Monday, June 13, 2005

The Dying Art of Penmanship

It is the age of the keyboard, of the icon, of the visual cue, of a world of beautiful design and wondrous new ways to create and interface with language, with information. While those enamored with the art of penmanship in all its forms will be quick to defend their preferred form of artistic expression, one could easily attest that it is a dying art.

Every day you can read about the technological marvels taking over the classroom, taking over the ways in which we do things, changing the world into a more efficient machine. "Snail Mail," which is how we refer to that dying breed we once knew as "the letter," has been replaced by its keyboard driven and electronic equivalent, the e-mail. Children have laptops, and their teachers have retired the nail scratching jolly giants, trading their well-contrasted greenish hues for the electronic, touch screen driven whiteboard.

So thinking of this new, type driven world, ruled by the power of the pre-designed font, I tapped some text in my Palm and on my mobile phone, and wondered, "When was the last time I put pen to paper and wrote something longer than my signature or a post-it note?" The age of portable computing and devices has created a generation of typists. The digital font has redefined the written word.

Writing. What is it? If you look at the dictionary, writing is defined as letters, symbols, or words formed on a surface such as paper with an instrument like a pen. There are other definitions of course, but even those defining the abstract use of the word, often use the expression "set down" which goes back to the original, "as on a surface." So where has writing on a surface and its resulting art form, penmanship, gone?

The written word dates back thousands of years to the earliest peoples who used symbols to represent property or count agricultural items. Through time, the symbols (think traffic signs or icons) began to represent words and later sounds. They helped cultures preserve their knowledge and accounting. These symbols were eventually stylized and became the cute little drawings we associate with Sumeria, better known as Cuneiform, which is considered the first written language. Other adorable drawings as language include the Egyptian Hieroglyphs and Chinese Calligraphy. These types of writing were complex, having thousands of symbols to remember, and you needed a certain level of artistic skill and or care to do them properly. Thankfully for those who flunked art class in school and to summarize a bit, it evolved and eventually became the alphabet system we know today with its flowing style of lines, curves and speedy writing.

A person with good penmanship was someone highly regarded and respected for their beautiful letter art. One could hear a person talk about someone's penmanship. Sloppy writing signified a sloppy person, whereas someone with perfect penmanship signified someone orderly and sophisticated. The study of someone's handwriting eventually became the science of graphology. Today, graphologists analyze handwriting for corporations, law enforcement, etc., in order to better understand the personality of those whose writing they study, be it an employee or a criminal. But if everything's typed, how can you analyze their writing?

Which brings us back to the dying art, today. Calligraphy, which the dictionary defines as the art of fine handwriting and dates back to ancient China, is at least 4,000 years old. Today, it has been relegated to the task of wedding invitations and Chinese tattoos, though even the former is often seen in its generic digital equivalent. We're turning writing into a niche art form.

So what happens to this ancient art and basic form of communication? Cursive is no longer taught in many schools, preferring the simpler "print cursive" which is but italicized print. The 3rd graders already use laptops and keyboards, developing a high skill and preference for typing. At that age they can already type 40 to 50 words per minute and they don't have to erase, check their spelling, or go through the difficult task of proofreading. The computer takes care of those chores for them. When done, just e-mail the teacher.

I'd never go as far as saying the pen is dead or that handwriting will disappear, but it certainly poses a question as to its future and ours. If we've forgotten how to handwrite and it becomes nothing more than a niche art form practiced by the elderly, what happens when the digital devices fail? What will we do, call the wedding invitation girl to save us?
Author's note: This commentary was originally handwritten.
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Natalia Pi said...

I still write. Come on, you still do.

bFranco said...

Because of my personal appreciation of it or simply out of habit, I will write the occassional letter, poem or ideas or do some calligraphy work on paper, but mostly I take quick notes on post-its and type the rest. The point is that it's less and less every day. With so many available options to type and edit directly, there's less need to handwrite. You could even use a voice recognition system instead.

Those of us who were taught properly to use it aren't the real issue, although we might be using it less each day. It's the newer generations who aren't even taught cursive and live by the keyboard practically from birth. The value of penmanship goes beyond the simple ability to write, but has other character implications.

Steve Jobs, the co-founder and current CEO of Apple Computer, in a commencement speech mentioned that it was a calligraphy class in college that made him value attention to detail as well as the importance of different font styles, which as a personal consecuence helped him in regards to developing the innovative, high-quality products that Apple is famous for.

El Liberal said...

In case you have not noticed, writing all together, not just "hand writing", will some day be a thing of the past. An obscure form of communication to future generations, just like the Latin language is to ours.  

 Today's kids are just too stupid and lazy to learn to write. With all due respect, Mr. Planteichon is a good example of this wasted generation for whom learning to write is clearly just a waste of time.  

 That brings us to that other waste of time... reading.

bFranco said...

You're not all that far off from reality, el Liberal, particularly in the last thing you mention, the time wasting habit of reading. There's great debate about what reading is and what qualifies as reading a book when people are moving to audiobooks which they can listen to on their iPods. Also, the whole podcast thing is moving the classroom to an all audio diet in many schools.

The question many ask is, Why read when you can listen and do other things at a time? My question is, did you really "read" if you listened while your attention was elsewhere? Also, like you said, where will reading be and what will be considered "literature" if no one reads anymore.

I personally think "actual" reading is not a waste of time, but something not only entertaining but very positive for the mind and the body. Still, there's a lot of debate about all these subjects and I had thought about doing a series of "Dying Art" commentaries. I have yet to decide upon it. We'll see.

bFranco said...

Oh, and it's not just the kids that are lazy, it's the parents and most of all the teachers. Many of the teachers were complaining that it was difficult to teach cursive. I mean, come on. I would fire that teacher.

