What’s the Point of Handwriting?

Maybe handwriting is neither a lost art nor an anachronism; perhaps new technology will show there is some useful alchemy left in the way language, the body, and our sense of identity intertwine.

Hazlitt regular contributor Navneet Alang writes about the weirdness and wonder of...

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Sylvia’s handwriting was looping and crisp and clean. Though she was my girlfriend, I was, as with most girls I knew in high school, intensely jealous of her penmanship—of what seemed, at the time, like its unreachable, feminine perfection. My handwriting was, by comparison, a mess: the hand of a drunken man trying to scrawl down gibberish while riding on the back of a motorcycle, a different script every time. It wasn’t neatness or clarity on their own that I envied, though—it was the solidity and consistency of someone who wrote the same way each time, could reliably and assuredly express themselves. In the same manner, day after day, manifested on the page, they seemed to be saying: I know who I am—here, let me show you.

Little surprise, then, that the clean uniformity of type came as a relief. When my family got its first laser printer, I marvelled at how sharp the text was, my a’s and e’s now rendered in surgically precise curves rather than illegible scratchings. As the Internet arose, I became enamoured of the focus on my prose and not my penmanship; even today, the elegant, pre-made typographical aesthetics of sites such as Medium offer me visual possibilities of expression I thought would be forever denied. Digital offered a reprieve from the skittering, dissociative strangeness of my pen. The neat structure of a typed essay was like writing myself out as I wanted to be—organized, firm, forceful—becoming on the digital page who I could not be in script.

*

Handwriting today is … well, pick your cliché: a lost art; a symbol of a now-bygone, analogue age; a cruder form of writing, mostly pointless; or a distinctly human form of communication, that also happens to be an expression of identity.

All of these are, in various ways and degrees, true—particularly the fact that handwriting is far less useful than it once was. Strangely, however, it may be making a return—albeit transformed: Microsoft has had some modest success recently shipping tablets with a pen that can be used to write, draw, and mark up existing documents. Maybe more intriguingly, Microsoft’s new Edge browser will let users write by hand or digital pen atop web pages, marking up sites with “handwritten” notes, and share them. Writing may find a rebirth on screens.

One should always be wary of the motives and promises of large corporations. Yet, if the pen does return quietly, slipping in like an inconspicuous mark on a letter, perhaps it will be not just because someone is hawking it, but because it truly serves some other function. Maybe handwriting is neither an obsolete art nor a fundamentally human mode, now lost; in the symbol of a hybrid digital writing, perhaps there is some useful alchemy left in the way language, the body, and our sense of identity are so intimately intertwined.

*

Much of what has been written about handwriting is instructional. Texts such as Frank N. Freeman’s The Teaching of Handwriting or Reginald C. Phillips’ The Skills of Handwriting go to great lengths to outline the standards one should aim for. “The first requirement of good posture,” writes Freeman, “is that the body and head be held erect.” Ultimately, most of these texts espouse a kind of hygiene—that cleanliness of penmanship indicates a cleanliness of mind.

Running alongside this ethos, however, is the idea that handwriting indicates character, like a kind of low-level craniometry. In the late 19th century, there was Rosa Baughan’s very ambiguously titled Character Indicated by Handwriting: A Practical Treatise In Support of the Assertion that the Handwriting of a Person is an Infallible Guide to His Character. Baughan explores the so-called “science” of writing, arguing not only “that the handwriting reflects, to a certain extent, the intelligence and character of the writer,” but, further, that “each nation has its national character of writing, as the physiognomy of each people expresses the most salient points of character in the nation.” It’s a more pervasive idea than we probably want to admit. Right or wrong, we tend to believe that expressions of bodily movement somehow reflect the person doing the moving: that the artisan or the writer puts something of themselves into the work, so that to own or hold the handmade or crafted thing is like carrying a piece of its maker with you.

Maybe the limitations of the body carry some hidden benefit: that in marking out ideas at a pace slower than typing, there is some link between neural and muscle memory.

In many of these guides to and theories of handwriting, there is an intense focus on the body. Freeman’s book dedicates a whole chapter to the physiology of writing, while others come with detailed illustrations of the muscle groups we use when holding a pen or pencil. It makes sense. Handwriting is profoundly bodily. Like an exaggerated, intensified version of the sweeps and swipes we use on a tablet, writing by pen can make muscles ache. Write while crying and one’s hand becomes shaky, write with excitement and watch the swirls and loops of one’s arcs become wild—an inky neurochemical expression that type just can’t replicate or capture.

