Posted by: Kerry Gans | October 18, 2011

Is the Handwriting on the Wall?

I’ve seen movies, TV shows, and read books in which the key to the mystery lies in handwriting. Sometimes it’s showing a signature was forged. Sometimes the cops profile the crook from handwriting samples. Sometimes it’s proving that two separate documents were written by the same person. But handwriting is key.

I will admit that I, not being a mystery writer, have no real knowledge of how accurate handwriting analysis is. But I do understand that each person’s handwriting is unique. I think of my three best friends in high school, and I could never mistake one of their handwriting for another, even if they never signed the notes we passed in class. (Not that we ever did that, of course.)

There is something visceral, something humanly personal about handwriting. In my genealogy, I have gleaned signatures from hundreds of years ago from wills, marriage documents, and other official documents. Having this person’s signature somehow makes them real. They existed. They lived. Here is proof. Here is a tangible connection to my past.

1752 - Thomas Waugh

When we have written letters or notes from people we love, they mean even more. How many of us have saved birthday cards or Christmas cards from friends and family? We don’t save them because of the tacky Hallmark sayings, we save them because of the personal notes, the loving or funny or poignant phrases written to us in a person’s own hand.

I recently found a bag of old notes my best friend and I had exchanged over the course of about five years. When I read the ones she wrote to me, I can see her face, hear her voice. Just seeing the handwriting, without even reading the content, flashes me back to our friendship, makes me want to pick up the phone and call her or shoot her an email just to say hello.

I can’t do that, of course, because she died eight years ago. But those notes make her alive again for me, as real as if she was standing in front of me. Handwriting, with its personality, intimacy, and tangibility, brings an immediacy that text messaging never can.

I wonder if our children, and future generations, will have the same type of memories. Will a cache of shared text messages bring the same strong visual, aural, and emotional response? Will emails with their standard Arial print convey the same personality and uniqueness? Will what they leave behind be as uniquely tangible, as connective, as what we and those before us have left?

Handwriting, even as my generation knew it, is vanishing. Many schools are not even teaching it anymore. I pity the generations who are losing something so personal and so emotionally evocative. A connection deeper than any social media will disappear, and one mode of personal expression will be lost to them.

I also pity the detectives of the future, trying to discern if an electronic signature was forged, or if two emails were written by the same person, or trying to profile a suspect from text-speak. It is inevitable that new technologies and techniques will take the place of the human experts of today in solving mysteries.

Unfortunately, with the death of handwriting, we lose one more clue to the greatest mystery of all—the mystery of what makes us human.


  1. I often think the same, that taking pen or pencil in hand and actually writing something more than just a few scribbled reminders or a signature is unheard of in these times when one can simply pop a smartphone off your belt, hit the Notes app, and start typing.

    In fact, there is a new TV commercial out where several people in a staff meeting all have tablet PCs except for one guy with a pen and pad and everyone else mocks him for it.

    However, despite today’s technology, despite the fact that I am a Network Admin, I am old school in my personal life. I have an iPhone and I love the ability to text, to take notes, etc. but I still have a day planner–with paper pages that require me to write on them! When I write fiction, I’ll write entire scenes or chapters on notepads made of scrap paper, then type them into Word later. My first novel was created this way and as is my second one in progress now.

    The last thing I need after a day of working with computers is to stare at a screen as I decide the next line of narrative or dialogue. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to take pen in hand and actually WRITE, cross out, write a better line, write in the margins, write diagonally, etc. By the time I sit down to type it all, I’ll spend less time at the computer because I’ve spent more time where I want to be: in the very human process of writing.


    • I used to write everything longhand, until time pressures made it necessary to get it into the computer as fast as possible. Like, you, though, I do still love the feel of writing on a new sheet of paper, and like the ease of flipping back and forth between pages to check things rather than having to scroll for miles to find it. Maybe someday, when time pressures ease a bit, I can write more longhand again. I also find that if I do it longhand, my time typing it in is very fast, and I essentially do an edit while typing it in.


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