Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting by Philip Hensher.
From 1989, two professors of education at the University of Washington, Virginia Berninger and Robert Abbott, carried out research on the knock-on effects of good handwriting. They examined beginning pupils at eight state schools in the greater Seattle area, and took a sample of 700 children, of whom 144 had been identified with writing problems. The problem children were divided into groups, and subjected to a variety of remedial approaches. One group did very much better than the others, and not just in writing. Berninger and Abbott found that the group with improved handwriting also had improved reading skills, better word recognition, better compositional skills, and better recall from memory. They began to enjoy learning more: they certainly took more pleasure in writing. They were just much better students. Would the same have been true of skilled keyboard operators? Berninger and Abbott didn’t think so. “Handwriting is not just a motor process; it is also a memory process for letters–the building blocks of written language.” And what happened to these students later on? “Older students who have done poorly from the beginning come to think of themselves as not being writers, so they don’t like writing and avoid it. As a result, their higher-level composing skills don’t get developed,” Berninger says. “We think that if we intervene early with handwriting and spelling instruction, we can prevent problems with written expression later.”
And what if there is no intervention–no teaching–no effective engagement with pen and ink on paper? What problems arise in later life? What diminishment of a human being takes place?
Writing this book, I’ve come to the conclusion that handwriting is good for us. It involves us in a relationship with the written word which is sensuous, immediate, and individual.
It opens our personality out to the world, and gives us a means of reading other people. It gives pleasure when you communicate with it; when done at all well, it is a source of pleasure to the user. No one is ever going to recommend that we surrender the convenience and speed of electronic communications to pen and paper. Once typed into cyberspace, information remains there forever, infinitely retrievable by typing a few key words into a search engine. By contrast, handwritten communication can only disappear into an archive, awaiting its transcription into type. Though it would make no sense to give up the clarity and authority of print which is available to anyone with a keyboard, to continue to diminish the place of the handwritten in our lives is to diminish, in a small but real way, our humanity.
In all sorts of areas of our life, we enhance the quality of our lives by going for the slow option, the path which takes a little bit of effort. Sometimes, we don’t spend an evening watching Kim Kardashian falling over on YouTube: we read a book. Sometimes, we don’t just push a pre-prepared meal into the oven and take it out some time later. We chop and prepare vegetables; we follow a recipe, or some procedure we remember from our family kitchens, and we make dinner from scratch, with pleasure. We often do this because we love people, and think they are worthy of our effort from time to time. Sometimes we don’t get in a car and get to where we have to go as soon as we possibly can. Sometimes we open our front doors, and go for a walk in the spring sunshine. We might not get anywhere very far in two or three hours on foot, whereas in three hours by mechanical means you can get to Yorkshire (by car) or Paris (by train) or Istanbul (by air). But on the other hand, you’ve had a nice walk in the spring sunshine for very little expenditure, and you feel better for it.
Perhaps that is the way to get handwriting back into our lives–as something which is a pleasure, which is good for us, and which is human in ways not all communication systems manage to be. It will never again have the place in people’s lives that it had in 1850. But it should, like good food or the capacity to take a walk, have some place in our lives from which it is not going to be dislodged. I want to know what people are like from their handwriting–friends, intimates, acquaintances, strangers, and people I can never and will never meet.
I want everyone to maintain an intimate and unique connection with words and ink and paper and the movement of hand and arm. I would love people to lose shame in their own handwriting, and develop an interest in the varieties of writing instead–something which might lead them to do something about their handwriting, rather than regarding it with despair. I want people to write, not on special occasions, but daily. I want to maintain a variety of ways to engage with the silent word and the considered record of a sentence–typed on keyboards, thumbed on keypads, handwritten–and to enrich our relationship with language through a variety of means. We are fighting a losing battle. Few people gave up writing by hand before the last decade or two–perhaps only odd people like Hitler here and there. I heard, repeatedly, in talking to people, the claim that they “never wrote anything” these days. The unconsidered movement away from handwriting is gathering pace, without anyone really deciding to stop, and once it’s gone we will have to ask whether we really wanted to lose the modest, pleasurable, private skill.
