Does Handwriting Still Matter In A Digital World?

09/27/2013 07:30 am ET | Updated Nov 27, 2013

Do we still need handwriting in a digital world?

The question is beginning to make me testy. Of course we do!

Forget romantic sentimentality (those old love letters in the attic). Forget the joys of handwritten thank-you notes. Forget "self-expression" via the way we cross our t's. Forget our duty to keep alive an ancient and noble art. Forget the relief of turning off the screens and slowing down. Not that those considerations aren't valid. But the simple truth is that we need decent handwriting because everything can't be done on a keyboard -- nor should it be.

School kids still handwrite most tests, and tests are timed -- so you have to be quick. Kids do homework, and homework is extensive -- you can't spend all night making the causes of the Civil War legible enough not to annoy your teacher. Children are shortchanged if they're not taught a good, clean script that's constantly reinforced throughout the twelve grades. Nobody should graduate from high school without knowing how to write -- meaning both to compose a grammatical sentence and to set it down neatly and quickly. We should all have a script we can use throughout our lives. It's not only students who take notes by hand; so do adults. And some people's script is so debased that just addressing an envelope or jotting down directions or sharing a recipe can be challenging.

Penmanship is a democratic skill: anyone can use it, anytime, anywhere. We may not turn to handwriting every day (though I'll bet most people do), but we use it often enough that it should be always, as it were, at our fingertips: fast, reliable, legible. And yet I have no doubt that 90 percent of the people reading this article have absolutely dreadful handwriting.

I was one of them until, several years ago, I came across a newspaper article about the decline of handwriting instruction in schools. I had the predictably horrified reaction of a lifelong penmanship buff: end of civilization as we know it, etc. But gradually I began to wonder if horror was the logical response. No more handwriting? So what? Don't most of us spend our days tapping on keys and peering at screens? What's the point of penmanship?

I decided to find out the answers by writing a book on the subject, and I was not surprised, after talking to people and reading books and articles and researching penmanship history and theory, to conclude that we do indeed need to write legibly, just as we need to know how to type.

But one thing did surprise me. As part of my research, I wanted to find out how hard it would be to reform my own deteriorated handwriting. Amazingly, it was not difficult. With a little instruction and an hour or two of practice, the sloppy, aging Palmer Method cursive I learned from the nuns back in the '50s evolved into a moderately elegant italic script.

To most people, the word cursive calls to mind that fancy-schmancy Palmer Method I was fleeing: a filigreed tangle of loops and curls and swoops, less a "running hand" (cursive means, essentially, running) than a series of twirls and pirouettes that, under pressure, can turn into a galumphing slog. The capital L that I was raised on was a leafy three-step figure that involved two loops and at least one curly tendril. The capital G required a loop, an angle, a U-turn, and a final florid swoop. Lower-case vowels had a tendency to resemble each other: pat, pet, pit, pot, put -- if I was in a hurry, they all looked pretty much the same. Same with r's and n's and v's. And the letters with the lower loops -- g, j, p, q, y, z -- were messy time-wasters that added nothing except clutter to the line below them.

For my conversion to italic, I stripped down the capital letters to their essentials. I lost the superfluous lower loops. I worked at opening up the middles and closing up the tops of the a and the o so they could actually be deciphered. I began joining letters together only when it felt comfortable; lifting the pen doesn't slow you down. (In the interests of research, I timed it: a join between two letters is quicker in the air than on paper.) Once I converted to italic, my handwriting picked up not only speed and legibility but a kind of angular assurance that it pleases me to look at. The fact that it's based on the script used in the Italian Renaissance makes it even more seductive. And the more I use it, the better it gets.

Many Palmerized adults grow out of the classic cursive that was beaten into them as children and devise their own hybrid combination of printing and cursive. Instinctively, we join or lift according to our own style. Many of us are already halfway to italic. With only a minimum effort, we're there.

And it's italic that should be taught in schools. The excellent italic programs available -- particularly Getty-Dubay and Barchowsky -- have been embraced by many enlightened school districts. Because italic cuts down on the number of strokes, it's both easier to produce and less tiring; kids take to it with enthusiasm. It can and should replace the ridiculous two-step ritual that our schools are committed to: a year or two of printing ("ball and stick"), followed by a drastic redirection of the eight-year-old hand into the very different world of joined-up letters.

In Europe, printing is never part of the curriculum: children begin italic in first grade and stay with it all through school. Printing wasn't taught in this country, either, until the 1920s, when a woman named Marjorie Wise introduced it into New York City schools, believing it was easier for children than cursive. She recanted a few years later and became a board member of the Society of Italic Handwriting. But by then the damage had been done. Ball and stick was here to stay.

We should send the balls and sticks back to the playground where they belong and shut away traditional cursive in the library archives. Combine italic in schools with a course in rapid touch-typing, and our children will be better communicators.

And, for the record, yes, I did write this article by hand, as I usually do with short pieces. When I'm writing a book, I work at the computer, though with frequent detours when I encounter problems. To straighten out my prose or my thoughts, nothing beats the age-old combination of comfy chair, cup of tea, notebook, pen. Then I go back to the keyboard and type the result into a Word document. Renaissance scribe, meet Bill Gates: It's a partnership that makes sense, and I feel lucky to be part of it.