Why handwriting still matters

Does handwriting have a value that email and texting can’t replace? In this extract from his new book, The Missing Ink, Philip Hensher laments the slow death of the written word, and explains how putting pen to paper can still occupy a special place in our lives

About six months ago, I realised that I had no idea what the handwriting of a good friend of mine looked like. I had known him for over a decade, but somehow we had never communicated using handwritten notes. He had left voice messages for me, emailed me, sent text messages galore. But I don’t think I had ever had a letter from him written by hand, a postcard from his holidays, a reminder of something pushed through my letter box. I had no idea whether his handwriting was bold or crabbed, sloping or upright, italic or rounded, elegant or slapdash.

It hit me that we are at a moment when handwriting seems to be about to vanish from our lives altogether. At some point in recent years, it has stopped being a necessary and inevitable intermediary between people – a means by which individuals communicate with each other, putting a little bit of their personality into the form of their message as they press the ink-bearing point on to the paper. It has started to become just one of many options, and often an unattractive, elaborate one.

For each of us, the act of putting marks on paper with ink goes back as far as we can probably remember. At some point, somebody comes along and tells us that if you make a rounded shape and then join it to a straight vertical line, that means the letter “a”, just like the ones you see in the book. (But the ones in the book have a little umbrella over the top, don’t they? Never mind that, for the moment: this is how we make them for ourselves.) If you make a different rounded shape, in the opposite direction, and a taller vertical line, then that means the letter “b”. Do you see? And then a rounded shape, in the same direction as the first letter, but not joined to anything – that makes a “c”. And off you go.

Actually, I don’t think I have any memory of this initial introduction to the art of writing letters on paper. Our handwriting, like ourselves, seems always to have been there.

But if I don’t have any memory of first learning to write, I have a clear memory of what followed: instructions in refinements, suggestions of how to purify the forms of your handwriting.

You longed to do “joined-up writing”, as we used to call the cursive hand when we were young. Instructed in print letters, I looked forward to the ability to join one letter to another as a mark of huge sophistication. Adult handwriting was unreadable, true, but perhaps that was its point. I saw the loops and impatient dashes of the adult hand as a secret and untrustworthy way of communicating that one day I would master.

There was, also, wanting to make your handwriting more like other people’s. Often, this started with a single letter or figure. In the second year at school, our form teacher had a way of writing a 7 in the European way, with a cross-bar. A world of glamour and sophistication hung on that cross-bar; it might as well have had a beret on, be smoking Gitanes in the maths cupboard.

Your hand is formed by aspiration to the hand of others – by the beautiful italic strokes of a friend which seem altogether wasted on a mere postcard, or a note on your door reading “Dropped by – will come back later”. It’s formed, too, by anti-aspiration, the desire not to be like Denise in the desk behind who reads with her mouth open and whose writing, all bulging “m”s and looping “p”s, contains the atrocity of a little circle on top of every i. Or still more horrible, on occasion, usually when she signs her name, a heart. (There may be men in the world who use a heart-shaped jot, as the dot over the i is called, but I have yet to meet one. Or run a mile from one.)

These attempts to modify ourselves through our handwriting become a part of who we are. So too do the rituals and pleasurable pieces of small behaviour attached to writing with a pen. On a finger of my right hand, just on the joint, there is a callus which has been there for 40 years, where my pen rests. I used to call it “my carbuncle”. “Turn right” someone would say, and I would feel the hard little lump, like a leather pad, ink-stained, which showed what side that was on. And between words or sentences, to encourage thought, I might give it a small, comforting rub with my thumb.

In the same way, you could call up exactly the right word by pen-chewing, an entertainment which every different pen contributed to in its own way. The clear-cased plastic ballpoint, the Bic Cristal, had a plug you could work free with your teeth and discard, or spit competitive distances. The casing was the perfect shape to turn into an Amazonian blowpipe for spitting wet paper at your enemies.

Our rituals and sensory engagement with the pen bind us to it. The other ways in which we write nowadays don’t bind us in the same way. Like everyone else, I write a lot on a computer, and have done for more than 20 years. I can identify the exact moment of my transition from writing with pen on paper to using a keyboard. It was when I submitted the first chapter of my PhD to my supervisor at Cambridge University, in 1987. I had handwritten it, not affectedly, but just because that was how I had always written essays. He marked it, sighed, handed it back and said: “In future, could you just type your work?” I did so, graduating inevitably from typewriter to computer. But in all that time, I haven’t yet evolved many warm sensations towards the object, being unable to suck it or regard it as a direct extension of my being, like a pen. The pen has been with us for so many millennia that it seems not just warm but almost alive, like another finger: “The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on,” Omar Khayyám writes in Edward FitzGerald’s translation, and everyone knows what is meant.

