New Worlds: Handwriting

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

I waffled a bit on whether the next essay in this sequence should be about handwriting or printing presses, but the former won out, because it came first. By quite a long shot.

You see lots of laments nowadays about how handwriting is “a lost art.” There’s some truth to this; countless things we used to do by hand are now done electronically instead. I started writing on a computer when I was nine, and never looked back — it’s extraordinarily rare for me to write more than a short snippet of fiction or a blog post on paper. But those laments mean “handwriting” in a specific sense, which is the ability to write in an attractive, culturally-approved manner. We haven’t lost the ability to form letters on paper; we just do it differently from how we used to.

I had a conversation about this at one point with my mother, during which she mentioned the increasing percentage of the younger generations who “can’t even read cursive.” I also had some interesting experiences in France, when I asked fans of my novels to write their names in my notebook so I could be sure of spelling them correctly when I signed the books to them. That helped . . . but I found out the hard way that even when printing, handwritten letter-forms aren’t necessarily the same between countries. We have always had many ways of writing.

There’s a reason why paleography, i.e. historical handwriting, is a field of study. While researching the Onyx Court books, I tried to read some records from the seventeenth-century Court of Common Council, but ran aground on the fact that I can’t read secretary hand. The documents were in English, but the only reason I knew that was context. It might as well have been written in cipher.

Handwriting is and always has been about context. Carolingian minuscule took too long to write and used up too much precious page space, so scribes developed the compact and efficient (but not easily legible) blackletter. Secretary hand, so incomprehensible to me, was popular because it was easy to read, and not too hard on the hand of someone who spent their day using a pen; then Carolingian minuscule looped back around through Humanist minuscule to become italic script, very recognizable to us today — and, in an echo of what we talked about last week, some ladies learned the “Italian hand” long before it became broadly popular, because it was easily mastered by people who did not write as often.

When my mother brought up the loss of cursive, I asked her point-blank why it matters. As an aesthetic form, sure — it can be pretty. But why do we need cursive nowadays? Its original merit was its speed, and the fact that keeping the nib of pen on the page meant the ink continued to flow smoothly, rather than spattering or stopping. With modern pens, the latter isn’t an issue, and if we aren’t writing huge amounts by hand, the former is nice but not required.

This isn’t just an issue for the Latin alphabet, of course. Every language in the world has multiple ways of writing it, which have changed over time and between contexts. Casual scrawls differ from fine handwriting, and both often differ from signage or monumental inscriptions. Japanese written with a pencil or a ballpoint pen lacks the nuances that help distinguish one kind of stroke from another, making it more difficult for me to read, and god help me when I’m faced with calligraphy; at the extreme end, that stuff might as well be abstract art for all I can parse it.

There’s no clear boundary between nice handwriting and calligraphy; many of the styles we refer to as “calligraphy” now were just “writing” back in the day. But in the pursuit of aesthetic ends, scribes have pushed the boundaries of writing to the point where they blur over into decorative art, relegating legibility to a tertiary concern at best. Chinese cursive script can reduce characters that ordinarily take twenty strokes to write down to only three; Islamic calligraphy plays with the proportions and overlap of letters to mold the whole text into the desired shape, whether that’s a round medallion or the figure of a bird.

Even without going to the realm of fine art, having good handwriting has often been seen as a necessary social accomplishment for people (especially men) of quality. Graphology per se is a modern concept, but the idea that someone’s handwriting reveals something about them is an old one, and a messy or ugly “hand” could make you look stupid or boorish. By contrast, developing your own individual flourishes might be part of your maturation; the earliest texts in Queen Elizabeth I’s hand are so much like her tutor’s writing that we can’t be certain all of them are her work, but later on she grew into a style of her own. (And then she took the throne, and her “running hand” — i.e. cursive — devolved into the sixteenth-century equivalent of doctor handwriting. It looks like she wrote it while running.)

There’s even a security measure to all of this. Italic hand wasn’t just dismissed because it was so easy ladies could learn it; its simplicity also made it easier to forge, which made it less desirable than secretary hand for official documents. A similar thing is true of the Islamic Diwani script — so named because it was used in the Ottoman diwan or council of state. And when I asked my mother what utility cursive still has, she said we need it for signatures, to make them harder to copy.

