When It Comes to Cursive, Is Handwriting on the Wall?

By Mark Nichol

A recent CNN article heralded and lamented the death of cursive handwriting (known by other names as well outside the United States), using handwritten notes from teenage heartthrobs to signal the demise of Western civilization.

Like most people in my generation, I learned cursive writing in school, and I was a fair hand at it, but I switched to printing in high school. While taking mechanical drawing courses, which required students to label their pencil-and-paper schematics with block printing, I developed a meticulously neat all-caps style of writing, which I carried over into adulthood when I penned multipage letters to friends.

Long ago, however, I reverted to initial-caps-only printing, except for occasional notes and except for my signature, which I have signed with block letters all my adult life; for years, furthermore, I’ve signed documents with only my initials. All that remains for me to do now is to devolve to using the illiterates’ standby: a big X.

This article is posted on DailyWritingTips.com, but the site is about the creative process of writing, not the mechanical aspects of penmanship. However, the latter topic is an interesting — and interestingly appropriate — issue, because some people claim that the physical act of handwriting stimulates creativity. The de-emphasis on teaching penmanship and the resulting deterioration in the quality of handwriting, the argument continues, undermines the creative process and is turning our nation’s children into unimaginative illiterates.

Those, to me, are odd — and specious — assertions. Although I did my fair share of creative writing with paper and pen or pencil, and much on manual and electric typewriters, I’ve been writing and editing on computers for twenty years, and I’ve noticed no difference in creative output. I rarely write by hand anymore — who needs to? — and it’s now a laborious undertaking. (I’ve practiced calligraphy in the past, but although it was pleasurable to produce beautiful alphabetical characters, it gave me no steroidal burst of creativity that I noticed.)

By contrast, although I’m not a fast typist, I completed a typing class in high school (the most useful course I’ve ever taken), and I can type with ease. But the most important advantage of typing out a story or article on a computer is that I no longer have to revise by scratching out handwritten passages, or use Wite-Out (do they even make it anymore?) or ball up a sheet of typing paper and start over again.

Writing in longhand is not doomed to extinction; it survived the advent of the printing press and of the typewriter, and it is still widespread a generation after the popularization of the personal computer. But it might be a stretch to say that it thrives.

I know that many people — mostly those who, like me, came of age before the era of the personal computer — prefer, despite the availability of more sophisticated technology, to do their writing in longhand. Furthermore, studies indicate that children formally taught handwriting improve their sentence construction and increase the complexity of their thoughts. (Nevertheless, handwriting instruction in public schools is declining.) But I’m not sure that wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments is called for.

We have developed increasingly sophisticated motorized forms of transportation for nearly two centuries, yet we sometimes still ride animals and conveyances towed by them, as well as human-powered vehicles, and there’s walking, hiking, and running. For complex travel, however, the developed world relies on vehicles with mechanically generated power.

By analogy, access to computers and other devices that enable composition is not universal, but keyboarding is, among literate people, the dominant paradigm, and handwriting has been relegated to a subsidiary activity, like those long-distance transportation modes that don’t involve engines. We don’t teach everyone to maneuver oxcarts and horse-drawn wagons or ride horses; should we be teaching penmanship anymore?

What do you think? Do you write in longhand? Do you find that it stimulates your creativity? Do you notice, or have you noticed, a difference in your creative output depending on whether you write in cursive, write with printing, or type on a typewriter or on a computer keyboard? Is penmanship still an essential skill that should be formally taught?

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61 Responses to “When It Comes to Cursive, Is Handwriting on the Wall?”

  • chaz-4 months later

    “Writing in longhand is not doomed to extinction… But it might be a stretch to say that it thrives.”

    It thrives in my life. Like I said above, I write nearly everything before I type it. A single essay assignment might generate 30-40 pages (both sides) of full text. Writing and rewriting–from scratch–is what makes good writing.

    After several months, I now can write extremely fluently in cursive. It is much faster than printing, and for me, just as neat. I am a very fast typist, but I still prefer writing.

    The only disadvantage of writing? Carrying around thousands of pieces of paper all over the place is tiring. My schoolbag usually weighs somewhere between 25 and 30 pounds. But computers are frustrating.

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