Handwriting Symposium Part I: The Demise of Handwriting

When the Aughts commenced, the demise of handwriting had already begun. Nonetheless, schoolchildren still handwrote most of their papers, typing was unheard of during college lectures (let alone exams), and emailing thank you notes was generally deemed rude. Now, nearly every student in all of my law school classes types their notes and emailing thank you notes is generally an acceptable practice. Think of the last time that you handwrote more than a paragraph—I actually cannot recall the last time I handwrote so much: It quite possibly was over a year ago, when the end of the Aughts seemed as if it were in the distant future.

For sloppy handwriters like John S and I,* this is a boon. Those “N”s** that mired the penmanship section of my elementary school report card have become completely irrelevant. Young children need not be patronizingly told that they ought to become doctors by adults that, frankly, have no sense of their medical knowledge. For those like Tim and presumably Pierre (whom I suspect is a masterful calligrapher) who pen beautiful characters, handwriting’s demise presents an unfortunate situation.

*While we are both sloppy, a blind test confirmed that John S has worse handwriting.

**Needs Improvement.

But, the purpose of this post is not to examine the individual fortunes of John S, Tim, Pierre, and I, but rather to analyze the objective implications of handwriting’s demise.

The effect of the demise of handwriting on the education process is, I think, awesome for multiple reasons:

First, time not spent on handwriting (and cursive*) can be spent on other more important subjects like math and reading. Sure, some of that time should probably be spent on typing, but for children with poor fine-motor skills (particularly boys, who develop their fine-motor skills later than girls), typing should be an easier chore, taking up less time, than repeatedly penning characters.

*I was always told that cursive was going to matter a TON at some point. Elementary school teachers said it would be HUGE in middle school. Middle school teachers said everyone in “the real world” uses cursive. None of this was true. I’m glad I can pen a signature though.

Second, “the handwriting effect” can be minimized. As Education Professor Steve Graham summarizes his studies on penmanship, “When teachers rate multiple versions of the same paper differing only in terms of legibility, they assign higher grades to neatly written versions of the paper than the same versions with poorer penmanship.” In kindergarten, I felt dumb for not being able to write letters inside the lines while the (clearly intellectually inferior) girl next to me pompously smirked after writing all of her letters with aplomb. There’s nothing wrong with differentiation, even at young ages. But, when differentiation in one field (fine-motor skills) is conflated with differentiation in another field (intellect)—which is basically a cognitive certainty given the handwriting effect—that is problematic and could be demoralizing for intelligent children.

Third, more can be taught and written. We type faster than we write, in some cases a LOT faster. When handwriting essays, people can easily think of more to write than they had time to write. Typing helps to lessen this gap. Taking notes is also easier since they can be reorganized after class, which is especially important since most teachers are not good lecturers.

Fourth, it promotes sound analysis. When going back and reviewing a handwritten paper, you cannot easily insert new phrases or paragraphs in the middle of your paper. Moreover, generally, there are far more words on a typewritten page than a handwritten page. The result is that it is easier to both follow and edit typewritten papers. You need not flip through pages or use wite-out* to make your analysis coherent: The transaction costs of editing are so high when handwriting that editing was chilled, meaning a suboptimal amount of editing occurred.

*Man, was there any subject more divisive among teachers than wite-out?

While I framed this in terms of education, almost all of these benefits hold for typing in other domains too. The opportunity cost of handwriting is simply more than the opportunity cost of typing. Because the relative cost of typing is lower, people may actually type more than they would otherwise handwrite. The result? More analysis and more knowledge. Imagine if bloggers, like us, had to handwrite all of our entries. Surely we would have fewer entries.

Are there trade-offs? Sure, there are trade-offs.  For one, handwriting does reflect a sense of intimacy and personality that is not conveyed in a font that millions of other people use as well. (Response to this argument: By not being able to rely on the charm of handwriting, people are forced to express intimacy and personality through their words, a more valuable form of intimacy.) Additionally, some people do have naturally beautiful handwriting, which has inherent aesthetic value. Not only will we not see that beautiful handwriting as often, but it will exist less since it doesn’t make sense to “invest” in and develop beautiful handwriting when the vast majority of your written work will be done through typing.

