Handwriting and expression: what we lose when we forgo the pen

Visconti Rembrandt Fountain Pen

An historian came into the shop this morning to look at our fountain pens, and we started talking. He explained that the reason he writes with a pen is to feel connected to the people whose lives he is examining. He studies the early modern period, and when he looks at documents written by hand, he can see if someone was writing in a rush, in a temper, with passion, or in a lazy relaxed scrawl. The way they write, just as much as what they write, influences his analysis of their meaning. After this conversation, my thoughts (as they often do) turned to handwriting.

It seems disingenuous to complain about this on a blog, but we lose so much when we move our hands from the pen to the keyboard; the reader can't ever see my deleted first choice when I replace a word, can't tell when I've sat for minutes on end searching for a more apt expression, can't see the flow of my thoughts as I shuffle these paragraphs round on the screen. But a pause in handwriting, while the writer sits and considers what to say next, is often subtly marked by a physical trace on the paper; a blot while the pen pauses at the end of the thought or a heavier hand when sad words come unwillingly. There are myriad traces of the writer's progress, from scoring through one choice of word to replace it with something more telling, to the rushed and jagged spurts of inspiration. Have you ever looked at poetry manuscripts? No matter how beautiful and well-chosen the words of the final piece, I find exploring the poet's scribblings and crossings out infinitely more fascinating.

In thoughts that have been typed, qualities such as nuance and irony have to be carefully built into the language itself to avoid being misinterpreted or even missed altogether. This careful consideration of the words we choose might have been a positive consequence of typing if it happened more: but think how often your dashed-off texts and emails are misconstrued by someone who can't gauge their tone, or how often you find yourself flicking to your emoji keyboard as a quick way of ensuring this doesn't happen. To be witty, I should insert a wry-faced emoticon here, but I simply can't bring myself to do it. Our language, or at least our capability of using it to communicate complex thoughts and emotions, becomes worryingly flat when we turn to the keyboard. Little effort is being made to distinguish between subtle gradations of meaning when all you choose is the size of the grin on your smiley.

While content is important, handwriting itself is also undeniably evocative. It is an artefact of time and effort, and this makes the handwritten message, whatever its content, more meaningful than the typed version. I've said it before in these blog posts and I will doubtless say it again; when you receive a handwritten note, your heart leaps in a way it will never do for an email. Leave aside all that 'handwriting experts' proclaim to know about your character from how you form your risers: for me, the simple thrill of recognition is enough. When I see an envelope addressed to me in back-slanted, looping, regular writing, I know immediately it is from my Gran. I read a page of handwritten directions a friend has written, directing me to his unSatNavable house, in a hand so firm and decisive the ink is always scored into the paper, and wish I was always so sure about what I was writing. I receive a thank-you note from an old housemate in his small, neat, almost childish printing, yet it still evokes long-ago messages on the fridge warning of dire consequences for anyone bold or foolish enough to eat his cheese.

Of course when you are late to meet a friend, nothing is better than a quick text to let them know where you are. Of course you won't have to manically pat down all your pockets hunting for your shopping list when it's safe on a smartphone app. Of course when you want a quick answer from a colleague you aren't going to send a masterpiece of calligraphy across the office via carrier pigeon. I don't want this to seem like an anti-technology rant; tear off my parchment mask and you'll find a true technophile underneath. But there is space in the world for the old and the new, for the functional and the beautiful. I wish that the people who come into our shop and say "lovely stuff, what a shame no one writes any more" would take five minutes off Facebook-stalking acquaintances to pick up a pen and dash off a postcard to a friend they hadn't seen in a while, and miss. That rather than "liking" someone's post about the birth of their baby, people would sit down and write to the parents, finding words not only to congratulate the new family but also to share their own experiences of suddenly finding a beloved son, god-daughter, nephew, or grandchild in their lives. Typing is convenient, functional, and necessary. Handwriting is sentimental, emotional, and human. We must not let it be lost.