The lost art of handwriting

Too much texting and computer typing has caused many of us to neglect our penmanship. Can a new hi-tech pen help us to achieve written elegance, or is there nothing for it but to practise, practise, practise?

Do you remember learning to write? The first scratch of an HB pencil across the fresh page of a new notebook. Repeating endless cursive letters along wide-spaced, pale blue lines. Looping the tail of a "g", flicking the line up from the end of an "m", arcing it over an "a" or an "o".

I loved writing so much during my childhood years that I constantly reinvented my script, dotting my "i"s with little hearts, or switching between a round "a" and one with a little arm above the circle. I filled endless diary pages, sent snail mail to several pen pals, even invented secret symbols to ensure notes passed in the classroom were indecipherable by enemy eyes.

But no longer. Today I barely lift a pen or a pencil to scribble a shopping list (my iPhone notepad function is far easier), and as a result, when I do have cause to abandon a keyboard in favour of a more old-fashioned tool, the result is at best sloppy, and more often than not illegible.

Technology seems to have ruined our collective handwriting ability. The digital age, with its typing and its texting, has left us unable to jot down the simplest of notes with anything like penmanship. A third of us can't even read our own writing, let alone anyone else's, according to a survey by the not-entirely-unbiased print and post specialists Docmail.

But does it matter? Well, some people think so. Like the National Handwriting Association, which aims "to raise awareness of the importance of handwriting as a vital component of literacy". And North Carolina congresswoman Pat Hurley, whose bill requiring primary schools to teach written script was unanimously passed earlier this year – although in nearby Indiana, cursive has been scrapped from the curriculum. There's even a National Handwriting Day in the States on 23 January each year - the birthday of John Hancock, whose name is synonymous with the word "signature" thanks to his enthusiastic scrawl on the US Declaration of Independence.

It's true there are some very good reasons why we should brush up on our writing skills. Many application forms are still completed the old-fashioned way, as are the majority of school assignments, both of which allow us to be judged – in part at least – by the way we form letters on the page. Needless to say, there are points available for neatness – several researchers have suggested that legible work is graded more favourably than messier counterparts.

Writing also provides a means to practise hand-eye co-ordination and fine motor skills, and some experts even suggest a link between handwriting and learning ability. Which is good news for anyone who spent hours religiously copying out notes on to index cards in the runup to exam time. (Am I the only one who used a variety of coloured pens and an elaborate system of underlining and bullet points?)

Then there are the more subjective arguments from those who consider writing to be an art form, a historical tradition, a means of expression. And this I fully support. At university I took a minor in Japanese and, for four years, studied the detailed strokes that make up the three types of script used in that language – hiragana, katakana and kanji. I saw the beauty of lettering afresh, and dedicated myself to becoming an artist of sorts.

But then I went on to become a journalist and spent countless hours learning yet another script – shorthand. Designed for speed rather than style, it helped my interview technique but not my legibility. Added to the growing importance of texting and tweeting and messaging and emailing in my life, it was the last nail in the coffin for beautiful handwriting of my childhood.

These days my own husband needs help translating any birthday or Christmas card I might write him - and I don't have to worry about hiding the diary I've recently started keeping again.

So, is there any hope for those of us whose handwriting has suffered under the reign of computerised text? Ironically, technology might hold the answer. A new digital pen, which is in the final stages of development and testing, has been designed by two German entrepreneurs with the goal of helping people write more neatly. The Lernstift - which means "learning pen" - will sense poor letter formation and vibrate to alert the user to their error.

In the meantime, there are plenty of handy YouTube tutorials available, not to mention blogposts and - for the old-school – books such as Improve Your Handwriting: Teach Yourself (Rosemary Sassoon) and Daily Handwriting Practice: Contemporary Cursive (Jill Norris). You could even go back to the classroom for The Idler's eight week Transform Your Handwriting course, which begins in October.

I recently got married and am about to embark on the process of writing thank-you letters. I don't think I can delay long enough to buy a Lernstift or attend a course, but I will try to think myself back to my school days and draw on that enthusiastic girl who so enjoyed the rituals of creating the written word. In fact, perhaps it would be easier if I wrote my thank-yous in HB pencil on exercise book pages …


Rin Hamburgh

The GuardianTramp

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