Old Dogs

My mum recently said “your handwriting is wonderful… considering how bad it was.” That’s a backhand Andy Murray would be proud of.

Can’t deny it, though. My handwriting was the kind of labyrinthine scrawl that would make a GP proud. How did that happen? Well, I’ve always been science-leaning, which meant most of my handwritten schoolwork was equations, diagrams and chemical formulae — it’s a supreme challenge to make x2 illegible, although I probably managed once or twice. Prose was always an inconvenience and an afterthought — isn’t it clear what I’m talking about? It’s the equations! Science!!11!!

At uni one of my tutors took me aside and offered me help with my handwriting. I accepted and then did the absolute bare minimum to comply with the coaching I was given; I rarely practiced what I was taught and as a result my handwriting didn’t change.

Of course I still used a ballpoint, and a cheap one at that. One thing that tutor recommended was a fountain pen. He wasn’t the best example, given his handwriting was still utterly indecipherable after years of trying to correct it. And at the time I was poor and pens were expensive and I was still reeling from a bad experience with fountain pens in my junior years where I got the cheapest, scratchiest pen that ran dry and then blobbed ink everywhere. So I took no notice.

I don’t think there and then a fountain pen would have made much difference, though. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to improve my handwriting, and the last lessons I’d been given on writing cursive had been a decade ago — handwriting wasn’t something that was taught at my secondary school, you either wrote well or you didn’t.

The last time I wrote something down that mattered enough for someone else to look at it was my finals. After that my thesis was mercifully printed and bound, and then we were into the age of email and the paperless office. For a while I was fully behind never having to write on paper again.

The one thing that kept me writing on paper was writing for pleasure. Most of my notes for roleplaying games are in A4 hardback notebooks, and somehow writing something I was actually interested in, that didn’t feel like work, made my handwriting better. Even when I owned a computer my handwriting could keep up faster than my typing.

I’m recalling all of this because I’ve been reading Dilemmas of an Expat Tutor. I came across it via the page on why Britain made the change to vertical handwriting, which contains some interesting thoughts in itself to do with handwriting and ergonomics. I’ve been big into workstation ergonomics for years, but never considered handwriting — it’s taken me until now to realise why I vastly prefer A5 sheets to A4, because it’s easier to slant them properly on the desk to write cursive script.

The most recent article is Students Mourn Never Learning Cursive. That made me think of our general attitude to learning new things as we get older. No doubt many adults will think that because they didn’t learn handwriting as a child, they are now set in their ways and will never have good handwriting as an adult. I know that adults can learn fine and gross motor skills perfectly well — like fighting with swords. If you can tidy up a flanconade, you can work on your handwriting.

I wouldn’t call my handwriting good, but it’s certainly improved. It’s more consistent. Maybe I’ll call it good when a proper cursive “r” comes naturally.

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  • Yes, absolutely, any motivated adult can learn cursive just as well as youngsters; it doesn’t take very long.

    What many of these adults who feel they have poor handwriting don’t realize, is that most people do not use their best handwriting on most occasions. We normally reserve it for when we are writing for others.

    As an expert cursive teacher, when any student lacks confidence in his own handwriting or feels it’s not up to standard, I just pull out my own notes to myself, which are so messy as to be unintelligible to anyone else. I point out that as long as we can read our own writing, that we sacrifice quality for speed (such as taking notes quickly in a course). When we write something for others, we slow down and take more time to write neatly, such a love letter, or a note to our boss! I also point out that everyone has days when they “just can’t write well.” Other days, our penmanship is beautiful, and everything flows smoothly. All this is normal, even among people with excellent penmanship.

    It’s nice to know how to write well, but we most definitely do not need to use our best handwriting on most occasions.

    Regarding youngsters, they like to learn at a young age (Grade 2 or 3, age 7-8) because at that age they want “to feel grown up.” For adults, it may be a useful skill, but that youthful excitement is generally lacking. Adults who pursue it usually have a practical reason.

    Lynne Diligent