Penmanship and Personality: An Ode to the Handwritten Note

Remember all that talk earlier this year about US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s signature? It’s hard to call it a signature at all, it looks more like an unfurled slinky. People called the signature “manufactured”—“silly” even.

Who cares, right? In a way, we all do because Lew’s signature will soon appear on US currency (although the Treasury Department is coy as to exactly when that’ll happen).

But when it does, will the value of the dollar be affected by the value we may place on the handwriting of the Treasury Secretary?

Does handwriting have value? Not Wendy Cope’s, at least if you ask her. Cope is a British poet. She crafts profound things out of words—exactly the kind of person you’d expect to find pleasure in putting pen to paper.

“I don’t actually like having to hand-write anything that’s for public consumption,” she says. “I’m not very proud of my handwriting.”

This is how bad it gets: when Cope wants to write a postcard, she’ll buy two because she knows she’ll mess up the first one. Charities sometimes ask her to hand-write a poem to put in an auction. “It raises a surprising amount of money so I don’t like to say no,” she says. “But I hate doing it, because I have to do it so slowly, and then I go wrong and I have to start again.”

Cope is not alone. There are many people who feel ashamed of their penmanship. Philip Hensher has talked to some of them, and has written a book called The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting. He says most of us think of handwriting as highly personal. “It feels like a revelation of self, so people do feel if there was some way to avoid it then that might be a good thing.”

And so a lot of people just don’t write anything by hand. One recent survey cited by Hensher found that as many as 40% of those asked hadn’t written a single thing by hand in the previous six months. Of course, you don’t have to write by hand anymore, except perhaps to sign a document, or a dollar bill or something.

But if you’re one of those handwriting-phobic people, don’t move to France. Handwriting skills and handwriting experts—graphologists—are well-respected there. And according to the graphology industry, more than 50% of French companies make some use of hand-writing analysis. Veteran graphologist Catherine Bottiau says that studying “the trace of someone’s writing is to study the energy which guides the hands, and the message which consciously and unconsciously wishes to transmit.”

Bottiau says corporate clients tend to bring her in when they’re deciding between job candidates.

Not all French people believe that handwriting should be taken so seriously. University of Grenoble psychologist Laurent Begue says corporate recruiters should stop consulting with graphologists. “This practice is totally rubbish,” he says. “You cannot use it for professional purposes.”

That’s true, up to a point says Phillip Hensher, the author of the book about handwriting. Hensher concedes there’s an abundance of overly simplistic analysis, especially of notorious historical figures.

“Hitler is a great favorite of graphologists over the decades, some of whom make startlingly stupid observations about him,” says Hensher. “My favorite was the one who said there was great significance in the fact that his writing slanted to the right.”

But Hensher sticks to the belief that handwriting is personal, which means two things. First, the script reveals things about the writer. Second—and because of that—handwriting is the best medium for intimate communication.

Hensher recently picked up an old magazine that he’d had for decades. Out of it fell a hand-written note that his sister had written for him when, as a 15-year-old, he’d been hospitalized. “It was a completely unremarkable note saying, ‘I saw that you fell asleep, hope you feel better and I’ll be back later today. Love, Kate.’

“That was from 32 years ago. It was absolutely full of her personality. I saw it, and I knew immediately who left it for me. If she’d sent me a text message, would I still have it after 32 years? Would I still have that connection to my past, to our past? To our relationship?”

For some different traditions of handwriting, see this slideshow and podcast on the calligraphy of Haji Noor Deen who fuses Chinese and Arabic script.

Also, check out Yahoo’s Jack Lew signature generator.



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70 Comments

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70 responses to “Penmanship and Personality: An Ode to the Handwritten Note

  1. All my handwriting says about me is that I’m left-handed, and if it weren’t for block printed capital letters, I wouldn’t be able to write legibly at all.

    I hate writing longhand. Keyboards are the best thing ever invented.