Perhaps this is why handwriting, even today, still has benefits. More than one study has suggested that writing by hand helps both retention and understanding. It is a question of pace and focus—of the fact that the mind simply cannot consciously recognize individual letters typed out at normal speed, but can when one writes. Maybe the limitations of the body carry some hidden benefit: that in marking out ideas at a pace slower than typing, there is some link between neural and muscle memory.

*

To write by hand in the 21st century is to not just find a style in script, but in movement, too—to rediscover how we map out kinetically with our hands the pulse and feeling of language. It is, in that classically McLuhan-esque way, to extend the self through the use of tools—but to feel it in an intimately physical way, too. It was an idea confirmed to me recently, when Microsoft sent me a Surface 3 tablet to test out. The device’s pen struck me immediately as the most interesting thing about it; as a computer, the Surface is fine, but with a pen, it feels somehow new.

Writing on a tablet is odd, however. Despite improvements, there is a slight but a noticeable lag, so that it almost feels like writing with a drying marker rather than a pencil or new pen. There is also that tiny, perceptible disconnect between moving a pen across glass and the liquid crystals, just beneath, showing the marks—those extra mediating layers of electricity and algorithms that make sense of the pressure can be difficult to ignore. Once you get used to it, though, it’s functional enough: You can use the pen to just draw on a blank page, or paint in a piece of free software. You can also use it to mark up PDFs or simply draw or write into a Word document—and it is perhaps there that the pen becomes most useful, and intriguing, too, as a particular disconnect emerges.

On one hand, you get your usual digital interface of programmatic inputs—systematized presses, gestures, and UIs that dictate how you operate. On the other is the pen, which you can use in a manner significantly less constrained. Suddenly, the contrast strikes you: that handwriting’s malleability becomes an inscription of personality atop digital in a manner far more subjective and idiosyncratic than using keys or swipes. Each person’s “a” is different, after all, but it still works as long as it’s recognizable. Unlike the crisp input systems developed for touch screens over the last decade, each interaction designed carefully for a new interface, digital ink feels … ragged. The neat scan of a PDF is suddenly scarred by red and yellow and purple marks. The brainstorming notes I wrote for this piece are a mishmash of typed and “handwritten,” lines connecting chunks of type and ideas I thought were good enough to furiously underline.

Unlike digital’s precision, writing is blurry individuality under a general system. But in addition to this, we all have our own personalized understanding of arrows, squiggles, double-underlines and so on—little personal codes we develop over time to “talk to ourselves.” To write by hand is to always foreground an inevitable uniqueness, visually marking out an identity in opposition to, say, this font you’re reading right now.

Typing is of course far better at getting words down. One can touch-type far closer to the speed of thought, and for that and reasons of simple efficiency, typing should continue to dominate how we write. Yet, writing by hand has benefits: not only its personal nature, but its adaptability without requiring a similarly adaptive, coded system behind it. Handwriting relies on resemblance—on approximating a virtual, universally recognized letter—while type relies on repetition: repeating a shape created in code. The latter has enabled entirely new modes of connection, thought, and communication, but perhaps it is in precisely writing’s inefficiency that there is still some more use to be found.

*

When I first turned to type—printing out my own essays in fancy fonts, or putting up blog posts on Blogger—digital represented freedom, not just from my own constantly shape-shifting identity, but also the constraints of a teenaged life. When I found relief in the digital, it was because it provided me a space to express myself in the way that I chose, but could not otherwise achieve.

In the 2010s, it is harder to make those claims about digitality, and not just because I’m older. The emergent phase of the web as we know it seems to be over, and most people’s experience of the Internet is found, rather than in self-fashioned, cobbled-together Livejournals or blogs, in decidedly mainstream, shared sites: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, and so on. More than that, though, the experimentalism of the earlier web—everything from neat bits of code, to self-publishing ventures—has, while still there, taken a backseat to services like Instagram, to an increasingly centralized, normalized social media in which the culture of the web has become more and more about consumption of various kinds: of not just media, but of each other and the self, too.

If one can draw over and annotate a web page and then send it to a friend, the web at least feels less hegemonic, recalling the kind of interactivity and freedom of expression once found in the now-broken dream of blog comment sections.

