What use now is handwriting?

By Grant Jacobs 11/11/2011

Reading Cath Ennis’ handwritten blog post–do check it out–I was left thinking: will a later generation not use handwriting at all?


Remember those biology exams with their essays? Or those endless lectures frantically scribbling down notes?

I still record thoughts for most talks using a notebook, but I have to admit my writing is now terrible and I can almost certainly type faster.

Like Cath the quality of my writing has deteriorated as I have gotten older. Like commenters to her post, I can’t write furiously for hours any more. But my typing has–slowly!–improved.

For many–most–things it’d be more practical to type rather than write.

There is the issue of doodles and sketches. They’re useful when taking notes. Not to mention those wayward arrows that you add after the fact, with their long twisty lines wandering around the page connecting one point with another.

So I’m not quite ready to give up the written notebook.

Maybe it is in part a reflection of our particular career choices? More than most, my readers will have their paws on a computer, and more than most as part of their work, too. What trades prefer the handwritten approach today?

Nevertheless, pulling back to a wider view–everyday life–how often do you really need handwriting now?


When did you last write a cheque? I haven’t had a chequebook in years.

Or manually filled out  forms? There are still a few of these, but increasingly they’re on-line, a PDF file or whatnot.

Or handwritten a letter? Even the ones you put into snail mail–aka conventional post–are more easily typed and printed out. Personal touches, like thank notes and cards are still written. Postcards still have their place.

Will handwriting hold on, as it does for me, in the peripheral tasks?

I still mostly prefer to jot down to-do lists and temporary working notes into my diary or on handy scraps of paper. (I recycle flyers sent to me, using the blank back sides for this purpose.) For whatever reason, I prefer that these lie on my desk, rather than the computer – perhaps because the screen space is already full of windows of source code, the test executing, the Unix terminal screen. I guess we’ve always expanded our screen space to flow out onto the desk and beyond.

Writers, like Rebecca Skloots, might prefer to organise plots using written index cards to their computer counterparts.

Likewise, I prefer to use notebooks for jotting down ideas. A small notebook and pen is still much more portable that their digital counterparts. The more formal, organised, counterparts of the ideas are as white papers, project outlines, grant or job applications done on the computer.

How many of my readers use handwriting? (Or your kids? – outside of school, that is.)

Will we see the end of handwriting?

Other articles on Code for life:

What is your relationship with your research notebook?

Accessing digital legacies (experimental ones, too)

How did you learn to critique the scientific literature?

Rebecca Skloot on writing creative non-fiction

Haemophilia – towards a cure using genetic engineering

Literate and test-driven programming (in bioinformatics)

0 Responses to “What use now is handwriting?”

  • well, I still use a chequebook 🙂

    My typing is pretty good, though – 10-fingered typist (to the point where I can type accurately without looking at the screen); maybe there is a future career there if I ever change jobs, lol.

    If I write with a biro my script rapidly deteriorates, but with a fountain pen it’s fine, especially if I’m using a calligraphy nib (used to do quite a bit of calligraphy a few years back).

  • without looking at the screen

    You mean without looking at the *keyboard*, right? Same here. Typing all day does that to you eventually…!

    Interesting that your writing is different when using a biro. Maybe it’s just making a conscious effort? I haven’t tried a fountain pen in years – I’m not even sure if I still have one. (Probably not.)

  • Both,actually – I don’t watch the keyboard and often I don’t watch the screen either: that lets me follow the article I’m commenting on or the notes I’m transcribing 🙂

  • Thoughtful post. Will handwriting vanish? Personally I find random paper notes, mind maps, diagrams and reflective thought on paper infinitely more useful than in electronic form. Margin notes on paper are much easier too. But maybe I would I am not a digital native. On the other hand, my son uses paper for first draft random thinking, my students bring notebooks with written notes to class. So I think for now writing will remain an important skill. Of course this presupposes business as usual growth – that is questionable. In a low energy future, handwriting will be more important.

  • Maurice,

    I think our uses are fairly similar. I certainly still use handwriting, but it’s been marginalised to the peripheral things, rather than the more central role it would have once had.

    You’ve a point about future energy. I personally can’t see devices going away. I can see a need for more careful use of food, crops, etc.

    A friend pointed out on Google Plus that voice recognition software, and speech generation, has a role in here somewhere, suggesting that might eventually replace reading and writing. (I think deaf people would want another solution.)

    I tongue-in-cheek replied with the thought that perhaps eventually direct brain communication would displace it all. I’ve written about one of the early consumer devices for this.

  • More than 20 (30?) Years ago I discovered that I couldn’t read my own notes taken with a Biro during lectures! I’ve tried to use fountain pens since to slow things down and keep my writing legible. After all, someone has to be able to read things in the future, otherwise why write them down?

    I still use the fountain pen at work. Writing is a necessity for me and I usually refill the pen three to five times a week. A Biro only lasts a month before empty! I’ve even replaced fountain pens because of them wearing out.

    Unfortunately, digital technology has only made partial inroads into my workplace and I’ll likely be retired before the pen disappears completely from there.

