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

By Mark Nichol

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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?”

  • Kathryn

    Precise Edit said very nearly what I was thinking of saying, so I won’t repeat it, but will add that I never actually developed carpal tunnel syndrome. Also, that the happiest day of my life was when we put computers on all the lawyers’ desks at my firm, and I no longer had to write stuff out by hand, then prod my secretary through repeated edits, all of which had to be indicated by longhand notes. Talk about pouty face! At that, it was better than having to have a document retyped in the days before word processing.

    Reading through all these comments, I am struck by the wide variety of methods of composition people swear by. It seems that each of us finds our own best way to do something–so, one must conclude that none of them is the absolute most effective way. Sure, there’s a connection formed between mind and hand when using a pen. But we also use our hands to keyboard, and that mind-to-hand connection is just as real and, for at least some of us, just as valuable. For me, keyboarding allows my output to keep up with my thoughts, and allows both me and others to read the result without unreasonable effort.

    Should children continue to have to learn how to form letters by hand? Probably. But, need those letters be cursive? I don’t really see why.

  • Kathryn

    Oh, yeah. Marc: yes, they still make Wite-Out (I just checked the (print) catalog for the outfit we buy our office supplies from There is also a handy product on the market that rolls a dry version onto the paper; it requires some dexterity to use, but is less likely to get all dried-up and lumpy in use.

    Sigh. Yeah, I realize you were making a rhetorical point. Some of us have very concrete imaginations. . .

  • shirley in berkeley

    Writing by hand (as opposed to typing, keyboarding, or whatever you choose to call it) is such a deeply personal, private way of recording thoughts, memories, stories, a journal, that I would never want to give it up or deny it to anyone. Its most seductive quality is that it is quiet. For years I could not compose anything on a typewriter or computer because I found the click-click-clicking so intrusive. Thought is silent and completely private, and so is cursive. I use big and little block characters for grocery lists, addresses on labels, and short notes (except for thank-you notes) and I can do that very fast, with pristine clarity, but when I really want to wail, it’s cursive.

    I took a semester of Russian in college, and obviously we didn’t have a lot of Russian typewriters laying around. We learned the language by learning the orthography, and wrote our homework with a pen on a piece of paper. Because I already knew cursive, it wasn’t long before I could write assignments in Russian as rapidly as I could in English. And Russian had a curiously magic quality: I felt invisible while I was writing it. The only explanation I can think of to account for this is that it seemed so entirely foreign — much more so than French or German — and seemed to be coming to me straight from the frozen tundra!

  • Emma

    I’ve found that now I’ve started using a keyboard so much, my handwriting has suffered; in that I can’t write nearly as much as I used to be able to do, prior to handache setting in!

    The time it really shows up, though, is when our students have to sit exams! We have discussed getting them to do them on computers – as they spend so much time on them anyway, but there simply aren’t enough to go round at exam time! (Would make reading the scripts a lot easier!)

    However, I can’t help thinking that many of our students’ reluctance to take notes (by hand [or in any way for that matter!]) in lectures can’t be helpful when it comes to writing fast in an exam, though the suggestion that note taking will help with fast writing gets me even odder looks than the suggestion that note taking might help them learn!

  • Xenobio

    I think the kind of cursive they teach American schoolchildren looks like crap. It’s a pile of ugly bubbles. Teach italic; people who write a lot will find their own style of joining the letters together naturally. In Malaysia they just teach straight letters (what Americans call “printing”, I believe) and I eventually evolved my own cursive. My American husband on the other hand learned cursive and writes chicken scratchings.

  • Kinga

    I remember when I was 18 (which was about 10 years ago) I was an exchange student in America and I was shocked when I saw EVERYONE was writing in these weird block letters. I couldn’t understand how you can take a few pages of notes during the class when you write in such a time consuming way.

    But then of course I realised you are only expected to note down about 5 sentences during the class.

    Everyone was quite mesmerised by my ‘cursive’ writing. I didn’t even realise there was a name for it. Where I am from everyone writes like that and it wouldn’t occur to anyone to write in block letters. Learning writing like that goes hand in hand with learning to read.

    Also in Poland no one ever hands in their homework typed out on the computer (not until college anyway). It is unheard of. I got a permission once to hand in my homework typed up because I had my left (I am a lefty) arm in a cast.

  • Kenia

    I learned handwriting in elementary school…and have written that way ever since. Well, I do occasionally write in block letters if it suites my fancy at the moment (i’m an engineer), but mostly I write cursive.
    I actually tried writing in normal letters…and found myself getting frustrated at how inefficient and longer it took me to write!

    *write letter; lift pen; lower pen; write letter; lift pen; lower pen; repeat…*
    vs. *write all letters fluidly, back-to-back*

    I write significantly faster when I don’t have to lift my pen except to dot i’s and cross t’s, so I’ve stuck with cursive as my norm. 🙂

  • Kimi

    I’ve found that my cursive writing is fairly illegible, and, if I absolutely have to write by hand, it’s in print. I also find that, unless I’m doing notes for an outline on post-it notes, my creative juices flow better when I’m typing.

    On another note, my son, who’s 9, is learning cursive in school. His sister, who will be 13, never did, and feels awkward when she has to sign something. Since my signature is chicken-scratch, I’ve told her to come up with something that’s comfortable for her. Most classes prefer that the kids type out their reports, anyway.

  • chris

    I’m very interested in the statement “studies indicate that children formally taught handwriting improve their sentence construction and increase the complexity of their thoughts.” I would love to tell my high school students (who I ‘force’ to use cursive) about these studies. More information please?

  • Chaz

    Have you ever stared at a computer screen for eight hours straight? Your eyes start to bug out, you have to squint, and sometimes both of your eyes start focusing on different things. At least, that’s the way it is for me.

    I like writing. Not on a computer, but with a ‘pencil’ on ‘paper.’ Before last month, I was never able to write in cursive very well. After I tried it, and stuck with it, I found that it was actually a lot more efficient than the printing I used to do. Like learning how to correctly type, it only took me a few weeks before I got the hang of it–in fact, I’ve gotten to the point that if I purposely print, I’ll slip into cursive unconsciously.

    When I write on paper, I find that my writing is a lot more organised (with an ‘ess,’ not a ‘zed’–I’m Canadian) and my thoughts flow better. But, like most people, I can’t write as fast as I can think, and when I really have to move blocks of text around on the page, I sometimes find it easier to jump to the computer and type it up, where it is easier to insert text in the middle of a sentence, etc. Of course, almost all of my writing (for school) gets typed up in the end, but I like to write the drafts.

    I’m only 17 years old, and something I’ve noticed is that nearly all the people of my parents’ generation write exclusively in cursive, whereas my generation’s writing is mostly chicken-scratch printing. An alarming trend, I think. We shouldn’t be so dependent on technology that we can’t function without it–though in my school it hasn’t come to the point where students type up their notes in class on computers or slates; it’s still strictly pen/pencil and paper. Teachers should make more of a [whatever that word is–see, if this was on paper this wouldn’t happen] [point?] of teaching kids how to write properly.

    Anyway… I think writing is still important.

    Chaz

  • 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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