LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
So, when you opened up your Valentine's yesterday, did you have any trouble deciphering who sent them to you because the signature was unreadable? A sloppy signature and unreadable handwriting rankle author Kitty Burns Florey. She's written a book called, "Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting," and she joins us from member station WNPR in Hartford, Connecticut to talk about the lost art of penmanship. Welcome to the program.
Ms. KITTY BURNS FLOREY (Author, "Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting"): Thank you very much. I'm happy to be here.
HANSEN: When we talk about penmanship, we mean what we learned in school as cursive writing. What would you say is the overall state of handwriting in America today?
Ms. FLOREY: Well, the overall state of handwriting in America is what led me to write this book about the subject. Handwriting is no longer being taught in schools, or at least if it is, it's being taught in a very cursory way. So, that there's now a generation of children growing up who will not be able to have legible fluent handwriting that they can depend on.
HANSEN: Why don't you think teachers insist on keeping up with cursive education after the third grade, if handwriting, indeed, is so important?
Ms. FLOREY: Well, I think there are a lot of reasons. One is that they really don't have much time in schools anymore. You know, they're so busy preparing children for tests and is there no - as far as I know - there's no standardized handwriting test that those kids have to pass. So, that's one problem. They really do have a time crunch in school.
Another problem that surprised me when I started talking to teachers, is that a lot of teachers themselves have terrible handwriting and wouldn't really know how to teach it, because they are also victims of a system that didn't make them use their handwriting and so, they also lost it.
HANSEN: But what about, I mean, adults who may have had that teaching in grammar school? Why has good handwriting among adults declined?
Ms. FLOREY: We live in the digital age. My own handwriting is a case in point. I am obsessed with my own handwriting. It's probably not putting it too strongly. I've always been interested in it. I've always tried to write legibly and, if possible, beautifully, and I've always tried to have my handwriting kind of express who I am.
That interest has never really left me, and yet, over the last - I don't know -10, 15, 20 years, because I work at the computer, I write books at the computer and I carry on an enormous e-mail correspondence, my own handwriting had deteriorated when I started writing this book.
HANSEN: But do you think the digital age and computers can really be blamed? Because when the typewriter was introduced, these same discussions went on.
Ms. FLOREY: They did, but we didn't sit at the typewriter all day. You know, the typewriter really was used for writing, you know, a term paper, a letter, a book. But now, people are at the computer for so many different reasons. They are keyboarding all day. I think that the average teenager spends more than three hours a day at the computer. We really are using our hands in ways that we've never used them before.
HANSEN: What are some of the consequences of bad handwriting?
Ms. FLOREY: You know, as I was researching this book, I constantly talked to people who apologized for their handwriting. They would say, oh, my handwriting is terrible - almost everybody says that. So, people are aware that they have bad handwriting, and they know that they need to have better handwriting.
I am occasionally in the position of having to help hire writers where I work -I'm an editor - and they have to fill out applications and give us writing samples without a laptop. They do it with a pen and a piece of paper. And I would say very seldom do we get one that's really legible. We have to struggle to read them.
And these are kids who had no idea that this was going to happen to them, that they were going to have go in there and write for half an hour with a pen on a piece of paper. And I have to say, it makes a very bad impression. It prejudices me against them. It prejudices my boss against them.
HANSEN: There's also, I mean, the - it's kind of common knowledge -prescriptions, which are handwritten by doctors, often, are unreadable.
Ms. FLOREY: They are. Not, I think, because doctors have such terrible handwriting, but because we all have such terrible handwriting. You know, if the average person was put in a position of having to write a prescription, they'd be in the same boat that doctors are. But, of course, it's dangerous when it's a doctor.
So, that there are increasingly remedial programs for doctors run by hospitals, and doctors are encouraged to take these courses in improving their handwriting and sometimes it's quite dramatic. Of course, they're also using computers.
HANSEN: What things, then, should be handwritten?
Ms. FLOREY: Well, the etiquette experts always say that two things that absolutely have to be handwritten or else you're a total clod, are thank you notes and even more important, sympathy notes. And I think that they often still are, but probably less so than they used to be.
HANSEN: I wonder if there might be something about the adult brain that might make it less receptive to learning how to write?
Ms. FLOREY: Maybe. I think on the other hand, though, that a lot of adults who are concerned about their handwriting would be surprised at how really easy it is to improve it. You know, I really improved mine 100 percent. I came across a very, very beautiful handwriting style that's called italic that is taught in some schools. It's taught also to a lot of homeschoolers - it's quite popular with homeschoolers.
It's a beautiful writing style that's very easy to learn, very easy to adapt to your own tastes in handwriting and the way that you like to connect letters or not connect them. It's a kind of combination of cursive and printing, and it allows you to connect where it feels comfortable to connect and not connect where it doesn't.
So, I worked at it for just a little bit and just made a few improvements, and it made an enormous difference. It's just not that hard. It really isn't.
HANSEN: Kitty Burns Florey is the author of "Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting." She joined us from member station WNPR in Hartford, Connecticut. Thank you very much.
Ms. FLOREY: Thank you.
HANSEN: So, what do you think about the state of handwriting in America? Let us know. Visit our blog at NPR.org/Soapbox.