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Today’s technology cramps letter writers’ style

Just as an experiment, I wrote the first paragraph of this column using a ballpoint pen and writing on a piece of lined paper, the kind used in school tablets.
It started like this: "From elementary school through college, I used to write compositions and answer test questions all the time with a pen. I don’t recall having any trouble with legibility. Could I still do it?"
The answer is "No."
I had not objectively assessed my ability in penmanship in years. The results of that brief test were conclusive: Years of relying on mechanical devices, first the typewriter and then the computer, had eroded my handwriting skills.
I’ve always thought my handwriting was acceptable. Not everyone agreed. Thus, the challenge always was finding others who were perceptive enough to read and understand it. Oh, yes, in my work I take notes all the time, but there are those occasional intervals when I later have to study my own pages very carefully to determine whether a particular image is a word or an illegible mistake.
I understand that most schools don’t stress handwriting as was done years ago, for obvious reasons; there is so much less writing required. Penmanship has been deregulated. The result is that the students learn writing in a much more informal manner, getting advice from teachers now and then and imitating the work of their elders.
Generations of Americans learned the essentials of handwriting using the Palmer Method, which was taught in schools for decades. It was devised in the late 19th century by a zealot named Austin Palmer and widely adopted for use in business offices and in classrooms. I can remember the tattered Palmer booklets with the red covers being passed out in class after class, year after year in elementary school.
There were exercises to be done, the Palmer theory being that the whole arm should be involved in writing, not just the hand. The hand could become tired and cramped, and the result of a cramped hand was illegibility. We endlessly practiced making overlapping circles and stroking slanted lines.
Millions of Palmer Method booklets were circulated. The technique was popular in the late ’50s. Now it is all but forgotten.
Some people continue to write letters, and I am always elated to receive one. Emails were once exciting, but they are generally bland and forgettable.
However, receiving a handwritten envelope containing a handwritten letter is a notable event today. Even the mail carriers must derive some joy from such a delivery.
In recent weeks I was lucky enough to receive two such documents. The first was from a woman regarding a project in which we both are interested. Her letter was well worth preserving, embellished, as it was, with various curlicues and flourishes. It was elegant, a thing of beauty, an example of penmanship at its very best. I didn’t happen to agree with her opinion, but I was totally dazzled by her handiwork.
The second letter was from a man, a major executive. It was written on the corporate letterhead with his name and title imprinted in the upper left corner. It was just two or three sentences long; the scrawl initially seemed impenetrable but proved to be decipherable and appreciative. I was glad to receive it and felt that it was significant that he took the time to write a personal note rather than sending an impersonal dictated letter or an email.
Although totally different in content and presentation, those two letters had one thing in common: They were priority items that I opened immediately without even flipping through whatever other correspondence had arrived that day.
The handwritten letter is a vanishing item in all situations, especially business. The feeling it transmits is both distinctive and unique, composed for a single purpose. It reveals a very positive quality inherent in the sender: That person cared enough to write a message and address an envelope.
Some consultants stress the power of a timely handwritten note. That is especially useful at a critical moment when an established association has been endangered by one of those occasional glitches that can wreck a relationship. A personal letter, they claim, is an effective strategy. It enables the writer to apologize for any foul-up and suggest an approach designed to preserve the connection.
They believe the points made in a handwritten note can be far more effective and memorable than any printed text utilizing Helvetica or Times Roman.

Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.

10/25/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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