It would be altogether too optimistic to say that digital handwriting offers some kind of countervailing balance to this shift. For one, it is being pushed by enormous multinationals. When you mark up a PDF in Microsoft’s OneNote, it automatically gets uploaded to the cloud, becoming one more reason to hook you into the vertical silo of a tech giant’s services. Technology does not carry an inherent politics, but it does have tendencies to encourage behaviour one way or another. The anti-Facebook revolution will not come in the form of a digital pen, and Microsoft’s emphasis on the pen as a form of personal computing simply mirrors Apple’s similar ethos: pleasure breeds consumption, which in turn breeds profits.

For all that, though, what pens do offer is both practical and symbolic resistance to the pre-programmed nature of the modern web—its tendency to ask you to express yourself, however creatively and generatively, within the literal and figurative constraints of a small, pre-defined box. There is a charming potential in the pen for activity that works against the grain of those things: to mark out in one’s own hand the absurdities of some top ten list, or underlining some particularly poignant paragraph in a way that a highlight or newly popular screenshotting tool doesn’t quite capture. Perhaps it’s the visual nature of the transgression—the mark of a hand slashed across a page—that produces emblematically the desire for self-expression: not the witty tweet or status update, nor just the handwritten annotation, but the doubled, layered version of both, the very overlap put to one’s own, subjective ends. And then there is more simple pleasure: that you are, in both an actual and metaphorical sense, drawing outside the lines. If one can draw over and annotate a web page and then send it to a friend, for example, the web at least feels less hegemonic, recalling the kind of interactivity and freedom of expression once found in the now-broken dream of blog comment sections.

Yet, handwriting isn’t simply an aesthetic, stylistic intervention. Rather, it is a mode—a distinct category of human communication, neither better nor worse than speech or type. Neither is it more organic or natural than type—what could be possibly more unnatural than etching an abstracted script that operates in the absence of its author onto pulped-up trees, or glowing screens?

But when we all communicate through type, the web sometimes risks flattening our written expression into a visual uniformity at the least, and a cultural uniformity at the worst. Certainly, it asks us to find individuality in other ways: in strange ticks of punctuation, spelling, Weird Twitter-speak, or, of course, creative use of emoji. But writing, particularly in the manner that it foregrounds the body—that it is a visual manifestation of the movement of an arm and a hand and a set of firing neurons—also then ends up foregrounding not just individuality, but the way in which being human is a movement forward, not just a moment in time. Type is the same, instance after instance, and the font you choose today will look the same when you type in it again tomorrow. The same is not true for crafting prose or poetry by hand, each looping connection between letters mapping out the inherently linear, temporal nature of language: the fact that for it to “work,” you must always be in the tumbling forward of reading.

*

Identity online is fraught. You could make the argument that our collected personas—the affected shots of Instagram; the too-earnest Facebook status updates; the sarcastic, bitter tweets—are all an attempt to form some approximation of who we believe ourselves to be: we perform ourselves to become more authentic versions of ourselves. I know I at least do something like this, and have made winding, verbose arguments that documenting ourselves into being is how we use social media to become more human.

Yet I have also, in the writings of those such as Rob Horning, found reason to be deeply skeptical of the economic and ideological motives behind that push. Now that the web is a place of data collection, of surveillance, and of that strange urge to perform one’s personal brand in the right way, such naive notions of performance are no longer tenable. And yet … we still do it: inscribing shards of the self upon screens, despite the fact that, in a variety of ways, we must see and build our identities through the prisms that are handed to us, shaping ourselves to the nature of the newly corporatized web.

Perhaps my envy of Sylvia and her script still lingers. Those people who seem to know what they are and what they want: how did they ever arrive there? Those who don’t need to perform themselves into the pre-ordained boxes of the Facebooked Internet, but can slash their way across the screen as who they really are, with no need for the perfect type—what delirious freedom it must be, what an ideal way to live.

As for my handwriting, it has not changed. It is still always morphing and shifting. Even with a digital pen, it is slightly different each time, each inscriptive act an invention of yet another new personality, erasing the one that came before. But maybe there is something in this, too.

Have you ever seen hand-drawn ink on a page, magnified? It is jagged and rough, full of an impossible number of imperfections. Zoom in far enough and even the most sophisticated digital algorithms would find it difficult to track the cartography of just one letter. There are simply too many undulations, too many indecipherable points to make sense of it. And perhaps this is what appeals with digital ink, too, as symbol, as metaphor—as just a fool’s hope: that in that discomfiting glide of a nib atop glass, there is still the human yearning to say, “I know who I am—here, let me show you.”

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