What if there were no keyboards?

When I was at school, I loved writing what we then called "compositions", which meant essentially essays – either fiction, perhaps on a set theme ("an adventure at the seaside") or non-fiction ("what I did during the Christmas holidays"). In the excitement of writing everything down, I often made the page look a bit messy. Spelling and punctuation weren’t a problem, but handwriting was. We were expected to use italic script, and my handwriting seemed naturally rounded – which in any case I found more aesthetically appealing, with the "a"s like nice round apples and the "s"s like comfortably settled snakes, with reassuring cosy hilltop "m"s and solid-looking "b"s.

It wasn’t a major problem – but I tended to get irritating comments such as "bad handwriting spoiled otherwise good work" or, if it looked really terrible: "this is messy work – write it out again neatly." It was annoying, but it didn’t spoil my creative flow, which continues to this day and is now used to earn my living.

It would be cruel and wrong not to teach children how to write, and write well – and to insist that this skill is kept up throughout the school years.

What about today’s schoolchildren? Some, it seems, are entirely losing the skill of any handwriting at all. Computers, you see – the pupils simply tap out everything on a keyboard. This not only ensures an automatic spellcheck for those who can be bothered to use it (in my experience, many don’t) but means that even quite slack work can look reasonable at first glance and no one gets into trouble for making things appear messy.

But, a new report indicates, crucial skills may be in danger of disappearing. And there are many aspects to this which are worrying. The skill of handwriting is not only something that is necessary for all sorts of communication – a computer may not be at hand, or may not be working, or there may not be an electricity supply – but the act of writing itself has value.

Writing on a computer keyboard means that the work of creating words is also something that doesn’t necessarily require all the thought processes that handwriting involves. You can cut-and-paste when you want to quote something from some one else’s work – instead of going through it word by word as you copy it, and thereby absorbing its full message. Perhaps in the process you may decide to put some of it into reported speech, or interrupt the quote with a comment of your own before resuming it.

And the issue isn’t just computers, but all related technology, including the use of text-messages. Txt mssgng, u c, just isn’t lk real riting.

"The process of writing -- whether it be by hand, or on a computer keyboard -- is closely connected with the process of thinking. Research points to the fact that thoughts are generated, not merely recorded, through the process of writing. So my fear, in relation to the rise of abbreviated forms adopted by many when emailing, text messaging and instant messaging, is that the capacity for deep thinking, fostered through writing, will be eroded." So says Dr Sue Marks, at Barker College, in Sydney, one of a number of teachers who have expressed concerns on the subject.

Handwriting often reveals personality ( I am uncomfortably aware that my large, rounded signature reveals me as something of an assertive show-off). It can have a compelling and often deeply appealing quality. I cherish my cookery book because it has my mother’s recipe for treacle tart written out in her own familiar handwriting. On a recent wedding anniversary, I came across the notes my father had made for the speech at my wedding over a quarter of a century ago – my husband instantly recognised the handwriting and we both enjoyed looking over the notes and reminiscing.

There is a sort of consensus, I think, that some things require a handwritten letter – condolence messages, for example. Handwriting affirms authenticity – which is why, I suppose, computers offer various forms of would-be-handwriting script.

It would be cruel and wrong not to teach children how to write, and write well – and to insist that this skill is kept up throughout the school years. And, yes, we should insist on a good standard of writing, and deduct marks when it fails to make the grade. Be assured, this won’t hold back the enthusiastic writer – rather, it will equip her (or him) for life with a skill that can be used anywhere, without the use of any machinery except a pencil and paper.


Joanna Bogle writes from London.


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