Is Handwriting Still Important?

Handwriting

I was talking to a young writer a while back and he asked about how to get a better flow in his writing, how to get a feel for writing in a more literary style. I told him to try writing out Ernest Hemingway’s shortest story 30 times. That story is six words long:

For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn

The story highlights some of the key elements of great writing – it’s concise, it’s powerful and it awakens the reader’s imagination, makes them think about the subtext that exists between the words. The idea of repetition came from a story about Hunter S. Thompson re-writing ‘The Great Gatsby’ word-for-word to get a better feel for how F. Scott Fitzgerald constructed his work. Asking someone to transcribe a novel is probably a bit of an ask, but if you write down this short story over and over again, you’re inevitably going to absorb some of the method, the detail of how Hemingway constructed it, get a feel for the impact of the words.

But then the guy asked me something that made me think the problem may be something else entirely, something which may or may not be a larger issue in finding your literary voice in the modern world. The guy turned to me, obviously not impressed by my idea and he said:

‘By hand?’

Yes, by hand. Why would you write it any other way? Anyone can put a sentence onto a computer screen and cut-and-paste that shit on repeat – the experience is wholly different if you write each letter, scrawl it down, sentence by sentence. While handwriting may be out-dated to some degree, there’s something to be said for feeling the words as you write, something that can’t be replicated with the touch of a keyboard. Part of that literary flow is reflected in the shaping of words on paper, getting a sense of structure and form – I write almost everything by hand, at least in some capacity, but then I thought I’m definitely writing a lot less by hand than I used to. Is handwriting becoming obsolete?

There’s been a heap of studies and reports on the decline in handwriting, with different regions of the world taking varying approaches in their school curriculum – some are seeking to address the decline, while others are moving away from handwriting altogether. And obviously, we’re at a point in time where almost nothing needs to be written by hand – we’re connected to the internet at all times, students have access to iPads and laptops and any other array of mobile devices that enable them to communicate effectively without ever lifting a pen. The thing is, none of those studies can conclusively say that we’re better or worse off without handwriting. The findings usually come down to a matter of personal preference, people think kids should learn to write, because everyone still writes, whilst also conceding that it’s less and less of a necessity in the digital age. The closest thing I could find to a compelling reason for handwriting was that people who aren’t taught how to write by hand also have more trouble reading handwritten notes – this could be problematic when people conduct research or go to museums. As noted in this piece, the inability to decipher what’s come before may, in essence, sever a connection to our collective past.

It does seem that just as we hold dear to physical books – to the smell of the pages of a new text – their time of relevance and purpose is passing. Really, people don’t even need to sign their signature these days.

So what does this mean for the written word? I guess, the way I see it is that I, personally, have an affiliation with the physicality of writing. With waking up in the middle of the night and feeling an absolute compulsion to get words down, to become conscious of the sound of pen scratching against paper. I love writing, and I still feel it’s the easiest and most natural way for me to get the ideas out of my head. But really, that’s just my view. Younger generations of writers are no doubt just as aligned to the clicking of their keyboard, the pitch of the touch screen letters on their iPad or their phone. Maybe they wake up and feel compelled to open a new note on their iPhone and get their ideas down there – and that’s definitely something I’ve done a lot more in recent years too – but it feels like we’re losing something if we let handwriting fade out. But by pushing it, by forcing young kids to write, are we just wasting our time?

To me, your handwriting is a form of art within itself, a mark of individuality that’s connected to your thoughts and feelings. But then again, what you communicate is undoubtedly more important than how you do it. So in as much as I see it as a decline, a loss of something dear, really, how people communicate their ideas is down to what they’re linked to. Should schools stop teaching handwriting? Right now, I’d say no. But maybe, one day – as much as it saddens me to say it.

Everything progresses. Everything advances and changes and grows into things you never even knew could be. While handwriting may be in decline, I’d prefer to focus on the fact that my kids will find creativity in their own way, will communicate in ways they find natural. The fundamental goal is for people feel free to explore their ideas and express their views. Whether they do that with pens is largely irrelevant, it’s what feels most natural that will work best.

4 comments

  1. pwjames957

    Very compelling, Andrew. If you have a feel for my way of thinking at all, you know this is a huge concern for me as it pertains to my kids and what appears I’ll be left to teach at home. Having been a Mathematics Educator in the era right before the tsunami of the digital age, I can’t grasp how to teach a subject like Algebra without pencil and paper. So it is with handwriting. I’ll be riding the “Of Course It is Important” bus for a long time; even if I can’t come up with a valid reason as to why. I really want to believe that handwriting and Algebra are art forms meant for Pen and Paper. Guess I had better go plant a tree.

    • adhutchinson

      I agree Patrick, I can show you notebooks upon notebooks that are the genesis of everything I write. handwriting helps me clarify my thoughts before they all make sense and come together in typed form. I love handwriting, I love the feel of doing it, but I also acknowledge that the next generation may not have that some affinity, which may see the eventual end of pen and paper, as we know it.

  2. ShethP

    “… kids should learn to write, because everyone still writes, whilst also conceding that it’s less and less of a necessity in the digital age.”
    I’m really glad you touched upon this topic. When I moved to India, I was told at school that we were to hand-write our projects and assignments. At our school, printed text was not – and still isn’t – allowed at all. In the beginning, I found it to be kind of a hassle. Who would want to spend hours actually writing stuff down? “Twenty five page reports? By hand? Are you kidding me?!” was what initially came to mind. Having to rewrite stuff because you missed out something was tiring as well. But gradually, I came to accept the convention and realized that maybe, by writing things down, I was able to store them in my memory (isn’t that why teachers tell us to take notes in class?), which indirectly proved to be helpful. Of course, seeing handwriting as an art is something I only recently thought of, while reading Reader’s Digest’s Write Better Speak Better, where they have an entire section dedicated to handwriting, its importance, and how to improve your handwriting. The book was published in the late nineties, but I would like to believe that its relevance is still the same today. However, after reading your post, I feel it to be a privilege that we haven’t entirely given up ourselves to technology and I would hate to think of “handwriting becoming obsolete.”

    • adhutchinson

      I agree, Sheth, I think there’s a lot to be said for ‘feeling’ the flow of words as an extension of your movement, as opposed to the more mechanical motion of typing. Hopefully there remains enough of us to have handwriting remain relevant, and a live, though evidence of the decline of the written word does point towards it disappearing over time.

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