The Lost Art of Handwriting

I’ve always said that the most useful course I took in high school was typing.

Of course this was back in the days of manual typewriters, and all that clickety-clack racket was maddening. I hated the course so much that to this day quick brown foxes and lazy dogs give me the willies. But I still can’t think of a single course that did more to prepare me for what I do every day, both in and out of the office.

I only mention this because I don’t want anyone to think I’m anti-keyboard or anything. Some of the best moments of my life have been spent at a keyboard, which really is every bit as pathetic as it sounds.

But all that said, the fact remains that the keyboard has done the world a tremendous disservice. Because in case you haven’t noticed, handwriting is a lost art. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

I have a 19-year-old son who is absolutely brilliant. He’s a gifted writer, and even before he finished high school he wrote a cover story about Windows CE for Microsoft Magazine, a publication that used to be put out by Microsoft Hong Kong for its customers. By the time he finished high school, he had a solid 4.0 grade average; had scored a 1,500 on the SAT (a college entrance exam – if the number doesn’t mean anything to you, just take my word for it that it’s high); and had been accepted for admission to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. (and every other university he applied to, several of which offered very generous scholarships). As I write this he is in Annapolis, excelling in his sixth week of the grueling training that precedes the first academic year at the Naval Academy, one of the most highly-competitive academic institutions in the world.

Yet I’m here to tell you that this brilliant young man has the handwriting of a four-year-old. It’s humiliating. And why is this the case? Because he grew up in front of a keyboard. All of his written school assignments were typed on a computer. All of his correspondence was typed. Virtually everything he ever did involving the written word was typed. So it’s hardly any wonder that he scribbles like a blindfolded beginning kindergartner when he has a pen in his hand.

If there’s anything good to say about his handwriting at all, it’s that it’s not quite as horrible as the “handwriting” of my 14-year-old son, who has even less experience away from a computer and whose scrawl looks like he was holding the pen between his toes. With frostbite.

You no doubt have seen the same thing. People over 35 generally have lovely handwriting. The 25 to 35 age group has decent handwriting. And the under-25 crowd is a legibility laughing stock. It’s all because of computers. And it’s kind of a shame.

I had lost sight of just how much of a shame it really is until just these past six weeks since my son has been at the Naval Academy. He hasn’t had access to a computer all this time, so the only way to correspond with him has been by post. I clearly could have typed my letters to him on a computer and printed them out, but I didn’t. I suppose the reason is that I can remember as a kid getting letters from my Mom and Dad and noticing their different styles of handwriting and appreciating that unique personal expression.

I wanted my son to see that same expressiveness and individuality and personality in my correspondence with him, so I’ve been writing my letters to him longhand. Six weeks ago I probably would have said I don’t have time to write letters longhand. Turns out I do.

Of course, my son will be getting his computer in a couple of weeks, and our correspondence will no doubt shift to e-mail and ICQ – the convenience and timeliness are just too appealing. And I probably won’t get around to writing letters longhand anymore – it would be silly, I suppose, because the letters would be so dated. Too bad.

On the other hand, there’s a positive aspect even beyond convenience and timeliness. For the life of me, I haven’t been able to decipher that kid’s letters. At least when he gets his computer I’ll find out how the heck he’s doing. Thank you, Typing Tutor.