I don’t think cursive has lost its place in the world, nor handwriting more generally. When I started using a fountain pen, I discovered that cursive is far more comfortable than I remember it being; there may be some truth to the article I read years ago, which blames crappy Bic ballpoint pens, not computers, for the decline in the handwriting art. But I think it helps to see handwriting in its full context — as a thing which is shaped by its context, and will always take forms that suit the needs of the moment.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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New Worlds: Handwriting — 24 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Handwriting - Swan Tower

  2. “How The Ballpoint Pen Killed Cursive,” by Josh Giesbrecht (The Atlantic, August 28, 2015). I have to read this for my History of Books course in a few weeks! I’m doing a presentation for that class on marginalia—a whole other fascinating subject in and of itself.

    I love how the discussions here always seem to tie in so perfectly with all the things I happen to be studying at the time. I’m so thankful for all of you and the insights you provide.

    Big, happy sigh.

    • Thanks for the citation! That sounds like the right piece. I found his arguments very persuasive — I hadn’t realized until he pointed it out, but cheap ballpoint pens really are miserable to write with, because of how much pressure you have to exert. Pencils or pens that flow at a light touch are vastly more pleasant and less tiring.

      And I’m glad the essays keep being pertinent to your studies!

  3. I can’t read most cursive – including much that which I write. And way too often pharmacists can’t read physicians cursive – which can have fatal results.

    I learned to write cursive 60 years ago, but more often than not, when I have cursive to read, I have to guess at spelling, and sometimes even words. (Names can be spelled lots of ways)

    If you want to communicate, print. Use a computer when you can, but when you have write by hand, print. We are better off when cursive is relegated to other calligraphy.

    • Given that you say you learned cursive 60 years ago, that’s a nice counterpoint to the idea that the problem is kids these days not learning it like they did in the past. That might be true to some degree — but clearly even people from other generations sometimes have trouble with it.

      I remember learning it circa third grade, but by junior high, maybe sooner, our teachers were telling us to print everything. So I never really got all that much practice, until in recent years I’ve been trying to pick it up again.

  4. I remember being struck by how similar my handwriting was to my father’s, and also to my nephew’s, despite the latter not being taught by either of us. Not sure about my sister’s handwriting.

    Very but not entirely tangentially: I recently saw a defense of teaching the “partial products” style of multiplication, which said that the algorithms I learned in school are basically that, but condensed so as to save paper. Since almost any substantial calculation these days is done by calculator or computer, and also paper is cheap, it’s better now to teach the form that makes the concepts clear, rather than the obsolete and obscure optimization.

    • I’ve heard that before — the tendency of handwriting to have family resemblances. It would be interesting to read a proper study on that.

      The multiplication thing is interesting! Partial products is how I do multiplication in my head, and yeah, now that you point it out, what I do on paper is the same thing, approached from a different (and more space-efficient) angle. So I can see a real point in changing how we teach it now.

  5. I think it is important to learn cursive if only because there will be college professors who will write their notes on the board in cursive or comment on your tests/papers in cursive.

    When I was in college I ended up in the role of translator for a friend who was an exchange student from Japan. His English was very good, but he couldn’t read the notes our professor wrote on his papers.

    I stopped writing cursive for a while, and now I make a point of writing it occasionally so that I don’t need to relearn the alphabet again. But I only use it to communicate if I’ve trying to write attractively.

    • Given how difficult cursive can be to read even for people who know it — and how illegible writing on the board can be; I speak from experience as the person doing the writing — I’d say it’s more important for college professors to make sure to write in print, which will be easier for their students to read. Cursive isn’t a good tool for the situation regardless of whether the students are familiar with it.

  6. I suspect it’s older folks who mourn the passing of a hand, or indeed, any type of tool that we were once taught was crucial to success in life. It’s difficult to realize a skill we sank so very much time into learning is pretty much useless. (I’m thinking of my niece, who for a while was earning great bux as a court reporter. And another friend who was always in demand for her shorthand. Until she wasn’t.)

