In Defence of Handwriting

Sometime last year, Beatzo had a blogpost up where he griped madly about the traditional (and according to him, outdated) obsession with “good” handwriting, and then demolished all the claimed benefits of good handwriting one by one. Towards the end of his post he did grudgingly acknowledge the one benefit of beautiful handwriting, but it got lost in the debris of his earlier demolition job. This post, then, is my attempt to balance things out and focus on the actual benefits of good handwriting, not the claimed but irrelevant ones.

(Disclosure: a couple of years ago, when I was diagnosed with anxiety, the shrink told me to play sudoku to keep my mind active. I decided that it would be more productive and challenging to teach myself cursive writing instead. I never actually got started back then, eventually using my free time for German classes instead, but last year, when I moved back to Delhi and couldn’t get admission to the next level of German, I had spare time again, and finally took up cursive writing. By the time Beatzo wrote his post, I was finally able to write in cursive again, after about twenty years, and that too without the benefit of guide lines. So I took Beatzo’s hatchet job on handwriting somewhat personally. There, now you know I have a dog in the fight.)

So, what are the actual benefits of good handwriting? I’ve discovered that writing stuff out by hand instead of on the PC means I get less easily distracted by the internet, but this is not a benefit of handwriting, it’s an indictment of my self-control. So that doesn’t count. I’ve also discovered that writing in longhand is an easier way to deal with writer’s block than trying to fill in a Word document – the sight of the entire blank page in Word is far more psychologically debilitating. But again, that’s something personal to me, and I can’t reasonably claim it as a universal benefit of handwriting. I also can’t claim that people write at the same speed as they think which makes for better finished pieces – depending on the person, that could be as true or false for typing or dictating.

When you come down to it, there is only one good argument for good handwriting – that it is a work of craft, and beauty in craft is valuable for its own sake. There is also the baser, but still valid argument, that good handwriting impresses people. The utilitarian arguments for good handwriting – clarity, legibility, and so forth – crumble in the face of technology that does this so much better. All that is left is the aesthetic argument – that good handwriting can look beautiful by itself. Beatzo does grudgingly, almost afterthinkingly, concede the aesthetic argument, but in a fit of curmudgeonliness restricts it to calligraphy.

Now, I thoroughly appreciate calligraphy and its beauty. I’d quite like to take it up myself (once I make time for it from all the other out-of-work activities I have planned). But calligraphy hasn’t captured or laid claim to all the beauty there is in the craft of forming glyphs by hand. Non calligraphic handwriting can also be ridiculously beautiful.

As far as the baser argument of impressing people with your handwriting is concerned, Beatzo claims that a person will be impressed with any handwriting that is prettier than their own, and also that the mere act of writing a message by hand signals that you took extra time and effort on it – and it’s this signaling that matters, not the quality of the handwriting itself.

I actually agree with Beatzo on the important thing being the signal, but while I can’t speak for the world at large, for me personally, there are boundary conditions to the impressiveness of the signal. If I get a handwritten message where the writing is so awful that I have to spend time deciphering what has been written, any goodwill that could have been earned by the additional effort will evaporate. (This is also true for when the grammar is so atrocious that I have to devote time and cognitive effort to deciphering the message). If other people have the same reaction, that’s a reasonable argument for making your handwriting ‘good enough’, if not actually ‘good’.

At the other end of the spectrum, when handwriting crosses a certain threshold of prettiness, it blows me away independent of the content. I then get impressed with the person with the fabulous writing because s/he’s a fabulous graphist, over and above the content of the message and the signaling. That, then, becomes the argument to take your handwriting from ‘good enough’ to ‘great’. But, yes, that does mean that for a long time, there’s no marginal benefit to improving your handwriting until it crosses into greatness.

All that said, I do agree with Beatzo that the insistence on making every kid in school practice ‘good’ handwriting is stupid. After all, if the only value of handwriting is that it’s beautiful, you should be encouraging people to create beauty in whichever area they’re most talented in, not insisting that they hit a standard of beauty in handwriting, which they may have absolutely no aptitude for. Then again, a kid in school may not know where her aptitude lies until she tries everything (and this is not just true for kids in school but also for thirty year old men. Ahem.)

This reminds me of a conversation I had long ago with Manasi, who, rather daringly for a children’s books publisher, had gone to an education conference and said that there was probably nothing special about reading books, and that if a kid decided to send his or her free time playing video games or football or making craft projects, that was as potentially good or useful as reading story books is.

Similarly, singing or playing a sport can create as much beauty as writing well can, so why do our schools and parents have an obsession with handwriting? As Beatzo says, it’s probably just a lucky meme that has managed to capture Indian society’s mindspace.

While I’m happy to place singing, sports, painting, and handwriting at the same level as valid forms of art creation; when it comes to handwriting as a way to impress people, I’m a little more conservative about holding other ways of impressing people at the same level. Dressing well is also a way to impress people, but in this domain, I do get far more impressed by somebody who sends me a handwritten letter in clean and beautiful writing than by somebody who shows up to meet me dressed well. The handwriting, after all, is a form of creation, while the clothes are a form of consumption. Now, if somebody had made their own clothes, that would be a different matter. (And for a two hundred page long expansion of this argument, I recommend Geoffrey Miller’s Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior.)

All right, Beatzo, the ball’s back in your court. I hope your response comes as a blog post and not a comment, so that you get restarted blogging.