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The Demise of Handwriting

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A Digital Legacy?
I recently posted an article on Blogcritics, “Death of an Industry?”, about the impact of digital media on traditional publishing. The article seemed to touch a nerve, as any discussion of e-books versus p-books seems to do. However, the article sparked a volley of comments that touched on a different aspect of the whole digital-analog divide: how digital words will impact our legacy for future generations.

computer chip

Some wondered if hardware obsolescence would render our digital creations inaccessible to future readers. Or, as one person put it, “how will the 30th century archeologist learn anything about civilization in the [21st] century?” and then went on to worry that digitalization “may lead to this becoming a ‘lost century.’” Another countered with the example of the Rosetta Stone, sure that “30th century archeologists will be no less resourceful in deciphering the intricacies of 21st century digital media.”

While I absolutely love my keyboard, part of me is saddened at the rapid pace at which it is replacing the pen. I guess you could say that I have a digital mind and an analog heart.

Trash or Treasure?
With respect to written communication, certainly blogs and social media provide an unprecendented quantity of information about people’s daily thoughts and doings. Regardless of whether you think that all of this unfiltered stream-of-consciousness content is mostly blather cluttering up the historical record or the makings of a fascinating inside look at life in the 2000s, I would argue that something is being lost in the transition to a digital, typewritten world. The loss isn’t so much in the content, it’s in the presentation.

Handwriting as a Personal Connection

Handwritten letters create more of a personal connection between reader and writer. After all, the reader knows that the writer’s hand held the pen and skimmed across the page as he/she committed those words to paper. Stack of lettersAnd there’s something oddly endearing about the imperfections of handwriting, The scratch-outs and crusts of dried correction fluid, showing a change of thought or momentary lapse of attention. Words being squeezed into a disappearing margin or being run down the side of the page, whether from lack of planning or the writer simply finding they had more to say than they thought. The varying shades of ink as the writer applied pressure to the pen, a telltale sign of passion and excitement, regardless of what the words actually say.

And the handwriting itself? It symbolizes a person in a way that typewriting probably never will. Like a particular perfume, there’s something about the elegant looped script of my mother’s handwriting that has become synonymous with “Mom” and something about the curiously slanted and rounded letters of my husband’s writing that is uniquely him. And nothing quite compares to the endearingly misshapen letters of my children as they learned to write. Their unruly letters somersault across the page and spelling mistakes remain steadfastly in place, no hyper-vigilant spell checker there to automatically correct them.

The Future of Handwriting?
The handwritten word is an endangered species in our modern society and will likely become even more so as voice-to-text technology improves and more gadgets that have yet to be conceived of are invented. My hope is that technology will find a way to meld the two, like we are seeing with tablets and handwriting recognition software. That way, we would have the best of both worlds: the ease and clarity of digital communication and the charm and personality of handwritten letters and notes.

Do you applaud the demise of handwriting or will you miss it when it’s gone?


Photos courtesy of J. Pockele and D. Sharon Pruitt


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  • Wendy, I think you’re right about an intimacy being lost here, but there is also a legacy of literature to be forever gone. Unless writers print out and save drafts, all traces of them will be gone.

    It always amazes me to see first drafts by famous authors, the corssing out, and the embracing of a new thought or idea. That will be no more one day and that’s just sad.

  • I question your underlying and unsubstantiated premise that the keyboard is rapidly replacing (not supplementing) the pen. I suspect your alarmist counterparts in the mid-19th century similarly decried the advent of the typewriter. Yet mountain ranges of handwritten documents were generated throughout the 100-year run of that clattering monstrosity, and many survive to this day.

    “The handwritten word,” you lament, “is an endangered species in our modern society.” You know this how?

  • “Do you applaud the demise of handwriting or will you miss it when it’s gone?”

    I hope it will never disappear, but if it does, count me in as one that will miss it.

    As a pharmacist, I can tell you that I’ve missed legible handwriting for years and that the new e-scribing has its own inherent fallacies.

    Also, I wonder if our elected officials are more responsive to a hand written letter than to an e-mail.

