Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/April 1880/Learning to Write


WE wonder sometimes, as we wade through a mass of correspondence, whether it is possible to teach good writing. The doubt may seem absurd, considering that the majority of civilized mankind can write, that every qualified teacher among one or two hundred thousand in Western Europe thinks himself or herself competent to teach the art, and that there must be some hundreds of men in England, or possibly some thousands, who make a living of some sort by practicing this specialty. Everybody, we shall be told, is taught, and some few people write well, and consequently to teach people to write well must be possible. Still, we have this little bit of evidence in favor of hesitation. Nobody ever saw anybody who wrote a thoroughly good hand, and who had been regularly taught to do it. Good handwritings exist, undoubtedly, and are, we should say, rapidly on the increase; but the possessors of the art never admit that they acquired it through teaching, and, in the majority of cases, never were taught. When cross-examined, they always affirm that some man or woman taught them to write, and that then a certain inclination or compulsion of circumstance, or desire to do everything well, or, in frequent instances, a caste feeling, provoked them to teach themselves to write well. They were not taught, except in the most rudimentary sense of the word, and we do not know how they should be. Tutors and governesses have all caught up a system from the professional writing-masters, and the professional writing-masters are all dominated by two ideas, which are radically false. We always glance over the books they publish, and have read through a new one this week, which we do not intend to advertise in this article, and they are all alike. They all think that "copperplate writing," the special hand of writing-masters and bank-clerks, is good writing, which it is not, being devoid of character, far too regular in form, and from the multiplicity of fine up-strokes not easy to read; and they all believe that certain mechanical motions, if carefully taught, will produce clear writing. They will not, and they do not. There never were two people yet in this world of ours who wrote exactly alike, or who have the same control of their fingers, or who ought, in order to produce good writing, to have held their pens alike, and the effort to make them do it only spoils their natural capabilities. No doubt, those capabilities are often naturally very small. The number of persons who are by nature not deft with their fingers is very large, and so is the number of those who can not fix their attention; while the number of those who can do nothing well which they must do rapidly probably exceeds both. The difficulty of teaching a grown man to write decently is almost inconceivable—he seems never to see what is wanted—and something of that difficulty attaches to a vast proportion of children. Still, all persons not deformed or crippled in the hand, or deficient in eyesight, can be taught to write, and the reason why they are not taught properly must be some inherent defect in the system. We believe it to be the one we have mentioned, the effort to enforce a certain method, instead of trying to secure a certain result. The unhappy child, who is almost always, we admit necessarily, taught too early, is instructed to hold himself or herself in a particular attitude, which is sure to be the wrong one for five sights in ten, the proper attitude depending on the length of the child's vision; to hold the pen at a particular angle, which is also wrong, the fitting angle depending on the character of the pen and holder; and to grasp the pen at a certain distance from the nib, which is arbitrarily fixed, whereas the distance must be governed by the formation and strength of the child's fingers, and would be infinitely better left to his or her own instinct. Above all, there is a perpetual worry about the "resting" of the hand, though the easiest position varies with every child, and though no two men with much writing to do rest the fingers quite alike. The pupil is then taught to make lines in a certain direction, and to copy characters so large that they have no resemblance to writing at all; and to care particularly about up-strokes and down-strokes, and all manner of minutia?, which, if they are of any value at all, will soon come of themselves. So strong, in spite of centuries of experience, is the belief in this method, that machines for controlling the fingers while writing have repeatedly been invented; and the author of a book before us, a professional, is inclined to tie them up in some fashion with ribbon.

We believe that the whole of this method is a mistake, that there is no single system of mécanique for writing, and that a child belonging to the educated classes would be taught much better and more easily if, after being once enabled to make and recognize written letters, it were let alone, and praised or chidden not for its method, but for the result. Let the boy hold his pen as he likes, and make his strokes as he likes, and write at the pace he likes—hurry, of course, being discouraged—but insist strenuously and persistently that his copy shall be legible, shall be clean, and shall approach the good copy set before him, namely, a well-written letter, not a rubbishy text on a single line, written as nobody but a writing-master ever did or will write till the world's end. He will make a muddle at first, but he will soon make a passable imitation of his copy, and ultimately develop a characteristic and strong hand, which may be bad or good, but will not be either meaningless, undecided, or illegible. This hand will alter, of course, very greatly as he grows older. It may alter at eleven, because it is at that age that the range of the eyes is fixed, and short sight betrays itself; and it will alter at seventeen, because then the system of taking notes at lecture, which ruins most hands, will have cramped and temporarily spoiled the writing; but the character will form itself again, and will never be deficient in clearness or decision. The idea that it is to be clear will have stamped itself, and confidence will not have been destroyed by worrying little rules about attitude, and angle, and slope, which the very irritation of the pupils ought to convince the teachers are, from some personal peculiarity, inapplicable. The lad will write, as he does anything else that he cares to do, as well as he can, and with a certain efficiency and speed. Almost every letter he gets will give him some assistance, and the master's remonstrance on his illegibility will be attended to, like any other caution given in the curriculum. As it is, he simply thinks that he does not write well, instead of thinking that not to write well is to fall short in a very useful accomplishment and to be pro tanto a failure.

We are not quite sure that another process ought not to be gone through, before writing is taught at all. Suppose our boys and girls were taught to read manuscript a little? They are taught to read print, but manuscript is not print, or very like it, and they are left to pick up the power of reading that the best way they can; they never devote half an hour a day for six months to manuscript-reading. If they did, it would be easier to them all their lives, and they would learn to believe in legibility as the greatest, or, at any rate, the most useful, quality that writing can display—an immense improvement, if our experience can be trusted, in the usual youthful ideal on the subject. The business of life, no doubt, soon teaches children to read manuscript; but many of them never read it easily, and retain through life an unconquerable aversion to the work, from the fatigue and vexation which it causes them. We have known men so conscious of this defect that they always have important letters read aloud to them; and others who would refuse any work, however anxious on other grounds to accept it, if it involved the frequent perusal of long manuscripts in varied handwritings. No doubt the tendency to a broad and coarse but beautifully legible handwriting, which has conquered the upper class and is slowly filtering downward, is diminishing this reluctance, but it would be more rapidly removed if a little trouble were taken to teach children to read handwriting. They hardly see any till they begin to receive correspondence, and are never compelled to read any, and consequently learn to write what they can not read, without intelligence and without pleasure.—Spectator.