IF letter writing is a lost art, as everyone says it is, everyone should meet Brian Woodward. ''I don't need an excuse to write,'' says the junior at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. ''It's just so easy. You can just tap your thoughts down on the keyboard and send it away.''
Mr. Woodward corresponds with a high school friend at the University of Colorado, his sister in Colorado Springs, and his father, especially his father, at least once every two or three days. Woodward's secret? Electronic messaging, otherwise known as e-mail.
In much the same way that postal reforms sparked a letter-writing boom in Britain 150 years ago, the ease and availability of e-mail are creating a new generation of letter writers. Worldwide, some 27.5 million people have access to electronic mail, according to a December estimate by Matrix News. The number of consumer users hooked into the largest of these networks -- the Internet -- is doubling every year, writes newsletter editor John Quarterman.
That makes for a lot of e-mail.
''We were never letter writers -- ever!'' says Gwendolyn Forest. But that changed two Christmases ago when her computer-literate brothers bought each family member a subscription to the CompuServe on-line service. ''Because of their expertise [in computers], we've all been brought into this world, which is wonderful,'' Mrs. Forest says.
On this particular day, she sent an e-mail to her brother in Oklahoma. She corresponds daily with her mother in Reston, Va. ''It may seem silly to exchange mundane things,'' Forest says, ''but for us, as a mother and daughter, it's like saying: 'I'm so proud of you!' ''
Main depot: universities
Much of the e-mail boom appears to be fueled by universities hooking up to the Internet.
Phebe Cornell of Holly Springs, N.C., remembers getting only four letters from her oldest son during his four years in college. Today, she hears once a week from each of her two younger children now in college. The difference? Both students have Internet e-mail accounts. Mrs. Cornell and her husband have joined the Prodigy on-line service, which can send and receive Internet mail.
''Frankly, we get more communication through the Internet than we ever did through the mail,'' Cornell says. ''Kids are so busy. But they have to sit down at the computer sometime.''
Joyce Harrington, a public-relations executive in New York, doesn't ever remember getting a real letter from her son, Evan. But since he's been at Temple University doing graduate work, she's gotten several messages through her CompuServe account.
A popular alternative
One reason e-mail is popular is its cost. Most college students don't pay anything for their account, so they're not reluctant to send a message home. Woodward says he's cut his monthly long-distance phone bill by two-thirds because of his e-mail use.
Hooking into the Internet is somewhat more expensive for parents and other consumers. Membership for a commercial on-line service might cost $10 a month, depending on amount of usage.
E-mailing also doesn't require tremendous computer skill. Woodward says his father knew little about computers when he joined Prodigy last year. ''He was a computer illiterate a year ago, and here he is surfing the Net,'' a nickname for the Internet.
Another benefit is e-mail's speed. ''We like the immediacy,'' Cornell says. But she enjoys the ability to read messages a second time. She prints out her children's messages and files them.
''It's something between a letter and a phone call,'' says Marcia Halio, assistant director of the writing program at the University of Delaware. ''It allows for longer responses than telephone calls and more measured kinds of responses. We are definitely seeing a change in the way people communicate.''