As a result of one of those strange google glitches when you search for one thing and find something far more interesting instead, I spent a happy hour or so reading about the politics of handwriting.  Not the politics OF handwriting as such, but the political and social angst that seems to go along with the style of handwriting that one has oneself and, perhaps even more sensitive, that of one’s children.

I went to a PNEU Prep School in the sixties  (Parents National Education Union, following the teachings of Charlotte Mason, now a homeschooling icon I have discovered).  Alongside all the regular lessons, we also had lessons which I later discovered, on going to senior school, other children did not: Prepared Dictation, Nature Study, Poetry, From Ur to Rome (Classical studies at age 7!), Bible reading and Handwriting.  I loved them all except Handwriting.  My writing was diabolical.

We were taught the Marion Richardson method, which involved endless practising of loops and split figures of eights and so on.  My best friend  still a great friend today some forty years later) had beautiful writing and could produce pages of exquisite loops.  I could produce only the erratic scrawl of a dying flea.



Tearfully I went home to my mother and begged her to teach me to write like her.  She has a beautiful copperplate hand.  So she taught me copperplate.  Today my writing does not have the artful turn of the perfect example here, although I can manage a reasonable approximation if I have time.  However, it is still distinctively of the copperplate stable and I find that I am, for my generation, almost entirely alone.

The runners and the dancers all use a form of joined up printing, having never been taught anything remotely cursive, let alone as cursive as copperplate.  Looking at the writing of several of my contemporaries and most people ten, twenty years younger, it is similar in style.

Perhaps, as we all move towards the keyboard and away from the pen (interestingly, I cannot write in biro, it turns my writing into something quite vile, I write in pencil or fountain pen, perhaps I really am a dinosaur) the art of writing really will die.  I do hope not.  I love my writing, even if sometimes people find it unfamiliar and so, hard to read.  If I have to print I can and will, but I am so glad I was given the chance to learn a beautiful script.


12 responses to “handwriting

  1. How fascinating, I was taught cursive handwriting in Belfast, in the 1970s, I never managed the gentle slant and over the years I mutated some letters in an attempt to express my own style I suppose, but the roots are still there. I find it frustrating to watch a child write in this half/non joined up way, it seems so much slower.

  2. That is exactly how I feel when I watch my children write. The writing itself seems to be harder than that which they are trying to write.

  3. Hi, I came upon your blog whilst on a blog hop and have enjoyed reading. I was taught ‘loopy’ cursive writing which now seems to come from a less hurried time. The flow of the letters joining gives a real sense of satisfaction. I, too, never managed the ‘slant’ and have gradually developed my own mix of styles.
    Love from Mum

  4. Thank you Mum. I agree about the sense of satisfaction one gets as the letters flow and with that comes an easy speed.
    I like your blog too, you have some beautiful pictures. Your music haul is fantastic, I have a lot of my grandfather’s music 1920s, 30s and 40s which I love to dip into, though I sing it better than I play it!

  5. I was taught the Marion Richardson method at school and then at secondary school we ‘did’ calligraphy so I learnt a nice italic hand. At Art College the calligraphy tutor was Mim (Miriam Stribley) she had us making giant letters using a 10cm wide piece of balsa wood as a dip pen, and carving serifed letters into blocks of dried clay.
    At work as a pre-Desk-Top-Publishing book designer I had to hand-render pages of type for to present my designs for approval!

    So my handwriting changes with my mood, but I love making letterforms – it’s how I doodle! My favourite pen is a fine felt tip on a soft paper (like a watercolour paper, or even a cheap sugar paper) so it bleeds in a little.

    I do hope the skill of handwriting isn’t lost. I too hate to see the ham-fisted letters some people make! What would Mim say? (she didn’t mince her words!).


  6. I learnt copperplate handwriting here in Australia in the 1950s. One of my teachers was a tough ex-airforce type, but he had the most beautiful handwriting. We all wanted to write like him, but none of us quite managed it. My style has changed somewhat over the years, and I came upon your blog while trying to rediscover how I was taught to make the letter “f”. I’m retired now, but when I was working, my staff knew not to ask me to sign anything unless I had my fountain pen to hand. In retirement, I do some exam supervision and my heart bleeds for these poor kids who have never been taught to write properly.