    • I love writing by hand, and since there are few needs to do so in today’s automated life, I keep a journal, in which I write frequently, though not daily, carefully so that it looks a little special. Thank you for the very interesting information.

  2. i love love love handwritten notes, especially from/for my loved ones. they have a character, a depth even a soul…
    well done, well written and congratulations on being fp!

  3. absolutely love this! i just so happen to be a big fan of handwritten notes for some of the reasons you outlined here. it does show personality, etc., but mostly because of what was pointed out at the end – a handwritten note shows someone took the time to care. a text, call or email simply doesn’t have the same emotion/personality/care attached to it. in the past i’ve sent handwritten notes to my friends who are moms for mother’s day and it was a huge hit. i happen to volunteer for a group that has a team dedicated to sending letters to deployed military personnel. i too worry about my handwriting and not making grammar errors, etc., (im also a professional journalist so i worry about those things) so what i do is type my letters first and then handwrite them after. i know an extra step, possibly for nothing but when i do get responses from folks, it’s always been very positive about getting a handwritten letter. it is going by the wayside and it’s quite unfortunate. thanks for sharing this! 🙂

    • I completely agree with this! Handwritten notes show more humanity than the cold and unfeeling typewritten letter. There is more emotion conveyed in the words when you take the time to put REAL pen to REAL paper.

      My friend and I were discussing just the other day how they are no longer teaching penmanship in school, and that is a pity. So many things that made us use our heads are going by the wayside, and penmanship is definitely one of those things. Quick and easy doesn’t necessarily mean better. In fact, it has the exact opposite effect.

  4. I too treasure the hand-written note, and save cards, the kid’s school papers, and so on. When I was in Catholic elementary school, I got all As except for handwriting, for which year after year I got a C. Why? Because my handwriting did not perfectly match the handwriting example in the book. My dislike of nuns today is in part from all those Cs in handwriting, given to an otherwise excellent student. Great post.

  5. Very enjoyable post! Thank you for sharing!

  6. you know what? I have been told many times over that my handwriting was those of a doctor… what’s with the handwriting from a doctor anyways?

  7. What a great blog! I am so happy that you wrote on this topic!

    I have always been proud of my hand-writing. I don’t use it much anymore, except to write the cheque for the electricity unfortunately. I think many in the younger generation won’t have strong penmanship because of the heavy use of social technology. I believe this creates a problem for the study of graphology because where can we begin personality analysis when the stylistic elements aren’t practiced or informed.

    I remember being a young teen and I wanted to have a nice signature. I was on an overseas flight from England and I sat there for what seemed like ages rehearsing and refining how my signature would be. It’s stuck with me to this day!

  8. Great posting!

    I think we all have mixed feelings about handwriting these days, with so much time spend at the keyboard it can often feel alien picking up a pen and facing a clean page of paper.

    I myself use Scrivener for almost all my formal writing, I use a tablet for quick notes and my phone for writing on the go, all linked by Skydrive. I found that when I did try to hand write something it was frustrating, my mind would run faster than my unpracticed hand could write, resulting in misspelled words that were sometimes nearly impossible to decipher.

    I recently fell in love with Moleskine notebooks and began keeping a journal, with a good quality pen I learned to slow down and enjoy the relearning of penmanship. Especially when writing poetry I have discovered a different connection in how the words flow, I now take more time and consideration when writing and eventually the writing style has improved dramatically too.

    Of course I will never give up the keyboard but for times when the writing is personal there really is an inherent joy in taking the time to write with pen and paper and I now carry a notebook everywhere I go, give my cell phone battery a much need break.

  9. I worked with a French chef who sneered at my signature when I was fresh from college. I asked him why it matters. He responded that no one should be able to forge your signature, and it needed to be a bit stylish, artistic and unusual for that reason. His signature was beauty itself. I thought it over, and decided he had a point. I now have a signature that would be hard to forge (although no one has ever tried to my knowledge). Unfortunately, now I mostly use it on electronic card-swipe machines where any input smears into a blob and any subtlety is lost. What motivation is there for the new generation to whom this kind of signature is so common? If kids have trouble with handwriting in school, the teachers request that they type everything.