    At home I’ve been digital since the Z80 chip was a front line CPU, quite a contrast.

  • Stuart,

    Good thought to use how often you replace your pen as a measure. If you don’t mind me asking, what in your work needs so much handwriting?

    I only occasionally start on a new pen myself, so I obviously use them less than you.

    I have to admit I haven’t bought a pen in many years as conferences invariably offer a new one in the conference abstract booklet+notepaper+pen package. As if that weren’t enough sales people invariably dish out even more free ones from their sales booths. The upshot of getting free pens and not using them fast means I’m now fairly picky about which I keep from conferences as I already have surplus stock on that front…

  • Following form Stuart’s comment, perhaps I need to invest in a fountain pen, trying very hard to decipher the notes I wrote on this MS last week…

  • David, I know what you mean. I *try* to print when I’m writing margin notes for that reason. I can’t say I can always make sense of every note added afterwards, but that’s not usually because of the handwriting but that some notes become cryptic with time! (Not enough background to recreate what I was thinking about at the time; it’s a reason I find it best to transcribe them to longer form reasonably promptly if they matter.)

    Loose thought: does anyone here you the ‘notes’ feature you can annotate PDFs with as a way of taking notes on research papers? (I don’t.)

  • Grant,

    I work for a District Health Board and contribute regularly to the written medical notes of inpatients, outpatients and emergency department patients. If you’ve ever seen patient records they can accumulate over 3cm thick within a week!

    General Practitioners tend to be much more computerised; the priority with Christchurch GPs after the earthquake was with getting their systems up and running but the hospital was (relatively) OK because it was still mainly paper based.

    Only our lab and radiology reports tend to be computerised, but at least it’s a start.

    Many years ago I decided that I wouldn’t use the pens supplied by the pharma companies; I freely give them to my colleagues at work. I keep and use the ones from universities (especially my own…)

    Somehow I don’t lose my pens – my biro has had multiple refills over the years and my fountain pen(s) are currently over a decade old and reflect the initial investment in quality products.

    Maybe I’m a little eccentric (idiosyncratic?), but many people comment that at least they can read what I have written.

  • Just an addition.

    In year 12 and 13 (previously 6th and 7th form) my school principal insisted that all students learned to touch type. It may be difficult on the tablet I’m using, but I can usually type faster than I write!

    Bring on the age when we can speak to our computers and they understand us.

  • If you’ve ever seen patient records they can accumulate over 3cm thick within a week!

    Ah! 🙂

    When I was writing this I was sitting there trying to think of careers that would involve lots of writing & couldn’t at the time think of some – thanks for adding this.

    Interesting point about the paper-based system recovering sooner after the earthquake. Was the issue there access to the desktop machines, rather than the networking infrastructure and servers? (Sorry about the sideline; as you probably know I have an interest in the earthquake as Christchurch is my hometown.)

    For what it’s worth, I’m less bothered by using the pens lab equipment and experimental kit companies give out simply because they are advertising for stuff I don’t use as a computational biologist. (I’m also a cynic about advertising – the computing industry is full of it.)

    ‘Reversing’ your last comment, one thing I’ve been looking forward to is CC’g of video output e.g. automatic transcription of lectures. Google has done some work in this direction that I wrote about – it’s a great help if you’re hard-of-hearing or deaf.

  • Grant,

    I’ve only heard about Christchurch from the people working there (hospital employees from September, GPs from February) since I work in the North Island.

    I’m not sure, but I think the main problem was first power supply and then disruption of networking. Certainly, the first priority of GPs was the computers but the Hospital problem was ancillary supplies because they still could use paper. GPS were all dependent on computers and that was the priority after the immediate injuries were dealt with.

    The basics of ABCDE were maintained as always. A=Airway, B=Breathing, C=Circulation, D=Disability, E=Exposure; because as Mike Sugrue (Liverpool, Sydney) says, “If you don’t remember your ABCDE, then you’re F’d.” Paperwork came later, but the Hospital was still paper based and managed to maintain emergency services and records.

    I have a great deal of empathy for everyone down there. I’ve worked in Christchurch in the past and it’s very familiar to me. My in-laws are in Ashburton and they can still see daylight through the walls of their house since September. Even though the engineers say its safe, the daylight through the walls is brighter after every tremor (seen it myself!)

    It may be an aside, but I haven’t heard of any acupuncturists, reiki practitioners, homeopathists, chiropacters or similar who were of assistance with dealing with the injured after the ‘quakes. Maybe they stayed in the background and recognised their true abilities?

  • Thanks for the report on the computer situation. I’m still learning things months later.

    I haven’t heard of much on the ‘natural remedy’ front re the earthquakes, although one of the scibloggers pointed to ‘psychic’ paying a visit.

    Certainly nothing like the group of homeopaths that I read about who has organised some of sort of ‘aid visit’ to Haiti to ‘help’ there. (My recollection is vague now but I think they were to offer treatment for the cholera cases there. At one point I thought to write about them, but it never came to pass. Of course Haiti is an entirely different kind of disaster, etc.)

