Poetry and Writing

The Forgotten Art of Handwriting


I am a writer. There, I said it. “A writer?” you say… By what definition?

At the simplest level I am a writer, because I sit down and write. I am writing a novel (21,000 words in and 80,000 to go…), I write poetry; at last count over 280 poems featured on my instagram account (@ajfrobisherpoetry) and on my poetry website . I sit down and tap away at a keyboard, but I also sit down with a notebook, a blank page and a pen and write long hand. The words flow from my brain and ideas tumble to my fingers and my hand moves smoothly across the paper, recording my ideas as my poems unfold or my story in my novel takes shape. A fluency and speed of writing I can not match with a keyboard.

In many ways, I prefer the long hand style of writing. The feel of pen in hand, scratching ink to paper, to place ideas into a physical, present form. There is a permanence and solidity to the handwriting process (that is unless your notes and ideas are chewed by the dog or blown away through an open window or door, scattered to all corners of the neighbourhood.)

Writing in a digital format has more advantages than handwritten text. It is easier to alter and correct, to reorder sentences, to cut and paste ideas, to insert or delete as required and has an almost infinite capacity for storage these days. You can back up to memory stick, external hard drive, upload to Google Docs, Dropbox etc etc. Even if your computer blew up in the night, you would have a good chance of recovering your precious writing (unless you failed to back anything up at all…and it wasn’t so long ago that the only option for back up was done on a flimsy 3.4 inch floppy disk, with the storage capacity of a goldfish brain).

But the keyboard clatters and the fingers are thick and clumsy. And I still type with a rapacious, quick inaccuracy with my two index fingers and my right thumb. Letters are scrambled and mis-ordered, words are joined by errant letters; Imdobnotmknowbwhy… My text is peppered with additional b’s and n’s and m’s when I hadn’t even requested them and the space bar eludes my thumb with annoying regularity.

Half of the time I spend in composing written work on the computer screen is spent in editing and correction. You can never trust your fingers to follow what the brain instructs them, nor can you place your faith in the spelling and grammar checking Word or other writing software provides. “Their are plaices wear there faces where smiles.” Funnily enough my spell checker failed to pick up any of the 6 spelling errors in the previous sentence.

I remember being at university in the late 1980’s. The advent of the personal computer for anything more than playing stick tennis and ‘Chucky Egg’ was just around the corner. But the fantastic array of writing tools we have literally at our fingertips were not present then. My studies required a considerable amount of essay writing. Trips to the library produced reams and reams of hand written notes. Lectures too were another round of hand ache and cramp inducing information gathering. No plethora of photocopied papers to read, but a reading list of recommended books and journals. No quick looking up “What gases comprise the stratosphere?” or asking “OK Google, tell me the most active volcanoes in the world and when they last erupted”. And the essays were 2,500 – 5,000 word behemoths and written. Not typed. Every word written. Painstaking, laborious, frustrating when, as often happened, you realised you forgot to insert the most relevant argument in your discussion on page 3 and had to rewrite it. So too the examinations we sat. End of year or finals. 3 hours of furious pen action, trying as best you could to compose a valid and accurate, knowledgable and informative answer to the question posed. In as legible a handwriting as possible. I can still feel my fingers cramping to a spider’s shape at the mere mention of written exams.

Yet change was afoot. The word processor (remember those?) had arrived and the fledgling computer department had a bank of WP’s for students to use. And despite the hand written essays and notes and exams, the final year dissertation, the last big project; 10,000 words, could be submitted in typewritten format. Praise be. Hallelujah.

And so I found myself beginning to get to grips with the vagaries of technology. Type written on a word processor. And so the frustrations of type written text began…as I checked and re-checked my work, failing to pick up spelling errors that were homophones (e.g. wear and where), or spelling mistakes that required a liberal use of Tippex to correct once the final work had been printed and bound.

So, you can call me a traditionalist, conservative, stuck in the 80’s type of chap. But I am not really. The majority of my time writing is spent on a digital platform. I write/type on Word, I compose poetry online or on notes on my smart phone. The convenience is fantastic. I can be in the supermarket and I will get inspiration, the bones of a poem to flesh out later. I can’t request “Table, chair, notebook and pen to checkout 3 please”. But I will get the phone out and type my ideas. I love the flexibility of composing in Word, writing direct to screen. Chop and change, save and delete, edit and refine.

But I still pride myself on the ability to write. By hand. Handwriting that is legible, neat and honed from years of practice at school and university. I was even writing letters and reports, presentations, emails and meeting notes when I was a senior manager in the railways in 1996. My brilliant personal assistant Bev would roll her eyes as I asked her if she would be so kind as to type up and send this report / email for me. I didn’t even have a computer on my desk.

Has handwriting become a forgotten art? I believe so. Ask a candidate at a job interview to write a 300 word essay on “What do you believe you will add to this company if you are selected?” and they will immediately look around for a computer. “Er, excuse me, is there a computer to write on?” “No, the clue is in the instruction…I would like you to WRITE, not type”. “Yeah, but, well, I don’t write see, ever…” And therein lies the problem. People just don’t write anymore. They tap and type, but rarely put pen to paper other than to sign a name. Watch someone in their 20’s and 30’s  be asked to fill out a form at the dentists and it is painful. Their hands are so unused to writing anything. Of course I am generalising with such a sweeping statement. But it really does appear that handwriting is slowly being eliminated from the necessity of daily life and of any need for those in the next generations to employ it.

So while I will continue to embrace technology and cut and paste as Bill Gates intended, I will also continue to practice the dying art of handwriting. There is a connection that is intimate and solid; a fluid, fluent process of transfer from brain to fingertips and the motor skills needed to shape and write the written word. There is beauty in a piece of neat, rounded handwriting. No wonder our computer based writing software contain a myriad number of calligraphic styles….handwriting is aesthetically pleasing. When done well it aids the reader in passing fluently across the information and creating an unbroken input of ideas.

Perhaps we will one day see the  entire world slave to the screen. Everything typed and tapped. No pens, no paper to write on, only to be printed on, and maybe not even that. Handwriting an archaic activity best forgotten and not taught. Every school pupil equipped with a tablet or laptop, every desk plugged in and remotely connected to a printer, or Dropbox or external hard drive. But I hope not. There is discipline and style, personality and commitment in handwriting. There is care and consideration for the reader (or there should be…doctors please take note). Handwriting may be fading and may be seemingly less and less important in today’s modern age. But there is still a place for it, in my opinion

….an opinion which I type clumsily with two fingers and a thumb on a Word document on a screen on a desk top computer…..







3 thoughts on “The Forgotten Art of Handwriting

  1. I love handwriting for how much more it can do. For formal writing, I will always type, but handwriting is so much better at brainstorming and idea gathering – at putting thoughts into words.


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