On the death of words in the age of email

(*Note: I started this blog post on December 23rd.)

In the spirit of Festivus, I have a grievance to air.

Whatever happened to a well thought-out personal letter using lots of words to clearly communicate with another person?

When I was growing up, it seemed words were still in style. I don’t recall being taught how to write a letter, but I don’t think it was out of the ordinary to fill two or three sheets of stationery with words. I received lots of letters in my youth that consisted of several sheets of paper, often filled on both sides with many small, handwritten words.

I was taught to write essays. An essay was to be a clearly thought out statement of one’s position or opinion on a matter. Again, the use of many words was not unusual; it was in fact encouraged.

As an adult, I have visited museums around the world. Some exhibits, like my favorite at the British Library, contain personal letters from famous people. I’ve also read such letters reproduced in history books. I notice that the words used in these letters are often flowery and persuasive, using a plethora of words to plead for some action on the part of the recipient, or even just to wish for their health and well-being.

I’ve also read essays and tracts printed in both America and Europe in the 19th and 18th centuries. Tracts, especially, relied on an abundance of words to make an argument.

And Shakespeare, of course, used many, many words.

So then why, in the past five years, have I begun to receive extremely negative feedback for using “excessive” words in communicating with other people? Why have I received such negative feedback that writing an email or statement of opinion causes me personal stress and trepidation? “Is my letter too long? Have I said too much? Which words are unnecessary? How much can I cut out of my email and still get my point across?”

And then I proceed to cut some more.

It seems words are only fashionable when they are used to broadcast an opinion to a large group of people, like in a blog or a newspaper. But any personal communication at all is forced to be short and concise, with the possibility of misunderstanding and error considered more desirable than “too many words.”

Have we finally advanced enough to discover that all through history, our passionate use of words was excessive and unnecessary?

Or have we just become too impatient to read anymore?


2 responses to “On the death of words in the age of email

  1. ah, yes, i have heard and wondered the same sorts of things. as if the very use of words might be out of style. perhaps the fear is we will use them all at once and not have enough for the future. we do, really, use words more frequently now, although in shorter genres.

    there is nothing more sublimely pleasing than to get a note in the mail penned in the sender’s hand.

    keep writing, friend, keep writing….

  2. Mozart had too many notes and now it seems playwrights have too many words. Maybe. When a play works – maybe people don’t count the words. (They count number of actors needed!) I do bemoan the lack of written letters we are leaving behind these days. I love that look into the past – to the times, to the emotions to what is different and what is the same.

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