Immersive Cursive: Growing Up Loopy

Growing up, ours was a family of handwritten notes for every occasion. The majority were left on the kitchen counter next to the sink, or in a particular spot on the all-purpose table in the breakfast nook. Whether one was professing their familial love and devotion on the back of a Valpak coupon, or simply communicating an intent to be home before dinnertime, the words were generally immortalized in BiC on whatever paper was available, and timestamped for the reader’s information. You may have learned cursive in school, but I was born in it — molded by it. The ascenders and descenders betray you because they belong to me.

Both of my parents always seemed to be incapable of printing in anything other than all caps, so I actually preferred to see their cursive most of the time. As a result, I could copy read it quite easily from an early age. Well, I don’t think I ever had any hope of imitating Dad’s signature. But Mom’s on the other hand — like I said in the first installment, it was important for my signature to be distinct from hers, given that we have the same name — first, middle, and last. But I could probably still bust out her signature if it came down to something going on my permanent record.

While my handwriting was sort of naturally headed towards Mom’s, I was more interested in Dad’s style and that of my older brother. He had small caps handwriting down to an art, and my attempts to copy it have always looked angry and stilted by comparison. In addition, my brother’s cursive is lovely and quick, while still being legible.

Dad’s handwriting through the ages. Left: a note to Mom circa 1979 regarding yours truly. On the right: Dad’s diary from the boat ride to Korea, fall 1958.

Comma Chameleon

My handwriting has changed quite a bit over the years, and most of the adjustments have been fully intentional updates. I eventually shifted away from trying to imitate my brother’s small caps and came into my own handwriting that doesn’t really look like any of my family’s. I’m certain that it will remain in a constant state of flux, however minor the changes may be.

Gee whiz! Image via Medium

Some of the shifts have been stylistic, and others were made in an attempt to gain some overall speed. Through the years, I have consciously switched to using double-storey ‘a’ and back again, as well as spending a few years making uncial lowercase ‘e’ by drawing a ‘c’ and then adding a horizontal line out from the center.

I even briefly tried to make fancy lowercase ‘g’ complete with the link, loop, and ear, but I could never get it down quickly, so I scrapped it. When the illegibility of my ‘3’ bothered me, I did some grinding until it changed for the better. The same thing happened with lowercase ‘r’, which now has a swooshy, sassy top to it.

If anyone ever tries to digitize my handwritten notebooks and loose paper, it feels like they’re probably going to have to do more training than they’d like before it’s all said and done. Or will they?

Of Man and Machine

A bit of OCR-A. Image via Wikipedia

Speaking of digitizing important historic documents, what’s the deal with OCR? Optical Character Recognition might conjure images of the weird printing along the bottom of your personal checks. While that is partially true, OCR is so much more than just a typeface that resembles the one we used to use back in the acid-green Hack-a-Day (which of course is called Checkbook).

OCR was created in order to glean text from images, scanned documents, et cetera, and convert it into something machines could read. OCR can even read newspapers, despite the whole column-inch layout. Of course, the resulting text needs to be human-readable too, so the OCR-A typeface was born in 1968. Since then, it has been used for everything from digitizing the Constitution to helping the hearing impaired.

Handwriting Fonts, Sans Taste

The original artwork for Felt Tip Roman. Image via Mark Simonson.

Conversely, the irony of making computers do things is that we now have a host of handwriting fonts, from perennial favorite Comic Sans to Lucida Handwriting to Papyrus. You’ve likely seen Felt Tip Roman without realizing it, which is essentially just creator Mark Simonson’s handwriting, but cleaned up and ligatured. But not all handwriting fonts are steeped in fun and games.

You’ve no doubt seen ethnic fonts that are meant to imitate another culture’s writing — think of those fake brush-stroke fonts like Wonton, or the equally questionable Faux-Hebrew. While it’s up for debate whether the creators meant to offend, fonts like these are beginning to fall out of fashion in favor of (subjectively) better choices like Papyrus.

The Defense Rests, But the Mind Doesn’t

One of the ways my near-hypergraphia manifested has been my studious Mandarin Chinese brush stroke practice, back when I was in school. I can only remember how to write a few characters today, but I have a stack of handmade flashcards about eight inches thick that I can’t seem to let go of, along with scads of sheets of paper that look like the ones below.

As you’ve probably guessed, written communication is pretty important to me. I think it’s worth everyone’s time to build nice (or at least, legible) handwriting, just as it is important to learn how to type properly. Of course, no tool works faster for getting the words out than the mouth itself. Do we need a third installment to talk about text-to-speech?

28 thoughts on “Immersive Cursive: Growing Up Loopy

  1. The left note sheet is a bit harder to read, cursive in italics. The right one is nice and easy to read. Either way wonderful to see it still being in use. I still write letters sometimes to special people and postcards.Wasn’t it here in this very blog that using cursive these days is almost subversive because younger people lost the ability to read it?