  10. I do love a good handwritten note. I probably get more compliments on my pennmanship than anything else haha…I have very neat handwriting. I think people take note (no pun intended!) because it’s becoming such a lost art to just simply write well.

  11. In my closet, I still have a shoe box of handwritten notes from middle school and high school, dating back close to 30 years now (sheesh…), and my old journals from those years as well. I still love writing by hand and return to it often when I’m stuck. I also have a pen addiction that has me fondling sets of colored pens every time I’m in an office supply store — the more colors, the more I’m tempted to buy! LOL

  12. I wish more people saw the value of handwriting. Sure, I do most of my writing on a computer now, but handwriting, especially on a thank-you note, delivers more than any novel out there, if you ask me.

  13. the handwriting makes the person , thanks for the posting

  14. I applied for a CFO job once and they told me that after an analysis of my handwriting—assuming nothing showed up there—I had the job. Handwriting analysis for a financial position? Yeah. But whatever, I did it. Didn’t get the job; not because I was a psychopath or anything (hush ya’ll) but because it was analyzed to mean I had creativity and strong opinions and was likely to buck authority. Well, duh, I thought–it sort of pegged me. Now why these are bad traits for a chief accountant, I do not know, nor do I know what became of the person who did get the job.

    In my office, the person who types up my stuff ( that I do not do on the computer myself) can read my handwriting with ease (maybe because she has done so for 15 years?) while my partner’s assistant cannot read mine at all. And vice-verse.

    When I started out in the profession, all memos to the file were handwritten; now they are all computer generated, which causes or aadds to one major issue:they are not as well thought out as before because rewriting a whole page due to an error was a real pain whereas now, just click and delete errors.
    Oh well, I am an old guy, so what do I know?

  15. I find there is a different connection between my mind and hand during handwriting versus typing. Typing is great for going at a faster speed. However, in reminiscing and contemplating, I find handwriting more useful.

    I am somewhat concerned with the lack of handwriting skills in the upcoming generation, but I don’t think it will end the world.

    • I echo your concern about the lack of handwriting skills. You see less and less of it in our schools. We are starting to understand the new techno talk and techno write. I fear as it becomes widely accepted as language, handwriting will be just a bunch of grouped abbreviations.

  16. I think it is sad with technology now signatures may be something of the past. Hope not, right?

  17. My handwriting has deteroriated over the years. Now it’s illegible but that’s nearly that situation even before daily use of computers.

    On the other hand, I took several hand Western calligraphy courses and really enjoyed it. I have a natural hand with it and can provide even looking fanciful letters –a full epic poem. But it takes focus and time. It’s an art form.

  18. sarabreitwieser

    I enjoyed this. I myself have extreme OCD and it affects my writing so it was interesting to read this perspective on writing. Well written. Thanks for sharing!

  19. Reblogged this on lowdramamama and commented:
    Are you handwriting-phobic? I am, mostly,but I try to write thank you notes, holiday cards, and the occasional update letter. Eek!

  20. cool article.. love reading this..

  21. I am a MASSIVE Wendy Cope fan and I never knew that about her. My handwriting is pretty good. I would happily change this if I could instead write poetry as profound as Wendy’s…

    “The day he moved out was terrible –
    That evening she went through hell.
    His absence wasn’t a problem
    But the corkscrew had gone as well.”

    Cheers!

  22. What is at stake is the archive and the oh so wonderful palimpsest; it’s so nice seeing a writer’s progressions and frustrations on the page. We won’t have that when everything is technological and in the future beautiful buildings with various wings filled with manuscripts will be replaced by an ipad on a pedestal….

  23. I am as unique as my penmanship…and as hard to figure out!

  24. I do believe that penmanship tells alot about the individual. I would consult an analyst if I could when hiring…. 🙂

    Interesting read.