  • I miss it already… there’s a certain aspect of character that comes through in handwriting that doesn’t come through in type. And the answer to Alan’s question is obvious to anyone who lives in the world: we type practically everything When we write letters, they’re emails. When we write articles or papers, they’re done on the computer.

  • Jon, would you prefer that I submit my Blogcritics articles to you for editing in handwritten form? No, I didn’t think so.

    Chip, our elected officials are unresponsive to anything that doesn’t come with a sizable check attached. It matters not in the least whether the checks are handwritten or filled in mechanically. All that counts is that they don’t come back NSF.

    Victor, many of today’s fully computerized authors remain so enamored of their own work that they save every electronic draft of everything they write, including their grocery lists. Literary scholars such as yourself will in the future be able to compare these drafts far more efficiently than ever. Moreover, handwriting does not necessarily confer intimacy. A handwritten letter can be every bit as stuffy, evasive and deceitful as its typed counterpart.

    Finally, I reiterate: where is the evidence that the handwritten word is an endangered species? Jon thinks the answer is obvious. But don’t children still learn handwriting in school? They do so years before attending their first computer lab class. How can handwriting be obsolete when it is universally considered a fundamental part of literacy?

    Of course, I for one wouldn’t miss handwriting even if it did vanish. Its charms are lost on me. Yet I’m unconvinced it’s disappearing. It may be practiced less per individual than in preceding generations, but that doesn’t mean it’s facing extinction anytime soon.

  • Alan,

    I’m a little taken aback by your lumping me in with alarmists. A quick peek at alarmist in the dictionary yields “A person who needlessly alarms or attempts to alarm others, as by inventing or spreading false or exaggerated rumors of impending danger or catastrophe.” I don’t recall making any claims of danger or catastrophe in my article. I was simply ruminating about a shift in our written communication away from handwriting and towards typewriting and expressing some sadness over the loss of the personalization that handwriting provides.

    As far as your question of how I know that handwriting is on the decline, let me first say that this is an opinion piece. While opinions may be based on facts, they don’t have to be. That’s what makes them opinions. My opinion is based on the observation (and some may call it a fact) that most people today prefer to correspond via email, text, IM, social media, and the like. I could bore you with some research on the impact of the digital generation on handwritten communication and the impact of technology and standardized testing on teaching handwriting in today’s classrooms, but I don’t think that’s what you’re really after. However, if you’d like to investigate, here are a few links to articles that you might find illuminating.




    Neatorama 2

    Miller McCune


  • Wendy (#6), thanks for the links, which are a mixed and mostly underwhelming bag. The earliest article is from the Associated Press, dated 9/19/2009 and posted at msnbc.com. It notes, among other things, “Few schools make keyboards available for day-to-day writing. The majority of school work, from taking notes to essay tests, is still done by hand.” So much for your endangered species called handwriting.

    The next oldest link offers little more than extracts from the previous day’s msnbc.com post.

    The third oldest is from Time magazine, which like msnbc.com quotes Vanderbilt’s Steve Graham and Zaner-Bloser’s Kathleen Wright. Apparently, Wendy, you are overly impressed by redundancy.

    Far and away the best of your five links is to “Handwriting Is History” by Oberlin College associate professor Anne Trubek. She notes that “handwriting is not natural. We are not born to do it. There is no genetic basis for writing. Writing is not like seeing or talking, which are innate. Writing must be taught.” She also recalls that “handwriting has been around for just 6,000 of humanity’s some 200,000 years.” In other words, handwriting may simply be an intermediate phase through which our species is evolving.

    Your final link rehashes and links directly back to Trubek’s article. More redundancy.

    One point that Trubek makes, though, bears repeating. “For many,” she writes, “the prospect of handwriting dying out would signal the end of individualism and the entree to some robotic techno-future.”

    You strike me as representative of such fear, Wendy. That’s why I call you an alarmist. To date you’ve published two Blogcritics articles. Your technophobic titles tell the story: “Will Technology Kill Book Publishing?” and “The Demise of Handwriting.” You’ve taken it upon yourself to play BC’s Neo-Luddite Cassandra, prophesying gloom and doom as we move from books and handwriting to digital communications. If you expect to write such articles without incurring resistance, I suggest Blogcritics may not be your ideal forum.