    I usually write like the cliché M.D. and in a very messy cursive. Ball pens have ruined my handwriting. There are only a few select ones with gel or smooth ink that I can write with. The little force of a fountain pen makes it easier for my poor fine motor skills to move across paper.

    1. Still, every other word is an exercise in educated guesswork because it is literally impossible to tell i from s from e, n from x etc. the way they are written.

      Try the same thing in a foreign language and it would be utterly hopeless.

    2. There are about 20 years, a war, a few wives, and four, soon to be five kids between he of the sample on the right and he of the one on the left.

      > Wasn’t it here in this very blog that using cursive these days is almost subversive because younger people lost the ability to read it?

      Yes! I said something to that effect in the first installment. :)

    1. The author (and 28th president of Harvard) is a she, not he. The article is well worth reading, in any case, and speaks of the growing inability to not only write but read cursive. I’ll confess that I’d personally assumed (completely without evidence) that our youth might not be able to write cursive, but surely (!) they’d be able to read it….

  2. There’s evidence that some people remember new facts better if they take notes in cursive, than if they do so in block letters. (This may just be an aspect of it being slightly unusual for most people so the extra concentration required to write cursive means they remember it. Personally, I don’t think this works for me; when I’m doing calligraphy I regularly misspell things because I’m concentrating so hard on the writing process I stop concentrating on meaning.)
    I make custom fountain pen nibs for friends, which is a fun and fussy process. I personally prefer using a brush pen when it’s for a purpose, like kanji, because it’s so much more responsive, but it’s also a lot messier!

    1. I have never figured out how people “take notes.” I can’t write and listen at the same time. I can’t even do it by typing. The real bottleneck seems to be that I’m not just listening, but trying to relate it to known knowledge at the same time. Connecting the new stuff to the existing stuff doesn’t leave any “processing power” to write or type. Scribbling it down to decipher later doesn’t help – I can’t possible scribble or type as fast as other people talk, so I have to trim it to just the important points to get it down fast enough. Trimming it down means I have to listen and understand, though, which I can’t do and still get anything “noted.” Catch 22. School sucked.

      Give me a book, though, and I’m fine. I can read at my own (high) rate and relate new stuff to things I already so that the new stuff has a place to “hang” so that I can remember it.

      1. 100% agree. Also, once something is stuck in my brain it has trouble changing. I wonder if it is similar for you. Essentially I think of the wrong information and then I have to realize it is wrong and then I remember the correct information…I can’t skip to the new information.

      2. Taking notes was literally just about writing down the lecture. This style of studying was a holdover from times when we didn’t have xerox machines and PDF files, so the teacher literally had to orate the material to the students who would copy it and study it later.

        These days they could just hand you a transcript of the lecture and have you read it for the same effect, but this is not done because most students are still at that stage of life where they’re too disoriented and distracted to study independently. They have to be sat in a chair in a room with a teacher talking so they would bother to pay any attention. Any written material you give is at best glossed over and promptly forgotten or ignored; requiring the students to read a textbook would be like pulling teeth and cause half the class to drop out.

        1. +1. The current abundance of learning resources means that an interested student does not need to waste time creating his own manual, transcribing the teacher’s words (medieval style). A good student can now spend most of the time in a class, understanding information and asking interesting questions. Notes (digital or carbon) can be limited to a short summary, simplified structure on a given topic and related learning sources. The problem is that many students are lazy and don’t even do this type of personal work (because some dude already done it online).

          1. The problem these days is rather that students expect to be TAUGHT whether they put any personal effort into it or not. Educational institutions are graded by pass-through rates rather than educational results, so students dropping out because the course is too demanding is a bad thing.

            We’re seeing people coming in to complete mandatory lab exercises, who have not read a single page of the course lecture material nor the textbooks. They just walk in and expect us to explain on the spot the whole thing, theory and practice. They don’t ask questions, they don’t answer questions, they just wait till you reveal the answer and go through the motions to complete the exercise. That earns them the credit to enter the course final examination, which most fail at least once before they learn which questions are asked and what answers are expected.

        2. I suspect it may be more of a teacher age thing as well. I had to learn to take notes without actually processing the content in high school circa 2003. Our history and engineering teachers wrote exclusively on black boards at very high speed. They would then start erasing from the top when they ran out of space, so If you did not get it down in time too bad.

          1. Same thing with overhead projectors, then document cameras, then lectures over Teams. Teachers with that style will simply fill the time writing stuff down or advancing power point slides without providing any value to the material through interaction with the students. They might as well write it down once and simply hand out copies at the start of the course.

      3. I am for sure a freak on this. If I’m handwriting notes, I’m kinda slow and concentrated, but I can transcribe conversations at normal speed (just the spoken words: not identifying the speaker) while holding a separate conversation. So, yeah, give me a keyboard and I’m waaaay better at taking notes than doing it by hand. Unfortunately, for most of my schooling, there weren’t any laptops available.