  25. Hitler’s handwriting slants, or slanted rather, to the right? Oh no! Turns out I’m a future tyrant. Brace yourselves, humans, for my wrath will spite with manic haste.

    Kudos for breathing an interesting life into an otherwise mundane (at least as I see it) topic.

  26. I print all caps… Like this “HELLO” but if the H needs capitalization I make it larger and the ELLO slightly smaller letters. I’m left handed most of the time I print faster and neater with it but I also use my right as well. My right arm is stronger so I use it for most other things… Weird!

  27. I write everything important in longhand first. That way I have time to mull it over and make sure I’ve said it correctly. It’s a horrible mess but I can read it. As I progress towards the finish it gets neater and the penmanship becomes finer until I have a perfect copy. But blogging….let ‘er rip!

  28. I have mixed feelings about this, really. On the one hand, I’m just not a fan of cursive, and I didn’t wring my hands on that debate. But there is some evidence that handwriting may drift to becoming more strictly an art form, and that phrase, I think, suggests it’s not for everyone anymore. Few people talk about the necessity for everyone to paint a picture, sing a song, or play an instrument (among other artistic expressions), much less an expectation that they should do such well.

  29. I wonder if it would be a good idea to write some blogs by hand and scan the document and post that…?

  30. Enjoyed this vey much. I still hand write a lot, and anything creative always needs to have a long hand first draft before it gets transferred to the computer. I agree with one of the other commenter, there’s just a different connection from brain to hand than brain, fingers, keyboard. Writing you shape the letter, typing you just hit a button. My hand writing changes quite a bit depending on my mood so good luck to any graphologist!

  31. I really appreciate this post, thanks for writing it. The last quote really sums up my thoughts on all the notes and letters from my friends that I’ve hoarded away for years.
    Technology as communication is such a tricky one; on one hand I love the instant connection I have with those that I love most, all of whom live in different cities. On the other hand, as you have inferred, somehow it is less meaningful.
    Also, unfortunately, my handwriting hasn’t changed since I was 9, so I do feel as others do when it comes to exposing it.

  32. GRT GRT post… just loved it..
    like many others am phobic of my handwriting too, but i just love reading my sister’s letters she has written to me ages back when she was away from us while she was studying. definitely handwriting has a character…kudos

  33. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. I read your blog like religion..it’s grabs my soul and infuses me with the talents of your writing. I can’t wait to see what you come up with next. Enjoy your newfound fame…you’ve certainly earned it.
    ~Dennis McHale http://www.dlmchale.com

  34. I found a note I’d written to my dad when I was 8 years old, around 15 years back, asking him to quit smoking. This post made almost me cry.

  35. Nice post. Congratulations for getting Freshly Pressed.

    A lot of schools don’t teach cursive writing anymore. It’s ashame.

  36. My handwriting has always been horrible. I remember as a child my teachers would look at my writing and have that look in their faces that I was a lost cause. Since then I still clam up when someone has to read what I hand wrote. Its like I’m offering them a puzzle- go ahead try to decipher this!

  37. I just came across my mom’s handwriting the other day. It was on the back of a photo and it choked me up pretty good. She died 2 yrs ago.

  38. My daughter is deployed right now and to her the hand written note is so much better than anything else. She loves to hold on to something tangible as she reads our sometimes hard to read notes. I love the paper and pen also.

  39. My primary school put a massive emphasis on handwriting. Though I did my best to break out of the mould of incredibly slow and properly formed joined up writing (because really, it was huge and impractical and I hated how it looked), my handwriting still reverts to that if I let it. I don’t. Generally my writing is fairly poor — what I find interesting is how similar it is to my sister’s and how it occasionally resembles my dad’s (though his is incredibly neat).