  • I learned more in the last couple of days talking to classmates working in Christchurch in February than through official sources. But that’s usually the case 🙂

  • GPs these days have all their records stored electronically. Hospitals have some stored electronically but probably 90% are still handwritten (which neatly returns us to the original topic).

  • I imagine there must be developers busy putting together a solution that allows the medical data to work over a wireless solution (e.g. laptops, iPads, even) that would be more flexible – ? (Without loss of data security, which I guess would be an issue.) Potentially a mobile/portable solution would some way to mitigating the risk. All speculation – it’d be in better hands than ours!

    Are duplication copies (read: backups) of the hand-written records taken? One value of a networked backup solutions is off-site backups, potentially at least, cover for major disasters that write the prime site off completely, e.g. fire, major flood, etc.

  • Although most of my notes, etc is digital, I’ve struggled with the best way to take notes in meetings etc. I find that taking some form of notes is helps me to follow what is being presented, even if I don’t need a record. After playing with taking notes on a PDA, netbook, etc, I now tend to to a “mind map” style summary of handwritten notes on an A4 sheet, which I scan to get into my digital diary. So far digital devices don’t seem to quite have the transparency of handwriting for this purpose.

  • The technology to digitise medical records has been around for over 15 years, often using laptops for mobile purposes.

    NZ GPs have been digital for years; I can’t remember the last time I met one using pen and paper.

    The problem is in digitising the hospital system, at least in New Zealand. The old, hand written, records still need to be available, or at least that is the belief. Other countries have bitten the bullet, or marshalled the gigabyte, and taken their hospital systems digital.

    About a decade ago I talked to a physician from the USA, who told me he wasn’t even allowed to carry a pen at work. His time was too valuable to waste on writing. He carried a digital recorded and dictated all the time. At each doorway was a socket for the recorder, which downloaded the dictated files to a typist. Within 30 minutes the typed notes were in the computerised files. They could even be printed out if someone insisted!

    New Zealand is a little slower. There isn’t the funding for the public system to go digital. Worse, because of the way the DHBs have been organised, there are 21 different ideas of how it should be done. 21 boards of directors, 21 sets of IT advisors, 21 IT groups… you get the idea. How the systems, when they eventually get running, will communicate to make a national system is anybody’s guess.

    Laboratories and radiology are digitised, but the rest of the system remains based on handwriting.

  • By the way, I was bemused when Waikato Hospital administration unveiled their new equipment for making sure that admin know about patients. The admin people can go to the patient with the equipment rather than the patient coming to them.

    The equipment consists of laptops that use WiFi to connect to the hospital intranet. The laptops are chained to a wheeled trolley. They are called COWs, Computers On Wheels…

  • They are called COWs, Computers On Wheels…

    Moooo? I imagine there are plenty of jokes around that!

    More seriously:

    “[…] because of the way the DHBs have been organised, there are 21 different ideas of how it should be done. 21 boards of directors, 21 sets of IT advisors, 21 IT groups… you get the idea. How the systems, when they eventually get running, will communicate to make a national system is anybody’s guess.”

    Should this be an election issue?

  • I think Tony Ryall has already started. Some nationwide forms are appearing in hospitals as opposed to the previous DHB specific forms.

    Annette King, when she was Minister of Health, also had the long term aim of a unified digital clinical record. It seems to me that both major parties have the same ultimate aim, but I assume that cost is the major consideration.

    I think that unifying the computer systems is going to be a harder job than producing common forms and documents. Any computer system is going to have to work with the partial systems already in place and then communicate with all of the other health care providers as well.

    We also have to remember the GPs who have well established systems from multiple vendors and yet have communications between themselves sorted out. All of those systems have been business purchases and their owners shouldn’t have to abandon them.

    In my mind it would be easier to start from scratch, but no one is going to want to abandon the money and effort already expended on complete (private) and partial (public) computer systems.

    It would have been easier to have started on a common network and platform in the mid 1990s when it became obvious that the technology would shortly become available. Unfortunately that was when the predecessors of the DHBs were formed in order to promote competition in public health services. Is a hollow laugh appropriate at this point?

    It will be a few years yet, maybe even a few governments, before the health system of New Zealand gets a unified digital clinical record system.

  • “There is the issue of doodles and sketches. They’re useful when taking notes. Not to mention those wayward arrows that you add after the fact, with their long twisty lines wandering around the page connecting one point with another.”

    YES! That’s the real joy of handwritten notes!

    I use a laptop if I’m taking detailed meeting notes for any length of time, but a notepad for all other tasks. The level of interest I have in the proceedings is inversely proportional to the number of doodles that make it onto my page. I also use scrap paper for to-do lists, outlines for first drafts etc. However, the majority of my handwriting these days is in the form of proofreading marks and other notes on draft grants and manuscripts!

  • Alistair – there is a ‘smart pen’ technology available whereby you write with your special pen on special (dot-matrix) paper, & the whole thing is recorded by a chip in the pen & can be uploaded onto a computer. I saw it demonstrated at a teaching & learning conference a month or so back & it looked quite promising.