The decline of handwriting
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?
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.