Is handwriting doomed?

To borrow from and revise Shakespeare (quite audacious of me ), I come not to bury handwriting nor to praise it.  Much has already been written – or should I say put in print – by technocrats signaling the assumed demise of handwriting, particularly cursive writing, and with no regrets mentioned. Just another pre-computer age relic, so be it. But before we bid adieu to the power of the pen, axiomatically being replaced by the power of the keyboard, let’s reflect on writing by hand.

At the conclusion of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 the anti-intellectual hedonistic society that bans and burns books has all but collapsed and it is given to the “book-keepers” to start anew; in cases like this, those who possess fundamental skills are called upon;  survivors who are aware of how to apply rudimentary means to solve essential needs.

I remember an experience with a long-ago acquaintance who had a passion for sailing. He built a beautiful sailboat by himself and after it had proven seaworthy, he invited me to go sailing with him. One of the many fascinating features on the boat was that he had opted for a tiller rather than a steering wheel. When I questioned him as to why he had chosen to use the more labor intensive older means of maneuvering the vessel, he was quite clear: for him, the tiller was more responsive, more reliable, and simpler and therefore less prone to mechanical trouble. In fact much later I learned that emergency tillers are quite often used at least as a backup in case the steering wheel on a vessel fails to operate.

There is a story, a folktale of sorts.  It tells of a particular community that had invoked an involved ritual since time immemorial to protect its village. The knowledge of this was taught from generation to generation and thereby kept intact. But little by little as time went by, succeeding generations were less and less rigorous about learning the intricacies of the ritual, and subsequently forgot and left out steps one by one until all they could remember was the very basic incantation they had been taught, but  when this  itself was uttered,  amazingly it brought about the desired result.

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I reference these anecdotes here as they relate to handwriting. It may very well be a fundamental skill,  and a survival skill. It may also be a mind enhancing skill. Vanderbilt University education professor Steve Graham maintains that handwriting is a necessary building block: a number of studies show that quality of handwriting can affect everything from students’ grades to the complexity of expressed thought.

Keeping things in perspective, communication technology has certainly evolved; from Oral Culture, to Manuscript Culture, to Print Culture, to the present Electronic/Digital Culture. There are some who project a future, enabled by technology, in which a neo-oral culture will emerge. I have mentioned this in a previous post. As each successive innovation arrives it tends to impact but not necessarily displace previous means – back in 1955 a Saturday Evening Post article bemoaned the sure to come end of handwriting due to: “an increasing reliance on telephone, typewriter, dictating machines and electronic brains”.

To be sure handwriting was not always egalitarian. In ancient cultures scribes, persons educated in the art of writing, were an elite group. During medieval times, this exclusive competency became much the province of cloistered monks, whose painstaking copying of manuscripts is typically regarded as saving, along with the work of less heralded Jewish and Islamic scholars of the period,  a legacy of knowledge through the dark ages. In colonial times in America, there was a clear distinction between acquisition of skill in reading versus writing; the former, fairly universal, while writing on the other hand was generally reserved for males in the professions and the merchant class. By the eighteenth century, writing had become a usual skill of the well-bred, both men and women. Eventually, teaching penmanship passed from writing masters to public schools. The Spencerian method, first introduced in the 1840’s, and later superseded by the simpler, less elegant Palmer method in the early 1900’s became de rigueur as a part of everyone’s elementary education. Everyone developed a distinct if not perfect handwriting in the process.

Indeed, handwriting is very personal. This is something to recommend it. Historians can pour over a rough draft of a handwritten document, replete with strikeouts and word revisions, and garner much of value through such analysis. The personal touch of a handwritten note has a value as well, to the recipient.

When all is said and done, any advance assumes a cumulative aspect, not a zero sum approach. In origin, the word advance in fact comes from the idea of being in front (of ); implying something is backing up whatever is in front – in the case of tools of communication, handwriting is the ultimate backup.