I don’t believe that it needs to be like this. We can let handwriting maintain a special place in our lives, if we choose. If someone we knew died, I think most of us would still write our letters of condolences on paper, with a pen. And perhaps there are other occasions when we still have a choice whether to write with pen and paper or with electronic means, and we should make the right, human choice. I dream of creating a space every day where we write with pen on paper, whether for ourselves or to communicate with other people. I think we would feel happier about ourselves, and I think we would feel more secure in our relationships with those around us. Here are some small suggestions of ways in which we could reintroduce handwriting back into our lives.
This seems obvious. Too much time has been spent discussing what letterforms are best for children to learn. In my opinion, it hardly matters. Schools should be offered a choice of Palmer-derived script, italic, Marion Richardson, ball-and- stick, and any other style that comes to mind. Let schools compete over the best method; let some boast to parents that they produce children with the most beautiful handwriting in Hampshire. Children will move from school to school and be confused when they encounter a completely new model. So what? Children are small bouncy things. They’ll catch up.
2. The teaching of handwriting doesn’t have to take up much time, but it has to be bound into something meaningful.
The laborious performance of pothooks and ovals to a set rhythm by Palmer and his disciples seems abstract, militaristic and pointless, and in the end gave handwriting lessons a bad name. If you want to subject small children to your will, make them take up drill practice. Better still, examine your own motivation and think better of it. There are three useful points of contact with the rest of the school calendar. The rooting of handwriting in dance and movement that the French curriculum insists on, making rhythmic movement the basis of every movement of the pen, is bound to create confident writers. Many of the best handwriting reformers came out of the school art room, such as Marion Richardson and Blunt. The love of shape-making and patterning, which every child understands, easily relates to the making of letters in the early years. Finally, the study of language could be so much more imaginatively linked to the writing of letters and words in schools. But why make a choice? Why should handwriting be only taught from one angle?
Start from the good psychic point that you can always value it, because it has so much of you in it.
Go and find some writing equipment–a 15p Bic Cristal pen, one black, one red (let’s say). Get a couple of pencils–a soft 2B pencil, a hard 2H. A fountain pen, a felt-tip pen, preferably in a garish color. Get a whiteboard marker–those joyous things with a blunt tip. Anything else you can think of–I like those green Pentel pens with a rollerball at the tip. Get some paper–cheap, shiny, ordinary, hand-made, recycled, writing paper, nothing remarkable. Just write on them, one after the other. Enjoy that slightly chocolate-bar softness of the 2B pencil under the hand, the faint greasiness of it; the floppily spongy way the felt-tip pen squeaks over the cheaper, shinier paper, giving way under pressure; enjoy what we take for granted, the super-efficient, disposable, space-age design of the Bic Cristal, mastering kilometers of line under its tungsten ball; the elegant swoop of the fountain pen over good-quality paper. Nice, isn’t it? Write anything you like; write a pangram about jocks or discotheques or lynx or anything you like, and then sign your name, unembarrassedly, with a big gesture. Write your name on the wall with the whiteboard marker. That was fun! It’s washable, isn’t it? Whoops. Well, it was fun, anyway, and the dining room probably needed redecorating, I dare say.
Do you like your handwriting? If not, do something about it. Whose handwriting do you like? Copy it. The other day I was overcome with jealousy at the terrific swoop and hook of a friend’s y, and promptly started trying it out on paper. It looked completely absurd, and nothing to do with my handwriting at all. Doesn’t matter. Your handwriting is a living thing, or should be–if it looks the same as it did ten years ago, even, give way to boredom–do something about it. Mix it up a bit. After all, do you still have the same haircut that you did ten years ago? You do? Nutter.
6. There are some ways to reintroduce handwriting into our regular daily lives. The first is to make space in the day to write notes for yourself.
