October 11, 2006

Penmanship – the lost art…

Posted in FountainPens, Rants at 11:39 pm by a11en

I wanted to comment on something we are losing these days- the days of point and click. I myself am a victim. You see, I type faster than I can ever hope to write. I can almost dictate and type in the normal qwerty keyboard. Now, this would not be so bad if I were able to write fast but the truth is that I write horrendously. Which is why I am slowly attempting to improve my handwriting.

There was a period of time when proper handwriting would ensure you a stable job. In fact, there was a time when being an expert in penmanship was actually a full time profession. It appears this is no longer the case. I find this downfall quite interesting, as all these little letters on the screen have a history- they were all written by hand at one point in time- their shape cast by convention and by authors of styles of handwriting, interested in legibility and form. These old pen-masters helped to form the shapes we use even now.

(speaking of masters…) I also find it intriguing that, for followers of Zen, calligraphy (shodo [2]) is one form of artwork which many specialize in. It marries the art made by man’s brush, with spiritual meditation. I believe strongly that this link is not to be laughed at… when one is stressed, sad, or happy, one’s handwriting is influenced. The idea that the heart, brain, and hand are connected is not to be disregarded. In fact, many studies on handwriting in the school system, have shown that students who take more handwriting instruction increase the structural complexity of their sentence creation. With the recent SAT’s requiring a hand-written essay portion, with those who print obtaining a lower average score in comparison to those who write in cursive, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see the recent handwritten lo-fi movement arising from the geeky high-tech sector. (Being a geek isn’t necessarily bad. πŸ˜‰ )

When you have a computer- who needs a pen?

An interesting thing I’ve noticed, is that the computer allows my brain to throw more thoughts on a page… but this is not necessarily a good thing. In fact, since I can throw more thoughts on a page (my poor readers) this generally equates to lack of well-thought out sentence and paragraph structure. Mostly due to the more then helpful “Cut and Paste” and Mr. Delete. When asked to write by hand (lets say the computer is getting it’s logic board replaced for the third time), I notice this downfall of my writing immediately.

Now, don’t get me wrong here- our whole world has been helped by the advances that came from computing, and most of us couldn’t possibly produce manuscripts without the help of a computer with a typesetting program (small jab there at Word users…). However, even though we are helped, we must realize in some ways we are also hindered; this is where the new lo-fi movement is coming from. People are throwing out their PDAs for Moleskines. They are ignoring their mice (poor things) more frequently now, and picking up their Parkers. The reason? I strongly feel it’s disconnection driven. By “disconnection” I mean that there is a disconnection between well-thought out, well planned-out, phrases and our writing. The first thing I noticed as I forced myself to write letters on excellent stationary (Triomphe) was that I didn’t want to throw it out frequently. This meant that each sentence was thought about, more so than if I were writing on the computer. As well, each time I formed my words, since I was trying to write them legibly, I slowed down, and paid attention to form. All these things I ignore if I’m writing fast, or writing for myself, especially on the computer.

I have been contemplating these things on and off when I’m not working on my fast-approaching deadline at work… In particular, I’ve noticed that with increased speed of communication, and increased technology used, there is also more disconnection between the parties communicating. Disconnection leads to communication difficulties. I’m sure we’ve all experienced an e-mail discussion degrade into anger from misunderstanding one’s sentences etc. Hopefully, it was resolved… more than likely it needed to be resolved by lowering the level of disconnection- be it by using the phone or talking in person, etc. In person we have body lanuage and facial expressions that we lose when we move to phone communication. In phone communication, we have voice inflection, speed, and tone, which we lose when we write by hand. When writing by hand, we have we have cramped letters, fast and uncaring writing, or we have expressive characters, large movements, good spacing, pauses where ink seaps into the paper a bit- all things we lose when we e-mail. E-mail itself is quite disconnected. We no longer have that body language, voice inflection, expressive handwriting to tell us how the communicator is feeling. So, if we have poor sentence structure in e-mail, or ambiguous meanings which may be construed into personal attacks- communication breaks down quickly, and tempers flair.

