The deliberate pace of a letter

v1.0: Originally written 2022-11-28.

Nestled against the wall of my "office" is an old writing desk passed down to me from my father. It's a tiny thing with a roll-top, only just enough room to work with a couple letter-sized pages. There are cubbies towards the back for stashing writing supplies; certainly there would be more work-space if they weren't there, but where else would I put my pens and envelopes? There are no holes for computer cables; setting up a small (and frankly insufficient) monitor leaves no room for the keyboard.

It's here that I engage in one of the more rewarding hobbies I've started: writing letters.

I forget exactly where the impulse came from. It was just that: an impulse, this sudden need to start looking up information on where to buy letter-writing supplies and how to not sound stupid or self-centered when writing one. It sounded like the most personal, deliberate way to reach out to someone. Just imagine receiving pages of words in the sender's handwriting, perhaps on nice paper or decorative stationery, and sending back something just as unique by virtue of being more than a few words written with your own hands, to say nothing of any extra decorations, attachments (*physical* things you attach to your mail!), or personalizations. It was a fading art.

Once I'd raided the local craft store for supplies, I rented a P.O. box for privacy's sake. The plan was to find some pen pals on the internet to correspond with, preferably those who shared some of my interests. I didn't go to a dedicated pen pal board or site; yes, they're full of people specifically interested in finding paper correspondence partners. They're a little broad for my taste, and I'd rather write people I would've encountered outside of this hobby. Maybe I can broaden my pool when I've had some more life experiences to write about. I'm just an ordinary Midwestern bat, after all.

So if I'm not in the business of expanding my horizons, why write? I could literally just email someone back-and-forth and promise to take my sweet time with it. Personalizing an email is possible: change the background, the font, throw in some images, it's basically HTML anyway, go wild and hope it displays correctly for the recipient, or maybe put together a wonderfully formatted PDF and put those LaTeX skills to work. I guess. I'd rather give that person a sticker they can put on their laptop, or on a journal, or in the trash. They'll forget about a GIF.

There's a certain appeal to knowing the exact document I send via mail can't be sniffed like a network packet. I'll spare you the vague FUD about trackers and whatnot: no data on the internet are guaranteed to be private to only the authorized parties, and neither is physical mail, but at least I can *understand* mail and feel good about that understanding for longer than a couple years. There's comfort in that.

Of all the good reasons to write letters, the one that really brings me back to the desk is the dumbest one I can imagine: I like handwriting, intrinsically. There's something about knowing that I've imprinted information on a physical piece of paper that email can't replicate. Gel pens feel great to write with, so much better than a cheap ballpoint (seriously, get one), and my fountain pen makes my handwriting look better than it is. Just the way the ink soaks into the page and how the ink flow forces me to take my time on each letter makes all the difference - I don't even write in cursive or anything.

I don't write very many letters right now, but I'd love to write more in the future.

Tips on writing letters


You really don't need more than some notebook paper, an envelope, a pen, and a stamp to write and send a letter. However, there are some materials beyond the bare essentials that you may want to pick up.

Renting a P.O. box is highly recommended if you're writing to strangers. The cost to rent is non-trivial (mine comes out to about $20/month) but gets more worthwhile as you accumulate pen pals.

Good stationery is nice to receive. What constitutes "good" depends on two things: what type of pen you're using, and what feels the best to you. Notebook paper is fine for most conventional pens, but if you're using a fountain pen, you'll need something heavier. On a budget, sketch paper is great at holding ink and feeling more substantial. You could also consider letter-writing stationery if you want to get really fancy. There's also the option to decorate your pages with stamps, doodles, stickers, or even designs applied directly via printer.

A nice pen will make a huge difference in how it feels to write. As I mentioned, gel pens feel the best to me for everyday use. If you're on a tight budget or don't want to bother with a fountain pen, gels are cheap and just as convenient as a regular ballpoint. That said, don't overlook fountain pens just because they seem hard to use. Not all of them require working with liquid ink directly - cartridge pens just use little replaceable ink cartridges that click right into the pen. Writing with the fountain tip, while it may take some getting used to, will feel more natural with practice. Round tips are the best to start with, as the writer doesn't have to worry about the angle of each stroke.

Most people don't get mail in 6x9 envelopes, which is part of why I like using them - the unique form factor helps my mail stand out. It also leaves the most room for paper and attachments. Speaking of, it's nice to have "a collection of small things to send" with your letters - nothing that would make the letter too thick or bulky, just something neat like a sticker, a drawing, a photo, or something like that. (Note: if you're not in the US, your mail carrier may have different size requirements.)