When you go to the supermarket, make a shopping list with a pen on a scrap of paper. As you go round, buying your stuff, tick it off–“Does that say ‘rosemary’ or ‘Ryvita’?”–resting on the bar of the shopping trolley, probably tearing through the paper with the tungsten ball as you go. Write notes on the kitchen cork- board; enjoy the sensuous pre-Gutenberg quality of the scribbled reminder, to yourself, to your nearest and dearest, to the cleaner. Make lists by hand. Keep a small volume for thoughts and observations, small enough to keep in a pocket or a coat. Great for passing reflections, ideas, plans, recording those kind of idle wonderings which come in a moment and which you promise yourself you’ll look up next time you’re in a library and of course forget because you don’t write it down. There’s really nothing nicer than looking back through a notebook full of a year’s casual thoughts. I personally don’t keep a diary, but who could doubt that a diary, written by hand, is a million times nicer than a bloody blog? The nicest of all private, handwritten journals is a dream diary; you keep it on your bedside table, and when you wake, you write down what you’ve been dreaming about. It looks so odd after a few weeks; your handwriting in such a state, all manner of sizes, and full of things which you can’t remember why you felt so intensely about them. A dream diary belonging to some- body else would in the end be the most fascinating thing in the world.
7. When something important that you need to understand and remember is being said to you, make a note of it by hand.
To be able to write down a summary with pen and paper is, I’m convinced, a quite different and superior skill to making notes in any other way. I talk regularly to a lot of students on academic themes, and, despite institutional pressure, don’t use anything like Powerpoint to get my argument across. I write with a marker on a white- board. It forces everyone into a more active engagement. From the other side, the students who make no record, but stare astonished into space, wishing they were still on the ski slopes, do worst in the end. The second worst are the ones who plonk a tape recorder on the desk in front of them and record everything you say with the firm and honorable intention of listening to it again later. The worst ones after that are the ones who get out their laptops, and type furiously as you speak. Those, I have to say, are often still pretty bad students, because typing as some- one talks encourages transcription without much thought. That’s great if what you are hoping to do with your laptop is to transcribe a stretch of overheard dialogue, not so great if you are trying to understand what people say. But the very best students are the ones who take out a piece of paper and a pen, and write down the things that they think are interesting as you talk, making sense of it as they go. Those are the good students. Yes, you should make notes of anything important, because that’s how the mind works.
Write to people you love, people you like, people you work with. Write postcards. When you go somewhere remotely interesting–when you drop into the National Gallery, when you have a nice day out, when you go away for a weekend or an overnight, when the firm sends you to Crawley or Khartoum or New York for one of those dull/frightening conferences–find some postcards and send three to your mum and dad, your siblings and nieces, your significant other, your best friend or that old friend you haven’t seen for a while. What could be better than to know that you’ll be the only nice thing in your old friend’s postal delivery that day? Is there anything that gives such pleasure so cheaply as an amusing postcard with thirty sharp words about the delights of Crawley on the back? Make a habit of it. Send letters on special occasions. Write to your husband or wife or children and tell them that you love them. Or tell them they’re arseholes. It will have a lot more impact than a text message either way, perhaps usefully keeping them on their toes. Keep a supply of postcards handy, and a book of stamps. Scribble away. It doesn’t cost much.
Why are you in a rush? Why don’t you have two minutes to write something down? Why is your pen dashing in that awful way over the paper? Who ever described, or thought of describing, their handwriting as executing so many w.p.m.? Why can’t you breathe, and lift, and take a moment to enjoy this small sensuous act? Do you stuff food pointlessly in your mouth, hoping to get it over with as soon as possible? Or do you hope to enjoy it? Writing can be like that. Sometimes, all we have is two minutes to eat a sandwich or we aren’t going to get any- thing to eat until six. At other times–let’s hope at least once a day–we like to sit down in company, and take a little bit of time to chew and anticipate and sit afterwards. That would improve our lives, just as taking a moment to write something by hand, to ourselves, to friends, to our families, is always going to improve their lives and ours.
Let’s enjoy the pleasure of nice paper, and using a nice pen, and writing well and carefully, but let’s not insist on it. There are pleasures, too, in the torn-off piece of paper bearing a few words of casual reminder in hasty blue ballpoint, if we recognize the hand of the person we love best in the world in it. The simplest writing implement is as wonderful an object, properly regarded, as the most luxurious fountain pen; the most casual note, pinned to the fridge, can bear as much of the writer’s humanity as the most carefully scripted e-mail.
That’s my list for improvement. Take what appeals, and leave the rest. It’s a free country.
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Excerpted from THE MISSING INK: THE LOST ART OF HANDWRITING by Philip Hensher, published by Faber and Faber, Inc. Copyright (c) 2012 by Philip Hensher. All rights reserved.