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Word is mightier than the pen

I had to write a thank you letter the other day. By which I mean, I had to get a piece of paper and compose and write the letter using a pen.  

This was remarkable; I hadn’t written a letter using paper and pen for a long time, and I guess this would be true for most people in the UK. A letter is unusual in itself; written communications usually takes place by email. And when constructing a document of greater length, such as this item, we are used to entering it directly on screen. 

What I realised as I wrote my letter was that there are quite different processes involved than when working on screen. If my letter was not to be full of crossings out then I had to think carefully about what I was going to say and then write it down; the thought was formed, composed and then written. By contrast, what I do on screen is to write, read, rethink, rewrite; an iterative process of gradual approximation. 

The on-screen process is common but whereas I was brought up before the widespread use of computers I still have the capability – albeit little used – to write in script, but I wonder whether it affects the thinking processes of our children who use on-screen document production almost exclusively. A recent TV report featured a teacher who said that she thought that handwriting for her pupils was a redundant skill. (I certainly would have welcomed that when I was at school – my writing was so bad that I had  to go to remedial writing classes on several occasions!) 

Back to the process: reflective thought followed by carefully considered communication has now become rare. The broadcast media compound this. Anyone who is asked a question on radio or TV is expected to have the ability to respond immediately; a pause while the respondent gathers his or her thoughts is considered to make their statements more dubious rather than more certain. 

Is this also having an effect on attention? The sound bite is a product of this; messages that can be encapsulated in a few words inevitably lose richness. Is there a real risk of this resulting in general dumbing down? 

Anyhow, I can’t go ranting on; this article is already quite long enough.... 


Calvert Markham 

Monday 14th June 2021
Hands on typewriter