The Handwritten Letter

Anne Trubek once argued that handwriting should no longer be taught to children.  Her initial colon-speckled article appeared on, in which she described her son’s struggles with forming letters and taking educational performance tests.  Not surprisingly, her son subsequently developed a dislike of penmanship and writing.  Based on these experiences Trubek says that communicators should wave their good-byes to penmanship class and get over any “romantic” attraction to the handwritten word being a demonstration of anything “pure and authentic.”  She suggests that handwriting is an “arcane” communication technology, and one that humanity soon will dedicate fully “to the trash heap.”

Handwriting: Gone for Good?

Trubek followed up her 2008 piece with another, just last month, in Miller-McCune, which was unfortunately hailed by the Utne Reader blog.  In one of the most compelling sections of her writing Trubek says that, “typing in school has a democratizing effect, as did the typewriter.  It levels the look of prose to allow expression of ideas, not the rendering of letters, to take center stage.”  Along with putting ideas at the forefront of the educational experience, rather than the creation of curves and straight lines, Trubek makes handwriting an issue of social justice.  What Trubek also does is discuss how hand writers (or slow typers) cannot keep up with the speed of thought, and so less time is available for the writer to think.

It is notable that editors have remarked on a slow-down in recent years of receiving handwritten material.  For one, electronic reponses to mainstream magazine articles far outweigh the letters sent to editors via “snail mail.”  Stephanie Smith reported as much in an end-of-year story for WWDMedia.  Handwritten letters are “mourned” by one editor, while another says that such penned letters are from “an older audience.”  From the interviews Smith had with her sources she determined that the main difference between the electronic letters and the handwritten ones was one of engagement and personality.  “The difference, said most editors, is that letters are more thoughtful and personal than comments or tweets,” Smith wrote.

Handwritten or hand-mailed letters being more thoughtful than typed?  How could that be, if what Trubek says about writers having more time to think is true?  It is quite possible that writers who use new technology are writing more quickly and transposing a great quantity of thought, but in the process these same writers are losing depth and quality of thought.

Take for instance a letter written to Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten.  Politics of the initial column and e-mailed response aside, consider the letter itself, which only includes capitalization, partnered with 89 typed exclamation points.  Such typed responses don’t seem all that thoughtful, and so the editors Smith interviewed may certainly be on the mark in their observations of reader commentary.

December’s online issue of Forbes magazine included a column by Trevor Butterworth that speaks to this point of quality over quantity.  Butterworth calls the popular fast-paced nature of Facebooking and Tweeting “a crisis that is located, primarily, in the cognitive effects of acceleration and its cultural backwash.”  Of particular interest to Trubek might be Butterworth’s suggestion that playing video games and thumb-tapping tweets need “to be balanced out by reading novels, handwriting (for old-fashioned digital dexterity) and playing with other live people if you want your child to develop to be an effective, skill-acquiring, empathetic adult.”

Yes, the speed of modern communication is faster than ever, but the thoughts people use to communicate with one another are infinitely more important than the speed at which the communication is accomplished.  The democracy of technology would be much better served with solid thinking than fast talking, just as a letter in my mailbox will always be more appreciated than a note in my inbox.  Call me old-fashioned, but it’s the thought that counts.


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