Two good books on the subject of handwriting are Handwriting in America: A Cultural History by Professor Tamara Plakins Thornton and the recent Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting by Kitty Burns Florey.

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https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/10/30/is-handwriting-doomed/

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William Safire moves on to another plane

I would hope Mr. Safire, who passed away Sunday at age 79, might appreciate the title of this piece I write in his memory (The New York Times for whom he wrote an op-ed column for 32 years preferred the word “article” for his columns, but he used the word “piece” at times himself), as he was a master punster – as well as a profound alliterator, just to name two of his laudable attributes.

As with other noted communicators, how he used language was of importance in its own right separate and apart from his subject matter, and it is how he used language, and how he attempted to advance the use of language that I praise irrespective of the topics he chose.

Language is a building material for communication, and William Safire must be considered an architect extraordinaire of and for language.

While the accomplishments of his career are certainly impressive in themselves – from the “kitchen debate” he has been associated with orchestrating between Nixon and Khrushchev in 1959 to the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1978 to the Presidential Medal for Freedom in 2006, with over 25 books including 4 novels, and as he calculated it some 6 million words to his credit, it is the New York Times Magazine column “On Language” , which must be considered synonymous with his name.

Safire suggests (apocryphally or not) that “On Language” got its start in 1979 because the Times executive editor,  A. M. Rosenthal, needed a topical column that would work in the Times Magazine which had back then a 10 day publishing lag. To borrow from the idiom, The press grinds slow but exceedingly fine. From that pragmatic beginning until his last “On Language” column just earlier this month, with several compendiums along the way, William Safire pointed out how language is used and should be used. He has enlightened and enlivened the debate. Some say he was “old school”, yet one of his most strongly held views was regarding the importance of openness to change, to new beginnings – “Never Retire” he urged in one of the last of his op-ed columns. In fact, his body of work will continue to be employed in the interest of language, and that’s as it should be, afterall, he was the self-described language maven – noun: an expert or connoisseur of language.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/09/28/william-safire-moves-on-to-another-plane/

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Dominick Dunne leaves his mark

Vanity Fair, the publication with which he had a 25 year association beginning in  1984 until his death on Wednesday, referred to Dominick Dunne in memorializing him as “our dearly departed diarist”.  Noted communicators contribute in many  genres and Dunne was the past master at his, chronicling the rich and infamous.  In Letter from Los Angeles, L.A. in the Age of O.J.  published in Vanity Fair in February 1995 as Dunne covered the O.J. Simpson Trial he wrote: “The Simpson case is like a great trash novel come to life, a mammoth fireworks display of interracial marriage, love, lust, lies, hate, fame, wealth, beauty, obsession, spousal abuse, stalking, brokenhearted children, the bloodiest of bloody knife-slashing homicides, and all the justice that money can buy.” Dunne’s reportage was like a story that invariably was irresistible, not surprising for a writer who had five bestselling novels.

He started his career in New York City as stage  manager for The Howdy Doody Show and in 1957 moved to Hollywood where he produced both television and feature films, all experiences which one senses played a part in developing his approach to writing. When life in the fast lane (in the form of substance abuse) caught up with him he took himself in hand and into seclusion in Oregon and at the age of 50 began to reinvent himself as a writer.

His profiles of the likes of Imelda Marcos, Robert Mapplethorpe, Elizabeth Taylor, Adnan Khashoggi, and others are works of art in their own right.

To read some of Dunne’s best go to Vanity Fair’s Dominick Dunne Archive http://bit.ly/yMwu2

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/08/27/dominick-dunne-leaves-his-mark/

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Iran’s eyewitnesses not “citizen” journalists

I have been considering the issue of elevating eyewitness reports – on Twitter – or elsewhere, to the level of citizen journalism. In fact, I have been doing extensive evaluation of this matter as the “phenomenon” occurring during the recent protests of the election in Iran has been generally hailed as technology advancing democracy. Thanks to cell phones and Twitter, citizens can provide “information” to a waiting world, no matter how hard a particular regime tries to suppress what may be taking place.

In theory, this is a good thing. It would mean that no government is able to hide behind a technology “blackout” which it might try to impose; and indeed in Iran, such was and is being attempted by the powers that be. Internet access has been successfully curtailed to strangle the flow of information in and out of the country. But the Supreme Leader did not reckon with the ability of great numbers of tweets to reach eager readers throughout the world, or cell phone photos and videos either.

This is all justifiably to be recognized as a step forward for humankind to be sure.  But, to convert eyewitness reports – which is what we are truly dealing with – into what has been dubbed  “citizen journalism” is a leap not to be taken lightly.

First, the authenticity of any given set of data, whether transmitted in words or pictures, is not finally subject to thorough verification. There is no standard under which the “reporting” is undertaken; normal professional reporting dictates corroboration through at least two separate sources for any bit of information to be considered credible and accepted for public airing. There is no oversight, or editorial scrutiny; in point of fact, one can question the source and origin of many of the tweets represented to be from Iran.

So what we have are eyewitness reports – an element often used by police and journalists in helping to piece together an incident or event; while a truly remarkable outpouring of verbiage and pictorial documentation, which certainly by its sheer volume and commonality of content, renders a “picture” of a government using totally heinous means to subdue an uprising over a questionable election, to raise these sincerely heroic efforts to get the word out to the world to the level of journalism is to reach too far and in the process to lower the bar for fact.

I have previously called attention to related matters in  prior posts which addressed the important concept of “truthiness” (see tag cloud). Truth, is not just “true enough”. The measure must be the strictest yardstick.

So while not diminishing the accomplishment of “the people” in sweeping away the “veil” attempted to cover the atrocities committed in the name of civil obedience through the use of new media and new technology, let’s not overreach, that would be to diminish the work of journalists throughout history who have indeed often risked their very lives to report the facts!

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/07/15/irans-eyewitnesses-not-citizen-journalists/

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“Accidents” can be the answers

When I was on the advertising side of communications I had many unique experiences. Because everything wasn’t ready until the last minute  a chartered  plane took me to  Lake Placid,  New York – the plane was crammed full with presentation binders, displays, and all the necessary multimedia equipment  to deliver an annual product introduction for a major multinational company. I thought we were completely prepared for anything; oops, nobody thought to mention the unconventional  power generating system at the famous winter resort we were heading to that would grind our “gear” to a halt. We ended up improvising as a small army of volunteers manually advanced the phalanx of slide projectors cued with scripts hastily reworked on site. A minor victory over technology bugs; and  to this day I always have back up plans and try to be as “self contained” as possible for any presentation. Accidents do happen, sometimes with fortuitous result, which is the moral to this story.

One of the clients I worked with in those days was Corning, Inc. – their Biomedical division had just introduced an innovative piece of laboratory equipment, a blood gas meter, but it wasn’t selling well partly because it was different technology than the market was accustomed to using. It wasn’t selling well except in one particular sales territory where it was doing great, and I talked to the sales rep about his surprising success. “Well when I go back for my sample unit, the  lab won’t let me take it, they try it and they buy it.”  Of course he wasn’t supposed to leave his very expensive sample unit, just show it during his sales presentation. Thus was born the “Borrow A Meter” campaign, and one of the most successful product launches I can remember.

We can’t control everything. Unanticipated things happen. When that occurs you just might be able to use the result to advantage if you’re open to consider something different than what you expected.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/05/03/accidents-can-be-the-answers/

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Pulitzer Prize, what’s it all about anyway?

At 3:00 p.m. , Monday, April 20, at Columbia University the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winners and nominated finalists were announced. In journalism, there are 14 separate categories of the award. They are: Public Service; Breaking News Reporting; Investigative Reporting; Explanatory Reporting; Local Reporting; National Reporting; International Reporting; Feature Writing; Commentary; Criticism; Editorial Writing; Editorial Cartooning; Breaking News Photography; and, Feature Photography.

