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47 responses to “Not-so-evil internets: making kids better writers”

  1. Down and Out of Sài Gòn

    Does anybody here still do lots of handwriting?

    By handwriting, do you mean cursive writing with a pen or pencil with lines joining up letters? Then I don’t hand wright at all; I print. I gave up handwriting when I was in fifth grade. From memory, I learned one style in British Columbia, tried to reconcile it with the different style taught in Queensland schools, and then attempted to amalgamate the result with that shown in Peanuts. It was a mess. No, it’s all separate letters for me for now, and if I want italics, I just write at a 15 degree angle.

    In my opinion, people shouldn’t handwright at all unless the result is legible. My wife can do it, but many cannot. There have been many times where I’ve had to get mum to decipher my aunts’ and grandmother’s Christmas Cards. And doctors’ scripts? Say no more.

  2. Rebekka

    I do a fair bit of handwriting, although my typing is actually faster. When I’m taking notes for uni I generally hand write as I read, then type them into the computer, which gives me a chance to order thematically as I do so, and to think again about what I’ve written. I find this makes turning them into an essay much easier.

    So I don’t get cramps.

    I tell you what though, google books has made researching SO MUCH EASIER. If I know I’ve read something but can’t remember where it was in the book, even if it just has “snippet view” I can search a couple of key words and find the page number. So from my point of view the internet has certainly made things easier. And in my work (as a writer and editor) I find that very few people can write, pre- or post-internet age.

  3. tigtog

    @ Down and Out of Sài Gòn

    By handwriting, do you mean cursive writing with a pen or pencil with lines joining up letters?

    No, I simply meant writing by hand in contrast to writing by typing.

  4. Chad C Mulligan

    I make notes by hand. I write either on screen, or using the typer depending. I edit on the hard copy page, but I have to index on screen.

  5. wilful

    I had to write for an exam last year, for three hours. Damn near killed me. I’ve always been a slow (but legible enough) writer, so when i fill one script book and others fill multiple, I think it’s going to count against me. Suspect it has from time to time. Hopefully the clarity and brilliance of my ideas shone through.

    But no, I jot notes for work all the time, never more than a sentence or two.

    And I junked cursive script about fourth form.

  6. Paul Burns

    I handwrite the first draft of any books/poems I write, chapter or in some cases parwagraph by paragrah before I transfer it to the computer, at which stage over time I do at least 3 more revisions. I handwrite all my notes on cards, and sometimes copy the handwritten notes onto A4 paper before writing a chapter.
    Computers are useless for note-taking, unless its to provide a text to note take from.

  7. Down and Out of Sài Gòn

    No, I simply meant writing by hand in contrast to writing by typing.

    D’oh! (Hits hand to face). That’s what I assumed you meant by – cursive elliptical pen strokes like the Copperplate of old that captains used to “humbly beg” provisions from the Admiralty. As I said, I haven’t done that for a long time.

    However, I find it useful to keep a paper journal at work for jotting down notes.

  8. tigtog

    I jot down short phrases as aides-memoire in my notebooks. These are particularly useful for filling out my reviews of comedy shows – I don’t note punchlines because it would be poor etiquette to reveal them anyway, but I do note themes/styles/riffs.

    Other than that, I rarely write by hand except to do a shopping list or jot down a phone number or message. Everything else is on the computer.

  9. laura

    I take notes on other people’s lectures in cursive and likewise handwrite comments on about 250 essays a semester. My writing is readable as long as I have a Uniball Deluxe Micro to do it with. Being left-handed the ink smudges with most other pens.
    When I’m having a bad day writing something, and using the delete key too much, I’ll switch to handwriting and make an effort to keep the pen moving, slow and steady, doesn’t matter what’s coming out.

  10. Robert Merkel

    Many commentors on the Techdirt post mention that their writing may have improved, but their penmanship has badly deteriorated since they switched to computers.

    Yes, it’s almost as bad as the standard of horsemanship since that confounded autocar came along. And don’t get me started on swordfighting skills…

  11. tigtog

    Robert, I know! And what kids these days don’t know about pitchforking haystacks could fill a library!

