The Lost Art of Penmanship – Evolution or Regression?


I made a point recently about the lack of ‘actual’ writing I do. You know, with my hand and a real life pen. The post discussed Distributed Cognition, a concept that debates where the boundaries of thought are and one example is the use of a pen. Does the physicality of using a pen change your thought process through the action of writing? Where do your thoughts end, and the pen and ink begin, and what is the reciprocal effect of the thought, hand and pen interacting.

Why am I talking about this again? Well, in my author interviews, I ask a provocative question making a point that the publishing industry is in decline (I don’t actually think it is, but it tends to provoke an interesting answer). That question got me thinking, is penmanship in decline?

LettersWhen I was a kid I used to have a pen pal, in fact, I had two. Didn’t everyone?

My mum still has her from childhood, a fact I love. When I went to school, I had a friend who liked reading and writing as much as I did. We used to hand write each other letters. I still have them. Dozens of them. I would painstakingly scribe words, colour and decorate pieces of paper in order to swap post with her, and more often than not we would stick a stamp on them (because back then you didn’t need a mortgage to buy a stamp) and pop them in a post box. I love nothing better than receiving post. I can’t remember the last time I received a letter.

I used to write a journal, I’ve said before I have a box of them in the loft, thousands hundreds of thousands of words scribed by hand, poured out in a labour of love for the written word. Then I started writing journals electronically. I don’t even know where they are now. Probably on a floppy disk somewhere *cringe* yes, I know what a floppy disk is. My wife’s students don’t. That’s depressing. We are only a decade older than them. But for them, the concept of ‘dial up’ is alien. They just don’t ‘get it’ and blank stares and sniggers follow her when she talks about floppy disks. I used an encyclopaedia – they use wikipedia.

That’s just ten years of development. TEN.

Is this evolution? Are we really developing? Or is this actually regression in disguise?

We apes evolved hands for a reason, to craft tools, feed ourselves, rear babies. I’m not interested in the argument that typing counts because you type with fingers. It doesn’t count. Not in my mind anyway. Theres no physicality. It’s mindless tapping learnt through rote memory.

The physicality of writing comes from having to push the pen around, forcing ink to curve to make shapes and markings. The mental process of deciding feeling where the next dot and cross has to go. I find it satisfying marking the page, leaving an imprint, knowing I created that design, story or letter. It’s gratifying.

Evolution is about progression, right? the ‘gradual development of something.’

Well penmanship is a skill and evolutionarily speaking, skills are things we had to learn too. If typing was just the next evolution, then why does its loss feel like such a sacrilege?

Is the loss of a skill not regression?

We are living in a technological black hole. Anthropologically speaking, in five hundred years how many people are going to be able to understand our culture? My guess is not many. The number of physical records is dropping, we are publishing books electronically rather than physically. Egyptians use to carve writings and explanations into granite, forever left as a guide to their culture. The internet records our culture. But, one day, the oil is going to run out and the electricity switch off. Then it’s all gone. Every record, every piece of information will disappear in a poof of smoke from the last drop burnt oil.

I’m troubled, I don’t know whether it’s my obsession with apocalyptic/dystopian fiction, or a worry founded in philosophical thought, but I am deeply concerned. Look at my wife’s students. Ten years is all it took for them to not understand a concept that to me (and I’m really not old),  is completely normal. I mean what about the words going into the dictionary that originate from text messages for goodness sake. In 2011 the Oxford English Dictionary added OMG, LOL and FYI into the dictionary. What does that mean?

I can’t shift this nagging thought that one day, kids won’t even be taught how to write any more. How long is it going to be? Thirty years? Fifty? Two hundred? It’s going to happen. The pen, and hand written scripture is becoming redundant, typing is faster and more efficient. You can erase your mistakes and no one will ever know. But aren’t mistakes part of what makes us fallible humans? Are we heading for a dystopian future where no one knows how to write?

Penmanship will become a lost art. 

There’s one more point I want to leave you with. My wife is dyslexic. She spells better on a computer. For her, the rote patterns of movement from tapping words is more kinesthetic and memorable than the closed hand structure of holding a pen. Her brain remembers how to spell patterns on a keyboard, but can’t remember the physicality of holding a pen to spell. Something I find truly fascinating. For her, although she believes the lost art of penmanship is regression, there is no doubting that for her, computers and typing are evolution. For me, a lover of pen and ink it’s regression.

What do you think?


  1. I am in two minds here.

    On the one hand, I share your concern at the lack of physical evidence of our passing we shall leave for future generations. In the three decades I have been involved with computers, I have seen storage technology evolve from punched card to punched tape, magnetic tape, floppy disks that were (8″ and 5.25″), floppy disks that weren’t (3.5″), single double and quad density, and other magnetic and optical devices. The point is, all of these have been superseded and cannot be read by current mass technology. And what are archaeologists of the future going to make of the MicroSD cards and USB memory sticks they dig up?

