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The decline of handwriting

In an era when computerisation has found a way into so many parts of my life, I wonder whether my handwriting has suffered as a consequence?

I’ve always had neat handwriting. My teachers used to commend the quality of my Victorian Cursive and I took great pride in the neatness and presentation of documents. I always ruled faint lines when filling in Christmas cards, addressing envelopes or writing labels. How times have changed. These days I don’t write much at all except for the weekly shopping list or the odd bit of mathematics on the back of an envelope.

The one and only remaining piece of major handwriting that I complete on a regular basis comes from work where I am required to maintain detailed laboratory notes about my scientific research. For some reason this hasn’t been digitised, although it won’t be long until it is. When that happens, I’ll have almost no need to write at all. All of this begs the question: Has my handwriting declined as a consequence of writing less?

Scanned copy of handwriting which reads "Quite often, I suspect that the quality of my handwriting is in decline, but is this perception correct?"
Has the quality of my handwriting declined?

I started thinking about this as I was writing my lab notes recently. Documenting the details of an experiment seemed so slow and tedious. I could have typed the experimental details in about 2-3 minutes but instead I was writing it all by hand in a notebook and it was taking much longer. As I looked back at my cursive, it seemed to be sloppier that I recalled it having been in the past.

Upon examination, my handwriting has some very obvious faults. The first is that it has a slight left lean despite my being right-handed. This trait developed when I was in late high school and I seem unable to correct it. The second is that my cursive is actually incomplete. The third is that I tend to circle my i’s because the dots tend to be illegible when written with a ballpoint pen and that annoys me (!). There is all sorts of drivel available on the internet about what all this means but I believe most of it to be superstition.

I have also noticed that my writing tends to be better when I use a medium-tip ballpoint pen rather than a fine one and when writing on a softer surface (such as on an exercise book). Obviously cold hands are not conducive to good writing, but that applies to us all.

What I have noticed in recent years is that it is harder for me to write a page in my lab book or a letter that meets the standards of neatness that I have historically applied to my own work. In more recent times, I have found that my hands can become tired from writing out pages and pages of text when once this was second nature. I have also noticed that I tend to make a few more mistakes in my cursive than I used to.

I am sure that I am not alone in this regard, but it troubles me nonetheless. Handwriting is an important skill!

In some respects, complaints about declining handwriting standards aren’t new as E.A. Enstrom’s paper in The Elementary School Journal from 1965 attests. When the ballpoint pen replaced the fountain pen, it was credited with causing all sorts of damage. Yet the ballpoint pen merely changed the writing implement; it didn’t destroy it like the keyboard threatens to do.

Handwriting is critical for cognitive development which is why it is very important that schools continue to emphasise its relevance. Yet teachers are reporting increasing problems with secondary students’ abilities to both write and comprehend other people’s handwriting. An inability to write in quick cursive seriously curtails an individual’s ability to take notes, which can hinder their progress in university and the workforce. Have schools placed an excessive emphasis on typing, an equally important skill in the 21st century, at the expense of handwriting?

Having looked back at old examples of my handwriting, I can see that my writing has slowly evolved although it is still essentially the same. Perhaps it has declined a little, but perhaps I am now more sensitive to its quality in light of the substantial computerisation that has engulfed my written communications.

I will always place great emphasis on the quality of my handwriting even if it is a skill that I use less and less. I think that I was fortunate to go to school when home computing was in its infancy. I developed sound handwriting skills long before I ever needed to use a computer. Times are different now.

That said, there’s something special about receiving hand-written letters in the mail. Where once this was taken for granted, I notice that people now cherish these ‘personalised’ communications. Handwriting conveys a warmth and sincerity that e-mail or even a typed hard-copy letter can never replicate. It is for this reason that I will be writing out my Christmas cards this year – as I have always done – and will post them in the mail.

Handwriting may have declined in popularity and quality, but it’s not dead yet.



3 responses to “The decline of handwriting”

On 9 December 2015, Andrew wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

My handwriting is appalling and always has been. I blame the change from fountain pens to biros halfway through the period of learning to write, plus dabbling by choice with dip in pens. More so, the change from cursive script to joined printing. I learnt printing, then began to learn cursive script and then methods were changed to joined printing. I acquired skills in no area. Your writing is neat and easy to read, both important, but I would not describe it as cursive with so few joined letters and only the capital Q and lower s looking at all vaguely cursive. I can write nice cursive script when the moon is in the right phase. I trained myself at about the age of 22 but I now avoid writing at all costs. I write by hand so rarely, at times I struggle to remember how to form the cursive f and j. Besides, my hand pains after writing any more than a couple of sentences. While text speak writing troubles me considerably, I have given up on worrying about children learning arithmetic. I have always struggled with the nine times table. In the time it takes me to work out 8×9, a child can whip out their phone and have the answer. I will reverse it, 9×8 is 10×8 less 8. Maybe three seconds, but fast phone fingers are quicker. Sadly, although I started texting on my mobile phone in about 1997, fast texting is not a skill I have acquired either, of the kind where you seeing thumbs dancing all over a phone keypad.

Sorry for the long comment. Clearly an interest of mine and I am envious of my mother who writes beautiful cursive script.

On 10 December 2015, Adam Dimech wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

Hi Andrew,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You are correct: My handwriting is hardly cursive at all except for the fact that it is loosely modelled on the official Victorian Cursive standard that is taught in school. My first year of schooling was based on print before it changed back to cursive a year later, thanks to a Department of Education directive. I absolutely never write entirely in cursive which may in part explain my relatively slow writing – my pen leaves the paper too frequently.

I’m too young to have used fountain pens in school but by all accounts, I didn’t miss out on much!

On 13 January 2022, Nancy wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

Thank you for addressing this topic along with providing readers a place to comment.

I, too, have always taken pride in and received compliments on my penmanship. I enjoyed experimenting with various stylistic elements. I am right handed, but my mother is a lefty with the most amazingly beautiful and consistent cursive and printing. She will be 90 next month and her handwriting shows no signs of breakdown. She has been active on her iPad, iPhone, and MacBook for the past 20 years.

I’m 64 and feel that my handwriting has become inconsistent and not nearly as neat or pretty as it had been. I also rule light lines on my cards and letters and agree that either a soft surface or a soft pen point, such as a Flair brand pen, create a beater result. When writing in cursive, I now insert “breaks” in the single smooth motion – I attempt to conceal these breaks with stylistic curlicues or a dramatic drops below the line. I miss the days when I effortlessly created written documents I could be proud of without requiring special writing instruments, soft surfaces, and rules lines.

By the way, use of a felt tipped pen enables the use of an artist’s eraser to remove the lines once the ink is thoroughly dry.

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