A confession about writing

I have a confession: I can’t write worth a darn.

That’s really hard for a writer to admit, but it’s true. I didn’t get the gene.

I think it’s mostly a female gene. My sisters have it. They write beautifully. I only know two men who have it — one is a priest and the other is a graphic designer. They write beautifully, too.

But me — I long ago gave up even trying. I was a good little student in elementary school, but that one class, particularly in 3rd grade, was my nemesis.

Handwriting. Penmanship. Palmer method. Cursive. Many names for something I failed miserably at.

It was always right in front of me, but so far away. The letters, capital and small, broken down with dotted lines so you could see the proportions of each part, marching across the front of the room over the blackboard. We’d practice and practice, doing “rockers” and “rollers” with our pencils (pens didn’t come into play until much later), with lined paper and plain, trying to train our hands and fingers to remember the motions of the strokes. I don’t know what “method” it was, but I do know it never stuck. And it never felt right — T’s and F’s with their little hats on top, those odd G’s and S’s,impossible Q’s like 2’s, those difficult small r’s. Did you start your capital letters with a little loop at the top or with a straight line or a slight curve? Every method was slightly different.

At one point in 3rd grade, I decided my handwriting would be better if it was much darker. So I started pressing as hard as I could. Miss Hunt noticed, telling me it was much easier to read (still ugly, but easier to read). I think I got a B that grading period instead of my usual C. I also got the start of the perpetual bump on my middle finger that persisted for many, many years and the fingernail that still never grows right.

I always wanted pretty handwriting and admire my sisters’ beautiful script. I practiced and practiced until I got my signature to where I liked it, copying my oldest sister’s style. Somewhere around 8th grade, I adopted another sister’s style of printing, what my 9th grade English teacher described as a “script-print,” and largely abandoned handwriting altogether.

I consider it a lost art, one I always notice in other people. A writer friend’s pretty hand…my dad’s unique style, almost German looking, like my grandma’s…the priest I mentioned, so flowing and smooth. The comfort of being able to know who sent you a card or letter simply by the writing on the envelope. Someday I’d like a print made up of quotes and poems I know and love, handwritten by people I know and love. How personal and special that would be!

Is it still a skill worth teaching? Children get very little instruction in handwriting now. The keyboard, and printing, are king. Does it matter? Does knowing how to write cursive make you smarter? I really don’t know, but I think if I had a child, I would make him or her learn the skill and practice it as long as I could. It just seems like what literate people should know how to do, along with knowing how to read others’ handwriting.

But I’m a fine one to talk. I just tried writing a few sentences — it felt odd. I had to think about it, and I still didn’t do it “right” — my script-print creeping in in spots. Once a bad writer…

How about you? Do you have memories, good or bad, of learning penmanship in school? Do you write or print? Can you write nicely if you want to? Or is the beautiful art lost on you, too?

There are thousands of thoughts lying within a man
that he does not know till he takes up the pen and writes.
~ William Makepeace Thackeray


  1. Friday, February 19, 2010 at 8:47 am

    Enjoyed this Chris! Especially the twist of your lead. 🙂 And that callous bump! I have it too. As for memories . . . I was left-handed and in Catholic grade school . . . need I say more? haha LOVE LOVE LOVE the idea for your quotation book. You should so absolutely positutely DO that! (AND I think you should create and package a template/how-to/DIY for that project — I would buy one. Seriously, I think it’s a very marketable idea.) I miss hand-writing. I miss letters!! And I think there is something to learning it besides just being able to write things down. I find that when I am most baffled by subject, if I sit and write things out (while reading about them), it “sticks” better. There is a connection to the brain that I believe every kid should learn — whether they write pretty or not.

  2. WritingbyEar said,

    Friday, February 19, 2010 at 9:19 am

    Hey, boatdrinkbaby…thanks. Yours is the “pretty hand” I mentioned. I’ve always admired it!

  3. Saturday, February 20, 2010 at 11:22 am

    To cheer you up: some surprising facts about how a fast, legible handwriter typically writes — as opposed to some of our guesses about the way we “should” write.

