Is handwriting better than using a computer?

No, it’s the quality of what’s written that matters, not the tools…

The Guardian has published what must be the longest free advert for a book in its history. Which would be more forgivable if the basic premise of the book – pen and ink good, computers bad – wasn’t complete bollocks. Luddites, it seems, are alive and well at the Guardian (yep, the guy’s a contributor).

That’s not to say that if you love writing longhand letters, a diary, or whatever, you should stop and run out and buy a computer. Of course you shouldn’t – just don’t try and tell me you’re superior to me, because I use a computer. You’re not, nor I to you.

One of the main points of the article is that handwriting conveys personality and emotion. No, it doesn’t, not to anyone who isn’t a forensic graphologist, anyway. Outside of that narrow field, whether text is handwritten, typed, or computer-generated and printed, what you have is simply ink on a page. Ink has no intrinsic means of conveying personality or emotion.

Personality depends on how well you know the writer – you imbue the words with personality, whether handwritten of printed, if you know the writer well enough. And the emotion is in the words, not the medium of delivery – how often have you been reduced to tears, or paroxysms of laughter while reading? That is entirely by virtue of the words, and, to a degree, the punctuation, not the ink – the result would have been the same if the words were carved in stone or hand-written.

And these days, words are where the failing lies.

Most adults I know – between 25 and 45, say – have a vocabulary that would have embarrassed a 12-year-old of my generation (I explain why this is in this post). And most of those who use word processors are unaware that they have a personal dictionary, because they never challenge the native one. A pretty dismal state of affairs.

Hell, it’s a rare day (this is one), when I don’t add at least one word to my personal Word dictionary, and when I got a new computer at the turn of the year, plus new OS and software (Windows 7 and Office 2007), it was weeks before my personal dictionary was anywhere near up to speed.

My handwriting is horrible always has been. The first thing I did on leaving school in 1960 was buy a typewriter, and when I got my first computer, in 1992, I was in heaven! Still am. I write a lot and, if I were restricted to pen, ink, and paper, not only would it slow me down prodigiously (and, in many cases be impossible), it would be illegible. How would that be better?

I agree with the writer that the teaching of handwriting should still be a priority – apparently it isn’t any longer, if he’s telling the truth, as he say’s schools set aside just one week for the teaching of handwriting. I find that bizarre.

At school, I was taught to write simultaneously with being taught to read – though I could already do both well for my age (that, in fact, might account for my horrible writing – in the infants’ school, we used slates, not paper). How anyone can be taught to write in a manner completely divorced from reading – they’re two sides of the same coin and learning to read also equals learning to spell – I have no idea, but it does, I think, go some way towards explaining the rising tide of sub-literacy, particularly noticeable online.

I read a comment in the Guardian this morning. The writer, based on his use of words, was intelligent, but he’d never bothered to learn how to spell some of the words. Sorry, no, I’m not accepting “not been taught properly”. Hell, the ability to spell, as I said before, is a function of the ability to read, which he can clearly do. He knew the words, so had clearly encountered them more than once, and presumably they were spelled correctly.

There is one point about computer use that was overlooked (I think – the article was way too long to do more than skim), and that’s the falling standards of computer-generated text, and there is no logical reason why that should be. Take yesterday, I received a tweet – part of a conversation I was having – that was utterly unintelligible; I couldn’t even extrapolate a meaning based on what had gone before. Consequently, there was no possibility of formulating a reply.

And it’s not that this happens all too often – it’s that it happens at all that pisses me off. And it’s almost universal online. What’s happened to standards or, for that matter, pride in one’s work, even if it’s “just” an email?

Whether I’m writing a blog post, email or tweet, I hold myself to the same standard – Standard English, slightly imperfect. Deliberately so – perfect English is a tad stilted – little imperfections ease the flow.

And not holding myself to that standard would suggest, very strongly, that I had little or no regard for the reader or recipient. I do appear, though – and I’m sure it’s a generational thing – to be a member of a diminishing minority.

Not teaching kids to simultaneously read and write, and thus associate one with the other, and to embrace and venerate their own written language, is a massive cultural error.

After all, what happens when the last person who learned to write properly dies and, suddenly, for whatever reason, there’s no more electricity, forever.

What happens to written communications then? And record keeping, the writing of history, the language of diplomacy? All one with the dinosaurs…

The only hope will be that small groups of hardliners, with secret scriptoria and underground typing pools are keeping alive tradition. If not, future humanity is going to be seriously screwed.

In fact, Japan and China will rule the world, as having written languages so complex that they can’t easily be computerised will give them a huge advantage.

That’s assuming they haven’t done so already, of course.

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3 thoughts on “Is handwriting better than using a computer?

    • Hi Bev – was going to email you earlier, then couldn’t remember what I was going to say!

      Still some way to go yet, but I think normal service has been restored, at least blog-wise.

      Been practising by snarling at people on CiF! ;)

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