On Handwriting

I love fountain pens and cursive writing. I was asked to write a short article on why handwriting is important and the role it plays in learning – retention and active recall. A slightly modified version of this appears in a medical college magazine. I am publishing the original one here:

Handwriting is one of the earliest forms of formal education given in schools. For many of us, it brings back memories of multi-ruled books where we spent endless hours practicing writing upper and lower forms of the alphabet using a style known as cursive.

With the rise of digital medium, the attention given to cursive writing, has been largely ignored. Over the past few years though, it has slowly been making a comeback.

In today’s age, learning never stops. No matter what your profession, to stay relevant and be open to opportunities, you have to keep learning, get into a continuous self-education program. Given the demands of family and work on your time, what little time is left in learning, you would want to invest that wisely – so the question becomes – How can I retain and recall more of what I learn?

Many studies on learning, on how the brain actually processes information and stores it for long term recall, emphasizes the need to use different methods of taking in that information. The act of passively reading from a book has been shown to not be as effective. Instead, reading a few sections, then summarizing what you have read in your own words and writing it down on paper has shown to have excellent benefits of both retention and recall.

Writing things down forces you to bring clarity out of clutter and muddled thoughts.

With handwritten notes, you are forced to slow down, think of how the sentence is to be formed. This act of deliberately pulling out information that you’ve learnt and putting it into words – this, what is referred to as ‘active recall’ and has shown to be several times more effective in learning than reading a book over and over.

Typing using a keyboard certainly has its place, but when you want to learn something deeply, writing the old-fashioned way, putting pen to paper has been shown to have several benefits.

If you were to invest your time in writing things down to learn better, you would want to write in a way that is fast, effective and legible.  Cursive writing fits the bill nicely. While any form of handwriting, cursive or print, while legible is useful, in the long run, cursive has been shown to win out in several cases.

With cursive,

  • You learn to write using a technique called arm writing, where you use the muscles in your arm to move the pen rather than the wrist. With wrist writing you are more prone to having fatigue or cramps.
  • With the continuous form of letter joins, which is the hallmark of cursive, you write faster and more legibly than print.

The joy of writing:

While it is certainly possible to learn cursive using a pencil, ball point, gel pen or a rollerball, it is best learnt using a fountain pen. The fountain pen, like cursive writing has been making a comeback for several years. The tactile feel of nib on paper, watching the ink glisten on the page while it dries has a meditative effect which will just add to the joy of learning!!

There is something to be said about doing something out of sheer joy. This is something that can’t fully be expressed in words but has to be experienced. So even practicing cursive writing using a fountain pen can be fun and very satisfying.

To start learning or to get reacquainted with cursive writing, all you need is a decent fountain pen (or a pencil and any pen that can lay down a fine line), some ruled paper and time. There are numerous tutorials over the net that will teach you the letterforms. All it takes to get started is 20 minutes of practice a day and a few weeks later, you’ll find that it becomes part of your muscle memory. The time invested in this will pay excellent dividends in the future.

Further, as you write your subject material during your study, these techniques can be applied and further reinforced.

Since you are reading about handwriting in a medical college publication, I would certainly be remiss if I didn’t talk about the relationship that doctors have with handwriting. For eons doctors seem to think of handwriting as kind of an appendage. It is viewed as something artsy, best left to those studying arts and humanities or those with a creative flair. This is apparent in the one aspect that every patient has come to dread, the prescription. Prescriptions are written in a script that can only be defined as modern art and the patient, like an art critic, has to look upon it sideways and cross-eyed to make sense of it. It is, as if, of all the fonts on the computer, the doctor chose Wingdings to write up the text.

As a result, Darwinian evolution has caused pharmacists brains to evolve differently to read prescriptions. A few decades in and they will have difficulty in reading actual legible writing. So, improving your handwriting will, if nothing else, help the poor pharmacists and the patients.

Hopefully, this has given you some impetus to pay more focus to handwriting. If you are looking for inspiration to get started you can start by looking at what others have done by heading over to Instagram and search for “fountain pens” or “cursive” and you’ll find enough to keep you inspired for months.

Write on!!


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