The heartening boom in handwriting

    11 May 2020

    There’s an upside to lockdown. If our home habits are discernible from consumption, we’re turning into altogether nicer people. We’re writing more by hand and we’re writing more letters.

    This is the finding of the upmarket stationers, Smythson, which does terrifically covetable writing paper, correspondence cards and notebooks. It’s seen an increase of over 80 per cent in stationery sales in April. The range of plain stationery is up by more than 200 per cent. Record books – for journals – are up by over 70 per cent; notebook orders have doubled and telephone and address books sales have increased by 355 per cent. I can relate to that last one. The one thing I do when I have me time  – every seven years or so – is to fill in a new address book, a melancholy record of death and loss..

    It’s a lockdown trend, handwriting. A YouGov survey done with the Prince’s Trust with a hefty sample of 1,200 11-21 year olds found that 27 per cent wrote their thoughts and feelings on paper at least once a week. Well over half, 58 per cent, of journal-keepers are girls. And of the total, 46 per cent said that writing things down was more helpful than typing them into a laptop or a phone. A quarter said keeping a daily diary was beneficial – as opposed to the three per cent who said that blogging was beneficial, or commenting online – four per cent.

    In other words, engaging with the online world is by some distance less beneficial than actually writing stuff down. There’s something about the process of inscribing physical ink on a physical page that involves our brain and hand in a more sensual and immediate way than the fingers-keyboard-screen nexus.

    Putting pen to paper is a physical activity: you see and feel the medium you write with – whether it’s pencil, pen or ballpoint. Cardinal Newman wrote with a quill up to his death at the end of the nineteenth century, and he was a prodigious letter writers (his correspondence fills 30 volumes). What that meant was that he, like every other writer up to modern times, constantly heard the scratch of the nib on paper, constantly modified his writing to take account of the flow of ink and the avoidance of blots. Handwriting means you engage with a writing instrument. And with the physicality of the paper…woven, smooth or textured, thin or thick.

    Smythson have experienced a surge in stationary sales. (Photo: Soho notebook, turmeric)

    This sensuous aspect of writing may explain why handwriting – sequential hand movement – seems to engage parts of the brain that keyboard use doesn’t, as shown by magnetic resonance imaging. And cursive script – longhand – means that the flow between brain and hand is more fluent than if you don’t use joined up script.

    An obvious aspect of writing by hand is that you have to think before you write; your sentences are formed in the brain before you put them down. If you make a mistake on screen it’s easily remedied. When you’re writing on paper, there’s an incentive to avoid error and get the sense formed before you begin. If you ruin the whole thing, you have to bin the paper. Obviously it matters less if you’re writing a journal (unless you’re intending it should be read) but still you need to think before engaging the hand. Bluntly, that means you write less than on screen; a stream of consciousness – drivel – is much easier to get away with on a keyboard.

    For a journal, you need a decent notebook, large enough to write good sized entries; small enough to hide away.

    But letters need more thought. There are few more satisfying pleasures than writing letters by hand. The process of writing is physically gratifying; the visual appearance of a well written letter is pleasing to writer and recipient. It requires effort and the effort shows. And as we all know how characteristic of a person their hand (that is, handwriting) is. It’s a giveaway of character.

    A pre-requisite of a satisfying letter is good writing paper – which takes an effort to find. I went into Paperchase few months ago for some and the assistant looked at me baffled; her boss had to direct me to the bottom shelf. Smaller branches don’t stock it. But if a whole page is too intimidating, a correspondence card is fine. Good, thick writing paper is an incentive in itself to write well.

    And you need a pen, a fountain pen, to write properly. It gives you a smooth flow of ink and the sensuous pleasure of holding a perfectly adapted instrument. Plus there’s the environmental advantage of a fountain pen over a disposable biro or felt-tip, one you can refill from a pot of ink. God knows how many dolphins have choked on Bic plastic pens. Cartridges are less problematic but they’re still waste. What you need is a converter to switch to bottle ink.. I use a very good Cross pen – with a separate converter. Mine’s a Wanderlust, £85, but you can get a cheaper model for £20. Lamy pens with their cheerful colours also take a separate converter.

    But if you’re one of those who uses an actual dip pen, where you have to keep putting your nib in an inkwell, and using blotting paper against smears, I salute you. Done well, that’s proper writing, and it shows.