    I write letters by hand to one of my friends, who is ironically somebody I met on the internet. In one of her replies, she said she loved my handwriting and hated her own (which, it must be confessed, looks slightly like a drunken spider!). However, there’s just something about knowing somebody took the time to find paper and a pen and write something out when they could easily have typed or emailed it that goes beyond how pretty their writing actually is, I think.

  40. Kat

    Reblogged this on Fresh Kitty Litter and commented:
    Interesting article on penmanship.

  41. Reblogged this on Jin Kim and commented:
    Penmanship and Personality

  42. Love handwritten notes, snail mail and old-school ballpoint pens. When did every pen become “gel” and “rollerball”? In a particularly nostalgic mood, I wrote a poem for my simple pen:
    http://definingmotherhood.wordpress.com/2012/05/30/the-poets-pen/

  43. laurabethknepler

    This post really got me thinking, and I appreciate your articulation of points and interviewing techniques. Very interesting to read.

    In my own practice, I place high value on handwriting. Moreso, the result of the handwriting…I am ever journaling, and I am actively keeping the art of handwritten correspondence alive.

    As a once-highschool-teacher, I was often stunned by parents or guidance counselors who would insist that certain students could not write by hand. Thanks for bringing the subject into an open discussion.

  44. Everyone says my handwriting is terrific and I most often write the first draft of anything in longhand. But, you know what? I haven’t figured out what good it does me. Maybe I should start a business where I hand write cards, invitations, place cards and that sort of thing. Anybody know how to break into such a business?

  45. I feel like handwriting is indeed more intimate and shows more character. When I write something long-hand, I no longer have to rely solely on my words to express myself because I can choose from countless styles of penmanship to infer how I feel about what I am saying. I can use long, swirly, loopy letters to show affection to whom I am writing, or I can print block letters to convey anger or seriousness. My writing is a part of who I am, and I hope to never take fore granted the insight brought by the handwritten word.

  46. Try as I may, my handwriting remains poor. I cannot read my own handwriting. I avoid documents that need my signature–even I cannot manage to produce a nice wiggly signature.

  47. melissashawsmith

    The comparison between experiencing a handwritten note or a media generated one is like thumbing through an old record collection, where the smell of mildewed cardboard hits you at the back of the throat as you peruse the liner notes, and you feel the heft of shiny black vinyl in your hand juggling from A side to B side, trying not to leave fingermarks on the groves. And then scrolling through an iPod waiting for inspiration to blink at you from the soulless words on screen.
    Thanks for reminding us of how special that experience is.

  48. Handwritten notes are classy and vintage and regal and beautiful and I love this blog! And indeed, my handwriting tells so much about me at a specific time. These days my handwriting looks readable enough at first and suddenly it goes outrageous just as my mind is trying to organize my to-dos and then to no avail. AHAHAHA 🙂

    Great post!

  49. For mother’s day, my mother asked me and my siblings to produce a handwritten letter, to her, about some of the best and most memorable times we had growing up. It’s been quite some time since I’ve written a letter longhand… reading old journals, I notice that about halfway through, my style will actually change mid-sentence. I wonder if she will even recognize my penmanship!

    Thanks for this lovely article.

  50. Beng

    Really nice post. Very interesting.
    I am like those. Shy about writing things for someone. I am quite self-conscious since I am surrounded by people with excellent penmanship.
    But my handwriting changes depending on how I’m holding the pen, the kind of pen I’m using and the mood I’m in. Though I think it’s still pretty distinguishable as my handwriting. I don’t know how many people are like me or if there is anyone like me out there. 🙂

  51. What a beautiful lost art! I have a boxful of cherished handwritten notes. Recently I gave my 14-year-old granddaughter a pretty box containing lovely note paper, pens, stamps and family addresses. I’m betting she won’t use them. Sad.

  52. Thank you for exploring this topic. I recently worked to reinvent a version of my handwriting, I loathed my scribble so much. I downloaded and printed archtictural script writing exercises and practiced copying for thirty minutes a day, much like we did in kindergarten, with the hopes of creating muscle memory for that lovely art. But like most muscles it requires repeated practice to retrain a 40-year-old imprint… Enjoyed your insights here. Good stuff. -Renee

  53. mjgreen1994

    Reblogged this on Indulgent Dreams.

