My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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my long lost handwriting

I tried to write a letter this week. As in I tried to pick up a pen and form letters through odd wrist motions rather than click-clicking my expression. I wasn’t even going for cursive, but I was going for legibility so I tried to form the letters carefully. My first attempt failed so I grabbed a new piece of paper and tried again. After the second sentence, my wrists hurt and my garbled sentence was barely readable and I wanted to go back and delete one of the words. I gave up. I wrote an email.

At breakfast this morning, I was reading about the costs of teachers’ failure to teach penmanship to children. Failure to write often results in reduced math and literacy skills, yet teachers are spending fewer and fewer hours per week teaching penmanship.

I can’t help but wonder about this. I did learn how to write and, given the number of diaries I found last week, I wrote plenty… until college. I learned to type in high school and by college, I went completely digital for everything except problem sets. My college diaries were digital and my assignments were typed and printed out. I can’t remember the last time that I wrote a letter by hand. The only thing that I know how to do with a pen these days is underline sentences in books, add 20% tips to credit card receipts, and scrawl my illegible signature. Once in a while, I write a few words on a stick-it and post it to my fridge as a reminder of something. But seriously, I don’t write.

My handwriting skills have decayed. My ability to communicate without editing has decayed. My patience for creating text at a rate slower than I think has decayed. Typing is fast, handwriting is slow. So is handwriting all that important? Maybe the key is to learn to write while learning to read and then happily forget how to write? Or maybe my brain has turned to all sorts of mush without me even knowing it…

(On a related note, I wonder if Brown still makes students handwrite their college applications? Boy was that a bitch. Then again, I always wondered how many students had their parents do it…)

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23 comments to my long lost handwriting

  • d, just recalling an early post you made about getting burn marks from a laptop. At least with a pen all you end up with is a sore wrist.:-) I don’t have a laptop but I don’t write much any more. I think it’s helped me research better and it’s given me a better way to organise my research notes. Keep up the typing, your work is just the most interesting. p

  • That’s funny. i went to send a check to my grandmother this morning repaying her for a loan, and tried to scribble out a quick note to throw in the envelope. When i did, i had a really similar experience. All the while, I was trying to figure out – 1) When i forgot something that they spent so much time teaching us in school, and 2) Why the hell my hand hurt so bad!

  • what helps me, i write a lot of poetry. of course, i have this tight little scribbly handwriting, half-cursive, half-printing, that obviously shows my tension when i’m writing by hand, that nobody can read anyway. i can barely read it. but it’s something, right?

    i do carry my laptop everywhere. i also think i am losing the ability to speak because i communicate with people predominantly on the internet and by text message. i can only speak the way i might speak in class, which is a little odd to some people.

    (and i still end up with sore wrists after typing for a long time…)

  • I can type faster than I can write, but I find if I’m trying to write something good I’ll come up with it at about the same rate I write. So while it’s slower than typing I think I do less editing (and make a lot less spelling mistakes: typos really are an artifact of the technology, most of the time).

    I can’t write what you guys call cursive at all, it was dropped from the New Zealand school syllabus about 25 years ago. One day, I’m going to teach myself. I’m jealous of the lovely flowing writing that some of my Indian friends have.

    And on a related note: I teach undergraduate zoology, and a lot of students make a fuss about not being able to draw. I might go six months without drawing anything, but still think it’s a worthwhile skill.

  • Peter

    Thanks for your perceptive post! This reminds me of a visit to the Huntington Museum where I looked in awe at carefully drafted hand-written letters and novels, written by writers hundreds of years ago.

    Like you, I now often wonder what our fragmented lives do to our brains that seemingly makes it impossible to re-create such concentrated efforts. One thing may be that (as the information age allows us to know less) we increasingly outsource our thinking, our preferences are getting more narrow and individualistic and we are losing our autonomy in the process, “relinquish[ing] control over [our] decisions to the universal mind.” (see the nice Oct 26 NYT op-ed “The Outsourced Brain,” by David Brooks) We may still know how to ‘remix’ our thoughts on the keyboard but the quality of this depends on having a sustained, coherent flow of thoughts in the first place.

    So that brings me to university education… who says that the academic production of knowledge is based on teaching us an autonomous flow of coherent thoughts? What it teaches us is that (other people’s) ideas and politics are more important than what any writer, including ourselves, had actually written. Thus, that our brains are turning (or, more adequately, turned!) into mush seems to me the more accurate perception.

  • Personally I do a lot of my work drawing and writing on paper… so I still think that way. But it is really easy to see how most people don’t.
    I really enjoyed a book call “Electric language” by Michael Heim. Which is a philosophical study of word processing, and much more interesting than that might sound to some. So there you go, a book recommendation for you spare 6 minutes next month!

  • Ken

    I find it more useful to write lecture outlines out longhand, before even opening Powerpoint. Granted, I use so many ideosyncratic short-cuts that only I can understand what I’ve written, but it’s still somehow pleasing to feel the soft rasp of graphite moving from pencil to paper.

    That said, there’s no way in hell you could get me to write an article longhand. I’m *glad* Prometheus gave us fire.

  • My handwritten output was pretty much limited to signing checks and to writing thank-you notes until I went back to college this fall. I thought I’d take notes on my laptop, but nuh-uh — ergonomics of the desks were so bad I thought I’d really injured my wrists. So back to hand-written lecture notes.

    The first couple of weeks were awkward, but my facility resumed pretty quickly.

    Since I’m condensing lectures into notes, the two things danah mentioned specifically (“My ability to communicate without editing has decayed. My patience for creating text at a rate slower than I think has decayed.”) don’t come into play, allowing more brainspace to run the reluctant hand.

    I’m also driving more than I used to, so I am using drive-time to begin working papers and other required class responses. Typically I talk to myself rather than using some sort of recorder. I’m finding that I have the gross points outlined, and sometime some good phrases.

  • Ben

    my dad always stood by the hand written word. it is deliberate and personal. the thoughts cause a pressure and interaction with real things. your sweat can drip on a note. your perfume can be absorbed by the fibers of the paper. the p.b.& j. may smear on the careless authors words.

    none of this is carried over to the digital text. i had a friend that would write letters and always insert odd confetti pieces. could never figure out why she had the confetti or the thought process that put the letters and confetti together. didn’t matter, it was sublime. maybe these personal touches are simply being replaced by digital counter parts: voice/text messages, audio clips, attached photos. less hassle to clean up or just delete.

    still, the hand written note has been relegated to a word or two on a post-it note. often scribbled rather than written.

    but back to dad. there was a time when he wouldn’t even read his email. stubbornly awaiting a letter or postcard from an offspring far flung. the old metal mailbox collected dust. eventually even the silent generation would succumb. he now regularly sends emails complete with emoticons and attachments.

  • You can re-learn to write legibly pretty quickly by writing a few times daily on a whiteboard for classes of high school students. It’s just a motor skill for you to refresh and recall at this point. But for a student just learning to read, the coupling of that motor skill learning with the other cognitive processes is probably a pretty powerful developmental force. No one ever got fired for teaching kids to write.

  • I can SO relate to that. I am back to taking daily notes in an actual notepad.

  • For an interesting writing experience, try a typewriter. You’re still click-clacking so your wrists probably won’t kill you like they do when you’re using a pen, but as with a pen, you’re forced to write slower than the speed of thought.

    And these days, a typewritten letter carries almost the same cultural associations as a handwritten one.

  • My handwriting ability’s totally disappeared. The last time I wrote a letter I typed it out first then copied it. 🙂

  • Marcela

    This post is funny. I always feel like such a Luddite for still carrying around a paper day planner and taking all my class notes by hand (I’m way too distractible to take my notes with a laptop). Then again I also have RSI issues which gives me an extra motivation to stay offline when possible…

  • DC

    I learned about this a number of years ago when I went to take the GRE. They forced you to hand-copy (in cursive, no less) a paragraph about how you weren’t going to cheat and then sign it.

    That was by far the most torturous part of the GRE. I literally got about halfway through before I started contemplating how much I really wanted to go to grad school.

  • Michael Chui

    One of the main reasons that, despite my inclination towards the digital, my handwriting has not decayed much is that I’ve spent a lot of time in front of whiteboards. Not drawing, but writing.

    Whiteboards will probably never be replaced in my lifetime, except by electronic whiteboards, I think. The ability for two-dimensional sketching on a scale large enough for a small room, with faster and more precise edit ability than even the backspace key can provide, is indispensable to a designer of any kind. Except now that I think about it, there are a host of graphic design programs that, were I to bother learning how to use them, might do the job better. Oh well.

    Beyond that, both of my parents emphasized the importance of good penmanship to me, years after I had stopped being taught it explicitly in elementary school. I could never help but remark on my mother’s excellenship handwriting (she used small caps) and my father never stopped harping on how I cross my t’s and the baseline for my words and so on until I still, to this day, mentally criticize any mistakes I make that would merit his annoyance.

    It helps to have a reason to use your hands to write.

  • hollie

    My two schools still teach a type of handwriting, but it does away with the fancy cursive capital letters. There is quite a debate now within the elementary education world about how much to teach handwriting, what aspects to teach, and how important or not important it is. Standing in front of children every day (and writing notes to teachers or parents) I still hand-write many things. However, due to a tendonitis injury in college, I was grateful when my grad school profs didn’t mind me using my laptop… in a music department that is STILL not seen that often! 🙂

  • Eilleen

    A common complaint by my family vising my house is that they can never find a pen. I have since realised that the only time I use a pen is to sign my name at work.

    I can’t write either. My wrist hurts if I have to write longer than a sentence.

    Oddly enough, I can still draw. I draw diagrams all the time at work… are drawings using crayon an acceptable medium in the business arena?

  • Lisa

    You are so right. Whenever I have to write a check, it takes a minute to remember how. I can no longer write out the dollar amount in cursive. I write one check per month, if that.

  • Van Le

    I totally agree with you that our patience of creating text at a lower speed has been decayed. I still can hand write beautifully cursive letters as long as I have to write just a few of them. With longer texts, I prefer typing otherwise I will make a huge mess.

  • After many years on keyboards I was having to take too many breaks during the day. A couple of years ago I bought a Tablet PC slate so I could use handwriting for digital input. I was surprised at how good the handwriting recognition is for both printed and cursive. It’s slower than typing, but I can now be productive the full day.

  • I’ve been typing since I was about 15 and really haven’t stopped since. I believe my last handwritten full paper was when I was 19 or so. I’m now nearly 24 and really have a hard time handwriting.

    Oddly, when people watch me write they, being in the internet generation, seem to understand. I can type a lot faster than I can write in any case, and my boyfriend and I view handwriting as an archaic form of communication. It is just very inefficient.

    Still, learning it is important. I think those motor skills though could be put to better use with drawing and other more expressive forms.

  • Eddie

    My brain has been rewired so much by typing that when I need to spell a word I have to turn to the keyboard! The words go straight from deep in my brain to my fingers now. Has anyone else noticed this phenomenon?