Let me be clear: Handwriting has probably reached a plateau. I’m dubious that it will completely disappear, even in the next decade. There will be certain things we will still need handwriting for, at least for a little while: endorsing checks, filling out documents at the doctor, post-it note-taking, etc. But, its value and the value of having good handwriting will inevitably continue to decline. And, while there are trade-offs, I think that’s a good thing.

Tim will follow with Part II of the Symposium tomorrow.

11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by ETB on January 7, 2010 at 7:54 PM

    I would contend that over the next decade physical checks will become much rarer and more medical documents will become electronic, as they absolutely should. I see the secondary school systems still being the institution to exalt handwriting: poorly run administrations and lack of funding making laptops not available for general notetaking/essay writing, the silly idea that learning cursive teaches fine motor skills, etc. Unfortunately, I see kids for at least the next decade with cramped hands after handwriting for 3 straight hours on standardized tests.


    • Posted by Josh on January 7, 2010 at 8:01 PM

      I pretty much agree with you. Additionally, I think that many schools will probably still spend a disproportionate amount of time on handwriting not just because they think it helps with fine motor skills but because they link being able to handwrite well as a skill that is important to the dignity of the student, which I think is misguided.


    • Posted by Tim on January 7, 2010 at 11:13 PM

      What standardized tests are YOU taking?


  2. Posted by Aaron on January 7, 2010 at 10:44 PM

    White out- the bane of my existence when it exploded in Senora Burkes Spanish class. I think you were there for that Josh. And handwriting and behavior destroyed my E-VG-G-S-N-U report card scores.

    One other trade off is that I think there is something about writing something down by hand – maybe just because it takes longer than typing it does – that leads to better retention. I know we didn’t learn Vanek as well when we were typing his notes on our ipaqs.


    • Posted by Dan on January 14, 2010 at 3:43 PM

      1) It was my behavior and effort scores that always ruined my E-VG-G-S-N report cards.

      2) Some of us never actually typed our Vanek notes, but were too busy playing heavy hitters.*

      *I think I still have your Vanek notes on my computer among my iPaq files.

      In terms of your actual point. To some extend, taking notes in class my help my comprehension, but I never actually can read my own notes and never go back to them later. I think the added comprehension comes from forcing one to pay attention (which can come from typing as well, perhaps), as opposed to playing, say, heavy hitters.


  3. There are still advantages in teaching cursive. Many educators believe that it is easier to learn than manuscript. Cursive can help children learn to read because confusing print letters such as b and d, p, g, and q, and f and t do not look as similar as they do in print. It also makes the blending of sounds more obvious to beginning readers. Furthermore, it may improve spelling because the hand learns the pattern of words through writing them many times. And cursive does remain the preferred way to write letters of condolence and thank-you notes. There also still are occasions when cursive writing is more likely to be used than manuscript. This includes writing essays on standardized tests such as the SAT. Plus, cursive is generally used for signatures. Finally, cursive handwriting is a personal expression of each individual’s personality.


  4. […] Aught Lang Syne « Handwriting Symposium Part I: The Demise of Handwriting […]


  5. […] penmanship, smartphones, the demise of handwriting, trade-offs, video games. Leave a Comment I acknowledged that there were trade-offs with less emphasis on handwriting. And, perhaps the most significant is the reduction in the supply […]


  6. […] weekends ago, but it brought back some memories of Josh and Tim’s Symposium on Handwriting (starting with Josh, on to Tim, back to Josh). One feature on the Livescribe smart pen seemed to suggest handwriting […]


  7. […] Was it really so long ago that Josh and Tim debated handwriting? Consider Katie Zezima’s piece in the NY Times the next rebuttal, followed by the aptly named Brian Palmer at Slate. […]


  8. […] Hartman wrote a handwritten (which Tim likes and Josh doesn’t) letter to an aspiring […]


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