A cursive compromise by
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In elementary school, I did very well, with a notable exception: penmanship, as they called it. As a child my small muscle coordination was late to develop, and I struggled with sewing, knitting, and the like, always feeling as if I had ten thumbs. When I learned to print in first grade, it wasn’t too bad. But by second grade, the hours of practicing cursive were agonizing and as I look back now, mostly a waste of time. All the time spent writing swirls on that crazy lined paper–what else could I have been learning instead?

Unless my penmanship improved I could be held back and not go on to sixth grade.

OK, there was some value in the practice. I had to learn persistence, for one thing. Cursive was good for the pathway of kinesthetic learning, although today I couldn’t write cursive if I tried.

By the time I got to fifth grade, I’d hit my stride academically and was writing stories and enjoying most of the other subjects in class. However, my penmanship? I got a D. The teacher wrote a note to my parents saying that unless my penmanship improved I could be held back and not go on to sixth grade. (Can you imagine that happening today? I’m not even left handed, so my heart goes out to all those southpaws in years past who struggled as well.) Fortunately my family moved after the school year and I was enrolled in a new school for sixth grade.

What to do about penmanship, though? In this new school, the teachers didn’t insist we write cursive, just that whatever we wrote had to be legible. My printing had been decent, I thought, so why not try that instead? At first I was really slow, but over the summer between sixth and seventh grade I practiced hard, and my printed letters began to flow together appealingly, with a few cursive elements that worked their way in.

This hybrid writing you see in the photo is what I’ve done ever since, and it has served me very well. Even though most editing work has moved to digital methods, I still pick up a red pen to edit from time to time, and the authors can read my marks. I often will hand write notes during and after meetings, especially because there are studies that show we remember more when we hand write it down. At this age, any help with remembering is good!

In graduate school I learned that English writing systems have changed over time. The italic cursive we’ve used was the domain of educated women in the 17th century. Male authors and scholars wrote in a different hand called “secretary,” which is wickedly difficult for us in the 21st century to read. So, there is precedent for abandoning a writing system. But what to teach kids today besides typing? I’m not sure about that. There is great value in writing by hand, but maybe not in cursive exclusively.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    Great story, Marian. And your hybrid was a brilliant solution. Most importantly, it is eminently legible. Feel free to write me a letter any time (though I’ll be checking your spelling).

  2. Suzy says:

    Marian, I think 2nd grade is too early, no wonder you had so much trouble. I wonder if it would have been easier for you if your school had waited til 4th grade like mine did. Of course the idea that you could have been learning something else instead has now been embraced by the schools, and that’s why they don’t teach it any more. The hybrid writing system you developed is very similar to what I do, using printing-style letters but connecting some of them. The difference is that you dot your i’s. You should try leaving off the dots and see how much time you save. 🙂

    • Marian says:

      I agree, Suzy, that 2nd grade is too early for cursive and 4th would have been better. It’s interesting how both our writing systems ended up so similarly. I will experiment with not dotting i’s and crossing t’s, although if I ever do red pen editing again, I think that would discombobulate the authors.

  3. Your hybrid system is perfect, Mare, and it’s the perfect solution to the penmanship question. It even satisfies that need for the quick flow of longhand and what is to me the beauty of those letters with looping descenders.

    I love how you found the silver lining of persistence and kinesthetic learning through your struggle with cursive, although I’m sure that’s 20/20 hindsight.

    My oldest friend is a southpaw and I have stacks of cards and letters I treasure written in her quirky hand. I really do hate to think of handwritten communication, whatever it looks like, disappearing altogether.

    Really a wonderful story…thank you!

    • Marian says:

      You’re welcome, Barb. I think my writing does reflect my personality in a way. My brother is a southpaw and I remember him struggling so much with cursive in school that it was a relief later on when he started using a computer. The variety of handwriting is really compelling.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    I understand entirely, as a good student who also failed miserably at penmanship. How utterly ridiculous that your school threatened to hold you back due to poor penmanship! I’m so glad to hear that didn’t happen.

    Your information concerning the differences between women’s and men’s styles of cursive is really interesting. The whole form seems to be doomed in the day and age, given the current generation’s computer savvy. But they still need to be able to sign their names!

    • Marian says:

      I wonder if some sort of new handwriting will evolve, Betsy, based on our current computer usage. Maybe we will have some sort of emoji or hieroglyphic system to indicate our thoughts, and sign our names.

  5. I agree Marian, your hybrid is completely legible, much better than my scribbling which I often can’t even read myself!
    (I’ve been told at the bank more than once that my handwriting is illegible!)

    Thinking of what BB and others have said, it is amazing how each of us has a distinct handwriting and it’s always a stab at the heart to see the familiar handwriting of someone we’ve lost
    – like my mother’s on recipe cards and on poems of my sister.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Marian, your story reminds me of what was so wrong about education. Grading kids on their handwriting is absurd. Beautiful handwriting is tied to small motor skills and eye-hand coordination. When my middle daughter was in kindergarten at age 4 (because in those days a chid needed to be turning 5 by December to attend), she was the youngest in the class and her fine motor skills lagged behind. Her teacher berated her for not being able to print neatly on the line. By then, I had enough confidence to speak up and defend my child. I have a brilliant friend who was almost retained in kindergarten because she couldn’t cut straight with scissors. I would never want to go back to these foolish things, but I still think kids should learn to read/write cursive.

    • Marian says:

      I second you thoughts, Laurie. How horrible about your friend and the scissors, but I can see that happening. I remember my mother arguing with my brother’s first grade teacher about the same thing and finally finding leftie scissors, which were not common at the time.

  7. Gawd, didn’t they find the most horrifying torture methods for children back then! Kept back a grade for penmanship? Sadists. I have my own cursive corruption that I use when editing although these days, MS Word’s “Track Changes” has rendered yet another relief from staring at a screen useless. I do like to read and edit in hard copy and, starting in high school, long before my editing days began, I was “personalizing” my carefully taught penmanship. And, BTW, Marian, shouldn’t we begin calling it “penPERSONship?” Just sayin’…

    • Marian says:

      Yes, there clearly was a sadistic streak back then, Charles, and the powers that be thought it subversive if you strayed outside the lines. Probably the entire word, be it penmanship or penpersonship, will soon disappear. There are days when, with some clients, I believe I’m the only one who’s ever used a pen.

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