I read an opinion piece at the weekend by The Telegraph writer Ivan Hewett about the demise of handwriting in a world where QWERTY rules supreme. Entitled The loss of handwriting costs us so much more, Hewett laments that “handwriting is fading away from our culture”, even stretching as far as composers turning to digital means to scribe musical scores and architects designing directly onto computer software. “Dashing something down” and capturing immortal gems of writing is just not the same if we have to wait for Windows to boot up.
Perhaps. But is that necessarily a bad thing?
Comparable to the slow food movement, the art of handwriting has a distinct time, place and purpose. However, based on my own personal and professional experiences, I would have to disagree that handwriting is in all ways superior to typing or using a keyboard. As someone who has long suffered the effects of OOS, going as far back as when it was called RSI (and I hear it is now referred to as DPI), the keyboard has been my saviour in overcoming the ongoing pain, discomfort and resulting lack of co-ordination. Even now, after many years of treatment, writing by hand for even 10 minutes is enough to cause me significant levels of pain. Using a keyboard literally set me free from all this and allowed me to fully engage in my career and study as well as being able to enjoy leisure activities with minimal pain.
I am fortunate enough to have neat, ‘primary teacher’ handwriting that is both legible and attractive to read. However, I consider myself even more fortunate that I chose to learn touch typing while at secondary school, even continuing to practise these skills long after it was considered acceptable for an ‘academic’ student to keep learning a ‘trades’ subject. Typing, along with its associated competencies in layout and design, has been the enabling tool for me to communicate in writing as an adult and it is one of the most valuable skills I utilise every day. As I watch friends and colleagues peck away at a keyboard, trying to write reports or even simple emails with two or three fingers, I think about all the excess effort they are using to do something basic: communicate. Would non-touch typists be much better off handwriting? Possibly not.
And then there is the issue of aesthetics. I’d agree that neat, flowing handwriting can be pleasant. But what becomes of those who have difficulties with co-ordination or require an unreasonable amount of effort to manipulate a pencil or pen well enough to make their work legible? One of my former students had severe dyslexia. Although he was very creative, getting him to write was a real struggle, both physically and psychologically, and he was discouraged by how things looked on the page. His mother and I encouraged him to type what he could manage and she would take over as scribe before his frustration levels became destructive. Suddenly, his written work was not only legible, but he was able to focus on crafting his stories, experimenting with words, eventually announcing he wants to be a writer when he leaves school! I am absolutely convinced that this would not have happened if he only had pen (or pencil) and paper at his disposal.
Let’s not be too hasty in our condemnation of QWERTY UIOP, nor jump to conclusions about the nostalgic relationship between handwriting and the art of writing. Each has its place.