But now we get extended boasts about the writer's children, exotic holidays, new cars, cats, dogs and grandchildren. As the years pass by, we've also noticed a depressing increase in the amount of news about illnesses and bereavements.
Length and lack of care
One thing these circulars have in common is that they're far longer than the hand-written notes they've replaced. They can go on for anything up to four pages. This year's verbosity victory went to one that looked like only two, but was printed in a font so small that the author managed to pack in 3,000 words that were unreadable without the help of a magnifying glass.
Another common feature is that the quality of writing leaves much to be desired. Elementary grammatical mistakes abound, as do apostrophe abuse and the curious but widespread belief that sentences should end with exclamation marks! One of this year's scribes seemed to think that one such mark is never enough and that there should be at least four of them!!!!
Worst of all, the writing is undisciplined, long-winded and shows little sign of any editing at all - even though the technology makes it so easy to delete words and sentences as you go along.
This brings me to why I think word processing has a lot to answer for when it comes to explaining why something that might have been expected to improve the way we write has actually had the opposite effect.
One step to the finished article
The trouble is that professional-looking fonts make a first draft look just as finished and professional as the final draft used to look after you'd been through quite a lot of stages - at each one of which there would be further scope for correction, editing and stylistic improvement.
As you went from one step to the next, the manuscript gradually looked better than it did earlier on, until you eventually reached publication day when the pages looked as pristine and professional as today's word-processed draft already looks at stage (1).
For those too young to remember the process, it went something like this:
- Hand-written version (for one particularly difficult chapter of a book I wrote 30 years ago, only about about one sentence a page survived without being crossed out or amended, which meant throwing out 19 pages for every one I kept), followed by
- the author's amateurishly typed version, with much Tippex and scissors & pasting before handing it to
- a secretary who typed a neat version which
- still needed further editing and amendments before
- the final typed version was submitted to publisher who would eventually send back
- galley-proofs for copy editing (with minor changes still possible) before
- PUBLICATION OF THE ARTICLE/BOOK
More means worse?
I realise that, in saying all this, it might look as though I'm taking a 'holier than thou' attitude towards writers who regard the Christmas circular as a practical way of improving their communication of family news to friends and relations.
But I'm not claiming to be immune from the negative impact that computers are having on the way we write - if only because I know that I rarely spend as much time, or take as much care, when writing posts for this blog as I do when I'm writing for a more traditional form publication.
But I do find it all rather worrying because of the way that computerised word-processing has reduced the amount of quality control that once went into what we wrote.
This, coupled with the seemingly infinite expansion of written information made possible by the internet, means that more very often does mean worse - which might not matter were it not for the fact that you have to plough your way through so much poorly-written prose to discover what's worth reading and what isn't.