Friday, 20 April 2012

A Good Write Up

I find your writing pretentious and difficult to read.

That was the dismissive comment written by one of my tutors at the end of a hand-written essay I had submitted as part of my coursework when I was a First-Year drama student in Edinburgh in 1974.  This was not the first time my less-than-perfect writing had been commented upon.  In fact, I later found out that the Primary School I had attended as a child was notorious for turning out children with bad handwriting.

Ironically, I had completed my secondary school education holding an SCE (Scottish Certificate in Education) 'O' Grade in Secretarial Skills and Typing, but had not bought (or had not been bought) a typewriter when I went to college, so I was still presenting written work in my poor handwriting at college.  I saved up and bought a typewriter after that comment.

And it was those typing skills which ultimately led me to my current role and responsibilities.  When I was a professional actor, I spent a lot of time 'resting' (a misnomer if ever there was one), temping as an audio typist.  Not many men in that role in the 1980's!  That led to a job in a news agency, transcribing news broadcasts, where they introduced word processors just before I packed it in.  Suddenly, I was an IT user - and have never looked back.  My handwriting ceased to be a professional issue, whilst it remained - and remains - a personal embarrassment to me.

I commented in my last blog about the challenges I experienced around taking notes whilst I was a juror on a rape trial during my jury service at the end of February. This evidently struck a note (of another kind) with a few of my readers who were kind enough to comment on the blog and on #Twitter, and has made me reflect further.

At the start of the trial, I was trying to take notes where I felt that there were inconsistencies in witness responses under questioning from the Prosecution and Defence Counsels. I was  determined to be the best juror I could be, to assess all the evidence as objectively and with as much clarity of recall as I could, so I started off taking basic notes on the notepads provided for that purpose in the court room.  After all, there would be no slide decks "available on the website after the event"!

Several things became apparent immediately. In trying to capture one point, I realised I was missing another, and another...  And my handwriting was just not up to the task!   In desperation, I started scribbling notes without looking at them, as I tried to watch and listen to the to-and-fro between the players on the floor of the court.  As a result, my notes were becoming more and more illegible - and therefore irrelevant.  I was in danger of - literally - losing the plot.

So I decided to take a more relaxed view, sat back and started really paying attention, listening closely and hoping that my fellow jurors -  many of whom were not taking notes either - were paying similar close attention, and that all the necessary discussion points would arise in our deliberations as and when the time came for us to consider our verdict.  This was going to be a real test of memory and recall then. Ironically, after six days, the Prosecution withdrew its case and we were directed by the Judge to acquit the Defendant. My notes were redundant anyway!

On reflection, I realised that, partly due to the A5 size of the cheap lined notepads supplied, I had not attempted to note-take in my preferred style, which is to mind-map on A4.  This is my default, everyday method of organising myself.  My work Day Book is page after page of daily maps; I capture all my own meeting notes in mind-maps; I do shopping lists in mind-maps; my To Do Lists are mind maps.  They suit my way of thinking and allow me to free-flow ideas, capture thoughts that may not have occurred to me at the time, spark ideas, get everything onto one page, etc. as well as let my inner graffiti artist/doodler/cartoonist loose at the same time.  Somehow, that approach did not feel right for the seriousness of my juror responsibilities.

And before anyone points it out, yes, I am aware of and do use mind mapping software as well.  I have an old version of MindJet's MindManager on my work laptop and I have a personal MindMeister account as well.  However, they were not an option for my Juror role, for the reasons already mentioned.

So, is it too late to re-learn how to write neatly? Can I undo 50 years of ever-deteriorating handwriting skills?  Does it matter?  Evidently tech is not the answer to every situation where physical writing skills are required. How are your hand writing skills? Anyone got any ideas?  If you do, don't expect a hand-written thank-you letter!


  1. Despite being of an age where we did line after line of letters as we were learning to write, my handwriting is awful - partly because I try to write too quickly. To slow me down and make a slight improvement, I reverted to using a fountain pen - not so easy to write as fast with one of those but it does make my notes easier to read.

    Also a big fan of mind maps - I'm sure you must also have seen David Wilson's many mindmaps such as this: - also a lot easier since I bought a netbook. However, the age thing makes me often forget to take it to conferences so land up bacl to square one with scrawled notes using the pen taken from the nearest vendor stand!

  2. I like the fountain pen idea Andy, despite several unfortunate sartorial leakage incidents in the past! I'm also wondering if the iPad or other tablets, with the swipe approach, makes mind-mapping easier and if there are MM apps so optimised. Need to do some more research here, as I have not yet joined the tablet users' club.

  3. "A Good Write Up" caught my eye. I have thought many times over the past years that my handwriting is so bad that I can barely read it myself. Thankfully, I do not have to write very often. Mind mapping doesn't work for me. I keep all my notes in Evernote which has been a blessing. I can access them on my phone, my laptop, my iPad. I do still find typing on the iPad - and my iPhone as well - rather cumbersome. If only I could thumb text like my daughters! I tried, but my thumbs are just too clunky. Being in education, it's interesting that we are still teaching students how to write in cursive, and unfortunately (at least in my schools) we don't emphasize keyboarding - or even teach it - until long after the students have developed poor habits.

  4. Ann, thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my blog. I'm an Evernote user myself, and find it invaluable as I develop blogs from idea, through multiple drafts, to published post. Being able to access it from my smartphone, my work laptop or my home PC, means I can always capture that new thought or idea at the time. I also keep an ongoing note of blog ideas, again so that I can just pop it into Evernote as inspiration hits me.

  5. Hi Niall,

    I've always had neat handwriting but, over the last few years of working at a desk, I think my handwriting has deteriorated due to lack of practice. The only time I ever seem to pick up a pen is to hurridly scribble on a post-it - and over time, I've got used to this rushed and lazy way of writing. I can also type faster than I write so I'll often choose to type notes rather than write them.

    I agree with Andy's suggestion to write with a fountain pen - in fact, at school we weren't allowed to use anything but as the teachers believed (rightly, I think) that it forced us to write slowly and neatly. So maybe it is possible to re-learn how to write neatly.

    As much as I think neat handwriting is a nice-to-have, I think we're moving towards notetaking on mobile devices. But before I take this up, I too would like to see more mind-mapping features - in particular with a stylus so those like you and I can scribble and 'handwrite' on the screen rather than swiping and thumb-typing.

  6. I like this post, and not just because I am still stribbling my mind maps into notebooks! I think that drawing/writing by hand will always have it's place. Just because it is fast and universal. It is also, in my case, scruffy enough to let others join in without them feeling that they are spoiling my lovely work.

    On another tack, I was really lucky to be at school in the last years when all the girls did typing classes. I would really like to see proper keyboard training become a normal part of everyone's education.

  7. Kim / Wendy,
    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment; I do appreciate your time and feedback.
    I'd got so used to using tech or mindmaps that I was really thrown by having to take 'conventional' notes and thereby being ambushed by my handwriting again. A stylus and tablet gets my vote, Kim.
    And Wendy, thanks for a brilliant new word to add to my vocabulary - stribbling! I like a good stribble :-)