The Write StuffIn praise of penmanship.

The Write StuffIn praise of penmanship.

Issue 52

, Starters

  • Words Robert Ito
  • Photo Florent Tanet

Handwriting was once considered to be such an essential skill that teachers would train their students not only to do it well, but to do it beautifully. In the US, children were given wide-spaced, specially lined paper to practice the graceful lines and looping ovals of Spencerian cursive, and later, the more efficient, less loopy strokes of the Palmer method. Handwriting was so closely tied to personality and social status that people believed that you could tell what a person was like just by looking at their signatures (large print meant you were a narcissist; sloppy script revealed that you had things to hide).

Today, penmanship is no longer an important part of how you present yourself to the world and when you do happen to jot down a note or write a message in a birthday card, your handwriting is seen less an extension of who you are. According to a recent survey, 37% of Americans had not written a personal letter in over five years. Declarations of love or intimate letters from home—once written by hand, the sender instantly identifiable from their scrawl on the envelope—are now communicated by text or email, the scribbled hearts replaced by emojis. Diaries, which have seen a newfound popularity with the rise in journaling, are now kept on dedicated apps. 

Many lament this recent decline in handwriting, but curiously it is a decline that was felt long before people had access to the internet. In 1977, distressed by what was being lost in penmanship—and pen sales—the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association declared January 23 to be National Handwriting Day. Today, there are national and international handwriting contests intended to resuscitate the practice, as well as organizations like the UK’s National Handwriting Association, which aims to “raise awareness of handwriting as a crucial component of literacy.” 

But could this also be a time to rethink what handwriting is for? Now that it’s rarely used as a form of communication, handwriting has the potential to be a uniquely personal mode of self-expression. It’s true that, as proponents say, writing by hand can help you learn better and retain information longer. But perhaps its real purpose in the digital age is to celebrate taking time to do something—whether it’s jotting down a grocery list or penning an intimate diary entry—that’s just for you. And if you’re the only one who can decipher that chicken scratch you call writing, all the better. 


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