    • It’s always hard when something you’ve worked on mastering becomes obsolete, yeah. And there may be a little element of “I had to suffer through learning this, so you should, too!” 😛

  7. As an aside on “cipher” and “secretary hand”: One of the most famous casual ciphers of the seventeenth century looked like secretary hand to a casual reader, but it wasn’t. It took a couple of centuries for a definitive deciphering of a particular set of diaries to be done… which changed a great deal of understanding of Tory party history (and actually caused a couple of minor crises regarding the honorability of the ancestry of some dearly held policy positions). Plus, people found out just what kind of jerks Mr. Pepys was working for and around!

    One of the other reasons for “secretary hand” and “shorthand” was that it WASN’T actually all that easy for nonspecialists to read, and lent itself to simple substitution ciphers not easily broken at the time. This allowed law reports to keep at least a few weeks of exclusivity in the days before copyright. Indeed, that’s one of the laments in the speeches for Parliament that were ghostwritten by Locke when the Licensing Act was up for renewal in 1694.

    All of this makes even more sense in light of one of the threads leading to the word “secretary”: The “keeper of secrets.”

    • One of the most famous casual ciphers of the seventeenth century looked like secretary hand to a casual reader, but it wasn’t.

      Does it have a name? I’d love to read up on this.

  8. One of the tricks in reading manuscripts is to employ calligraphy: learn the underlying hand, how and where the strokes are made, and if you come to an indecipherable word, redraw it.

    That doesn’t give you everything, but very often seeing which strokes you have lets you guess at the letter they should be forming.

  9. I never found pens terribly easy to use; they didn’t feel ‘right’ to my hand. But I have always loved a good sheet of smooth paper and a really sharp #1 pencil. The words seem to flow out onto the page, the brain beautifully connected to the hand. I write so little on paper nowadays, and yet I still can’t resist a beautiful notebook or bound journal, so these, to my embarrassment, still pile up on my shelves.

    My cursive is eclectic — some of the letters I print, some of them have my own weird way of construction — I construct most of my t’s as if I were making an ‘and’ sign — but it’s fairly readable and not too easy for someone to copy.

    In my youth, I was devoted to a particular narrow-lined looseleaf notebook paper, on which I wrote with #3 pencils, since those would last a long time before I had to buy more. I preferred then and still do prefer, Ticonderoga pencils and either a good handheld sharpener or an electric sharpener. However, my teachers and my friends who read my nascent fiction complained that the #3s were too faint to read. So I returned to #2 pencils, which didn’t last as long with my allowance.

    I have no idea if that particular brand of notebook paper still exists. Ticonderoga pencils still do, though, and no matter what other brand of pencil I try, I keep coming back to them. What I’ll do when when or if they go out of business, I do not know.

    But give me a beautiful fresh notebook and the right pencil, and my fingers itch and I get the same excitement as I did at 13, and words come right to my brain.

    Computers are faster and easier to correct. But nothing will ever replace paper, pencil, and cursive in my heart.

    • Interesting! Pencil was never really a thing for me — I mean, I used them, but I definitely never had any attachment to them. But once you get used to a thing, it makes sense that it will become integral to your process.

      • I remember reading about people who couldn’t get used to ball-point pens. I agree that there was a tactile and audible attraction to writing with fountain pens. I never wrote with a feather quill.

  10. I learned cursive. I never was much good at reading mine (or my mother’s). My grandmother’s is beautiful–but I can’t read her formal writing very well. (Notes in birthday cards are fine). It’s definitely a different style than I was taught.

    Most signatures are just the pen scribbled. Maybe it’s consistent, but it’s not readable–the first letter (if that) is all that’s there. Having to sign it on various angles of touch pads just makes it even more pointless.

    When I write by hand I use printing(with some connected letters–I saw a term for that once, and it balances speed with readability) and I can usually read it for a while after.

    If I want it readable a long time, or by others, it’s so very slow to write (print or cursive) and it gives me a hand cramp.

    • Oh, signatures are a mess these days. Touch pads have destroyed what little legibility ever existed in mine — not that there was much.

      And yes, there’s a middle ground between totally connected and totally separated letters. I’m not aware of the formal term for it, though.