  12. Emma

    I found email immensely liberating when I first used it back in the late 90’s. At that time, I was terribly anxious about the act of writing, seeing every word I committed to paper as a finely wrought bijou bespeaking my value or broken window on my soul. Email, as opposed to handwriting or word processing, was somehow ‘not really writing’, enabling me to de-emphasise the product and enjoy the process a little more.

    I find it almost impossible to hand-write anything these days as it seems so frustratingly slow compared to typing and vis-a-vis the flow of thought and speech. In addition, handwriting requires the mental formation of coherent, grammatically correct sentences ahead of time, while typing on a computer permits much more free association and clarification. I wonder if getting less practice in the former has had an effect on spoken conversation, or even thinking itself?

  13. Paul Burns

    RM @ 10,
    Praying doesn’t seem to work as well since the Enlightenment either. :)

  14. Mike L

    It’s a nice feeling, that pen sliding roughly over the paper; I feel somehow that writing by hand connects me to my words a bit more closely. Maybe it’s just being slowed down, maybe it’s giving shape to the actual letters. The ability to scrawl diagrams or pictures into the notebook is also something that isn’t so easily done with a keyboard, even though on-screen is where I do most of my writing. Still, I wish my handwriting were more legible, so I found this article in the NY Times interesting, advocating as it does the use of an italic rather than looped cursive style.

  15. Fran Barlow

    Paul Burns …

    Have you checked out One Note[TM] in the MS-2007 Office? It’s as good a note tool as you could possibly have. You can write all over the screen, import stuff, organise it hierarchically, use it to run realtime discussion, drag in stuff from the internet easily …

  16. David H

    When I went back to uni I was all set to do the technology thing, laptop at the ready but after a short while I ditched the lappie and bought a bunch of pens and some notebooks. Almost all of my “organised writing” is still done with a keyboard but I also have a bunch of notebooks full of scrawls and others semi literate markings.

    The other observation that seems related is that the english lit units at my uni are pretty much chockers and the students appear to appreciate that written expression (regardless of the medium) is still a fundamental property to human culture.

  17. Dantheman

    Ahh yes, the ‘our language is going to hell in a handbasket’ beast rears it’s sabre toothed head. Yet again.
    My response does meander slightly, but read on, be patient and digest my attempt to make this, my first comment try and strike a chord with you.
    Why people continue to insist that our language is going to the dogs befuddles me. You know,the people can’t read, people can’t write anymore gripe. The ‘anymore’ word in the gripe just doesn’t sit well with me as it is a word that denotes that their has been a shift from what used to be, to what is occurring now. In my day…
    What used to be, was ravening hordes of dirt poor peasants who, by and large were totally illiterate and had no real need, time or health to read. What good would Latin, the dominant written language of academia and the church have been to Farmer Bill trying to eke out a living growing ‘taters in the sodden, cold ground of Ireland? They spoke to each other in their own language and got along quite well. Language wise that is. Stranger still was when they went to church on Sunday mornings and listened to somebody in a funny costume talked with his back to them to an image of a man in his undies on a cross in another language called Latin, of which only a select few could speak. Or write.
    As the world changed in the 17th and 18th centuries, so too did the need for language and how it was written, spoken and taught changed. And so it has and will continue to do so ad infinitum.
    Language is an organic thing. It changes, it carries history on the gossamer wings of strange and beautiful words. It needs to be nurtured not neutered, fed, not starved and looked at carefully and guided by those who use it, not squashed underneath the dusty, moth eaten weight of rule books.That will only cloud it and prevent it from leading us towards clarity and colour and expression.
    My folks could not understand my way of speaking, their folks probably couldn’t understand what they wrote or talked about either and so on.
    I love looking at these strange little symbols that pop up on my mobile when I read a txt msg from someone au fait with this way of communication.
    AC Grayling should have the last word on this though, when he says that language is a protean beast, ever growing and adapting. It is and it will and we will all survive.
    But if you want to look at bad bad bad language, open up the prospectus of a large company’s annual report, or a governmental edict on any topic. But that is another issue…

  18. Elisabeth

    ‘the internet and texting are destroying kids’ ability to write’

    My children who have grown up in the computer age are all able to type with both hands. I can only type with two fingers. Their handwriting is equally impeccable, while mine is illegible. I put it down to a difference in education and priorities, my point being that computer literacy has not interfered with their capacity to hand write. It’s a small sample I know, but it seems to confirm the studies.
    Why are we always so frightened of change and why do we prefer to bag progress as a source of evil?