But this is the world of fast food and instant gratification, of enjoying the fruits of everyone's labor except your own, of doing the least possible amount of work necessary to get by, and adopting every technology possible that allows you to not have to think, period.

IvO said...

I love to write, in fact I have about 20 unfinished handwriten journals scattered about in my house. But I must admit, I'm becoming lazier and lazier about it.

A bit of nugget of info that I read today (how funny synchronicity is) :

You know that John Waters writes all his scripts on a yellow legal pad with black bick pens? He still does it to this day. Imagine that...

bFranco said...

It's not that surprising. Old habits die hard. Ask the same of the upcoming generation of screenwriters and they'll probably tell you they wouldn't give up their Final Draft Pro or Movie Magic Screenwriter for a notepad unless the world froze over and all electronics in it stopped working permanently.

As to your writing, it's a lot like reading. If you lose the habit, you lose the language. Don't get lazy. Don't stop. Keep writing. It's a good thing.

Natalia Pi said...

I think I will keep wrting. There is something beautiful and personal about a journal, there is something ugly in a typed poem. Although both happen to exist in other forms, there is nothing more beautiful than to recognize and read someone from their handwriting.

Planteichon said...

I laike to wright too. I want to take clas of writin to comunicate beter. I need some clas because i only went to terd greid.

bFranco said...

Well, Natalia, there's something very personal involved in handwriting, particularly when it comes to poetry. I've always said that in poetry, you open the door and out come the words in blood. It's that whole experience of sweat, blood and tears, that is transferred to the paper, but not to the keyboard or at least not to the reader holding the printed paper. On the other hand, though the digital format can seem cold and inorganic, if its good, in the end it doesn't matter. We've all read great poetry in print and we've been touched by it.

To summarize, you should write whichever way you feel is good for you. You should write however you can better express what you need to say. Your reader will love it either way, as long as its genuine. ;)

bFranco said...

Once again, Mr. Planteichon, good luck with that.

IvO said...

lol planteichon... you also need a couple of neurons evidently ;D

Natalia Pi said...

This would be a good css experiment. Write a love poem, assign two different css styles; one serif and one sans serif, read the two of them. (as typed, printed poems) The serif one will feel totally different than the sans serif. It will feel "more lovely". At least to me. I think.

bFranco said...

Well, the psychological connection with the different typesets has been more than established, which is why marketers choose one type over another as one will communicate something or prompt certain feelings within a person in a different way than the other.

So most probably, you will feel more of a connection with the serif because of the association you've already created in your mind with what society has determined as lovely. The Serif is seen as more "decorative" and therefore, more in tune with the feelings conveyed in poetry.

Planteichon said...

IVO: What is a nuron obiusli? I dont onderstand!

josh said...

I'm just throwing this out there, but I think in the not-to-far future, we may see a very strong cultural "backswing" as far as things like these go. As mainstream culture progresses farther and farther (or is it further? :P) from hand-created art and the written word, we may see large sections of society that begin to pull away completely from the techno side. Hmm...maybe.... ;)

bFranco said...

I agree in a way Josh, but there's always been those who cling to the old ways, shunning any technological advance (or at least some of them). This is fine until the niche disappears or enters the realm of the über expensive. (Photographic Film is an example where that could happen sooner than later). Of course, handwriting can forever exist, as we can write on anything. Perhaps in the post-apocalyptic world, it may end up as a secret communication system which no one recognizes or can use anymore except those in the revolutionary intelectual underground...hmmm....Ok, I've been watching too much SciFi Channel.

Ironically, it is technology that might save handwriting with digital conversion tools included in Tablet PCs and what not. (I would've mentioned the Palm OS and its handwriting recognition, but they also favor keyboards in their products). Of course, no one uses Tablet PCs, so that might end up in the crapper as well.

I agree and do think that a technological backlash will happen. I think that will come when people realize they can no longer read their older storage products, their CDs didn't last the 30 or more years they promised, etc. etc. etc. The problem will be format, and the printed (or handwritten) word will make its triumphant return as the savior. :)

KateGladstone said...

If the "wedding invitation girl" won't save us, the iPhone might.

A forthcoming software called BetterLetters teaches handwriting through letter-examples (to trace on the iPhone's screen), instructional essays (text and audio), a list of 299 suggested words for practice (which include all the English-language combinations of two letters, "aa' through "zz"), and links to web-sites recommended for further handwriting practice resources and information.

I designed this product (launch date November 18, 2009) at the request of Harvey Castro, MD: an emergency medicine surgeon who owns a medical software company (Deep Pocket Series) and who daily sees first-hand the chaos created by doctors' handwriting (which electronic devices cannot always avoid -- in emergencies when hospital generators or computer networks go down, the doctors have to write by hand).

Those interested in the product may wish to explore the BetterLetters web-page at while they await the launch date (Nov. 18). At the company's main page -- -- interested people can also sign up for the company newsletter to receive further updated information.

Kate Gladstone
Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
designer of BetterLetters, the handwriting course on the iPhone, at

bFranco said...

Thanks a lot for the heads up Kate, and congratulations on your efforts. As I mentioned in the previous comment, ironically, technology might end up saving us, and it's always nice to see someone at the forefront of that attempt. Your app certainly seems interesting and warrants a visit to anyone interested in the subject of handwriting. Your website seems to have a lot of great information too. :)

As to attempting to fix doctor's handwriting, good luck with that. I think it better serves the masses as doctors are a lost cause when it comes to putting pen to paper. Then again, anything that helps is a good thing, particularly considering all the mistakes made because of their lack of skill in this regard. :) hehe.

Thanks again for stopping by and for your efforts in saving one of our most important arts. :)