Yes, we are improving the disemmination of information, and the speed of communication. But we are also creating lack of connection (either between well thought out words and paper or between the communicators). It’s this lack of connection- this sense of “black-box” filing (is my document here or there? or anywhere?) that is causing a backlash in our generation. We are now picking up the fountain-pen and nice little personal books, where our lowly little grocery-store lists, or our hopefully enjoyed, yet esoteric, rants fill their pages in expressive handwriting.

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post-script: I also believe that there is something to be said for the difference in writing implements. A future post may deal with the ball-point -v- fountain pen issue so many of us have experienced lately. I for one will come down on the side of the fountain-pen, but I’ll save our discussion for another time. πŸ˜‰


  1. Merlin said,

    I too have extreemly bad handwriting – Well at least I used to have bad handwriting. I wanted to improve it – So, when I stated getting into Fountian Pens I bought a book from Half.com called Write Now – The complete Guide to better Handwriting – Exercises and all –


    Barbara Getty and Inga Dubay – Wrote it – They have classes for children and have a class devoted to doctors to improve their handwriting. I once read that Doctors bad handwriting has a Multi-Million Dollar loss because of Time used to read the bad writing, or mis-reading it and giving the wrong dosage, etc…

    I honestly can say by using this book I have improved my writing were I can read it and others can as well. And the way they teach it – Your speed will increase – Most likely never to be the speed of a keyboard – But will be more legable and slightly faster.

    This is just my 2 cents on the topic.

    MerlinsTower.com – http://www.MerlinsTower.com
    DigitalAlan.com – My photos and sketches of life.

  2. a11en said,


    Great for you to drop in! I should have mentioned this in my post, so I’m very thankful you dropped in and mentioned it!! I have rented to the book from the library and have worked through the first third or so of the book (for those of you wondering, the whole thing is a work-book, so you’ll have an easier time of things if you buy one most likely).

    Getty and Dubay focus on Italic and Cursive Italic (a move that some of our elementary schools are making these days). For those who want Zaner-Bloser/Spencerian etc., your best bet is to find old copies online etc. Let me see if I can get a good link for you here:


    Getty and Dubay is loaded with handwriting exercises… tracing of letters, copying phrases, all focused on teaching the italic form. At this stage, I’m unsure if I’m completely sold on Italic yet- certainly it may serve my purposes well… but some of the forms are weird… the “a” and related forms all start with a horizontal line from the top, and then sweep fast up towards the closure- this is definitely a departure from what I was taught in school… so it truly is like learning a new form of handwriting. However, my handwriting is so poor, that revamping it in this way is most likely critical. I’m just slightly sad that in order to learn cursive etc., a whole new set of learning is required. [i.e. Spencerian business etc., is *completely* different than italic- the muscles used and hand-hold etc., is different.]

    One of the reasons that our generation has broken down in our handwriting is that they switched our handwriting styles part way through our education, and failed to enforce and strongly support the new style. Kids learned how to print, and then a number of years later they were forced into cursive writing. The result was degradation of the penmanship into a cross between printing and cursive. Most people would agree with this sentiment if they experienced what I experienced. A disconnection. All of a sudden we were forced into cursive- totally different writing, and not much attention was paid to it. Those who caught onto cursive strongly *must* have done serious work at home to accomplish it, as not much work was done in the classroom.

    Since we are hell-bent on getting our students to learn advanced mathematics and sciences by Senior year HS, (things like Calculus etc.), we really don’t expend any effort on handwriting- most see it as a waste of time. The little I’ve been experiencing, and how it’s adversely influenced my ability to communicate via notes/memos etc. tells me that we really need to pay more attention to this in our schools. The idea that everyone will have a printer hooked up to some sort of wrist-computer for leaving notes etc., is a bit absurd.

    I also agree with your assessment of Doc’s poor handwriting. A good friend of mine is in the medical field and he says exactly the same thing. I’ll have to chat with him about it again sometime soon.

    I’ll also have to share another thought with everyone about FP’s sometime soon- but I need to give the thought some time to congeal and form properly. πŸ™‚

    Cheers, Alan! I’m glad to hear Dubay’s book worked for you! You’ve motivated me to do a few more sheets tonight!! πŸ™‚


  3. dan l said,

    I actually type love letters to my girlfriend because my handwriting is embarrassingly bad. Usually I sign them at the end – if she’s lucky and I’m in a good mood.

