In my ‘tween years, living in what then was a small Midwestern town, conformity was an important thing, especially for a “westerner” like myself. And all of the girls (or so it seemed) defied convention when it came to handwriting. It was absolutely de rigueur to slant one’s letters to the left rather than to the right, in a style mysteriously known only to young women as “backhand.” As an outsider bitten by the conformity bug, it never crossed my mind to develop a handwriting style that was different from that of my peers.
Flash forward two years, my family returned to California, just in time for me to enter middle school in the 8th grade. California academic standards were rigorous in the public schools, and it was felt that because of the six years of living away, my childhood education would not be up to snuff. Nowhere was this idea more embraced than by my social studies teacher, who took it upon herself to teach me how to write properly.
Handwriting was not part of middle school curriculum, and certainly not in the social studies course of study, but Mrs. Yamaguchi appeared to be deeply offended by my handwriting. She grew exasperated when her admonitions did not yield the results that she wanted, and for close to half a school year, she kept me after class during study hall to practice my handwriting in an approved style.
Surely she must have been disappointed, as all of her efforts, including guiding my hand with her own, came to naught. By the end of that time of practice, my handwriting no longer slanted to the left, but neither did it slant to the right. Some letters slanted left, some slanted right, and others stood straight up in the middle. The offensive handwriting was too well established, firmly ingrained, and now it had only become worse.
But in a way, my unique, hybrid handwriting had a style of its own. The writing was clear and legible, often commended by others, yet difficult to replicate. It was recognizable, though not beautiful, like that of my artist friend Nancy, but it was perfect for those days when signatures mattered.
A 15-year old botched handwriting analysis in an unsolved murder in southern California was recently brought to light when the alleged perpetrator, millionaire Robert Durst, was arrested elsewhere for a different crime. This and other cases reveal that handwriting can still play an important role in criminal investigations. In the notorious Zodiac killings in the San Francisco Bay Area, letters sent to the San Francisco Chronicle did not yield handwriting clues, as the perpetrator pasted individual letters from printed publications onto widely sold, untraceable paper to form his cryptic notes.
Handwriting as a tool for communication is commonly dismissed, viewed as unimportant, unless the news is about some new app that will produce handwriting without having to actually practice it. The Common Core standards for public schools, which have been adopted by 45 states, do not require the teaching of cursive writing. Other countries also are abandoning the teaching of handwriting.
A number of reports issued over the past couple of years, however, indicate that abandoning handwriting may be a mistake. According to a 2014 study by psychologists Pam Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles, slowing down while taking notes in class by hand leads to better retention than note taking by laptop or tablet. The effort it takes to write things down lends itself to a thought process that involves inquiry and analysis of the information.
Additional studies undertaken at Indiana University and the University of Washington found similar results for younger children. “When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain.” (quoted from The New York Times, June 2, 2014).
Regardless of what may be lost, the value of handwriting is ever shrinking. We scrawl our names on tablets and smartphones with our fingertips to approve credit card charges. Online purchases do not require a signature. Signatures on business letters are for the most part both illegible and unreadable. Many of us who learned cursive writing in school may find that our own handwriting is deteriorating. Keyboarding has become second nature, but handwriting can be a chore.
When we do write, whether it is a personal letter, a quick note on a card, or other form of communication, let’s slow down and do it right, putting thought into the handwriting as well as the message itself. Who knows – perhaps it will benefit our cognitive skills and make us better thinkers.
Handwriting Analysis Delayed Link to Durst. New York Post, March 19, 2015.
Here’s Why Writing Things Out By Hand Makes You Smarter by Drake Baer. Business Insider, Dec. 16, 2014.
The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer
What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades by Maria Konnikova. The New York Times, June 2, 2014.