  19. Helen

    I’ve been finding a few screeds of fanfic and fiction writing by both kids when on the computer; The media tend to give the impression that kids are ruining their writing skills by texting (OMGWTFLOLBBQ!!1!) but they’re doing the proper stuff as well, for fun, and the texting stuff is like another language. (Which to parents it, like, totally is.)

    I still do a lot of writing for note taking in meetings; Like Laura I insist on the Uniball micro – it’s just a much better experience than scratching away with a Bic. Especially a Bic fine point. Ugh. but like Wilful, my ability to handwrite is much reduced.

  20. Paul Burns

    Helen @ 18,
    Bics. For biros I find Paper:Mate Kilometrico Med. PT are usually very good though sometimes the colour of the ink can be a bit light. They don’t take a lot to get to work and come in blues, blacks and reds. (And probably other colours but I haven’t noticed.) Newsagents in Armidale don’t stock them. I ha ve to go to Bi-Lo to get them.

    FB @ 15,
    It sounds wonderful. Already it half scares me to death. :)

  21. Patricia WA

    Spot on, tigtog. I am always impressed by the quality of writing on the internet and the clarity of most comments, even of opinions for which I have little respect. Though generally there does seem to be a correlation between expressive skills, grasp of content and quality of comment.

    Practice makes perfect of course. It’s intoxicating and addictive being able to express one’s thoughts and feelings and to have a response within minutes, to meet like minds or to sharpen wits against others even sharper. Letter writing in bygone days could never have been like this!

    Autodidacts need never again be alone. The “mute inglorious Milton(s)” of today will probably be scattered as ashes to the winds, not buried in a country churchyard, but their ideas will have been expressed in print and responded to and still be accessible somewhere out there in cyberspace.

    As to handwriting – mine was ruined in my teens by constraint of time in examinations. I am still amazed that anyone bothered to decipher my scrawls and so admit me to a university. It wasn’t until later when I learned to type (something taught in school only to the the non-academic) that I was really able to communicate coherently in writing.

    Which is why in the late seventies I encouraged my son in his then brave decision to join the all-girls typing class at school instead of taking up tech drawing with the boys. Of course today everyone has keyboards skills, and inevitably we have all become better communicators. The moderating and organising effect of the printed word before one, rather than inhibiting thoughts, can inspire and expand expression.

  22. Paul Burns

    FB @ 15,
    Besides, all the copying of notes by hand, up to two to three times is a bit of a memory aid. Helps me to remember my area of study really well.
    Though your help is much appreciated. Its just that when it comes to computers sometimes, well …

  23. Armagny

    “Many commentors on the Techdirt post mention that their writing may have improved, but their penmanship has badly deteriorated since they switched to computers. I know that I can’t handwrite for very long any more without getting hand cramps, and I used to be one of those people that wrote pages and pages for essays in exams. Does anybody here still do lots of handwriting?”

    My hands always got sore half way through exams, and my writing was always messy, and I would come away from subject with long exams finding I had a 50-60% mark despite having put similar arguments to others (who incidentally had nicer writing) who got 70-80%.

    Bring on the ascent of type (shortly before voice recog becomes ubiquitous anyway).

    It was holiday emails, and the particularly complimentary responses I was getting to them, that encouraged me to explore writing a bit more…

  24. Chris

    At work I use a mixture of a paper notebook as well as electronic notepad type programs. Neither is perfect for what I want – paper lacks backups, ability to easily reformat, insert or cut and paste from paper back into the computer. Electronic ones use up precious screen real estate (maybe I need another monitor), often have portability issues and encourages me to sometimes record too much information making it harder to find what I want later on. I also find it much harder to do rough sketches electronically.

    I’ll probably throw away the paper notebook when digital ink technology matures a bit more and someone comes up with a decent interface. An A5 sized electronic notepad with optional mini keyboard and handwriting recognition would probably do 99% of what I need.

    Perhaps not relevant, but much like paper books there’s still something nice about taking notes down on paper. And one thing I noticed when at school and uni and had to write essays was that my error rate (grammatical/spelling) was much higher when typing than when I hand wrote things. Maybe because handwriting is much slower so you are forced to review what you do as you go.

