By Sir Sydney Cockerell
Date Added: 17/07/2009
Robert Bridges, Poet Laureate, printed in 1926 and 1927 two tracts on English Handwriting containing facsimiles of examples that he thought worthy of commendation. In the preface to the first of these tracts he declared that illegibility in writing to a stranger was an unpardonable breach of good manners. There is no doubt that in too many of our schools this dictum has not been taken to heart. Writing is tolerated that, besides being ill-formed, is slovenly, slipshod and clumsy, and the pupil has no idea that he is forming a habit that will tell against him all his life.
What, then, should be aimed at by both teacher and taught? Legibility is, of course, the first thing. Every letter should be distinctly formed in such a way that it cannot be mistaken for any other letter. It ought not, for instance, to be possible to mistake a 'u' for an 'n', or vice versa. If all such confusions are avoided, and words and lines are well-spaced, the primary object of handwriting is accomplished, and the reader can have no cause for complaint.
Nevertheless, such a piece of legible writing would not have attracted the attention of Robert Bridges if it had not one or more other qualities. These are beauty, character and style. To write beautifully as well as legibly requires much practice, some study of fine examples, and a good deal of zeal. At one famous public school there has been great emulation in the last few years to excel in this respect, with the result that many boys have acquired beautiful handwriting that no-one could fail to admire and that will be a great asset to them as long as they live. For a beautiful script may easily make all the difference when two applicants of otherwise equal qualifications are seeking the same appointment; I have heard of its determining a choice between fifty competitors.
Style and character, the other factors I have mentioned, must come largely of themselves as part of the individual make-up. We all know what style is in cricket, in tennis, in dancing, in skating and even in ordinary gestures - a subtle perfection of which the possessor is hardly conscious. This is a quality of the best hand-writing. So is character, which is the personal stamp that makes one piece of good penmanship differ from another that may lack it, and that enables one to recognise and name the writer as often as one sees an example of his script.
But in seeking these qualities there are some pitfalls. One feels that some scripts on which much effort has been spent are a little affected, too self-conscious. An air of spontaneity must be aimed at. Above all, there must be a total absence of swagger. Pretentious signatures are apt to give a bad impression. And illegible signatures, or illegible initials, which baffle the reader, are (to return to Robert Bridges) sheer bad manners. There is no excuse for them, unless the writer suffers from some physical disability that prevents his writing clearly.