She looks nothing like her ... handwriting

We had spoken by phone a few times, and several e-mails went back and forth. Ed seemed friendly, smart, and thoroughly professional. Then came a business note, written by hand.

It was memorable not for its content, but for its unexpected form - words erratically spaced, letters slanting one way, then another, capitals far outsizing their smaller counterparts. "Boston," for instance, was divided in half - first syllable to the left, second to the right - as if the city were at war with itself. And all of it was climbing uphill.

I'm no handwriting expert, but I know odd writing when I see it.

This was a kind of script one would at least wonder, if not worry, about. I suppose one could argue that Ed's was a "creative" hand, unfettered by direction, or evenness, or the usual constraints that guide most handwriting.

But the tension embedded in his lettering was hardly calm. This highly professional man looked like a wayward child in print; there was nothing but trouble in that scrawl.

Granted, my dealings with Ed were all business; for all I knew, he could have been a serial killer on the side. This same man also ran a major department at a publishing firm - clearly he'd achieved more than just creeping people out with his weird handwriting.

Which raises the larger issue of penmanship. Some of the most surprising people have dubious handwriting. Among them are those who are otherwise neat, dapper, or well-coiffed, methodical or deliberate - and those with a flair for the visual. Such folks, one might think, would pen their words in a style similar to their general demeanor. Not necessarily so.

The logic that handwriting should reflect the writer seems, at best, half true. One of the most well-organized, groomed, and visually oriented people I know has unspeakable writing - literally. Often when she leaves me notes, I have no idea what they say. There are always a few words I can't make out.

When I've mentioned this to her, she brushes it off, as if I were scolding her for putting elbows on a dining table.

Penmanship, and attitudes about it, often revert to those early lessons where habits and manners mix. Sure, good handwriting is a plus, but not because it's morally better, or more refined, or displays superior manners. It's good because it's easy to read, which is, after all, the point. If you're trying to communicate, it helps to consider the reader - otherwise, you might as well speak different languages.

As it turns out, my well-organized friend has heard countless complaints about her writing. She's had to train an entire office to decode her rushed hand.

This may be one of the more subtle perks of being the boss: People will show unusual patience and courtesy trying to figure out what you mean.

But given the issue of inscrutable handwriting, it seems arrogant to foist the problem onto prospective readers. It would be like deliberately mumbling - then expecting the listener to know what was said.

Penmanship may well be the last vestige of schoolmarmishness. It evokes images of blackboards and notebooks filled with perfectly looped "l's" and "b's."

But now, in an age of computers and e-mail, handwriting is, for many, the medium of last resort.

Still, it's nice to read a note the first time around, without second-guessing any of its parts.

*Joan Silverman is a Boston-based writer. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Dallas Morning News.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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