to loosen up their sentences a bit.

Before I assigned in-class letter-writing, I asked whether any of them ever writes letters. Not one hand went up. I withdrew from my tote bag a clutch of old correspondence (yes, of course I would be that person who keeps the letters people write to me). After flourishing an envelope–with a 29-cent stamp–I disclosed the contents, a ten-page, handwritten letter from a dear friend. The students audibly gasped. “How long did that take to write?” “Did you read all of that?” Sure! When long-distance phone calls were expensive, letters were social media. We couldn’t just snapchat a photo of ourselves standing on a pile of snow and caption it “Snow!” We’d have to send a photo. Or we’d have to describe without the visual–and this is a practice my students have almost never had to employ.

Lack of informal writing practice translates into lack of writing practice, period.

I even read passages from three letters aloud, and the students were impressed with the vivid writing…writing by “non-writers.” “You could write like this, too,” I told them. “You just haven’t needed to do it, and therefore you think you can’t do it.” Then I asked them to think of a person, a specific person, and come up with a reason or purpose to write to that person, and then just write. The response was amazing. Some of these students wrote more in 15 minutes than they ever have for an in-class assignment. Most of them enjoyed it! One student even said that “this old style of long form texting intrigues me” and plans to start writing letters to a sibling once a week.



Letter Writers Alliance is an informal site promoting the hand-written, postal-mail delivered epistolary correspondence. Members can sign up to find a pen pal or just browse the site for stationery, pens, letter-writing tips, etc.

10 comments on “Epistle as writing practice

  1. Joe Kempfer says:

    Hi Ann –
    Letter writing is almost a lost art. There is a project that I have putting off for some time, but this recent blog of yours has rekindled motivation to “get back in the saddle”.
    During WW II, my mom and dad wrote letters to each other – often – and they saved them. My plans are to arrange them in chronological order, scan them, make a CD of them for my sister, and then preserve them. It’s only about three or four year’s worth though.
    I’ll let you know how it turns out.
    Stay well –
    Joe Kempfer
    PS – I think every letter was written using a fountain pen.


  2. “Long form of texting”–I love this!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m filing this away for when I start teaching! This is a wonderful idea!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lou Faber says:

    Much like zazen, writing is truly a practice. And like zen, you do it without expectation of perfection, but of finding that moment of clarity, of reaching out to and being reached by others. I still believe that despite the misinterpretation of the author(s) of Genesis, the real sin of the snake was giving Adam and Eve words. Yes and a piece of fruit.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. dolphinwrite says:

    Thank you for your thoughts. I think the problem with writing, and school’s/teachers can make this mistake, is teaching writing before students have had the time to express their ideas free of rules and suppositions. As a teacher, I first give opportunities for students to write freely, write on topics, and write about their views free of grammatical rules and essay formats. Within stories, I share the idea of characters writing letters to other characters, a fun way to add to their stories. Then, after a quarter or so, depending upon the class and students, I begin sharing essay methods and ways of improving view supports. When I write, I suppose it comes with all that I’ve learned over the years, but I try to write from my perspective and not be concerned with how it will be liked or disliked. As such, often I receive no accolades for my views, but that’s in order to be as honest as I can be, free of peer pressures or the thought of peer reviews. The way I see it, if I make valid points, those who appreciate will, and the rest can read and share their views. I’m good with that. Hopefully, if I am making a worthwhile contribution, people will see that and I’ve done my part in my little corner. The benefit of this is when I do connect with people on something they care about, they see my honesty and find I have worked hard to communicate well. Thank you again.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Laura says:

    Love this post! I am a life long letter writer, and never adapted to e-mail. I currently correspond with about 20 pen pals. I have 3 wordpress blogs and one is called Postman’s Treasure and it about letter writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. […] – I’m sharing this post with you from another wordpress blogger … about a benefit of letter writing that the younger generation is missing.  And I save old letters too! […]


  8. […] have been reflecting on the practice of letter writing and how it improves writing skills because it is, essentially, practice in written […]


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