Handwriting

It was reported in The Herald recently that the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) are considering stopping handwritten exams in secondary schools over the next decade. SQA chief executive, Dr Janet Brown, was quoted as saying that some subjects will ‘always need’ paper exams but electronic examinations would simply reflect societal change. The teaching union, the EIS, said handwriting is still important while the Scottish Parent Teacher Council said much the same. The article, which appeared on the front page of The Herald on 8th December 2017, mentioned a SQA report from 2014, where many Higher English exam scripts were ‘near-illegible’. Making people write at speed for three hours at a time tends to do that, leaving aside anything else. For OU courses, I write exam scripts in block capitals, to give the examiners a chance.

I don’t like exams anyway, either doing them or as a part of the education system, but I think this would be progress. The fact is that very few people handwrite anything any more. Typing is faster for many people, either on a screen or a keyboard. Our thoughts go at typing speed rather than writing speed now. A comment that the Scottish Parent Teacher Council made in the article was interesting, though, about how touch typing used to be taught and ‘would be invaluable to many’. I have to differ with that. When I was at high school, I was taught touch typing and I couldn’t do it. I had to leave the class as I was getting so frustrated. To this day, I still can’t do it. I am not well-coordinated and even though I can type very fast with multiple fingers and without looking at the screen, it is hardly the way that Mavis Beacon intended me to type.

While I am typing this post, I am referring to handwritten notes I made. I write a lot and it tends to be split between stories and notes on paper and articles, essays and blog posts on my computer. With some pieces, I handwrite the first draft then type it and redraft from there, variously scribbling on a printed copy and then working from there. My handwriting isn’t brilliant. It can be spidery and illegible to some but that’s not always a bad thing. I sometimes refer to it as encryption. It remains remarkably consistent wherever I write, from buses to trains to actually sitting at a table. I’ve spent years writing leaning on a clipboard or a folder so it’s fine.

I think handwriting is actually important. It is a skill thousands of years of evolution in the making and we shouldn’t simply dismiss it in favour of technology. Even though exams are fundamentally pointless, we have to stick with them and making people write their answers out at speed by hand seems unnecessarily cruel and excessive. For exams, technology is the answer. For a lot of things, though, for creative writing, even just for the pleasure of it, by hand will still be best.

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11 thoughts on “Handwriting

  1. Maia

    It’s funny you mention creative writing, because as I was reading this, I was thinking that the one thing I haven’t given up writing by hand is poetry. I can compose in prose (and rhyme in that time *snort*) on the keyboard, but I don’t recall ever successfully writing a poem from scratch that way. Most of my poems see between three and five drafts, and the first couple at the very least are handwritten, with all the attendant scratch-outs and arrow-drawing and so on. I don’t type a poem out until I reach the draft in which I read it aloud for sound, flow, and the occasional bit that looks fine on paper and sounds unintentionally hilarious when spoken; that’s usually the second-to last draft.

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    1. I haven’t written a poem in years but when I did, I always wrote them longhand. Then again I always wrote in free verse since I couldn’t corral my thoughts into a rhyme scheme very often. I like your process, though. Poems are the written equivalent of a well-crafted chair, worked and honed to perfection.

      One of my favourite poets is Norman MacCaig and when asked how long a poem took to write, he said ‘two fags’, three if it was a long one. Not sure if he wrote in longhand but Edwin Morgan did type. His typewriter is in the Scottish Poetry Library. I don’t know how many poets write in longhand. Might be worth finding out!

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      1. Maia

        I would expect a fairly sharp cutoff point between the two based on age. I turn 50 in a couple of months, so until college, composing at a keyboard for me would also have meant a typewriter, but that changed very quickly for those who came right after. I was definitely in the transition group; I owned a word processor in high school, used a computer seriously for the first time as an undergrad, and owned my first one in grad school. By then, of course, my composing habits were too ingrained to change without a struggle, and writing is hard enough, thanks. 🙂

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      2. I quite agree! I can write on my laptop and on paper because that’s what I do and I’ve done that for a while. I can’t write much on a tablet or any sort of touchscreen. Whatever works.

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    1. It always comes in handy. You’re probably not as bad as Douglas Adams, though. Some of his fans referred to him as ‘Bop Ad’ due to the illegibility of his signature.

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  2. I work in a profession notorious for it’s awful handwriting, but I’m skeptical about the move to a paperless system. I try to write as neatly as possible (much easier when I’m sitting down than chasing my boss and balancing a flimsy folder in my other arm), but I’m no calligrapher. At least on paper, I can sketch freehand – rashes, wounds, surgical scars – which is impossible to do on typed notes.

    Most of my writing is done on paper at first – stories, poems, blog posts. I always try to carry a notebook with me to jot down ideas and first drafts. There’s something very organic about the way something develops on paper that I feel is lost (at least for me) when I try to write firsthand on the computer.

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    1. It is just good safety sense to carry a notebook, I always think. You never know when ideas strike. For example, when I do a Streets of Glasgow walk, I usually scribble notes soon after it’s finished then work it into a piece on my laptop later. Then again the last three walks I did, Duke Street, Gallowgate and Trongate, appearing here in the next few weeks, due to it being cold and these being back-to-back, I had to carry all the thoughts in my head like a goldfish bowl until I could sit down on the train and write as much as I could down.

      Being able to write or sketch freehand is just more intimate and simpler as a process, going from brain to hand to paper rather than brain to fingers to keys to screen through ASCII, binary and assorted code. I would imagine that medicine is so much about interpretation that manual methods are often far more effective means of recording than digital ones as a drawing can convey more depth than a photograph.

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