Even in the age of texting, handwriting still has its place

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 16, 2012 - 3:57 PM

In response to my column about how texting is changing the way we communicate, Karen writes that she too used to worry that something might be lost:

"Then I came to the conclusion that texting and informal e-mail communications are like conversation. Conversation doesn't allow for first drafts, proofreading and revisions, so I don't worry if I make a grammar mistake or if my word choice is not perfect. (Of course I'll never say 'ain't' and 'me and her went shopping,' etc.) When I text or send a quick informal e-mail, I will sometimes drop commas and abbreviate spellings -- sometimes by mistake and sometimes on purpose in the interest of time. But with formal e-mails, I will proofread and revise."

And then Karen offers this reassurance: "'The complexity, the nuance, the beauty and the mystery of language' will never be lost in formal writing as long as formal writing exists and we as a society are educated enough to value it."

In response to the same column, Will urges me to "take on those who say that technology has obviated the need for students to learn handwriting."

All right, here goes. Students need to learn handwriting, even in this age of texting and keyboarding, because forming the letters by hand -- shaping and creating them -- slows them down, helps them think more clearly, brings them to a more intimate connection with language, makes them feel more committed to their words and helps them remember what they've written.

Hmmm. I think I just lost half my readers with that sentence. Particularly the younger ones. Allow me to elaborate if I may (reverting to my early 1970s style).

I do believe that sensory experience influences the way we think and remember, as Nicholas Carr argues in "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains." There's something more real -- and for many people, more satisfying -- about the tactile relationship of creating, editing, proofreading and reading text on paper than encountering it on screen. But...

But the mind adapts. When I first learned to compose on the keyboard rather than type over what I had written longhand, I had trouble matching my thoughts to my keystrokes, but soon it felt natural. I'm writing this column now on the keyboard. Creating, revising and altering my text are far easier this way. Besides, the image I'm creating more closely resembles what the reader will see. After college, my son tried using his grandmother's red Royal Safari typewriter because he thought it changed the way he wrote, but he soon went back to his laptop. (I just googled "Royal Safari" to see if the online images match my memory of the typewriter. They do.)

Still, I maintain something is lost with processed language. Although online communication offers an extraordinary array of resources, aids and prompts for the creation and transmission of text, I wonder if 100 years from now critics will conclude that the best writers of the 21st century were those who first learned to write longhand and then migrated to online communication.

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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