    Research shows that the fastest and most legible handwriters join some letters, not all of them — making the easiest joins, skipping the rest — and tend to use streamlined but print-like shapes for letters whose printed and cursive shapes disagree.

    This opens new vistas for improving handwriting instruction — particularly when you consider that one doesn’t need to write in a particular style in order to read it. (We can read the elaborate “Olde Englishe” fonts of newspaper mastheads, for instance, without having to write that way ourselves.) Learning to read a difficult style you don’t write — “Olde Englishe” or that complicated cursive, for instance — takes far less time than learning to write that style or any other. (Case in point: I’ve taught kindergarteners and first-graders to read cursive, if they wanted to learn to read it and could already read printing. It would be difficult to argue those kids into believing that they couldn’t read cursive just because they couldn’t write it and didn’t want to.)

    It should surprise no one, then, that some of the newest resources on handwriting instruction are teaching a simple style — what fast, legible handwriters already gravitate to — instead of continuing to enforce inefficient complexities that proficient handwriters tend in any case to discard. For more information, see http://www.tinyURL.com/BetterLettersApp and http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com

    Kate Gladstone
    director, World Handwriting Contest
    handwriting instruction/remediation specialist, Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
    co-designer, Better Letters personal handwriting trainer application for the iPhone, iPodTouch, and iPad

  4. WritingbyEar said,

    Saturday, February 20, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    Kate, thank you so much for the informative comment! I must say, I have been all about speed writing since having to take notes in school. Now as a professional writer, it’s imperative that I take notes quickly (and about everything) — I all but can’t think without a pen in my hand scribbling what someone is saying. I’m glad to know I’m efficient at least, but I do wish I had the “pretty” to go with it when it counts. 🙂

  5. 2nd sister said,

    Saturday, February 20, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    I’ve always loved handwriting I have to admit. As a product of catholic school, I remember the yellow lined paper and the pages of ooooooooo’s and loops, and getting the slant just right, and practicing, practicing on opening up those O’s and E’s The Palmer Method as it was called was an important part of our 2nd grade experience. We were graded on it on our report cards and it was commented on when we turned in assignments. Getting those foil stars on your paper was something to strive for.

    In my 20’s I played with calligraphy. I loved the beautiful flourishes and the romance of pen and ink. I decided I should have a beautiful memorable signature, practicing various forms of writing my name for hours, and adopted a very flourished style. I remember the “Bs” and “Ps” were especially beautiful with loops and big round curves. Too bad, I thought, that my name contained neither. So I set about fancying up my signature so it would resemble the script on a fine wedding invitation. I often wonder what a handwriting analysis would have revealed…..one observant sister commented a few years ago that I’ve always had delusions of grandeur. She was obviously more on target than she knew.

    I’ve retained few of the flourishes; more often than not, I’m rushing to sign off on checks or documents, and taking pen to paper less and less. Maybe we should institute a national letter writing day to get everyone back in the handwriting mode. Think of the joy we would all experience receiving something other than our heating bill in the mail!

  6. WritingbyEar said,

    Sunday, February 21, 2010 at 8:17 am

    Hey sister. I love the idea of national letter-writing day — I (and another sister you might know) were prolific letter-writers. She probably still has all of hers; I weeded mine (many from grade school!) a few years back. I do miss the fun of getting a fat, handwritten letter in the mail. Nothing like it. (P.S. I also have a calligraphy set. I should pull it out again.)

  7. robbie said,

    Monday, February 22, 2010 at 11:59 am

    What ever happened to short hand? I know it was business based. I wonder why it never made it out into the mainstream? Especially with all this texting, twittering, etc. It may not be pretty but it sure is fast.

  8. WritingbyEar said,

    Tuesday, February 23, 2010 at 11:58 pm

    I always wished I had learned shorthand! I’ve worked with a couple people over the years who knew it and was always jealous of their note-taking ability. It seems to be (another) lost art.

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