Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The slow death of handwriting

The slow death of handwriting

Graphic saying 'The writing's on the wall'

Christmas cards, shopping lists and what else? The occasions in which we write by hand are fewer and fewer, says Neil Hallows. So is the ancient art form of handwriting dying out?

A century from now, our handwriting may only be legible to experts.

For some, that is already the case. But writer Kitty Burns Florey says the art of handwriting is declining so fast that ordinary, joined-up script may become as hard to read as a medieval manuscript.

"When your great-great-grandchildren find that letter of yours in the attic, they'll have to take it to a specialist, an old guy at the library who would decipher the strange symbols for them," says Ms Florey, author of the newly-published Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting.


King Henry VIII's handwriting
King Henry VIII wrote this love letter to Anne Boleyn (pic: British Library)
BACK 1 of 5 NEXT

She argues that children - if not this generation then one soon to come - may grow up using only a crude form of printing for the rare occasions in life they need to communicate by pen.

The way handwriting is taught has undoubtedly changed. At Ms Florey's school in 1950s America, a nun beat time with a stick as the class copied letters from the blackboard. It was not a place for individuals. There was a right way to form letters and very many wrong ways.

For much of the last century British schools ran in a similar way. At my primary school in the 1970s, whole classes were devoted to work being "written up for best" and I remember a story coming back unmarked because I had crossed out a single word. I wonder what my teachers would have made of a James Joyce manuscript.

Crossing 7s

Many found the experience tedious, but for left-handers it could be torture. Often they were forced to write with their right, while their "bad" hand was tied down.

More than a century of children turning out letters by the yard produced a great conformity. In the 1940s Ealing drama, Went The Day Well?, a contingent of German soldiers sets up camp in the English countryside, disguised as Royal Engineers. One reason they get rumbled is that a soldier writes a "7" with a line through it. "Why should they form their figures in a continental way?" a villager asks.

If everything we do still had to be done by hand, there would not be enough hours in the day
Registrar Ruth Hodson

These days, the shape of a child's ovals, loops and slants matters less than what they write. "Content is everything," says Mark Brown, head teacher of St Mary's Catholic Primary School in Axminster, Devon. "The emphasis is much more on having a go, and expressing yourself, and getting the ideas down."

He says letter formation is still taught in the early years of primary school, but the appearance of handwriting takes less of a priority as children get older, provided it remains legible.

Some parents expect handwriting to be drilled in the same way as they experienced themselves, but Mr Brown argues the content of children's writing has significantly improved as a result of the change in emphasis, and that they write far more at school than they will as adults.


So once we leave school, does it really matter? Apart from the odd shopping list, do people still need to use a pen?

Some do. Registrars of births, deaths and marriages have been recording life's significant events in their usually impeccable writing since 1837.

Neil Hallows' handwriting
Writer's hand: Not a word crossed out in this instance of Neil Hallows' writing

"All registrars are conscious that they follow a long and noble tradition," says Ruth Hodson, interim registration manager for Peterborough City Council.

But even their fountain pens will soon barely be heard scratching on the registers. Under a modernisation programme, an increasing amount of the information is being entered directly on to a computer.

Ms Hodson is unsentimental. "If everything we do still had to be done by hand, there would not be enough hours in the day."

But perhaps handwriting gains its greatest importance when it is least legible. The reputation of doctors for scrawling was enhanced by a study in the British Medical Journal which found medics' writing was considerably worse than other healthcare workers or administrative staff. Poor writing has often been blamed for medication errors.

Gwyn Williams, a junior doctor in Carmarthen, says that despite technological advances, a great deal of clinical communication is still handwritten.

Man writing
Remember this?

"We have to write so much, on so many occasions, with the clock ticking. The end result is so difficult to interpret that even I have to concentrate on occasions to work out what [I have written].

"There doesn't seem to be any other logical way of doing it. Typing clinical notes on a computer seems so cumbersome in the limited time available that I can't see how it would work."

In many jobs though, a person can go for months, even years, writing only the odd phone message in their own script.

Nevertheless, some employers still ask for a handwritten application, or a sample of writing, although the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development warns employers they need to be clear about the reason for that, to avoid accusations of discrimination.

10-page letters

There are those who see handwriting's slip in educational priority and increasingly eccentric role in the workplace as evidence that, in the West at least, we are forgetting an ancient art form.

A panic, perhaps, and one witnessed every time the dominant style of writing changed or a new form of technology seemed to threaten it. An early typewriter led the Scientific American in 1867 to marvel that "the weary process of learning penmanship in schools will be reduced to [writing] one's own signature and playing on the literary piano".

Maybe a couple of times a week [pupils] could produce something handwritten that is judged partly on its legibility, or even its beauty
Kitty Burns Florey

But look at the decline in letter writing. The students I knew two decades ago who knocked out 10-page letters during a morning in bed have probably not yet written 10 pages of handwritten prose of any kind this year.

For Ms Florey, the answer should start in the classroom. Not a return to the nuns with sticks, but for children to value handwriting by learning a simple, legible, attractive script from the start - in her view a form of italic - and then keep reinforcing it beyond the early years.

"Maybe a couple of times a week [pupils] could produce something handwritten that is judged partly on its legibility, or even its beauty."

Adults too can improve their writing, in a matter of weeks with a textbook and expert advice. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs has said that if he had not taken a calligraphy course at college, he would not have thought of putting multiple typefaces on the Mac.

Perhaps the best argument for keeping our pens is that otherwise, in a society that is recorded in more detail than any which came before it, we will leave plenty of data but very little of our personalities behind.

Our descendants may struggle to read our letters, but they'll never even see most of our texts and e-mails.

No comments: