Dying is easy. Cursive is hard.

Yesterday I hand-wrote two thank-you notes. In doing so I was reminded that while decent penmanship is important, it’s also hard.

Very hard. Since I was 21 years old I’ve been making a living through typing; for about 20 of those years, as a newspaper reporter, I mixed keyboarding with furious note-taking.

The cumulative effect manifests as numbness, tingling and hands that tire/hurt quickly when holding a pen.

Then there’s the fact that I’m in my sixth decade of life. No machine runs for 59 years without some maintenance issues.

So why not just type those notes? Because they were being sent to people whose opinions matter to me, and I wanted to express my thanks the way Miss Manners would. Of course, she has a staff for that sort of thing.


Determined to do this the right way, I tried – really tried – to shape the letters nicely and to avoid smudges and blots. Despite my best efforts the writing looked a bit scratchy and spidery.

To me, anyway, but maybe I’m too hard on myself. When I sign forms or hotel registries someone invariably says, “What nice handwriting!” Or asks, “Did you go to Catholic school?”


Cursive old and new

Nope, it was public school all the way. But in the third grade I had my great-aunt as a teacher and she knew how to whip a bunch of 8-year-olds into scripterly shape.

Just about every day she required us to do at least a page of ovals and push-pulls, which were supposed to encourage writing that would be at least legible if not actually beautiful.

While I think that good penmanship matters, I got out of the habit as a newspaper reporter. Legibility wasn’t important; speed and accuracy were what mattered.

Yet any other writer who got a glimpse of my scribbles would be amazed that they could be read by someone who wasn’t me. More than once I heard, “Wow, your notes are so neat.

I always thought they looked sloppy.


Write hard, die free

Now that I’m older and sometimes want to personalize a note by using actual ink instead of a printing cartridge, I fear my writing still looks messy.

Not that it matters, probably. Cursive isn’t even being taught in some schools any longer. And these days people are so stunned to get any personalized mail that they probably wouldn’t think of criticizing.

Still, it was irritating to concentrate so hard on creating perfect penmanship and wind up instead with meh-letters. Also writer’s cramp.

Maybe it was cursive, not a comet, that killed the dinosaurs. I can see them now, trying to contort their giant, aching hooves around tiny pieces of bamboo filled with crushed berries; cramping and straining to form letters correctly on dried palm fronds. Dear Aunt Arctosaurus*, Thank you for the lovely sweater. I’ve been wearing it a lot as it’s been so cold lately. However, it’s a little big for me because food is getting harder to find. Mother says I’ll grow into it.

Readers: Do you still write in cursive? And does it make your hands hurt?

*Dino-geeks will see what I did there.

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  1. Jo Rabinov

    I write a sort of combination, upright but attached. It may be because I am a leftie, and suffered greatly as a child, smearing as I went. I even had a teacher who filled the inkwells and had us use a nib pen that you dipped! And this in the 50’s. My second language, Hebrew, is a pleasure from that point of view, since it is right to left and lefties don’t smear. Oh, and Israeli kids don’t learn cursive and cannot read it!

  2. Christina B.

    I can really relate to this! always felt that my time in newspaper ruined my penmanship… you have to learn how to write fast and then you type things…. now that I am getting older, I find myself wondering what in the world my chicken scratch says!

    It’s criminal that students don’t really learn cursive! How are they supposed to sign their names? Or read documents written in cursive? I have been trying to work with my kids to at least learn to sign their names, but it is not easy when they haven’t had the practice in school.

  3. jestjack

    Couple of things…I do still write in cursive AND I did go to Catholic School where there was indeed a class dedicated to “penmanship” and where I heard for the first time the term “muscle memory”. This was in the 60’s and this Sister of Mercy was convinced that she could train our hand muscles to produce beautiful script. I still use cursive and it appears endangered as the schools around here do not even teach it and the kids’ handwriting is horrendous. When I sign for things, I often get comments on my script….”Did you go to Catholic school?”….

    • Donna Freedman

      Once I did an article for Time Magazine For Kids about the winner of the national handwriting championship. You guessed it: She was a Catholic-school student.

      • jestjack

        I can hear Sister Mary Dimetria in my ear today … saying …. Your Welcome… LOL. I will tell ya those Sisters of Mercy were tough and weren’t always so “merciful”…LOL. BUT all these years later my signature is still legible…

        • No, I had her, too. She said “You’re welcome” and made me write it a thousand times on the blackboard after school. And then clean the chalkboard and clap the erasers outside without getting my uniform dirty.