        The classes where the prof hands out the whole set of notes and we get to go in and add explanations or comment on confusing parts are way better. That removes 90% of the mental burden, and leaves students capable of just concentrating on the meaning/concepts. I wish more profs had done that. Though, sometimes both their handwritten notes and their notes on the blackboard were both largely unreadable. That was a serious drag on studying.

      4. In medical school, every lecture was recorded and shortly thereafter transcribed and distributed. That way visual/auditory learners got their lecture, and study-from-a-page people got their chance too. The transcribing gig paid pretty well so I did it a lot but it helped me 0% with learning the material. I could be “listening” to the recorded lecture and typing it out all while watching TV or talking to someone. There was no retention; it went from my ears to fingers and skipped everything in between. So I would then have to go back to my own typed notes to actually learn anything. I recall seeing an accomplished telegraph operator at a hamfest or something doing the same- listening and writing while talking to other people.. I assume (and have read) that old railroad telegraph operators were similar.

    2. > I make custom fountain pen nibs for friends, which is a fun and fussy process.

      Okay, that’s legendary. Do you start with flat sheets of metal, or is it more like making cymbals where there’s a blank involved? Can I see them somewhere online? :)

  3. Kudos to you Kristina for writing these two articles! I love all the comments and it brought some insight to me about peoples writing skills. I also bought a fountain pen after the first article and am presently learning how to use one again! Thank you!

  4. Love the typography series! Keep ‘m coming! I also have a fascination for type, letter setting (design in general) and logo design, though not so much in my own scratches that go for written text.
    I too like the Chinese character set, or more specific Japanese, including katakana and hiragana. I’ve learned to read the latter two a few years ago, which can be done in a week to know the symbols and the sounds they produce, not so much the meaning they portray unless it’s ‘Japanglish’.
    I’ve tried Kanji for a while but I only remember the most basic ones like person, big, water etc.
    I remember the first time I played with fonts was with a dot matrix printer, with which you can print different fons using escape codes. After that I got an Amiga that came with vector fonts, Lightwave 3D that came with adobe type fonts. I’ve never got around designing my own fonts though.

    1. There was a free Amiga program on a coverdisc back in the day called (IIRC) “Font Grabber” which allowed you to make your own fonts from your own drawings. Of course, back then most of us didn’t have graphics tablets, scanners or digital cameras, so we had to draw each glyph clumsily with a mouse.

  5. The future of handwriting recognition lies in the use of AI. Handwriting is often too complex and personal to use a traditional OCR approach. Only using huge corpus of transcribed texts and respective images of those documents, patterns of representations can be automatically identified. Also important is the use of grammatical rules to exclude or indicate possible illegible words, abbreviations and other necessary things that change slowly over time. At least, this is the path that researchers in the field of transcription of ancient manuscript sources are currently following.

  6. Some observations on handwriting: the faster you go the less legible it is. No way around that. I can write gorgeous calligraphy like a medieval manuscript but even calligraphers refer to this as “drawing” the letters and it takes forever. Me, same guy, is perfectly capable of dashing off an entirely illegible chick-scratch-serial-killer note to myself. Also, like the article says, handwriting can change over time either intentionally with a lot of work (like everything!) or unintentionally as we age.

    1. When you’re not habituated to handwriting, you tend to get the “yips”, which is random confused hand movements that interrupt the smooth flow of writing, which means the whole effort becomes futile because you’re stopping, erasing, and starting again every word. This is not a problem with type letters because each one is independent, but with cursive if you get confused half-way through the word, that’s the end of the line and you’ve ruined it for good.

  7. I enjoyed the article and look forward to future installments. I am very familiar with OCR-A in regards to checking. When I was at NCR I was trained to service Proof Department document encoders that would print the amounts of the transactions by the bank tellers on each piece of paper. The print had to be spot-on so the high speed document reader on the mainframe could read without rejecting anything. NCR also gave us “writing” lessons so we could fill out our customer work tickets with a specific mechanical lead pencil that were read by an ocr reader. At our monthly district meetings we would get a personal ticket reject report and at times a chewing out for a high reject rate. Later the manual ticket system was replaced with a huge handheld terminal with a 2 line LCD that downloaded/uploaded our customer tickets and parts orders via Acoustic Modem. However I come from the era where the Cursive example was on a long strip above the chalk board in elementary school and we still were graded on penmanship. I have always said if you wanted to hide information from your kids… just write in cursive. 🤣

  8. I took 2 years of shorthand in high school 1957 – 58. That really teaches how to listen and quickly convert speech to written code much different from normal writing. Then the process later, sometimes much later back to cursive and then another conversion to spoken speech. Some people just couldn’t do it. I believe that also listening to shortwave radio as a kid, being exposed to foreign accents, was easier for me to interpret speech.

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