Wax seals are completely unnecessary and one of my favorite touches to add to the finished letter. Why use ordinary envelope adhesive when I can melt fancy wax onto it instead? I use the sealing wax "candles": a stick of solid wax with a wick in it. Just light the wick, drip a few layers of liquid wax onto the center of the envelope flap where it should be sealed, press the seal (the stamp) onto the blob, leave it for a few minutes to cool, and peel it off. Easy, posing only a mild fire hazard ("mild" as in you're holding a tiny candle close to paper).

Finding a pen pal

Ask someone you know. Friends, relatives, that one guy you knew in college who moved across the country - you probably know someone personally who would like to try writing letters! It's a great way to keep in touch without needing to grab them for an IM session, and it's the safest.

NOTE: However you decide to find a pen pal, if you write a stranger, please be mindful of your own safety. Don't send personally identifying details like your address, full/real name, workplace, and so on, and stick to your boundaries. While you can and should let the other person know when something's out of your comfort zone, or if you simply want to end correspondence with them, you can always stop writing someone if things are getting out of hand.

Ask your interest groups. If you're part of a forum, chat server, or some other big gathering of like-minded folks, see if any of them would be cool with exchanging letters. Bonus points if you met them at a convention or similar event and want to keep in touch! Be warned that it can be a tough sell - P.O. boxes aren't cheap, and not everyone will want to dedicate the time to sending regular letters. The upside is you'll already have things in common, and you can make the conversation more personal from there.

Post in a dedicated pen pal site. This is probably the widest cast: ask someone who's looking for pen pals if they'd like to connect with you, or make a post yourself. In either case, make it clear what your interests are, what kind of pen pal you'd like (same interests, totally different interests, just friends, room for something more, etc.), and how often you'd like to exchange letters. Sites may also have their own codes of etiquette or ways to keep their members safe. (I haven't used any of these sites and can't vouch for one in particular.)

The first letter

Where to begin? Assuming you don't know the other person very well, some introductions are in order. In the first letter, you should feel free to talk about yourself more than you might in a later letter - let the other person know some basic information about you, your hobbies and interests, what you're working on now or what you hope to accomplish soon, and why you picked up the pen in the first place. Be sure to include some color here - don't just state the facts. Include a personal anecdote, or say how something makes you feel.

If there are any expectations or hard boundaries you want to make clear that you didn't get a chance to express before, put these in now. Better make these things clear upfront before a misunderstanding causes problems later.

The letter should also include some questions for your lucky recipient. What kinds of things do you want to know about them? Ask them about an interest you have in common - what do they like about it, what's their favorite [x], what have they done with it recently? Ask about one of their interests that you haven't explored yourself - same sorts of questions, but broader and geared towards learning about the thing in general (though don't expect an encyclopedic answer). Keep an open mind and be willing to learn.

If you're sending the first reply, much of the above still applies - introduce yourself and don't feel limited to only what your partner asked about. Make unstated boundaries stated, and ask them about what interests you the most about them. However, you'll also want to answer their questions. There's plenty of room for that in a good letter, as you'll see in the next section.

The second-to-nth letters

So you've received a letter - great! Within what you and your correspondent are comfortable sharing, there's no "right" way to write a letter. What you send should be genuine, an expression of your own experiences and feelings. That said, of all the advice out there on writing great letters, I always keep in mind the three "A"s from r/penpals: Answer, Add, and Ask.

You should always answer your correspondent's questions, if any. These are things they want to know about you or your interests, so if you're wondering how to keep them engaged with your letter, start there!

Each letter should add something new about you, whether it's another interest of yours, something you did recently, something you've been thinking about, or anything important to you. This should include topics that your correspondent didn't directly ask about (your Answers are for their questions).

Finally, be sure to ask about something you read in their last letter. Show that you're listening to what they have to say and that you're taking an interest in it.

Do keep in mind any time commitments you and the other person have made. Are you expected to turn around a reply within a day or two, or a week, or a month? Taking too long may signal a lack of interest - if you have some kind of delay in getting a letter out, see if you can let them know. If you really are losing interest or time, it's good courtesy to let the other person know that you'd like to stop corresponding.

Notes on sending mail to/from a P.O. box

To squeeze in one last bit of advice that I learned the hard way: if you're sending a letter to someone on the internet, don't put their handle on the envelope. A P.O box may or may not have an official name associated with it, but it's not necessary to include one. The post office may reject the letter if "Arlo the Bat" isn't registered to the address; similarly, if you're sending from a P.O. box, you don't have to include a name, either.

Though I won't put it up on the internet, if you'd like to write me via snail mail, shoot me an email or a Telegram message and let me know what kind of pen pal you'd be looking for. In general, I'm looking for furries and other nerds who want to write me about their lives and what they're working on, platonic-only and about a couple letters per month. My site should give you a decent idea of what I'd want to write to you about. If I think we're a good match, I'll send you the P.O box!

Back to top