    On the other hand, I can never read what I have written. There’s probably a name for it, but I believe that my hand and my brain work at different speeds. The brain won’t go any slower, and the hand can’t go any faster. Typing is done without contact between any part of me and the final work, and maybe that separation acts as a filter allowing my brain to work in burst mode rather than in a constant stream. Whether that is, creatively, a good thing I leave others to determine.

    1. Interesting, I hadn’t thought of the inability to read past devices but I guess you are right – how many people can even still transfer video to DVD, not many…

      fascinating about your brain and hand, I might have to have a look in some psych books see if I can dig up the phenomenon. It’s like a dissociation between hand and brain.

  2. I think writing was developed, as an extension of cave art, not only to record transactions, weights, laws, etc, but to make the knowledge permanent.
    If we transfer everything in ‘clouds’ then we DO risk losing knowledge.
    However, stories (and movies/films) like ‘The Time Traveller’, ‘Planet of the Apes’, etc, give a few clues regarding the lack of permanency even of books and paper…

    1. That is a really interesting point Chris, I hadn’t considered movies and films, and how they would be perceived. I wonder though if they (future humans) will think of those films as representations of our actual lives – or whether they will understand that they were just stories. Makes you wonder if we have considered cave markings correctly.

      I think its a tragedy that we are risking losing everything to the cloud. 🙁

      1. If they use our movies as fact, they’ll be well puzzled – were we fighting giant apes and dinosaurs, invading aliens of all sorts (Independence Day and MIB being two examples) Or what?
        It’s a wonder we survived at all LOLOL 😀

        1. Haha yeah they definitely would be! I kinda like the thought of that tho. It does make me wonder if we have grossly misinterpreted cave drawings or whatever! :s

  3. Interesting point. I used to love handwriting lessons in school but was frustrated I wasn’t allowed to move from pencil to fountain pen until my writing was sufficiently neat and biros were frowned upon. I fondly remember spills from my ink pot and blotting paper!

    1. Biros were frowned upon when I was at school too. Until I went to high school and then all of a sudden it was the norm to use them. So bizarre why schools enforce such arbitrary rules.

  4. Penmanship is the one tool in the writer’s armoury which will survive the rapid changes in the technological world. When 8 inch floppy discs were replaced by 5inch floppies, then 3.5 inch hard-case floppies, then CD’s… How much creative work was simply consigned to the ether? Yet we are still reading ancient works on papyrus, and cave walls, thousands of years after is was written. I fear the loss of our ability to write by hand, because, like home-cooking in so many households, once it’s gone, it’s gone.

    1. That’s a good point – about the papyrus, and that we are still reading from them now, but are we not consigning less and less to paper these days? – I guess that’s my worry. I completely agree though, and great analogy :s

  5. Penmanship won’t necessarily be a lost art, but it is definitely evolving. That beautiful flowing writing of our grandparents isn’t taught anymore, much less required. What we have now is the next step. I’m not sure I like it any better than you do.

    1. That’s a good point Jacqui, although I still fear its loss. I just feel like there is less and less consigned to paper, everything is recorded electronically, and one day, there won’t be a need to write at all…. Maybe I am being too apocalyptic! :p

  6. I started writing in July 2006. I started on my laptop. But within six weeks I stated a hand written journal, ostensibly to capture random ideas when I wasn’t at y screen. It morphed into a proper journal of events thoughts and feelings and still I write it by hand,building up volumes that I refer back to for all sorts of reasons. I wish I’d started when I was younger. My writing is nothing to write home about (groan) but I will not give it up. My children both write notes for exams , scribbles and scraps but they want to hold pens. There is something fundamental in that and I wonder if we will lose that?

    1. I did think of you as I wrote this actually, knowing that you journalled by hand. I wish I had the time to do it now, but I just don’t. 🙁 I do write notes for exams and things though, just like your kids. If I need to learn something then I have to write it by hand! and yeah, there really is something fundamental in it, I think writing by hand our brains are physically connected to whatever it is that we are trying to learn.

      1. It is strange, that feeling that it is right yet frustrating because my brain goes much faster than my hand. A clumsy kind of extension. Like my bookshelves – full of good intentions but never works quite as anticipated

        1. Yeh id say the same my brains faster than my hand I wonder if that’s a symptom of technology and the fact we can type faster than write? Given our brains the opportunity to speed up?!

  7. There are many periods in history for which we don’t have written records, but it doesn’t mean that those people and the lives they lived, or the events they lived through were forgotten. If anything, it makes them more intriguing. I love that elusive quality. However, for those who need facts, vague memories and hand me down stories are not enough, and I do get that. Whether it spells regression, though, I’m not so sure. Nowadays, most of us don’t know how to grow our own food, build our own homes, the medicinal properties of herbs, make our own tools, hunt and kill animals for meat and skins, navigate without maps or sat navs… These are all examples of lost skills, yet have we regressed without them? It’s a matter of opinion, I guess. I would say we have certainly progressed even though much knowledge and many skill s have been forgotten, but we haven’t always progressed in the right direction, or for the better.

