Does penmanship matter anymore?
Is there any reason for an ordinary person to learn decent penmanship? I believe there is, even if handwriting seems difficult or unnecessary. Clear penmanship, especially a simple Italic hand, is an art form that virtually anyone can master. Because handwriting is a learning tool — one of the primary communication skills through which other subjects are understood — mastering the mechanics of penmanship well enough to do it easily and fluently will make every other task that uses writing simpler and less stressful.
I’m not the only one who thinks penmanship is necessary, though. Have you ever heard of the Master Penman? In a world of tweets and texts, he has chosen to practice an art that has fallen into disuse, not through lack of need, but through lack of understanding. In this short presentation, Why Write? Penmanship for the 21st Century, Master Penman Jake Weidman makes a compelling case for beautiful penmanship. If you have boys who feel that beautiful penmanship is not a masculine art, the masculine models in this video may convince them otherwise.
A few take-aways from “Why Write?”
- The pen develops three kinds of literacy: historic, intellectual, and creative.
- Platt Rogers Spencer, who developed the Spencerian had when he was 13, wanted to express the beauty of creation through his penmanship.
- Studies of brain activity while writing show that the act of writing by hand sparks significantly more and varied brain activity than the act of typing.
- Cursive writing engages more complex brain activity than printing.
- Technology is useful; dependence on technology is harmful.
- Handwriting expresses personality as typing cannot.
- Penmanship is an art (you’ll probably want to pause the video at several points to study some of the pieces he has created).
My hand moves so gracefully only because I have rehearsed the strokes of the masters.
Penmanship is a learning tool
The act of writing is an act of learning. In his excellent book, Writing to Learn, William Zinsser compellingly demonstrates that writing about a subject is the best to immerse in it and understand it. This would not be news to Francesco Petrarch, the 14th century scholar who devoted his life to discovering and copying by hand great works of Latin literature by Cicero and others.
In one letter to a friend, explaining why he had kept a borrowed volume of Cicero’s orations for four years, Petrarch describes writing “page after page, delighting in my task, and committing man and many a passage to memory.” Most telling is his explanation of why he was able to remember what he wrote: “For just in proportion as the writing is slower than the reading does the passage make a deep impression and cling to the mind.” In other words, because you can’t skim read when copying, you can remember what you read.
Further on in the letter, he describes growing weary and wondering if the labor of copying was worth it, then coming across a passage in which the great Cicero describes having copied orations from others in order to study them and to avoid idleness. He is immediately ashamed, “like a modest young soldier who hears the voice of his beloved leader rebuking him,” and renews his commitment to finishing the copy of Cicero’s work.
Charlotte Mason confirms the importance of writing as a learning tool throughout her work; especially in her language arts sequence. She suggests that the earliest writing practice for children “should be, not letter writing or dictation, but transcription [copywork], slow and beautiful work.” Of course, the art of writing goes beyond simple penmanship or copywork, but both Zinsser and Mason competently explain how to take it further.
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.
Penmanship as a spiritual practice
Just as wind and water shape and transform nature, the things you do shape and transform your mind. A lifetime of reading, copying, and meditating on scripture, literature, and poetry has shown me that there are few things as simple and so powerful as the act of writing. Wise learners throughout the ages have attested to this:
- When a king of Israel took the throne, he was expected to “write for himself in a book a copy of the law . . . and it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life” (Deuteronomy 17:18-20) in order to gain wisdom and humility, and in order to prosper.
- Petrarch notes that writing helps the mind retain what it has written, thus it is a good way to store God’s word in your heart (Psalm 119:11).
- Zinsser describes ways in which writing helps the mind process what it takes in, thus moving from knowledge to understanding.
- Charlotte Mason passionately describes the necessity for furnishing the mind with living ideas, and outlines the role of copying —”slow and beautiful work”— in cultivating wisdom and virtue.
In my experience, the act of focused copying in the most beautiful penmanship you can muster disciplines body, mind, and spirit. First, in order to write beautifully (or even legibly), it is necessary to slow down, sit upright with forearm supported, breathe fully, and hold the pen correctly in a relaxed grip. As the body settles into writing, the mind engages with the text, absorbing and meditating as words take shape on the page.
When body and mind are focused, it is then that the spirit can be touched. In times of distress when you have no words for prayer, copying the Psalms (prayers and songs) of David can comfort the spirit. When you are seeking guidance at difficult times, copying from the beatitudes, parables, or wisdom books can open a door to deeper understanding of what wisdom, virtue, and love look like in practice. To copy is to absorb, and to create conditions in which spiritual truths can shape the heart and mind.
If writing is thought made visible; poor penmanship is mumbling made visible.
Resources to help with handwriting
If you don’t feel that your handwriting is clear enough to be a good example to your students, you may want to learn along with them. Perfect Reading, Beautiful Handwriting begins with simple, upright italic penmanship, and ends with instructions for creating joins to transform it into a beautiful, legible, cursive italic. Five minutes of focused practice each day is better than nothing, and the example you set can inspire your children to work more diligently at what they need to accomplish.
If you prefer cursive writing, CursiveLogic makes it easy to teach penmanship in four easy lessons.
French-ruled composition books: Charlotte Mason had her students keep many notebooks (you can read about all the types in The Living Page), and students are often inspired to work more neatly when working in a book rather than on single sheets. I’ve recently been able to get some of the composition books that French schoolchildren do their work in. They have a unique system of lines that helps a student’s writing stay neat and contained, and the smooth, opaque paper makes writing a pleasure.
Additional reading about penmanship
A commonplace books is one place to begin practicing penmanship. Here’s a look at a commonplace kept from 1917-1947.
Dancing with Words: Gracy Olmsted writes about personal history seen in handwriting, and differentiates between handwriting, penmanship, and typography.
What’s the Point of Handwriting? by Navneet Alang on Hazlitt — One quote: “To write by hand in the 21st century is to not just find a style in script, but in movement, too — to rediscover how we map out kinetically with our hands the pulse and feeling of language.”
What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades Handwriting physically affects the brain, and can make it easier to learn and retain information.
How Handwriting Trains the Brain: Forming Letters Is Key to Learning, Memory, Ideas is a brief Wall Street Journal article by Gwendolyn Bounds reporting on recent developments and research on penmanship. She mentions handwriting apps, which I don’t necessarily recommend, but otherwise the article and cited research is useful.
You may also enjoy reading Benjamin Franklin’s way of teaching himself to write better. Although his method is focused on content, not form, it does illustrate the fact that he wasn’t afraid to write copiously and often, which is, of course, the absolute best way to improve any art you are trying to learn.
P. S. I will note that the illustration at the top of the page wasn’t chosen because it’s the best possible example of penmanship — it’s just a page from one of my commonplace books, and it was available. It is a sample of everyday Italic handwriting, using a Psalm from memory, so the text may be a blend of translations as well. If it had been written at a desk with proper posture and arm support, it would have been a better sample, but I wanted an everyday sample that would be easily achievable (it seemed like a good idea after the impressive samples in the video!).