    And btw – for your blog commenting needs, get yourself some co comment. It fits right into to your browser as a nifty little ap. It keeps track of conversations in comments. It really helps if you were to say…..go over to DailyKOS and make references to drinking beer with people who used to beat up Markos Molitsas Zuniga in high school.

  4. a11en said,

    Ha ha ha. πŸ™‚ Great to see ya here, Dan!! I saw that lnk come through from co comment- I’ll have to check it out! Seems like an interesting tool to keep track of things!

    Sorry to hear about the typed love letters. πŸ˜‰ Although, they’re probably much easier to read. I have to admit, I felt a bit bad typing out letters to my grandmother- but they just weren’t getting done any other way. I just couldn’t bring myself to grab a pad of paper and a pen back when I was doing so. I have to admit, it does take a lot of time. [Especially when your handwriting sucks as badly as mine does!]

    I have to admit, I didn’t really care about handwriting or paper quality until I got a fountain-pen. I don’t know why it stuck so much in my consciousness- I’m hooked now. [This is the danger of fine pens…]

    I will add this- when first playing with my pens, my father picked it up, and there was a mini-transformation. He didn’t write as he does throughout the day- or on post-its around the house… all of a sudden I see these flourished letters and beautiful cursive coming from the pen. He laughed- said that was what he was taught in school ages ago. I was seriously impressed. However, it didn’t happen with some effort, and without some serious slowing down. I’m sure if he used that penmanship everyday it may come quicker. It confirms to me that good penmanship tends to mean slow careful writing. However, it looks like the italic cursive form is quite fast. Only time will tell….

    Hey, I owe you an e-mail! I’m off to it!

  5. Re the …

    > … time when being an expert in penmanship was actually a full time
    > profession.

    That time hasn’t ended. I make a fairly good living by visiting hospitals and schools (at the administrators’ request) and teaching the doctors/teachers/students to write legibly at high speed.

    Re the …

    > … recent SAT’s requiring a hand-written essay portion, with those >who print obtaining a lower average score in comparison to those who >write in cursive,

    I wondered enough about that widely publicized factoid that I phoned the Educational Testing Service (creator and giver of the SAT exam) to find out more.

    Though the ETS folks wouldn’t tell me the actual score difference in points, they stated to me that “it falls well below the statistically significant level” β€” which they explained as meaning that “the difference in scores between the two groups [print-users and cursive-users] is so minuscule that it is less than the differences you would get if you had one group of individuals taking the SAT twice. We think that these very slight differences between the print-writers’ and the cursive-writers’ scores don’t result from the actual handwriting, but from the fact that most of the schools which insist on cursive also give more English and math work. If the schools which had higher English and math standards made everybody take carpentry courses, somebody would come along and claim that taking carpentry courses improves your SAT score β€” which is pretty much the same mistake that the media have made in reporting our results.”

    I also asked ETS how their researchers (looking for printed versus cursive samples) had categorized the very common kind of handwriting which contains some printed and some cursive features β€” we often see (especially among younger people) handwriting that connects some letters but not all of them, that sometimes uses printed rather than cursive capitals, etc. ETS responded that the researchers had categorized all these as “printing” β€” which of course left them categorizing as “printing” about 85% of the handwritings they looked at. Categorizing as “printing” all handwritings except for the absolutely “100% pure” cursive writings seems, to me, like studying biology and categorizing all life-forms (except for dogs) as “cats.”

    This in itself makes the SAT print/cursive statistics very questionable (as the ETS folks had to agree when I pointed this out to them!) β€” about as questionable as trying to compare how successfully dogs vs. cats can climb trees when your “cats” include an elephant, a paramecium, a chimpanzee, a rosebush, and a coral reef.

  6. a11en said,

    Hi Kate!!

    So very glad you stopped by! You know, when I was writing about that article, I had the notion that this was a study that was stretching a bit. You found out some very interesting information! I hope you publish it somewhere as well as in this comment. I think it’s excellent detective work, and your points are spot-on.

    I suspect that there is a link between people who take care of their hand-writing form, as likely they will take care of other aspects of their lives (such as studying their English homework), and that this is one way to indicate care in study. However, you are completely correct in questioning the statistical nature of this type of study as well as the simple “does this make sense” test. Knowing all that you know about handwriting, Kate, I agree with you completely- to categorize someones print/cursive as printing just because one small segment of letters or words are printed, doesn’t make complete sense. Or at least, it makes some sense, but without disclosing this type of information completely, we don’t get a good sense of what their study meant.