    1. What interesting points Ali. I agree that those periods where we don’t have enough records, does make them more intriguing, but also frustrating – wouldn’t it be marvellous if we did understand them and what they did, would be know ourselves better? I think yes, but unfortunately I think it would lose some of that sparkly intrigue you talked about.

      Really interesting point about lost skills. I guess it is a matter of perspective, and maybe you just changed mine a little… We’ve talked before about how society at large isn’t as knowledgable as it once was… that is regression in my eyes. I wonder if the loss of general skills attributes to that? I suppose it depends if you think losing any skill regression or not.

      1. Well I’m nosey so yes, I’d definitely like to know! but I might not like the truth! So maybe it’s best not to know. But skills are generally lost, or given up, when a better/ easier/ more efficient method is discovered… So how can that be regression? Unless you are forced into it by, let’s say, religion, as ignorance and fear are a good way of keeping the masses under control.

        1. You make such interesting points. I think progression is about gaining more skills not losing them. Perhaps I’m just seeing it wrong. Maybe I think that losing the ability to write is like losing an art perhaps if I didn’t see it as an art form I wouldn’t feel that way…. I’m not explaining myself very well I don’t think. But I also think the loss of survival skills in the woods or wild is regression, because one day when the wold crashes we will need those skills again

          1. That is very true. Believe it or not, I think about that very thing a lot. I know I couldn’t kill an animal for meat, for example. And how would we cope without toilets??? Lol!

          2. pahaha! exactly. It actually worries me. I used to know a lot more when I was a cadet. Maybe we all need a bit of Bear Grylls in our life! Except, I am a veggie and could never eat an animal! Hope the sun is treating you well…. ITS RAINING HERE!

          3. Yeah… I just heard that from someone else. Sorry its raining on you, but glad I’m not missing our only fortnight of summer lol! Actually, I can’t stand Bear Grylls, but we all need to learn survival skills, I think, along with first aid.

          4. Neither can I actually, he has the annoying arrogance rather than the charming type. The wife’s friend teaches his kids and says he doesn’t like the bear either!

  8. Sacha, children today are taught to print even before they get to school age, but cursive is no longer taught in many schools. Now that is a sad state of affairs. Just think of all the historic documents worldwide that are written in cursive that these children will never know how to read. It will be as though they are looking at a foreign language.

    1. I know right. Shamefully I write in block capitals. I was taught to write cursive, but never got on with it. I can write ‘joined up’ but I’m quicker if I just write in block caps. But you are right, for lots of people in my generation we already struggle to read it. I think any loss of skill is a tragedy. sigh.

  9. I, too, love that your mom is still in touch with her pen pen. I remember getting a pen pal in school. It was exciting to await a letter in the mail. Doing that by email just wouldn’t be the same.

  10. All I know is that my handwriting was barely legible when I was at school, and now it’s completely illegible. For me – and anyone who reads anything I’ve written – I’m grateful for the keyboard!

  11. Yes, I do wonder somehow where technology is leading is and is it a good thing? It seems to me that we are getting so technologically advanced that eventually we’ll make ourselves redundant. One just has to look at some banks now as an example, all those machines now instead of tellers. What about the human touch?

    1. Well exactly look at how AI or IRobot or the matrix turned out – I know they are both films but still I don’t think they are that far from the truth. AI is dangerous in my mind and although progression is important so is the retaining of our own skills we don’t want to dumb down society… You know?

  12. If I’m writing longer pieces I prefer (other than my notes) to type…I find (as others have said) that the keyboard helps me to keep up with my brain. Pen/paper slows me down, and I lose the flow… Having said that, if I’m writing poetry I prefer pen/paper …playing with words, moving them around, word ‘sketching’, is better pen to page. I don’t get the same feel, or the same results on the screen. I never take a poem to the keyboard until it is fully formed.

    1. I am completely with you. For longer things I type, the other occasion I hand write is when I am trying to learn something. For some reason it doesn’t go in as well if I type. But I agree about poetry, occasionally I write flash fiction by hand too. Something not quite describable that means you need to write by hand. Thanks for commenting 😀

  13. Great thoughts here. I am a dinosaur and don’t feel creative without writing in longhand and entering after in computer, where revisions begin as I enter. Technology will always be changing, and unsaved words can get lost, but there’s nothing like looking through real handwritten documents, manuscripts, etc, in future years, directly from paper. 🙂

    1. I don’t think you are alone actually. I know quite a few writers who have to write the first draft of their novels by hand. I’m curious though, does it take you a long time to write a novel by hand? It would take me an extraordinary amount of time, yet there is something so satisfying about writing by hand… sigh. Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

      1. That’s a tough question Sacha. Everyone’s time is different. I find it efficient because the pen glides along with my thoughts without stopping to second-guess myself, or without realizing I’ve hit a wrong key on the board which would automatically send me back to correct which I don’t do while writing. My creativity doesn’t flow looking at the screen. 🙂

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