What Killed Penmanship? – The New York Times
On Reddit, the online platform where people go for advice, conspiracy theories and N.S.F.W. everything, there’s one “porn” community that’s just about the furthest thing from salacious you can imagine: “Penmanship Porn.”
There, users share photos and videos of beautiful penmanship — their own or others. Additional Reddit communities in this constellation offer a safe place for users to post their indecipherable scrawls to be decoded by thousands of strangers.
Emily Smith, 19, likes to keep Post-it notes scattered throughout her bedroom with important reminders. Generally, the notes are readable, but if she hurries, letters can morph together in a barely legible script.
She was recently going through her stack of important reminders when she found a note she had written at least a year ago. Ms. Smith said she remembered thinking at the time that she should rewrite the note so it would be discernible but never got around to it.
Struggling to decipher it, she posted a photo of the note in a Reddit community where thousands have sought help to decode messy handwriting.
“I was like, please, I don’t know what this says,” Ms. Smith said. “Still a week later, the only comment on it is, ‘Hey, do you speak any other languages? Could this possibly be not English?’”
Ms. Smith, who works in a bookstore in Nashville, said that two things had contributed to her worsening penmanship: habitually writing quickly and receiving her first tablet when she was about 10.
“The bad handwriting specifically comes from I’m thinking too fast for my hand,” she said. “I feel like being able to type as quickly as I’m thinking I have this like great advantage where I don’t have to worry about legibility.”
‘Trying to Find an Excuse to Write’
In 2010, cursive was dropped from Common Core standards, and children in kindergarten through 12th grade at public schools were no longer required to learn it in school. The change was controversial, and many legislators have since fought for its resurgence in schools.
Anne Trubek, the author of “The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting,” said that when, over a decade ago, she began researching the history of writing technologies and whether the digital age was changing writing her work received a huge amount of pushback.
More on U.S. Schools and Education
At the time, she said, people believed that not teaching children cursive went against traditional American values. They feared children would lose their connection to history if they were unable to read historical documents like the Declaration of Independence.
Those anxieties eventually evolved into the belief that children would not be as intelligent if they were not taught handwriting, an idea Ms. Trubeck says discriminates against children who have physical disabilities.
“Anytime that there is a huge shift from one technology to another, whether it is the invention of writing, or the printing press, or the typewriter, there is this sort of rear-guard anxiety about what it means for the previously supplanted primary way for people to write,” Dr. Trubek said.
The tool people use to write does not necessarily matter, and technology has simply made the ability to write and to communicate through writing more efficient and stronger, she said.
For Eileen Page, a 78-year-old handwriting consultant in Scituate, Mass., who also specializes in forensic forgery and suspicious signatures, a move away from cursive has even made writing signatures simpler.
“I’m finding now signatures are becoming almost logos and more designs and symbolic than actual letters,” she said.
Any lingering reverence for neat penmanship, especially cursive, may have more to do with nostalgia than practicality.
There are two metrics for measuring the beauty of handwriting, said Lindsey Bugbee, the creator of The Postman’s Knock, a calligraphy and handwriting blog and business. The first is legibility and the second is balance, she said. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and factors like memory and life experience can affect what constitutes “good” penmanship.
“You might have memories of your grandmother’s handwriting being really beautiful, and then you see handwriting like that and it is already ingrained,” Mrs. Bugbee, 34, said.
Mellissa Prunty, a senior lecturer in occupational therapy at Brunel University London, was part of a team that developed a way to measure and quantify the legibility of handwriting.
The Handwriting Legibility Scale uses five factors, such as readability and letter formation, to score children’s writing and determine early on if they would need extra help from an occupational therapist. For young children still developing motor skills and dexterity, learning how to write well by hand is an important skill to have before shifting to more hybrid models of writing or typing, Dr. Prunty said.
“They may shift more toward typing, but they will always have handwriting as a skill for note taking or whatever profession they go into,” she said.
For Majd Taby, a 35-year-old software engineer and start-up founder in Los Angeles, writing by hand is rare.