  54. Thank you for this. I write my stories by long hand first, but being left-handed I find that notebooks are not made for me. Instead I have to adjust to the notebook by flipping it upside down.
    Most people can’t read my handwriting, but since I’m the one who has to transcribe the scribble for storage on my computer, that’s fine by me.

  55. This is great! It reminds me of my wife’s post about receiving letters. http://onemorestraw.wordpress.com/2012/03/09/the-beauty-of-a-letter/

    Well written!
    -Daniel L. Bacon

  56. As a “writer” of new thriller books – I don’t actually write !! In that I rarely use a pen and paper (except when proof reading to add the odd correction). Yes I am word processing nearly everyday and your post made me think hand-writing is a craft forgotten. I certainly cannot write too well with a pen – in fact I cannot always read my own writing these days. I don’t even need to write a note – I can text or email, print-out or leave a voice mail instantly.

    Yet I do remember as a pupil taking some time to perfect by hand-writing… making sure my strokes were even and consistent. And I remember buying a Calligraphy Kit to write in the style of “elves” after reading Tolkien’s novels. Even being fascinated by the scribble of a Doctor’s prescription for medication as I went to the Pharmacy. And the excitement of getting a real letter or greetings card and staring at the hand written address on the envelope, eagerly guessing you it might be from.

    So, yeah, unfortunately these damn computers have made hand-writing a long forgotten ‘art’ and I do think printed text can be a bit lack-lustre.

  57. The most beautiful thing about the hand written note is that the person takes their time to stroke the pen…not talk to text/send the same text to each person…carefully written with doodles mistakes and all 🙂

  58. I prefer to do much of my writing by hand. Pen and paper just feel so good in my fingers, and I feel that the words just come to me easier and flow better when I write long-hand. 🙂

  59. I mourn the decline of handwriting; however, I see in myself a contributor to that decline. I type so much faster than my hand is capable of keeping up with my thoughts. It’s just so much easier to email or text. Still there is nothing like receiving a handwritten note. It’s hard to imagine, but I guess someday people will be pursuing PhD’s in translating handwritten documents. Someone will need to translate all of those documents to the generations who will be unable to read them. Ah, progress!

  60. Tristan Cody

    The handwritten note is a beautiful notion for loved ones. I have always adored it and always will. Even in a world of keyboards.

  61. great post – I’m an engineer and so a lot of my work occurs on the computer, but I take handwritten notes and practice writing things out just for the sake of it.

    that’s pretty hilarious about cope though – has anyone told her she can practice on a scrap piece of paper instead of spending on two postcards?

  62. Words flow from a pen in cursive script the way no others possibly can through a keyboard. A piece of the soul is in there. I would have written my entire book in script had I thought I would have one reader or a method to put it into print. My husband, the rocket scientist, won’t write two words without complaint.

  63. I believe it’s crucial to have great handwriting if it’s really neat appealing and legible then that speaks volumes of a person’s personality. I practiced to write straight lines on plain A4 pages with perfect grammar for a few months and now can write straighter than a printer can print a letter. Some looks on my clients faces were astounded at how legible and tidy it was, because it was professional and left a good impression on them. I came across as diligent and also very skilled, amazing just only from my handwriting huh?

  64. Ideas do not come to me when I type. Typing is never as spontaneous as writing. A good piece of writing on writing. I’m glad I read this.

  65. Amy

    This is a great post. I still do a lot of handwritten things, particularly in my card-making and journaling. It is true that there is a genuine intimacy that comes with something handwritten. It’s special.

  66. I write notes frequently to friends, family and strangers (soldiers serving overseas). Everyone loves getting handwritten letters and cards, no one, except my dad, complains of the penmanship. Find the pen that feels just right and start writing.

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