Studying handwriting was long thought of as a way to delve into the psyche. In fact in 1991, 91 percent of French companies still used graphologists to screen job applicants.
They scrutinised the size, shape, spacing, angles, slopes, links, pen pressure and deviation from the norm to assess personality traits. While the science on this is sketchy, we do know that messy writing may be a sign of ADD and increasingly illegible scrawl could signal cognitive decline.
Though more than the science, it’s the romance of handwriting that we often yearn for. “I’m an actress, a writer … a pretty good cook, and a firm believer in handwritten notes,” said Meghan Markle before marrying Prince Harry.
Handwriting is more than well mannered, though. Research shows us that it has a positive effect on emotional health. In a 1999 study in Journal of Traumatic Stress, transcribing a stressful experience by hand had a greater positive outcome than typing it out. It seems the manual act of putting pen to paper is therapy in itself.
Emoticons were invented to bring feeling into typing. When we write, however, we can use emotion to shape our lettering, express ourselves by doodling in the margins, and see the progression of our thinking as we cross out and rewrite whole sentences.
Writing by hand also lights up the brain’s learning zones more than tapping away, the same study notes. A 2014 investigation found that for learning, longhand was more effective than laptop note-taking. That’s because we can’t write fast enough to copy down verbatim, so we take the time to think, process and condense instead, learning more deeply along the way.
The fact that handwriting is more time consuming than typing should be seen as very post-pandemic. It forces us to slow down, tapping into the trend for slow everything – slow homes, slow cooking, slow living. The crux of the slow movement is to be present. And when we hand write, it’s thought we naturally have more time to explore our vocabulary, be expressive and reflect on what we say.
Not to mention the creativity we can unleash when “freewriting”, where we let our minds spill onto the page without deleting, backspacing, spell checking or stopping to critique. Composing a heartfelt note or card comes with all the sensorial pleasure of natural textures, too. For both the writer and the receiver.
The weight of the envelope, the feel of the paper, the pleasure of real ink. Once you’re accustomed to handwriting again, you may even find yourself reaching that elusive “flow”, a state of full immersion which brings relaxation. The same can be found in other rhythmic activities, like knitting and colouring in.
Alena Tsarkova always loved bringing a smile to people’s faces with handwritten cards. Now, she teaches brush lettering, a modern, popular style using a special marker that you’ve probably spotted on birthday invitations and cafe signage.
“It’s very relaxing and I treasure this art that’s being taken over by the digital era,” says the Sydney Community College tutor. “I tell students to think of brush lettering as meditation. You’re drawing letters rather than writing them. The mindfulness comes in because you have to be aware of the next brush stroke, keep the right angle, create the spacing. It helps a lot of people and some completely zone out while they’re working. I had one going through chemo and another with a brain illness who both came to brush lettering classes to feel better and keep fighting.”
In Brisbane-based handwriting teacher Barbara Nichol’s experience, many people who shy away from putting pen to paper are tripped up by simple technique. “They scrunch the pen and tighten all the hand and arm muscles and some even hold their breath … no wonder handwriting is losing favour,” she says.
“If they use a fountain pen or dipping pen they must stretch out their fingers and let the index finger pull the downstroke and the middle finger make the upstroke … this is such a revelation and then yes, it’s possible to turn inwards and watch the ink flow and time stands still … even if only for a few seconds. The feeling does the heart good.”
And while there is no sign of the digital revolution slowing, all is not lost when it comes to the written word. Handwriting is still taught at Australian schools – my sons practice every day at their preschool and primary. And for them, the promise of learning “running writing” in year three is almost as exciting as the compulsory iPad required for year five.
Young or not so young, stationery obsession is not going anywhere, either. A 2014 British survey found it’s been an average of 41 days since most adults jotted anything down and one in three haven’t written a thing for six months.
Yet from Kmart to kikki.K, the allure of lovely pencils, pens, pads, paper and notebooks lives on. Despite having digital diaries and a handy Notes app on our smartphones, we’ve even had a whole new category of paper “planners” (dinners, fitness, health) find a permanent spot on our fridges.
Hand-lettering and calligraphy, meanwhile, have found a natural new home on Pinterest, with reams of pins to pore over. There are personal notebooks brimming with beautiful cursive through to elaborately penned aspirational quotes you might like to frame for your wall.
Over on Etsy you can have your signature, or a loved one’s, laser-cut into a gold necklace. Martha Stewart suggests preserving handwriting by turning family recipes into tea towels, or needleworking names into napkins. Even the social media crowd are piqued. A recent Oprah magazine Instagram poll about how you write an “X” (and what that reveals about you) scored over 2000 likes.
As for what to write? “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart,” said William Wordsworth. Or you can write to-do lists. Compose something lovely on a Post-it for your partner. Copy uplifting or humorous quotes you’ve come across. Write out your worries or ideas before bed so they don’t keep you awake. Try your hand at beautiful invitations, thank you letters, birthday cards, even a love letter. Or note down everything you’re grateful for each day, combining handwriting and gratitude for two powerful mood improvers in one.
As Michelle Obama notes in her book Becoming: A Guided Journal for Discovering Your Voice: “Write down your experiences, thoughts, and feelings, in all their imperfections, and without judgement … Writing is a way to process, to understand, to grow, and yes, to remember.”