    The fact that their results were “well below the statistically significant level” tells me the results of this study should not have been published at all. [I’ll bite my tongue and not go on a tangent about other important studies which are directly influencing businesses these days based on data that was well below the statistically significant levels.] So, you’ve hit upon something dear to my heart with that phrase.

    I do feel that when someone writes with care (in Italic or Cursive), they communicate better than someone who does not. Somewhat similar to someone mumbling their words, mumbled letters hurt our ability to be heard, or read, and understood. It’s a shame to hear about difficulty understanding doctor’s prescriptions etc., as well. As we move more towards the typed word, we can alleviate this to some degree. But, ever since the days we took a burnt-stick to the rock-wall, man has been using some sort of stylus to write with. I believe that no matter how advanced we become, that writing implement will stay with us. Its ease of use and availability makes it a tool, even though perhaps using technology centuries old, that is likely not to pass out of use quickly. The fact that our technophiles are moving back to paper and pencil helps to prove this out as well. The question is: Will our handwriting and ability to be understood when we write survive this technology? I hope that this resurgence in penmanship shows that it will. I also hope that we pay more attention to this in the future, as I think it is hurting our ability to read and write for ourselves and for others. I know it has for me. I’m thankful for Getty and Dubai’s work, as well as your own, Kate, and I applaud your efforts!

    Very grateful for you to stop by, thank you for letting me know about this study as well. Very very interesting. If you publish your thoughts on this on your site, or in another place, please let me know, and I’ll post a link here as well- or drop in and post a link. Thank you!

  7. I checked with the SAT creators (Educational Testing Service) about the average of cursive-users’ scores exceeding the average of print-users’ scores. It does β€” by only a fraction of a point: which the SAT research staff regards as “not statistically significant.” (In other words, it boils down to less of a difference than would happen by random chance if two exactly-equally-qualified people both took the SAT).
    When I asked the SAT/Educational Testing Service researchers what they thought caused the fractionally higher score for cursive-users, they said it comes from the fact that schools which give more English/math courses also sometimes tend to insist more on cursive. As ETS staffer Michael Palozzi put it: “If the schools that taught more English and math happened to give courses that required eating ice-cream sundaes instead of courses that required writing in cursive, it would look as if eating ice-cream sundaes made you smarter, and somebody would write an article about the importance of ice-cream sundae consumption in education.”

  8. a11en said,

    Hey Kate! I’ve been enjoying your posts on FPN of late- amazing stuff!! Thanks so much for coming back here and letting me know what you found out! Wonderful information. Yes, tracking effects of various things on human behavior or testing output, even medical info is extremely difficult! πŸ™‚ That is one of the confounders- what exactly goes into creating students who excel. I’m a bit interested in the fact that they don’t happen to point out that it’s also possible that there is bias among the reviewers of the SAT? Is it possible that they assume that a cursive student is a better student? Is it possible there is a scoring bias? Just because they can’t pinpoint what exactly is causing the students scores to be slightly higher, doesn’t make me feel better about lack of bias in grading.

    However, I would suspect if there was significant bias in testing, it would show up much greater than the statistically insignificant results that ETS is suggesting is occurring- so this is good news, it likely means there is little bias, or at least that it’s offset somehow and invisible statistically- essentially the same thing as no bias.

    Very interesting digging, Kate! Very interesting. They are of course quite possibly correct in regards to studying more English/Math courses and cursive writing, but since the results are statistically insignificant, this tells me that the results fall within the mean or standard-deviation would be my guess, meaning that essentially even this explanation cannot be assumed to be correct- the students aren’t any different than non-cursive students for all statistically practical purposes according to ETS. Very interesting. Another idea- perhaps students who spend more time/effort on improving their cursive are tenacious enough to spend time learning grammar and proper writing etc., needed to pass the exams with a very slightly higher score? Who knows- since ETS says it’s not significant, we can’t really say I guess.

