I'm writing as well as I can

THIS is National Handwriting Week, and I'm celebrating with a new convert to the art of penmanship - my son. It began more than a year ago, in November. One day my youngest son came home agitated. He bickered with his brothers, played his music loud, and wouldn't study.

This boy was usually a homework fiend. Since moving in with me, he had done homework and little else. Not yet in middle school like his brothers, he struggled to best them anyway. His papers came back from school marked with sterling grades and glowing comments. But this day he couldn't settle down. In a moment of solitude, driving to his parent-teacher conference, I wondered what could be eating him.

When the teacher showed me his report card, I knew. Set in the midst of an otherwise flawless string of A's was a single C, in Handwriting. My son was a wonderful student, she said, except for this. She said the problem was common these days.

On the way home, I told myself it didn't matter. With word processors, nobody writes much anyway, and who cares if a signature is legible?

But I knew it mattered. As a teacher of type design, I spend my days convincing future writers and editors that the way words look can make a difference. Illegible scrawls and typos make people sound dumb; messy resumes cost them interviews. Every semester I convert a few, like the once-skeptical woman who returned to my office recently to announce that a big-shot editor loved how her new resume looked and offered her an internship on the spot.

And unclear handwriting? Few things waste more professional time or cause more expensive mistakes. In my classes, we talk about publishing, where handwritten job specs are the rule. Typesetting houses follow the old saw, "Garbage in, garbage out." You write legibly, or your order gets botched. Guaranteed.

My sons hear my stories repeated like incantations: How my grandmother won a prize for penmanship. How when I was their age, she refused to do crossword puzzles with me until I learned to write my letters clearly. How as a young college grad, a typo cost me a job in Washington. Recalling all this, I wondered if my harping had made my son feel guilty.

Later that evening, in the rush to get dinner on, get the boys ready for another day, and get back to my own pile of homework, I had one of those abbreviated talks with my son - that is, I talked. I praised him for the (mostly) good grades and dangled this carrot: If his handwriting improved, he'd get what he wanted most, more television privileges.

It was a quick fix - and a cheat. In the February snow, when TV held his friends in thrall, my son brought home another report card. This time he had a D in Handwriting. After that he and I really talked - that is, I listened. His sloppiness, he said, wasn't intentional. He was just in a hurry. Computers made writing seem unbearably slow to him. TV more so: In his favorite cartoons, action blows by at a furious rate. Everybody pushes buttons to make things happen. Nobody writes.

Confronted with that awful grade, my son began to slow down. He disciplined himself, traced the letters deliberately, and practiced on worksheets. Last spring his teacher stopped me at an awards ceremony. "It's wonderful," she said. "I can read your son's work!"

There's no easy route to good penmanship. Every step is the same: practice, practice, practice. As my son grows up, he learns to slow down for the sake of others. Good handwriting is a gauge of his social skills. Putting pen to paper - to fill out an application, place an order, or write a note - is like getting dressed in the morning. You really can't rush it.

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