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Those other writing apparatuses, mobile phones, occupy a little bit more of the same psychological space as the pen. Ten years ago, people kept their mobile phone in their pockets. Now, they hold them permanently in their hand like a small angry animal, gazing crossly into our faces, in apparent need of constant placation. Clearly, people do regard their mobile phones as, in some degree, an extension of themselves. And yet we have not evolved any of those small, pleasurable pieces of behaviour towards them that seem so ordinary in the case of our pens. If you saw someone sucking one while they thought of the next phrase to text, you would think them dangerously insane.

We have surrendered our handwriting for something more mechanical, less distinctively human, less telling about ourselves and less present in our moments of the highest happiness and the deepest emotion. Ink runs in our veins, and shows the world what we are like. The shaping of thought and written language by a pen, moved by a hand to register marks of ink on paper, has for centuries, millennia, been regarded as key to our existence as human beings. In the past, handwriting has been regarded as almost the most powerful sign of our individuality. In 1847, in an American case, a witness testified without hesitation that a signature was genuine, though he had not seen an example of the handwriting for 63 years: the court accepted his testimony.

Handwriting is what registers our individuality, and the mark which our culture has made on us. It has been seen as the unknowing key to our souls and our innermost nature. It has been regarded as a sign of our health as a society, of our intelligence, and as an object of simplicity, grace, fantasy and beauty in its own right. Yet at some point, the ordinary pleasures and dignity of handwriting are going to be replaced permanently.

The question is: should we even care? Should we accept that handwriting is a skill whose time has now passed, or does it carry with it a value that can never truly be superseded by the typed word? Sometimes, however, it does matter in the most brutal economic or human sense. This has been true even before the invention of the internet transformed everything. American Demographics claimed that bad handwriting skills were costing American business $200m in 1994. Thirty-eight million unreadable letters couldn’t be delivered. Kodak said that 400,000 rolls of films couldn’t be returned because names and addresses were illegible. Does it still matter now that there is no film-development industry any more and not so many hand-addressed envelopes to misread? Well, in 2000, a US court awarded $450,000 to the family of a Texas man who died after a pharmacist misread the doctor’s handwritten prescription. In a 2005 Scottish case, the court heard that the handwriting of a staff nurse called Fiona Thomson in Airdrie, Lanarkshire was so appalling that a colleague misread an instruction to give four units of insulin for 40. The patient, Moira Pullar, died, and the nurses and hospital were savagely criticised by the judge at the inquest.

Repeated anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that few people now believe that handwriting is something that ought to be improved in the interests of communication. What does it matter if your aunt’s birthday card gets lost in the post? All these cases are arguments for the printed prescription, ordering everything over the internet with typed details, never setting pen to paper.

In this world, we understand that people will write exclusively on keyboards. When such people are forced, by rare circumstance, to write a letter by hand, do we forgive the ugly confusion on paper made by those who have taken the decision, or had the decision forced on them, not to write by hand any more? Some recent public episodes suggest that this isn’t yet the case. We seem to believe both that handwriting doesn’t matter, since everyone types, and that when people do write a handwritten letter, it ought to be elegant, graceful and well practised.

A Grenadier Guardsman, Jamie Janes, was killed in Afghanistan by a bomb on 5 October 2009. In the days following his death, the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, wrote to Jamie’s mother. When Mrs Janes received the letter, she, horrified, took it straight to the newspapers. Brown had written the letter in his usual felt-tip pen. It was filled with spelling mistakes which gave the impression that it was dashed off in haste, without much care – “Dear Mrs James, It is with the greatst of sadness that I write to offer you and you family my personal condolencs on the death of your son, Jamie. I hear from colleagus…” Perhaps still more frightening was Brown’s handwriting, which not many people, probably, had seen. It leant backwards; it was printed and joined randomly; there were no real upstrokes or downstrokes. It was not, people said, the handwriting of an educated man.

