If It Matters, It Matters

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.’

10 thoughts on “If It Matters, It Matters

  1. This is a really interesting post and one that’s got me thinking – my handwriting has changed so many times over the years because I love to see different styles of script and I think of it as part of the joy of reading something. I am even a bit sentimental about different fonts… perhaps not something one should admit to, but true nonetheless.

    If GB had typed this email in Comic Sans it would have been as offensive to me as ending it with a joke, I’m pleasantly surprised that he chose to hand-write the letter at all. It’s my hunch (and one the Government simply can’t admit to be true) that his handwriting is illegible because he’s almost blind (hence the thick black marker pen). I wouldn’t be surprised if the name of the soldier had been misread. There was a good piece about this in the Guardian at the time which you might find interesting: (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/nov/09/gordon-brown-spelling-soldier-sight)

    You’re right in saying though that handwriting and spelling still matter. In GB’s case, the letter could easily have been checked by an aide and amended. For the rest of us, a dictionary (or even dictionary.com!) does the trick.. what a nice world it would be if we all wrote more personal letters!

  2. Hi Claire,
    Good to hear from you again, and good to hear that you still like that old-fashioned writing – in one so young as well! I didn’t read the Guardian article at the time but thanks for bringing it to my attention. I don’t remember the last time I wrote or received a handwritten letter, and I would guess that is true for most of the population. Whether it’s a cause for regret I’m not sure. I do think however that there is still a place for teaching (hand)writing skills to young people for a number of reasons, not least because I think there may be a close relationship between the physical act of writing and the thinking process. I know that in some cases handwriting can quite literally be a work of art. A close acquaintance of mine still insists on using a pencil rather than a pen – I think you know who we are talking about. Anyway, if you fancy replying by letter, you’ll find my address in the ‘About’ section.


  3. Pingback: There are vowels and there are consequences « Hilery Williams

    • Yep. Thanks Heather, I think that is a good illustration of the point. Glad I found your blog too – lots of useful material for teachers there.


  4. Hey Bill,

    You’ve hit the nail on the head – it’s all about audience.

    If you’re writing something that’s just for you – or your close colleagues – then neither handwriting nor spelling matter.

    But if you’re writing for an audience, you have to bear them in mind. That’s why I would never hand-write anything other than wee notes.

    We get hung up on always working to the highest possibe standards and forget that sometimes we just do it for ourselves – and love it.

    We can always teach somebody to better express their ideas. But without their ideas, we have nothing.


  5. Hi John,
    Thanks for the comments, and glad to hear that it has struck a chord with you. I don’t know about you, but as I write less and less nowadays my handwriting gets worse. A combination of age and lack of practice I would imagine. Should I worry about it and get some practice in? I doubt it.


  6. Great posts and replies and answers most of the questions I have been thinking about. It is all about audience isn’t it? However, my original thoughts were concerned with whether many of us do ‘real’ writing for an audience any more. I didn’t pick up a pen betrween the ages of 17 and 25 (except to sign on) and, after the onslaught of technology, don’t do much handwriting which requires an audience. Should this be something we as teachers start to realise?

  7. Like you Kenny, the only time I actually use a pen or a pencil is when I am scribbling a note while talking on the phone or when writing a shopping list. As a consequence, my handwriting is now so bad that even I struggle to read it. Having said all that, I wonder what the consequences would be if we didn’t teach handwriting at all in schools? The big issue for secondary schools at the moment of course is that while most of their students’ work is word-processed, when it comes to exams they have to produce ‘written’ essays, which many of them are finding increasingly difficult. The solution is probably for schools to aim for a ‘one laptop-per-pupil’ scenario with the appropriate conditions applied for formal exam conditions.

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