Do we really need handwriting any more?

Paul Raven @ 28-01-2009

cursive letter jBruce Sterling flags up a different kind of dead media in a Boston Globe story bemoaning the death of cursive handwriting:

“My first reaction was horror,” Florey said in an interview at her home, “then I thought, ‘Why would anyone use handwriting in today’s world?’ I write my books on the computer. I discovered two schools of thought: One is that it wouldn’t matter if nobody learned handwriting because we all have computers, and the other is that this is an interesting, historic, valuable, and beautiful skill that has been around for thousands of years, and we are just tossing it out.”

The thing to note here is that it’s not necessarily a computer-driven death of literacy, per se (although that’s a common enough complaint, despite the lack of solid evidence to back it up). People can still read as well as ever; it’s doing “joined-up writing” – as it was referred to when I was at school – that people struggle with, and I’m not sure that’s as terrible a loss as it could be. [image by tacomabibelot]

I still handwrite all the time, but I almost always use block caps because it’s faster and easier to re-read (though those familiar with my handwriting might disagree on the latter point, with some considerable justification). What the people bemoaning cursive’s decline seem to not realise is that styles of handwriting go out of fashion very quickly; in my day-job at a museum library, many of our visitors struggle to read copperplate script from less than a century ago, and most of them are highly literate.

There’s a clear argument that the lack of the ability to write by hand in any form would be a tragedy, and I suspect that schools may well be skipping over the skill in deference to computer use (which I suspect maybe closely related to the increase in dyslexia diagnosis), but to bemoan the loss of cursive is to miss the point. You might as well complain that not enough people design websites with Comic Sans as the main font…

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7 Responses to “Do we really need handwriting any more?”

  1. Evil Rocks says:

    The child I call my bro-ham had serious processing problems with getting his hands to form the shape of words when writing by hand. The poor kid’s teacher was actually the same teacher who when I started bumping up against the limit of what she knew in mathematics simply assigned me more long-division problems instead of starting me on algebra (I’m still not entirely certain she understands algebra).
    Amazingly, when my father started letting the bairn use his computer for word processing, writing stories and doing his written homework it turned out that my broham was just as capable as all of his classmates at writing. I have absolutely no background in this field, but my intuition was that his ADHD made it next to impossible for him to concentrate long enough to get any one word out when writing by hand.

    As re: handwriting and its utility in the modern world, when you get into the maths and science at the college level or in college-prep courses using a computer to take notes is not just impractical – it will genuinely hinder your learning (as with everything involving humans and technology, there are outliers here: I know a girl who records bio lectures on her MacBook ’cause she likes to sleep through them).

    Learning to read and write via typing is a good idea because it’s much much faster for getting ideas into words. Once you know how to generate words (which is the key to fast handwriting – knowing how to spell a word and how to write the letters quickly in sequence) you can write much more quickly than you could if you were still learning the word-shapes as well as how to spell the words themselves.

    As for my own writing style, I write in cursive. I write in pretty great, legible cursive. I write on graph pads because they give me a visual metronome that I can use to distribute letters proportionally and space words effectively and keep my writing on the same line. As with any skill, developing good cursive was simply a matter practice: taking notes notes notes, annotating my own sketches and most importantly evaluating my performance constantly to identify the letters that I need to make more carefully.

  2. Jesse says:

    I’m a scientist, and I know people who take notes on laptops. I think that’s a terrible idea, because you can’t draw little pictures and graphs, make notes in the margins, and draw arrows. I mean, sure, you can with some note-taking software, but I want to freehand a pair of curves over each other, not mess around with dropdown menus. Plus, my notebook is cheap and never crashes.

    I haven’t written cursive since I was nine. As soon as they quit demanding it, I went back to the same upright letters I’ve been using since. They’re fairly readable, they’re fast, and I can change letter shape to fit. (For whatever reason, my letter shapes change over time.)

    Writing with a pen is never going to die. It’s ridiculously appropriate for a lot of situations. Writing cursive seems to be almost dead among guys under 40, though. Some women I know write in beautiful cursive.

  3. Kian says:

    *Shudders at the thought of Comic Sans*

    Personally I tend to carry round a notebook with me on most occasions. It’s great for any random ideas, thoughts, scribbles and noting any cracking one liner’s or quote my friends may come up with. Saying that my handwriting is and always has been appalling and while I would take notes in lectures I would often ask a friend if I could photocopy theirs so I had something legible to read.
    So I really don’t think hand writing in it’s total will become obsolete, however as you have stated joint hand writing is becoming increasingly rare, but don’t count its down just yet.

  4. Adam says:

    I’ve thought that people would eventually start using vector graphic email as a way to personalize with handwriting. But who has an email client that supports vector drawings?

  5. Wayne D. says:

    I’m an engineer, and trying to design something solely on my computer is the way to madness. I can still rough out my ideas on paper and make notes around the drawing a lot faster than I can do it in CAD. Hand writing will always be around, especially when tablet PCs actually mature.

  6. Kate Gladstone says:

    Defenders of cursive should note that even signatures don’t legally require cursive, and never have required it! (Don’t believe me on this one — ask your lawyer! Anyone telling you that signatures require cursive for legal validity has misrepresented the law of the land.)

    Another thing the idolators of cursive don’t want you to know — research shows that the fastest and clearest handwriters avoid cursive. Highest-speed, highest-legibility handwriters tend to join only some letters — making the easiest joins, skipping the rest — and to use print-like shapes of letters whose printed and cursive shapes “disagree.”

  7. Sarah Ennals says:

    “and the other is that this is an interesting, historic, valuable, and beautiful skill that has been around for thousands of years, ”
    With as Paul said, frequent variations in style (and language) over those years. I’ve been convinced for at least ten years that graffiti tags are the true modern calligraphy – gorgeous but illegible. As for more traditional cursive – well, as a knitter, and someone who used to have a lot of SCA friends, I figure there’s always a group of hobbyists ready to revive an old skill (personally I’d like to see some of the steampunk types start a morse-code club…