The most frequent question I am asked when I tell people what I do for a living is, ‘Does handwriting still matter?’ To be honest, over the past few years my responses have gone from ‘not really’ to ‘of course it does’ and everything in between, but as you can probably guess it’s something which has regularly caused me sleepless nights. So, having thought about it for a long time, the next time somebody asks me the question my answer will unhesitatingly and unequivocally be, ‘If it matters it matters’.
Let me explain. First of all, when parents and teachers and politicians and others talk about the standard of writing produced today, some of them are thinking of the legibility of the handwriting, others are thinking of the grammatical structures, and a few are thinking about the quality of the ideas. The first of these aspects of writing may well be related to the others, but on the other hand it may not. To digress slightly, I remember when I was in primary school many, many years ago and we started our first scrawling attempts at handwriting on a wooden-bordered slate which had lines on one side to guide the writing and was blank on the other side for our drawings and sums: it was cleaned using a small piece of sponge which we kept in a plastic container and regularly topped up with water. In Primary 7 we learned ‘italic writing’ as a treat and the teacher sent off for special fountain pens which had our names inscribed on the side. I won a prize for italic writing and I was pleased as Punch. Today, the only handwriting I do is to scribble some notes on a shorthand notepad while talking on the phone, or to jot down the URL for a website, or a password, or the ingredients for a recipe. Sometimes when I read it back I can’t decipher my own writing. Does handwriting still matter?
Not long ago, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, received praise and criticism in almost equal measure, when he wrote to the mother of a soldier who had been killed in Afghanistan. The handwriting was barely legible, and the letter contained several errors, including the spelling of the soldier’s surname. It’s the thought that mattered above all, said many, and the fact that he took the time from a busy schedule to write a personal letter to a grieving mother. Did it matter that the handwriting was poor, and there were one or two minor errors? Yes, I think, is the answer, because he decided to write it rather than have it word-processed. Yes, because he was either unaware that it contained errors or he didn’t bother to have it checked, both of which are inexcusable as soon as he had decided that it mattered. Finally, a key question. Did it achieve its purpose? Apparently not, as the recepient was deeply upset, which was not exactly the purpose of the letter. So, in the final analysis, when the next person asks me the question, ‘Does handwriting matter any more?’ my answer will be, ‘If it matters, it matters.’