    It’s amazing to hear some of the horror stories regarding penmanship that everyone on FPN has relayed- of course along with your stories. It comes as quite a shock, and worries me about my own future family (whenever that happens). I know what I experienced in school, and the horrible handwriting that came out of that experiment… to think that schools would continue to teach the way they are, with the results they have experienced is amazing to me. [Especially the story about the student from Europe who had wonderful Italic hand but was forced to learn cursive to his detriment both in legibility and classwork.]

    I’m glad you’re fighting hard to help this situation, Kate! And it’s wonderful to have you swing by here! My very best to you in this New Year! May all of us with poor handwriting improve our penmanship and legibility this year, to the point that at least one person praises it unexpectedly. πŸ™‚

    My very best!!

  9. Re:

    >I hope you publish it [flaws of SAT studies] somewhere as well as in this comment.

    Where do you think I could publish it? Who would take an interest? My web-page has so much stuff already that I don’t know if I could reasonably put it there.

    > If you publish your thoughts on this on your site, or in another place, please let me
    > know, and I’ll post a link here as well- or drop in and post a link. Thank you!

    Send me an e-mail, and then I’ll have your e-address handy to let you know if (when) I publish my thoughts on the SAT thing.

    By the way, I do also agree that we may have here some …

    > bias among the reviewers of the SAT? Is it possible that they assume that a cursive
    > student is a better student? …

    Possibly β€” given what we know about who usually score SAT essays (active and retired teachers of English). If so, though, whatever pro-cursive bias they bring to the task does not end up awarding the cursive-writers a great many more points. In fact …
    … given that the scores of cursive writers come so very close to the scores of non-cursive writers (it turns out that the average scores of the two groups differ by just a fraction of a point!), it could even mean that the NON-cursive writers actually know a whole lot more … and that this just gets “washed out” by unfair awarding of extra points to the cursive writers.

    And, as you suggest, we can’t rule out the possibility that perhaps students who actually bother to master cursive also care about bothering learning other things that affect the SAT much more (standard grammar and so forth). That could conceivably hold true … but even if it did, and even if we could prove it did, then this would provide at least a good justification for requiring students to collect stamps and coins (also a detail-oriented, labor-intensive pursuit β€” at least as much so as cursive writing) as preparation for the SAT. It would make about as much sense to award students extra SAT points for stamp-collecting as it makes to award them extra points for writing in cursive (if the graders really do so, which I suppose at least some of them might).


    >It’s amazing to hear some of the horror stories regarding penmanship that everyone on >FPN has relayed- of course along with your stories. It comes as quite a shock, and >worries me about my own future family (whenever that happens).

    My handwriting-concerns include working with parents (current parents or future parents) to insure that their children will write legibly and rapidly despite the school. I have enough strategies/tactics/tips/tricks in this department (call it the “war department” of Handwriting Repair) that I hope you will call or e-mail me ASAP for me to start teaching you now what you’ll need to know then. Phone number: 518/482-6763 β€” e-mail: handwritingrepair@gmail.com

  10. Serge Dumay, MD, FACP said,

    I am very impressed with the work you do with physicians , I noticed that you had a course in south Jersey in 2002 … I would like to organize a similar event for the north Jersey physicians . I will asked the New jersey Medical society and the New jersey hospital association to participate. The idea will is to have all hospitals, Chief of staff Medical Directors refer they ” Problem physicians and nurses ” to this event.But the event will be open any one who wants to improve their penmanship.

    Please let me know if or when you would be able to help me achieve this… monumental undertaking…

    I thank you in advance for your considerations and diligence .


    Serge Dumay,MD,FACP
    Chief Quality Officer
    Bergen Regional Medical Center
    Sdumay@bergenregional .com

  11. a11en said,

    πŸ˜‰ Um, Guys can like penmanship too… πŸ˜‰ Kate’s work is amazing- unfortunately I’m worse than broke, and can’t afford it. πŸ˜‰ I’ll try and forward your message to Kate’s e-mail, Serge.

    Thanks for dropping in, I’m wishing you the best!

    ps- researchers in my university also have a very similar problem. We are all working so fast, some of us copying lectures etc., and our handwriting is horrendous because of this. Very few PhD’s have good handwriting.

  12. My site, Handwriting Repair (which you list above as “Handwritig Repair”), will have moved by the time you read this. Since your blog-entry links to this site, please change the link’s address from the current address to this new one: http://www.handwritingrepair.info — thank you!

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