The intent of the Pulitzer prize is to honor excellence in journalism and the arts. Besides the journalism awards there are prizes in Biography or Autobiography; Fiction; Drama; History; Poetry; General Non-Fiction; and a Pulitzer Prize for Music. Pulitzer originally specified only four awards in journalism, four in letters and drama, one for education, and four traveling scholarships.  the prizes now include 21 separate categories.

The awards were originated through the will of Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911). Pulitzer, who had come up through the journalistic ranks to prominence in newspaper publishing, and who, in his “newspaper wars” with the Hearst organization became associated with adding “yellow journalism” into the annals of journalism’s history must be otherwise regarded as a keystone figure in that history as well.

In a piece in The North American Review, written in 1904 in support of his proposal for the founding of a school of journalism he wrote the following: “Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations.”

Starting in 2006 online content in all 14 journalism categories was allowed. For this year’s awards the competition was expanded to include online-only news organizations. Both of these steps, granting the background of the Pulitzers, are not to be taken lightly. More than 2400 entries are submitted each year.

A word should be mentioned about the Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal awarded each year to the American newspaper that wins the Public Service category. On one side of the medal is the profile of Benjamin Franklin, and on the other side, a printer hard at work at his press. The sculptor, Daniel Chester French later did the seated Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial. The images used have much to say about what and who we ought to value in terms of our journalistic heritage.

There is an  on-going discussion and debate about the place of traditional journalism in a 21st century society. There can be no debate about the merit of those who have been granted this award.

For complete information about this year’s awards go to: http://www.pulitzer.org/

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/04/20/pulitzer-prize-whats-it-all-about-anyway/

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“The Elements of Style” is missing

I am in full panic mode. My 1972 edition of  The Elements of Style often just referred to as “Strunk and White” , “S&W”, or just plain “Strunk” has gone missing. It sat proudly on a shelf of my office bookcase for as long as I can remember. But not too long ago I moved my office and someone packed it away, unbeknownst to me , and I had forgotten about it – perish the thought – until I went looking for it prompted by my noticing the publication of a 50th Anniversary Edition by its present publisher Pearson/Longman, who herald the small tome as “the most widely read and employed English style manual”. Who am I to disagree?

The bibliographic history surrounding the work is fascinating in and of itself. In brief, the manual was first written by William Strunk, Jr. in 1918 for his students at Cornell, one of whom was E. B. White of Charlotte’s Web fame. Just as I have, White apparently had lost his copy by the time he was encouraged by Macmillan to revise Strunk’s earlier work (Strunk died in 1946) and the new edition was published in 1959, with later editions in 1972, 1979, and 1999. In 2005, The Elements of Style Illustrated was published, a unique rendering with illustrations by Maira Kalman, and now, the 50th Anniversary deluxe edition, 2009. Of the numerous obligatory quotes from notables printed on the back cover of this new edition, there is this from the Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Ford: “S&W doesn’t really teach you how to write, it just tantalizingly reminds you that there’s an orderly way to go about it, that clarity’s ever your ideal, but — really — it’s all going to be up to you.”

Now here’s exactly the point. Regardless of your opinion of S&W, and it has its detractors for sure, if someone suggests to you that they are going to simply disregard it, without ever having even perused it, move away quickly in the opposite direction, for you are surely facing a wild writer. There is an immense difference between this foolish judgment and that of consciously deciding to disregard S&W for creative purposes as an experiment, knowing full well what the rules are – and that you are breaking them.

Consider Wynton Marsalis, certainly one of the top jazz trumpet players of our times; but Marsalis is classically trained. Every time he does a jazz improvisation it is informed by an understanding of the “elements of style” of music; musicians call this “knowing the changes”.  As applied to writing, for example, Strunk, in his original 1918 work wrote this about use of the active voice: “The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive:” but he also made it clear that “This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” I think Strunk, though thought of as a “rule maker”, would have agreed with the Duke (Ellington that is) that: “It Don’t Mean A Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing!

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/04/16/the-elements-of-style-is-missing/

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