  4. I havent written cursive since middle school, other than my signature – I started printing in all caps in 9th grade ( a math teacher had us write out very long numbers and it seemed easier to me to print them) and never stopped— oddly, my Father does the same!
    That being said, I just wrote a thank you to my Aunt 2 days ago – and noted that the “written word” and. “Fun mail”(as I call any personal mail) seemed to be dying these days…..!

  5. Tina in NJ

    When my daughter was in 4th grade, we (I was the room mom) went on a field trip to the Newark Museum and did a Colonial program. This included writing with quill pens. I had a epiphany. Cursive was a lot easier to do with quill pens than printing because you didn’t have to pick up the pen to form the next letter. When the technology changed, cursive wasn’t as important. And I find printing easier to read, if not as pretty.

    • Donna Freedman

      Interesting note about the quill pens. And printing is definitely easier to read. I’m wondering whether what the illustration says is true: that in another generation, cursive may look like hieroglyphics.

    • Donna Freedman

      Interesting note about the quill pens. And printing is definitely easier to read. I’m wondering whether what the illustration says is true: that in another generation, cursive may look like hieroglyphics.

  6. Gipssy T Lupin

    Yes, I love to write in cursive. I think it looks so pretty and I make it a point to hand write all thank you cards. But yes, it hurts when I do. Some arthritis, some carpal tunnel, numbness and cramping all contribute to make it a mildly painful experience, but the results are usually worth it. I think it adds a special, personal touch.

    • Donna Freedman

      Me too! Which is why I hand-wrote them — and also a quick card to my daughter — even though I had to take a break or two to ease the grumbling.

      Full disclosure: I hand-printed the card to my daughter. Easier somehow.

  7. Cathy in NJ

    There are a lot of beautiful script fonts that prevent writers cramp, then finish the note with a beautiful handwritten cursive signature. It would not show as much love as your method but would hurt less.

    The modern world does not encourage penmanship. I have given up trying to have my signature even look like a signature in those point of sale, sign here boxes. The wand that impersonates a pen is so bulky you can’t help but scribble.

  8. I still think better when I use pen and paper. I sometimes have to write stuff in a notebook and then transfer to computer. I can’t imagine having to print! Takes way too long. Cursive moves right along.
    I had a third grade teacher who really put us through the paces as well.

    • Donna Freedman

      When I take notes for theater reviews I tend to write in complete sentences — and often lift entire paragraphs right out of my notes.

      These days, my brain talks just as well to my fingertips and keyboard, But my first-ever newspaper articles (freelance pieces for The Philadelphia Inquirer) were, in fact, hand-written. I’d attend an event on the weekend and write it up in a spiral-bound notebook once my preschooler was listening to a “Sesame Street” album or taking a nap. I’d input the articles once I got to my job as an Inquirer news clerk.

      We had a typewriter at home, but words seemed to flow better when I used a pen and paper.

  9. Punkin Pye

    Since the day I first picked up a pencil and a Big Chief notebook, my handwriting has been hopeless. No amount of care has been able to improve my handwriting. In grade school, I was a straight A student except in penmanship. To my enternal shame, a B was the best I could do, LOL.

  10. Make Do Mom

    Last month I sent a thank you card for a Christmas gift. A few days later I got a text message from the recipient thanking me for taking the time to hand-write the note and praising my penmanship. Imagine, a thank you for my thank you because it was in cursive.

  11. LOL, my handwriting was always bad and has gotten worse now that I no longer do it very often. I handwrote a blog post yesterday because I didn’t have access to a computer. When I got home, I could barely read it. If I have to write a thank-you note, I print.

    But I do notice my 6-year-old has problems reading cursivey fonts. I don’t know that she needs to learn to write it, but she should at least be able to read it.

  12. Angie unduplicated

    I was taught Palmer Method by elderly teachers in E TN schools, who forced us to use fountain pens (hate the things!) Hands have been arthritic since my 30s but I was fool enough to volunteer to write all of the thank you notes for my dad’s funeral flowers. Ouch!
    TBI from child abuse means I’m a slow typist, so I take notes in a bastard crossbreed of cursive and steno abbreviations which makes a doctor’s hand look like calligraphy. A serious session means Arthur visits the thumb for several aggravating days.
    Can you use a recorder for notes or Nuance on a computer? You have my sympathy.

    • Donna Freedman

      These days I don’t need to take as many notes by hand, unless I’m reviewing something local. I do some scribbles at the Financial Blogger Conference, though.

