How relevant is handwriting in this day and age? In school, children are taught joined up handwriting but not keyboard skills. Are we doing them a disservice by not teaching them how to type effectively too?
Schools shouldn’t be just about preparing children for the real world and teaching them skills that they will need when they are older. However, being able to type is a pretty important skill for education, employment, and – increasingly – leisure.
As a writer I write everything longhand first – even blog posts. When I did trial working directly onto the computer I felt that my work lacked depth and became very ‘flat’.
How much writing do you do? When did you last draft a long text by hand or write a ‘proper’ letter with a pen and writing paper?
With information technology we can write so fast that handwritten copy is fast disappearing in the workplace. In the United States it is also disappearing in schools. Given that email and texting have replaced snail mail, and that students take notes on their laptops, “cursive” writing – in which the pen is not raised between each character – has been dropped from the Common Core Curriculum Standards. Since 2013 American children have been required to learn how to use a keyboard and write in print. They no longer need to worry about joined up writing.
But does this matter?
Pens and keyboards bring into play very different cognitive processes. “Handwriting is a complex task which requires various skills – feeling the pen and paper, moving the handwriting implement, and directing movement by thought,” says Edouard Gentaz, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Geneva. “Children take several years to master this precise motor exercise: you need to hold the scripting tool firmly while moving it in such a way as to leave a different mark for each letter.”
Operating a keyboard is very different: all you have to do is press the right key. It can be learnt very fast, and the movement is exactly the same whatever the letter. Handwriting is the result of a singular movement of the body, typing is not.
Word processing is a normative, standardised tool. Paper allows much greater graphic freedom. Word-processed text leaves no trace of your editing; handwritten text has it all there. Words crossed out or corrected, notes scribbled in the margins, leaving a visual and tactile record of your work and creative stages.
Pre-typewriter documents bring to mind flowing, neat, cursive text. As the typewriter muscled in, writers and poets held out the longest. A poem works itself out visually on the page. For me, writing reveals more of the depth and personality of the writer when the time is taken to hand craft the words on the page.
But many people these days express themselves in regimented strokes of various fonts. Handwriting, meanwhile, seems to be getting stuck in a stage of arrested development. The childish joined up writing children learn in primary school sees them through secondary school and exams, but then is rarely used. They are keyboard communicators.
For me nothing beats a fountain pen and quality paper. Can you imagine a digitally written love letter? E-cards lack the personal touch too. There is little sweeter or more deeply personal than a handwritten note by a friend or loved one.
“I take pride in using fountain pens. They represent craftsmanship and a love of writing. Biros, on the other hand, represent the throwaway culture of modern society, which exists on microwave ready-meals and instant coffee.” ~ Fennel Hudson, A Writer's Year - Fennel's Journal - No. 3.
The words "The pen is mightier than the sword" were first written by novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839, in his historical play Cardinal Richelieu.
Richelieu, chief minister to King Louis XIII, discovers a plot to kill him, but as a priest he is unable to take up arms against his enemies.
His page, Francois, points out: “But now, at your command are other weapons, my good Lord.”
Richelieu agrees: “The pen is mightier than the sword... Take away the sword; States can be saved without it!”
According to the Cambridge Dictionaries website the saying emphasises that "thinking and writing have more influence on people and events than the use of force or violence".
But are words quickly processed on a keyboard as powerful and well thought out as ones thoughtfully handwritten?
“The quill swirled and lunged over the page, in a slow but relentless three steps forward, two steps back sort of process and finally came to a full stop in a tiny pool of its own ink. Then, Louis Phelypeaux, First Compte de Pontchartrain, raised the nib, let it hover for an instant, as if gathering his forces, and hurled it backwards along the sentence, tiptoeing over “i’s” and slashing through “t’s” and “x’s” nearly tripping over an umlaut, building speed and confidence while veering through a slalom course of acute and grave accents, pirouetting through cedillas and carving vicious snap-turns through circumflexes. It was like watching the world’s greatest fencing master dispatch twenty opponents with a single continuous series of maneuvers.” Neal Stephenson.
For me both the pen and the keyboard have a place, but the pen, carefully crafting words on a page, will always be mightier than the keyboard.
“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.” Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale.