Nil by Hand

pen and ink

The other day I ran into a couple of ex-students (not in the car…it wasn’t that kind of school). These were two of the lovely girls from my last school and even though they have fiancés and careers and weren’t wearing blue stripy uniforms, I know them. The names escaped me but it didn’t matter because I immediately formed a picture in my mind of their handwriting. And with that came a slew of attributes, ways of thinking and speaking, seat in the class, sisters, friends, and (about two days later) names…Lauren and Stephanie. It happens more often than you might imagine. A tall shaggy haired young fellow will greet me at a folk festival and have me looking for the young face beneath the beard. Unlike the girls, the boys change dramatically but once I know him the handwriting is there. It might be spidery black meanderings or firm confident blue strokes evenly engraving thoughts on the page, but with it comes the individual, whose uniqueness seems to have become embedded in my brain by a mysterious mechanism I long to apply to the mystery of where I left my glasses, or why the remote is in the fridge.

student smiling

And the years do not diminish the memory, even though they’ve obliterated great slabs of my own life. I remember Reggie Forbes, whose wide lettered smoothly looped musings on Macbeth were gracefully replicated on the basketball court or Vincent Pratt (aka “Cool”), whose tight small twenty words to the line belied his insouciant swagger. This was my first job: Robinson Road High School, Nassau, Bahamas, 1970, and these guys are now in their fifties! And the once-troubled boy who appeared on our doorstep last week as a confident and successful young man was astonished and touchingly pleased that I could describe the large sad curling words he eked out of an unhappy adolescence.

But handwriting is on the way out. The journey from papyrus to quills and ink to fountain pen to biro has reached the keyboard.  And documents that are now word-processed have quite a few things in common with their nutritional counterparts: they save labour, are less messy, come neatly packaged, and are easier to digest. So other than providing an aide-memoir for an ageing teacher, does it matter that longhand will soon be among the skills demonstrated in museums of social history along with darning a sock or reading a map?

Longhand as the name suggests, takes longer to form and forces the hand into a series of mini-gymnastics in a process that by today’s standards, is slow. And in a world where speed is always assumed to be better – if the hype is to be believed it’s been accorded a kind of moral value along with thinness and youthfulness – it now feels pedestrian and laborious.

But as many writers will attest, there is something mysterious in the way in which thoughts and ideas find their way on to the page and the direct arterial and sensory connection between brain and hand still holds some magic power, which they are reluctant to relinquish. Yes, it’s slower but surely any thought or idea worth its salt needs time to come to fruition. And the idea that the greatest works and thoughts of our culture were sweated on to a page by an actual hand curling around a pen and leaving – along with the riches of stories or poems – his or her actual DNA, is oddly moving. If you don’t believe me go to the British Library on Euston Road and see the actual scrap of paper on which a trench-weary Wilfred Owen wrote: Bent double like old beggars under sacks. Knock-kneed, coughing like hags we cursed through sludge. One only has to imagine that as an email, or worse still a text message or a tweet (#thiswarsux) to say it matters.

Is this why we still go in our droves to the houses where the books we love were created? The writers are long dead, but there is something about seeing the actual desk, breathing the same air, placing our foot in the same worn place on the front step. If not for the thick blue rope, we would touch the sofa where Emily Bronte died, run our hand along the worn velvet. The words aren’t quite enough; we need to be closer to the person.


Handwriting offered this connectedness for everyone, not just the great writers. When a letter hit the mat we often knew who’d sent it before we even opened it. A person’s individuality is evident in every curl and stroke, so much so that the study of handwriting has given rise to all sorts of psychological analysis. And letters can be revisited, caressed, smelt, tied in ribbons, taken out years later to be smiled about or wept over. The colour and texture of the paper, the shade of the ink, all express the uniqueness of the individual, and when they are no longer with us it is comforting to hold in our hand the actual paper that was in theirs. Trawling through your inbox just isn’t the same!

It takes a long time for us to learn to form letters, for our tiny hands to trace the impossibly smooth curves of the primer, and if as we laboured to force the watery blue ink into those lovely shapes, someone had said, don’t worry, use this, and popped an iPad into our weary hands, we’d have been delighted. This is pretty much what is happening now. While we still teach our children to write, the opportunities to use the skill are diminishing in inverse proportion to the proliferation of devices that save us the effort. This is a loss for a couple of reasons: the formation of letters and words with fingers demands a high level of coordination that if practised, becomes a kind of brain-gym where our physical and mental selves coalesce on the page. And it’s uniquely us on the page, we have to generate the thought, not choose from a range of options offered in seductively smooth fonts and formats. Doing the thinking and the choosing, knowing we have no other tools but ourselves, the pen and the page, forces us to scour the corners of our brains for the best we can find there. The writer Mike Carlton used letters and diaries of the young men of HMAS Perth, to tell the story of their courage in WW2. In beautiful copperplate, he tells us, these men – often teenagers from ordinary backgrounds – wrote with clarity and depth that may not be found in a similar demographic today.


Depriving our young people of yet another difficult task does them no favours. Life is no less difficult, language still has to be processed at high levels if we are to function successfully, and pretending that it’s all easy is depriving them of the chance to learn skills at an age when it’s still fun and not a chore.  And the latest research on brain plasticity tells us that what we do forms us, so we are being formed by homogenous, commercially driven toys… so slick, so beautiful, but we are losing some of the unevenness, the roughness and individuality of effort. And at least the keyboard gives your fingers a bit of a workout. With touchpads, voice activated text and apps that predict what you may wish to think or say, and correct your spelling and grammar without so much as a by your leave, your fingers are free to do all sorts of other things fingers do…hmmm.

Boy (4-5) and Girl (1) play with iPad and iPhone

I love the totally brilliant devices at our disposal and have seen many a struggling student’s learning transformed by them. But when it comes to the next generation of young malleable brains surely we need to control our love affair with speed, ease and slickness. Humanity is a slower, more lumbering creature that is still lagging in the wake of its spritely counterpart, technology. Sure we created it but once it goes beyond the speed of our movement, thought and feeling it will dictate the terms. Is this what we want?

Picture of children using iPads taken from the website of the new Steve Jobs School opening in Amsterdam offering iPad centred education for children from 4-12 years. 

Envelope containing May Edward Hill’s letter to David Hill Jr January 5th 1919 Archives of Ontario.

A girl writing by Henriette Brown


8 thoughts on “Nil by Hand

  1. Best yet…reply from my smartphone as I sit in a hospital waiting area. Ink not permitted, and pens confiscated as dangerous weapons on arrival. Kind regards Brian

    • Hi Flavia
      Yes, I thought you might empathise with this one, as someone who loves beautiful things and is prepared to wait for them to grow. I mean of course your splendid garden, which I’ve been loving on your blog. Must learn to comment properly, love A

  2. Hi Angie,
    What a fabulous, considered and thoughtful post. It certainly gave me food for thought. A piece of beautifully crafted handwriting is certainly a joy to behold, and especially treasured when received in a letter. I would have to say though, that after making the transition, over a number of years, from using a computer keyboard like a typewriter to now a tool for composition (my brain doesn’t kick into gear unless the fingers are doing the walking) I wouldn’t trade it back for the large and painful ‘writing’ callus on my middle finger which has all but disappeared.

    • Hi Nora
      I’m with you about the joys of electronic communication…pretty ironic to use the technology in order to bag it! But as a passionate educator (like yourself) I do see dangers in the loss of important skills, and in the loss of face to face interaction. That photo of the two kiddies on iPads was chilling. Shouldn’t they be playing or laughing or staring at each other, not a screen? Really enjoying your blogs…plenty to think about in there.
      Regards, Angie

  3. Thanks again Angie- love your insight. I expect that the ramifications of a generation denied the opportunity to create by hand will be considerable. We as teachers know intuitively just how writing contributes to intelligence.
    The manner in which schools and universities are sponsored by MAC, Google etc both saddens and sickens me. I wonder if the art of journal writing and observing life through drawings and sketches will be lost. Thank goodness Da Vinci wasn’t around today – The Codex Leicester – would never exist, nor would many of his inventions as it contained his observations on the nature as well as other aspects of science and technology. And it was written in his distinctive mirror script, just as distinctive as the script of your past students.

    Thanks again for writing- I love your blog- kisses for you and Bob


    • Hi Rene
      And you can boast beautiful handwriting,which would be more of a loss than my careless scrawl! But it’s the dehumanising of it all that scares me. Still, as long as there are lovely teachers like yourself in the job, the personal interaction is safe for bit longer.
      Love Angie

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