  7. Lachlan Baird-MacKenzie


    I learnt cursive writing in a string of different Australian public schools in the 70’s (my mother and I moved around a lot). It was a discrete subject on the official primary school curriculum.

    We started off tracing the shapes of letters for what we called ‘running writing’ in books specially printed and distributed to all pupils for the purpose, graduated to copying the letter shapes on the empty lines below the letters, and ultimately learnt to join them up by copying a wide variety of words so as to give us practice at joining any letter up to any other. It was considered a status symbol of sorts if one could do running writing; only ‘little kids’ still did printing.

    As a budding artist with a love for all things beautiful, I very much wanted to develop a beautiful cursive hand, but in those days the letters had already been modernised and simplified somewhat compared to the more attractive style in which my parents (born circa WWI) wrote. My father in particular developed a very shapely hand during his schooling in 1920’s Vienna which I was privately determined to emulate outside school. The letter ‘r’, in particular, had been reduced from an elegantly looped figure to little more than a twig with attachments.

    But for all my facility in art, I could never write even a neat, let alone beautiful, hand. It took me decades to discover why, and I still feel angry at the negligence and ignorance displayed by the Department of Education and the teachers. Unless someone aware of the fact tells them, left-handed children have no way of knowing that they’re trying three times as hard to learn a script designed by right-handers for right-handers. The twin difficulties of pushing rather than pulling a pencil or biro across cheap paper (with the attendant smudging and ink or graphite-smeared heel of the hand) and the virtual impossibility of achieving a right-handed slope to the cursive script drive left-handed children into all kinds of incorrect, awkward and unhealthy grips and, in those days at least, also got them into trouble with the teachers, both for their poor writing and their incorrect grips.

    I avoided much of this by accident, probably due to being a budding artist accustomed to altering the angle of the paper to facilitate drawing strokes; to this day I write a reasonable, though uneven, right-hand-sloped cursive script with the paper swivelled about 55 deg. anticlockwise to achieve the right-handed slope, though this tactic exacerbates the smudging by placing the heel of my hand right over the previously written text, smudging as it’s dragged over the ink or graphite-covered area of the page, as opposed to the clean, unwritten upon area beneath the heel of a right-hander’s writing hand.

    Thanks again to my artistic endeavours and the extreme angle at which I address the paper, I have been fortunate enough to develop a very good, healthy and flexible grip, though the expressions of mystification on the faces of people who’ve never seen me write before, as I swivel the paper or notebook up to what seems to them a bizarre angle and proceed to write diagonally up the page, are a frequent reminder of the continuing ignorance of right-handers of the difficulties faced by left-handers, especially in the everyday activity of handwriting.

    I don’t believe there is a perfect solution for left-handed children trying to master a right-handed script, but there are many things, especially in these days of greater awareness of the problem, which can be done to minimise the difficulties. Teacher and parent awareness and understanding of the obstacles in the left-handed child’s path to good handwriting is the key: there are devices available which fit over pencils and pens and ensure correct finger placement, for instance. Acceptance of a left-handed slant to cursive script as equally valid will also help. Quick-drying ink helps with ink smears and an inky hand, but to the extent that a left-hander writes in pencil, there will always be the smudging problem.

  8. Thank you Lachlan (btw that is one of my favourite names and had I had a boy rather than all girls it was top of our list). My husband is a left hander and as I am fairly ambidextrous I know what you mean. When I broke my shoulder many eons ago and had to write with my left hand my then secretary commented how much easier my writing was to read because I had to write more carefully to avoid smudging the ink.

    I don’t think there is an answer to the left handed writing conundrum. I have an Iranian friend who is left handed and her writing is exquisite, I always wondered if it was because she learned to write from right to left before she learned to write from right to left?

  9. I was made to do cursive at school in South Africa. I was so resistive to it that they kept me back a year and made me see an educational psychologist who concluded that I must have been traumatised by the war in Zimbabwe. When we arrived in the UK I was told I’d need an italic pen for school and all the fun started again. By the time I was 12 my writing was utterly illegible. At 14, I sat down and invented my own (non-joined-up) script, which I am still using. My weapon of choice is an HB pencil (so perfectly responsive), followed by a felt tipped fineliner.

  10. Couldn’t agree more! And what of that lovely gift of getting a handwritten note or letter? That seems to have died a death!

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