  25. Helen

    It was holiday emails, and the particularly complimentary responses I was getting to them, that encouraged me to explore writing a bit more…

    Me too! That’s when I started thinking about looking around for a creative writing group of some kind.. and then I saw that newfangled thing called blogging. Perfect!

    – paper lacks backups, ability to easily reformat, insert or cut and paste from paper back into the computer.

    This is true, but I find the act of transcribing notes to type helps to remember stuff. My “other other” hobby is learning songs on acoustic guitar, and I like to go the other way – printing stuff off Guitar tab sites, which tend to be in tiny messy font and contain mistakes, and transcribe it into my song-notebook in clear print – for your campfire type situation – correcting the mistakes as I go. I notice I remember the lyrics much better for having hand transcribed them.

  26. Patricia WA

    [email protected] your comment wasn’t up when I started mine otherwise I would have simply said “Hear! Hear!” to yours, which expressed my own feeling that the internet, for all its abuses, holds out the greatest promise yet of progress for mankind. Not simply because of universal access to knowledge but because of its facility for communication of ideas and the potential for mutual understanding.

    Following up on your thoughts again, you are right – the internet doesn’t have to impact badly on handwriting skills. If handwriting, and by this I mean cursive script not printing, is appropriately taught in early years it will stay as a lifetime skill. Similarly typewriting should be taught formally as a basic and perfectible skill and integrated with the three “R”s.

  27. Liam

    Everyone’s doing this, it seems. Here’s your favourite old Christian Democrat and mine, Gordon Moyes.

  28. Liam

    adjusting their writing to suit the perceived audience


  29. Armagny

    “My “other other” hobby is learning songs on acoustic guitar”

    Didn’t realise. Must have a jam one of these days. TimTrain will read peotry over the top of whatever we come up with.

  30. Armagny

    *slap* sorry back on topic…

  31. MsLaurie

    Since high school (ten years ago, eep), my handwriting has gone from perfectly acceptable to fairly useless.

    That said, writing things that need a bit of a free-flow, I find using a pen and paper helps so much. And printing off something to edit with a pen always always works better than using ‘tracked changes’.

    My handwriting did make a welcome return when I was writing thank-you notes for wedding gifts. Something about the ‘importance’ of that ritual brought back my ability to be legible without a keypad. Strange.

  32. myriad

    in some cases parwagraph by paragrah

    Tell us more Mr Fudd Paul. 😉

    I can still write by hand – a cursive copper-plate hybrid I ended up with – but the main reason I love typing is that I can type a lot closer to how fast i think – which means that aside from personal communications, I now find handwriting frustrating; I must be getting old or something because I lost thoughts in the time it takes me to handwrite them, not so the computer.

  33. Chris

    This is true, but I find the act of transcribing notes to type helps to remember stuff.

    Yes, I think its interesting how enforced slowness can help improve the end result rather than hindering it.

  34. tigtog

    Should have mentioned – the only other time I write by hand is proper calligraphy with a multi-nib fountain pen, which I use for cards and gift tags.

  35. David H

    hey Fran @ 15 – that’s a neat little plug for M$. Maybe you could collect a commission…

  36. Rex Newsome

    Having been born with a minor brain malfunction I could never writ legibly by with one hand and the Queensland education system, being what it was in the 30s, did not want to know a little boy who could only write using two hands while sitting on the floor so that he could hold the book down with his feet. Oh well, so be it. Later, in my 20s, an old typewriter came along but frustrations came when I would hit the wrong key and had to somehow scrub the mistake (or start again with a clean sheet). Early computers with a word processor package (anyone remember Wordstar?) were great for me since I could instantly delete, but then I had to learn how to spell and write in a grammatically way, which I am not sure that I have managed so to do!
    Language evolves and texting is nothing new. Shortcuts have always been used in writing, from early telegrams that were confined to ten words (teh first Atlantic cable where messages were sent by Morse only allowed a but s few words per minute) and even now Radio Amateurs who use Morse use abbreviations such as 73 to mean “Goodbye”, which suggests that I should now say 73 all.