      My mom tried to teach me shorthand but I declined to learn it. Privately I thought, “If I learn it, I’ll have to use it” — i.e., I’d become a secretary rather than a writer. Turns out that shorthand would have been mighty useful during my newspapering days. Sigh.

      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  13. I am a leftie. I still write nearly everything. At least once a month, I write my girlfriend a letter that ends up at least 4 pages on both sides (to save paper), but I guess not appropriate. She types hers back to me. I write all notes, even store list. I have arthritis too, but think that has kept me more limber. Typing on the other hand, isn’t so good. When I started with typing I had a teacher that used to come around with a ruler and hit me on the hands for looking at the keys instead of watching the paper. That happened a lot. To this day, I sometimes still have to watch, as I start out with my hands at the wrong position.

    Donna, came into a little more spending money and just bought both your book and your daughter’s. Wonder if after I read them, whether I can get them autographed sometime. Can’t wait to read them. I have been wanting them since they came out.

    • Donna Freedman

      I had a teacher who taped my fingers to the pencil because she thought I held it “wrong.”

      Thanks for buying my book and my daughter’s book! E-mail me at SurvivingAndThriving (at) live (dot) com to discuss the whole autograph thing. And to anyone else who’s interested in signed copies: I always have some on hand and would be able to sign and mail them.

  14. Oh, Donna – just wait. I’m well into my 80’s and my handwriting gets worse every year (and I am a retired primary teacher who taught cursive for many years.) My grandchildren always print, but their thank you notes are very legible. I’m perfectly fine with Emails but I think their parents insisted on handwritten notes to Grandma from the time they could write at all. Said grandchildren are all in their 20’s and 30’s. Habits learned early last well.

    • Donna Freedman

      I used to have my daughter write thank-you notes for holiday and birthday presents. It did teach her a useful life skill: how to say “thank you” for something you didn’t like very much. Didn’t matter whether she would have chosen that sweater; someone thought about her and she learned to focus on that. (Which is why I included the sweater mention at the end of the piece.)

  15. I still write in cursive, especially when writing letters and cards. Unfortunately, my cursive has always been funny-looking, but it’s legible if I don’t write too fast. My late mother had the most beautiful handwriting, wish I’d inherited her talent.
    These days, I alternate between cursive and block print writing, depending on what kind of note it is. For instance, grocery and to-do lists are block printed, but journal writing is cursive. I just started doing it this way around ten years ago, but it wasn’t a conscious decision. Go figure.

  16. I send handwritten thank you cards for everything unless it’s an incredibly close relative who I speak to almost daily (sometimes even then I still write a note) and have made one of my goals this year to drop at least one handwritten letter in the post to a grand-person every month as well. It always takes me half the month to work up to it though because the pen to paper action hurts, no matter if I’m printing or cursiving. That’s not a word but I’m not taking it back, either!

    The thing I can’t shake is knowing that my mom hates – that’s actually past tend hated but the feeling ran so deep I can still feel her judging it from beyond the grave! – how my printed slants backwards. It’s always done so, darned if I know why, but I can just hear her fussing at me, even now when I dash off a note and the writing slants the wrong way!

    Some things stick forever. For example, guilt.

  17. P.S. I can’t decide if the post title is an homage to “dying is easy, young man. Governing is harder.” Is it?

  18. Another student of handwriting classes in the 50’s and yes, I attended a Catholic school. Handwriting class was the first class of the day, everyday. I still write as many notes, cards and lists in cursive as possible using my collection of fountain pens. My handwriting is deteriorating as age and arthritis take their toll but it’s still pretty good as long as I take my time.

  19. I learned cursive in elementary school in the 70s. I was horrified when the writing teacher gave me a B, because I would have done just about anything to earn an A but just couldn’t figure out how to do it the way she wanted.

    As I got into high school and college, my cursive got really messy, and I took to printing. I used to love to write letters, and I still have quite a collection of stationary and colorful gel pens.

    Since I lost my eyesight, I write most everything on the computer. I do have a template with strings to designate lines if I *really* want to handwrite something, but I can tell that my printing is larger and sloppier than it used to be and I don’t use it much. I think people understand.

    I suppose if I want to take notes by hand now, I’ll have to work to improve my braille!

  20. I remember when my neighbors and I would write each other letters as kids, just for fun. I definitely miss how personal it all used to be. I’m also glad I learned cursive before public schools stopped teaching! I’m typically a fast writer because of it.

  21. I was watching Victoria…on PBS…the other night with my daughter and found myself explaining what a blotter was. It took me back to school days when we learnt to write cursive with a fountain pen…..and inky fingers. Then the miracle of Biro pens happened.


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