The digital age robs us of this crucial tradition
I type like a demon, but give me a greeting card to write and I might make a mistake. I’m going to transpose two characters or make an “o” look like an “a” and I have to fake it. If I’m really stuck, I might write “oops” above the error. Not that my handwriting was ever particularly neat, but that’s not a cleanliness issue. This is because I write so little by hand and use keyboards so much, putting pen to paper is kind of inconvenient for my QWERTY trained fingers. Given that younger generations have grown up with smartphones and social media, using or seeing very little cursive script during their day, is writing on the wall for, well, writing?
Maybe. Exam regulator Ofqual has announced it is exploring an online ‘pen-down’ approach for GCSE and A-levels. However, some research suggests it could be a mistake to let it slip away from school work entirely. In one study, when students were asked to take notes on a laptop, they tended to type everything verbatim, while those taking notes by hand were forced to be more selective, allowing them to understand the material better and remember it better.
Another study looked at people completing a detailed schedule, some entering information digitally, others using a laptop. For this type of task, handwriting was not only found to be faster and more accurate, but the process also activated several brain regions associated with memory more robustly.
Science aside, there’s something pretty special about seeing someone’s thoughts written in their own hand. I hadn’t spoken in ages to a school friend who has lived in the United States her entire adult life — until she reconnected with me after reading this column from her base in Washington.
While she hailed the marvels of digital communication that had enabled us to leapfrog decades of radio silence with a few quick clicks, she also spoke fondly of the letters we used to exchange as young teenagers. when she left the English countryside for New York. How they were a lifesaver. A link to the house. One of her other British friends, who had corresponded with her longer than I, kept all their letters. They plan to meet when they are old to read them all and relive their first anxieties, loves and adventures.
It’s almost as if a person’s spirit exists in their writing, their personality intrinsically tied to those traits on a page. The styling decisions they made. Whether their a’s are round like apples or crisp and thin. Whether their writing is restrained and economical or showy with a flourish. The writing is as individual as a fingerprint. And it’s always nice to get a handwritten envelope – am I the only one staring at the ones that come in, not opening them until I’ve managed to put a name to the script?
My friend from America also told me that now her mother is dead, seeing her handwriting seems particularly important to me. I understand. Every time I find something my parents wrote, no matter how monotonous, the effect warms my heart. And in the attic nestles a small trunk of letters my mum and dad exchanged when dad was a young boy on a minesweeper during the war and based in India. The paper is so light, so translucent, it’s as if they were written on butterfly wings flying back and forth across the ocean between them. Whispers through the air through the storms of battle.
My father, who left school at 14, then taught himself to write on copper, which has a distinctly Dickensian appearance. He’s used it all his life, even though he was just writing a bet on the back of a pack of cigarettes. “Thin, thick,” he said. I just watched a real-time copper calligraphy YouTube video and it’s almost meditative. Even the sound is soothing. Indeed, Montblanc puts each of its iconic Meisterstück pens through a series of rigorous quality checks, the last requiring experts to listen to the sound the nib makes on paper, with only those deemed smooth and not rough passing the test.
So what manuscripts will my generation, and those much younger, leave behind? Not a lot. We may have composed millions of emails and billions of social media posts, but there will be very little of our footprint on a page. Let’s face it, when I’m dead and gone, my WhatsApp group chats aren’t really going to touch the heart.
Perhaps, then, I should consider putting pen to paper on special occasions or to record key memories. Record your thoughts in a beautiful leather book. Take my time not to mess this up and speak from my heart. Something with a little more seriousness than a line of gritted-toothed emojis. Lol.