“My memories of handwriting really just involve cramped hands,” Mr. Taby said. “Since graduating I kind of just stopped writing — I don’t remember the last time I wrote two paragraphs together.”
Mr. Taby grew up in Syria and moved to the United States in the ninth grade. He said that while he learned how to write in Syria, cursive was not explicitly taught. By the time he came to the United States he was well past the age children are typically taught handwriting in school, which is the third grade.
It was not until he met his wife, who is from France, that Mr. Taby developed the desire to improve his handwriting. Mr. Taby’s wife and her family all have beautiful handwriting, he said.
When Mr. Taby came across a fountain pen at a grocery store, he decided to buy it and give it a try a few years ago. He joined Reddit groups in hopes of finding writing resources and came across the Palmer Method, a system of writing popularized in the early 20th century that emphasizes using your entire arm.
“I think it took me probably about three to four months of daily practice before I got good enough to be happy with the quality of my writing,” he said. “Then the challenge became trying to find an excuse to write.”
In addition to the free resources on platforms like Reddit, people interested in improving their penmanship can seek out tutoring with an expert.
Kate Gladstone, 60, started Handwriting Repair, a handwriting coaching business based in Albany, in 1987. When she began, her clientele consisted of hospitals and doctors, who enlisted her help for staff workshops and individuals facing malpractice lawsuits because of illegible documentation. The last workshop she conducted was at a hospital in Florida that had lost its power in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. When power was restored, the staff scrambled to decipher doctors’ handwritten notes to enter into the computer system.
Now, her clientele is about 75 percent adults 18 to 37, a generation, Ms. Gladstone said, that experienced various factors, such as budget cuts in schools and curriculum changes, which led to a decline in penmanship.
She offered in-person lessons before the pandemic, which typically cost $100 for the first in-person session and $75 for subsequent sessions plus travel. (Virtual sessions cost $75 for the initial session and $50 for subsequent sessions.)
There are also lessons and drills for those who prefer to learn at their own pace. Doris Fullgrabe, 47, started posting handwriting drills and lessons on websites like Skillshare and Udemy in 2017 when she was feeling burnout from her consulting job and needing a new hobby. Ms. Fullgrabe’s courses costs around $15, depending on the website. One of her courses has been taken by more than 10,000 people.
“You can improve with practice,” she said. “Just like you are not going to be able to do a headstand in your first yoga session.”
Mr. Taby started writing in a journal and joined a Reddit community called Fountain Pen Pals, where people are randomly paired once a month to write letters. When Mr. Taby tweeted that he was writing letters, several of his friends responded that they too felt like their handwriting was getting worse and needed an excuse to write.
“There is something lovely about writing, and there is something really personal about it that email and photos and even a phone conversation doesn’t have,” he said.
Learning to Love Letters
In 2021, a CBS News poll found that 37 percent of American adults had not written and sent a personal letter in over five years, and another 15 percent had never written and sent a personal letter.
Amanda McNair, 37, is an outlier. Since deleting her Facebook about 10 years ago she decided that the best way to keep up with her friends and family was to write them every week.
She writes three to four letters a week, changing the ink color or paper depending on the recipient. Generally, her loved ones appreciate the letters, but sometimes she does have to remind her grandparents to send her a letter back, and not an email.
Ms. McNair’s growing love for letter writing eventually inspired her to quit her job as a banker to become a mail carrier in Montreal.
“I literally just love the mail,” she said.
But for most people it has become increasingly difficult to find occasions to write. Jame Ervin sends handwritten Christmas cards, a practice she said was probably the longest bit of writing that she would do all year.
Ms. Ervin, 44, who works at a tech company in Oakland, Calif., found that her handwriting had become sloppier as she wrote less in her everyday life. She bought a fountain pen about a year and a half ago and started a nightly writing routine.
But Mrs. Page believes that it is a misconception that writing less means we are sacrificing parts of our identity.
“You come into this world with your personality and then it evolves through your experiences and your life, and I don’t think that is ever going to go away,” she said. “I don’t think the handwriting determines the personality, I think the personality determines the handwriting.”