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This was deeply unfair. Brown, as was only half-known at the time and rarely alluded to, was not far from partially sighted. He clearly knew how “condolence” and “colleague” were spelled. This was the letter of someone who had great difficulty in writing by hand for good medical reasons. The poor man was obliged to phone the indignant mother, and turn the whole episode into a discussion of his near-blindness.

Nevertheless, the Brown episode shows that, sometimes, we expect people to write well. In certain circumstances, we deplore bad writing: the bad, ugly, illiterate, ill-formed writing of someone who has never practised writing, never considered that it might be a duty to write in ways which people can read and take some pleasure from. If we expect good writing on elevated occasions, is it not reasonable to expect people to write reasonably well all the time? It is not reasonable to think that people can write terribly, illegibly badly almost all the time and then elevate their handwriting for special purposes. Sometimes, it clearly matters a good deal.

I’ve come to the conclusion that handwriting is good for us. It involves us in a relationship with the written word that 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. No one is ever going to recommend that we surrender the convenience and speed of electronic communications to pen and paper. 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, 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. We open our front doors, and go for a walk in the spring sunshine and 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 want people to write, not on special occasions, but daily.

It seems to be a losing battle. I hear, in talking to people, the claim that they “never write anything” these days. The unconsidered movement away from handwriting is gathering pace, without anyone really deciding to stop. 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.

1. Handwriting should be taught in schools

This seems obvious. Yet a study in 2006, carried out by London University’s Institute of Education, discovered that fewer than half of British primary schools set time aside in a week to teach handwriting. Too much time has been spent discussing what letter forms are best for children to learn. In my opinion, it hardly matters.

2. Enjoy your own handwriting

Start from the good psychic point that you can always value it, because it has so much of you in it.

3. Rediscover the joy of writing by hand, all for yourself

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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 colour – anything else you can think of. Get some paper – cheap, shiny, ordinary, handmade, recycled, writing paper, nothing remarkable. Just write on it, one sheet after the other.

4. Play with your letter forms

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. Doesn’t matter. Your handwriting is a living thing, or should be – if it looks the same as it did 10 years ago, even, do something about it. Mix it up a bit. After all, do you still have the same haircut that you did 10 years ago?

5. When you go to the supermarket, make a shopping list with a pen on a scrap of paper

Write notes on the kitchen corkboard; 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 idle wonderings. 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?

6. Write to other people

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 – 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? Write to your husband or wife or children and tell them that you love them. It will have a lot more impact than a text message.

Here is a story about how handwriting can still be important, and why we shouldn’t let it go. In the university where I teach, one undergraduate creative module contains a specific task, a “writer’s notebook”. The students have to make notes on all sorts of things – observations, passing fancies, plot ideas, scribbled asides, as well as sketches and drafts of poems, short stories, perhaps bits of drama. When I explain this task to the students, invariably someone says, “Can I type it all on the computer and hand it in because I can’t write any other way?” I give in, having been instructed that I have to, but I do encourage students to write as much as they can by hand. It makes you think, I say. It looks less permanent. It has more of you in it. Most students, even now, take this advice and do produce volumes which are full of work written by hand, notes and thoughts and inventions both casual and highly developed. When they have been a student’s constant companion over four months or so, they are, I have to say, a total joy.

Last month a student of mine died, quite suddenly. It was a terrible shock to everyone who knew her: she was a grand girl all round. She had done this module, and had produced a fat notebook in which every word was written by hand – you would recognise her handwriting as soon as you knew her. It bulged with invention, and cutouts, and marginalia, and massive crossings-out, and all manner of things. After I heard that she had died, I went down to the cellar where these things are stored and extracted her writer’s notebook from the archive.

It was just full of her. You could see where her pen had moved across the page, only months before; you could see her good creative days and the days where nothing much had come; you could see what she had written quickly, in inspiration, and the bits she had gone over and over. I only taught her, but I was moved by it, and felt a connection with the poor girl, whom I had liked a great deal.

The department in which I work had created great difficulties in letting me see it at all. Administrators who had never met the girl had pretended that it was locked up and could not now be unlocked. Looking at it, I could understand why it had created such nervousness in them. It frightened people who were frightened of literature, and humanity, and the texture of life. Written at length, in hand, it just was my student. Some part of the writer’s spirit had passed into the handwriting, and had stayed there. Her humanity and her hand overlapped, and something remained, indelibly, in these physical traces.

Extracted from The Missing Ink: The lost art of handwriting (and why it still matters) by Philip Hensher (Macmillan). Article first appeared in The Guardian

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