  37. Paul Burns

    myriad @ 32,
    Just proves hand-writing is superior. :)

  38. David Irving (no relation)

    I’m nearly 60, and learnt to write (for want of a better word) with a dip-pen. I’ve always had a really mucky hand, despite years of teachers attempting to thrash some neatness and legibility into my scribble.

    These days (in fact for about the last 30 years) when I need to hand write anything (notes at meetings, etc) I use a clutch pencil with HB lead, and I print.

  39. Paul Burns

    DI (nr) @ 38, and others.
    I Understand the printing thing. When I’m writing something for someone else to read in handwriting I print in capitals, my handwriting is so execrable. It looks neat, but nobody except me can read it. So neatness doesn’t matter, really.

  40. David Irving (no relation)

    I should have added that, seeing as my handwriting (and my late mother’s come to that) is totally illegible, I don’t think the internet can be blamed.

  41. Donald Oats

    I write regularly into notebooks, anything up to 10 pages in a day. Usually that is a combination of cursive and print, depending upon mood and the conjunction of the planets or something or rather…

    However, I do enjoy reading and writing on blogsites – as mentioned above, the process is probably expansive for many bloggers and posters, as it adds the extra experience of having an audience beyond people you know in wetware-space. Then there is the continual discovery of new English words used by other bloggers: a couple of clicks and an online dictionary or wikipedia provides immediate definition.

    Where the written word – cursive of course – holds its own against the blog is in the fact that it is physically permanent once committed to the page. Of course, the writer may erase or cross out words here or there, but the knowledge of permanence and of the difficulty in a large scale editing enforces a mental discipline of thinking out the details before committing to paper.

    While the newspaper may slowly fade away, I reckon the physical book and the notion of writing upon paper will exist for a long time yet.

  42. Fran Barlow

    [email protected]

    Collect a commission? Chance would be a fine thing …

    I’ve no particular love for Microsoft who are purveyors of most of the world’s bloatware and are a downright unpleasant lot. But the fact remains that the app I spoke of seems a pretty good one …

  43. David H

    Indeed :) One thing I find particularly objectionable with the products from the Borg MS is how insidiously they incorporate other peoples ideas into their products (which is a process of intellectual theft in some people’s eyes) and then claim it as their own, something they get away with because for the vast majority of people Windows and Office is all they know. Notes are just one example…

  44. Darin

    Yep, David H. I feel the same when someone uses an OS with a GUI that isn’t Xerox. Don’t even ask what I say to people who buy a car with an automatic transmission that’s not a Ford :)


  45. PASOK

    Ãéþñãïò ÁíäñÝá ÐáðáíäñÝïõ, ìå üñáìá ãéá ôï ìÝëëïí üëùí ôùí ÅëëÞíùí

  46. Chookie

    I am not sure, but the teaching of handwriting (most subjects, in fact) seems to have improved substantially since I was in school. I helped with reading in my elder son’s kindy class a few years ago and was impressed with how quickly the kids were able to produce writing that was not only legible, but attractive. Writing is taught by genre in a cookbook style. I suspect this is a more efficient method than serendipity (which is the way I learned about genre!) but perhaps they’ll miss out on the sense of discovery and experimentation that I felt when writing.

    Anyone going to suggest what the societal effects of this new facility in writing will be? (“A faint, dry sound, /As first a poet buttoned on his skin.”)

  47. laura

    Interesting. I agree with almost everything Donald Oats says about the psychological effects of knowing the relative permanence of what’s handwritten, except I’d add that this doesn’t have to mean handwriting is more finished and organised.

    There’s the quite opposite possibilty of harnessing the machine-like quality of handwriting to get past the internal censors on those occasions when your mind will not let you write. Surrealists and mediums used ‘automatic writing’ techniques. But there are less wild and wacky techniques that depend on the use of handwriting to release creativity. This book by a writing teacher called Lynda Barry is something I highly highly recommend to anyone who wants to explore those possibilities.

    Still on the theme of handwriting versus keyboarding, Umberto Eco wrote this recently: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/sep/21/umberto-eco-handwriting

    But as to whether computer technology makes people better or worse writers, I have no idea really. Anecdotally, based on university teaching, it can add to the troubles of a writer who is already struggling, because he or she will usually patch together mismatched and half-articulated thoughts without noticing the disjointed and ungrammatical and often meaningless quality of the result.