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The (Un)Importance of Penmanship

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The thesis of the article Handwriting is History by Anne Trubek seems so obvious, but yet it’s something that I’d never considered before, despite that 99.9% of the writing I do is on my computer. Growing up and moving through the education system, a huge emphasis was always placed

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on the ability to write by hand – not just spelling, grammar and general proficiency in language, but actually the ability to draw those characters out by hand as a way of making meaning.

On a recent airport layover, I set out to write a bunch of letters and postcards for people back home. It was painful: my hand, fingers and wrist ached and my penmanship was atrocious. Worst of all, I found myself frustratingly incapable of making the words appear on the paper quickly enough to avoid many of them getting lost somewhere between my brain and the ink as it settled on the paper. I found writing by hand to be wildly inefficient.

Despite this experience, as I read Handwriting is History, I still found it difficult to accept the idea that we may live in a world where writing things out by hand is no longer necessary. What about lovely handwritten notes? What about handwriting as an art form? What about the personality of our handwriting? Surely all those concepts cannot be supplanted by choosing a font in our word processing software? Trubek has alarmingly good answers for most if not all of these questions, mainly rooted in the reality that handwriting is not and has never been about individuality: “when we worry about losing our individuality, we are likely misremembering our schooling, which included rote, rigid lessons in handwriting. We have long been taught the “right” way to form letters.”

Trubek also has solid grounds to conclude that even today we still politicize handwriting and attribute characteristics like intelligence to someone who has a ‘good hand’. She cites a study done at Vanderbilt University called The Handwriting Effect, which found that “teachers form judgments, positive or negative, about the literacy merit of text based on its overall legibility … when teachers rate multiple versions of the same paper differing only in terms of legibility, they assign higher grades to neatly written versions of the paper than the same versions with poorer penmanship.”

The conclusion of the article is that at its core, writing is about communicating ideas. Doing whatever we can to create a wide space through which our thoughts can flow unencumbered, or as unencumbered as possible, should be our primary concern when choosing a tool. Why then, do we continue to put so much focus on teaching proper handwriting techniques to children in schools when it is quite likely that lovely penmanship is something they will never need?

Thoughts?

Image Credit: Handwriting – free texture by Crafty Dogma