Restoring the Joy of Handwriting


Laptops are fine. But this account of a journey in 2009 to the Isle of Skye brings back many more memories.

Handwriting is in decline. Ask any teacher who has been in the classroom a dozen years or more and they’ll tell you how many more students encounter difficulties with handwriting.

Sometimes, it staggers me how pupils arrive in Year 7, untaught in the art of handwriting. And most English teachers will report that the quality of handwriting varies tremendously between different primary schools. Of course, there’s more to life than handwriting: better pupils with individuality and quirky imaginations than neat, unadventurous writers. But joined up handwriting has been linked to improved spelling, faster writing (at least in the long run) and stronger examination performance.

But before I complain too much about pupils, my own scrawl is now, too, a source of embarrassment. Especially when writing with a biro or trying to mark students’ work, too often I’m ashamed of what I’ve written. I can rationalise it away: like doctors, my handwriting rot set in at university when trying to make copious notes in lectures, and deteriorated rapidly in my first few years of teaching.

Somewhere buried in my loft are my own A level folders, written in the most florid of italic styles, each letter crisply delineated. In pre-Internet days when boredom was best tackled by doing something creative – as opposed to mindless checking of Facebook – I spent far too many hours perfecting my different forms of the letter ‘e’ and writing my own name, varying the size and the precise curls on the tails to the ‘A’ at the start of ‘Andrew’.

I knew, too, then about the real connection between the physical act of writing and the textures of the words themselves. Somehow, writing only really happened with a particular pen in a particular place. Visits to the British Library and seeing manuscripts by famous writers only heightened that sense of writing as a physical act. The words forming in the mind. The hand shaping them. The connection between hand and pen and paper.

Of course, for whatever reason, there will be students who need to type. For some, it’s dyspraxia. Ignore the cynics: such conditions exist and young people who cannot master handwriting after specialist intervention need our respect and support. Some students of exceptional ability in English have in my experience always struggled with handwriting; release from the burden of the handwritten and the chance to use a laptop have enabled them to focus on what matters – the words themselves.

And as I seem to read more and write more, technology has become invaluable. I love to experiment with fonts. Garamond comes close to touching my soul. I love the ease with which WordPress or Word enables me to edit my own writing – though paradoxically I, a once flawless writer, seem to make more mistakes then ever. Reading old blog posts brings further shame. Did I really confuse ‘inequity’ and ‘iniquity’? (Worry not – I’ve corrected it.) And, of course, the practical need to write persists, whatever the technophiles may say: some notes still work best on paper; it’s generally quicker (still) to grab a pen than open up an app on iPad or iPhone (and even the quickest of laptops), whilst costs and logistics mean it will be years before all exams are completed on a computer, tablet or whatever the current trend in technology is.

Something has been lost. Emails arrive by the score each day, tweets by the hundreds – and I love both mediums. Believe me, I get a little frisson of excitement every time a ‘favourite’ or ‘retweet’ notification flashes up on my phone.

But what in all the endless streams of communications stands out? What will I remember a year from now? More than anything, the personal message which someone has taken the care to write by hand. The thank you card. An inscription in a gifted book. The handwritten letter inside a Christmas card. Perhaps that’s why we still buy cards by the millions each year – it’s pretty hard to shove a shop bought card through a printer; they demand our handwriting and even the pre-printed greetings need extra words.

Handwriting is unique, particularly in English speaking countries. Unlike some of our European cousins – where handwriting is drilled and everyone seems to write in the same indecipherable script – we prize the individuality of each person’s handwriting, and whilst most sane people reject the ludicrous over-analysis of graphology, somehow writing reveals something of the writer. All of which, if we aren’t careful, we’ll lose in the digital revolution. Handwriting is human. All the desperate attempts at individuality in a thousand identikit Instagram filter overlaid photographs come nowhere close to the beauty of a personal letter.

So what can be done? If you never handwrite, you will need to do some exercise. Warm up your hand. Wiggle your fingers. Stretch your arm. Flop your wrists. Get your shoulder moving. Take a pen and do big curls and loops on some scrap paper. It will hurt to begin with. I’ve been there.

Then, resolve to ditch the laptop, just sometimes. Start a journal. Write it by hand. Keep it hidden away and read it in a few years’ time. Your writing will tell you as much about your state of mind as the words themselves. Buy a Moleskine diary or a leather bound book of plain paper and a decent pen. Let your hand rediscover the pleasure of pen smoothly gliding over paper.

Tweet pictures, then send post cards this summer. You know which will one will be on view in the recipient’s kitchen when you visit. Take a notebook on holiday. Find a shady spot in a town square – a decent coffee always helps and, please, turn your phone off. Observe and watch. Slow down and write.

And slowly, something special will happen.