Handwriting’s “Swan Song”?

Your handwriting is beautiful, but I can’t read a word of it. Someone once told me that upon receiving a rare, handwritten letter. Maybe I was in a hurry, ill mood, or just careless. Fact is that the letter probably was lost on the lucky recipient who just gave up trying to decipher my scribbling. The good Holy Names nuns who tried to make me to conform to the Palmerian handwriting method exhibited angelic patience.

We baby boomers remember well the handwriting classes we had to endure in elementary school. I’m old enough to remember wooden desks and inkwells although, by then, we had progressed to pencils. Quill pens may be long gone but I still collect and use fountain pens and quality stationery. That might, in part, explain the fascination with autographs!

Today, with “advances” in technology, handwriting has almost become a lost art form. Handwritten letters and cards have been replaced by e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media. One can even subscribe to online services that feature e-notecard and stationery templates (www.paperlesspost.com).

The Common Core State Standards, established in 2010 to guide education curricula, require that schools teach penmanship only in kindergarten and first grade – after that, the focus shifts to typing. Writing by hand helps children improve letter recognition, which is the strongest predictor of reading success so says Karin James, Ph.D. a psychologist with Indiana University.

We’re traveling down a slippery slope to handwriting oblivion. Last year, I sent a small gift to a niece. I fully expected her to write a thank you note (silly me). When I goaded her over her lack of courtesy, she promised to write a note. Fast forward several months. “I couldn’t find a stamp for the envelope.” Then came the best excuse of all: “I don’t have a car and there is no mailbox nearby.” Imagine her surprise when I told her she could just walk the note to the mailbox in her front yard. It would be picked up by the postman. She was clueless.

The Wall Street Journal recently published a terrific article (September 6-7, 2014 “Gear and Gadgets”). Entitled “Don’t Forget (How) to Write: no worries if your handwriting skills have atrophied in the age of keyboards and touch screens. A few time-honored, legibility-enhancing tools can help.” The article focused mainly on the selection of writing instrument best suited to improve your handwriting. It really didn’t address the root issue: our motivation to even pick up a pen and handwrite something other than a grocery list or Post-It reminder.

Contrary to anything people may say, there is a special thrill in finding a letter or handwritten card in the mailbox (the onslaught of holiday mail notwithstanding). A handwritten anything tells your recipient that you cared enough to take time to share your thoughts, kind words, sympathy or encouragement. On the thruway of communication, handwritten messages speed past the competition in how they impact others.

Post-script: Writing in the 9/21/2014 issue of Parade Magazine, (the Sunday newspaper insert) author Melinda Wenner Moyer observes that studies have found that adults write better and longer prose when they are faster at writing by hand. And we may process what we write by hand more deeply. A 2014 study reported that college students who took longhand notes answered conceptual questions about the material better than students who had typed their notes – meaning that, at least in some ways, students may be better off with a composition pad than a keyboard.

Recommended reading: The Missing Ink: the Lost Art of Handwriting; Philip Hensher, 2013.