“How many words can you write in a minute?” is not a question I often hear, even as someone who writes as a vocation. However, today while researching for the next set of books in the PreScripts series, I came across a quote that made me ponder this very question. A nineteenth-century book on handwriting contains these interesting observations:
A rapid penman can write thirty words in a minute. To do this he must draw his pen through the space of a rod, sixteen and one-half feet. In forty minutes his pen travels a furlong [an eighth of a mile]. We make, on an average, sixteen curves or turns of the pen in writing each word. Writing thirty words in a minute, we must make 480 turns to each minute; in an hour, 28,800; in a day of only five hours, 144,000; in a year of 300 such days, 43,200,000. …Here we have, in the aggregate, a mark 300 miles long to be traced on paper by such a writer in a year.1
After reading this passage, I was curious. How many words can I write in a minute? This is a fun challenge to try alongside your middle school and high school students.
Start with a plain, lined sheet of paper and a smooth-rolling pen or a sharpened pencil with a comfortable grip. (I tried both.) Choose a familiar piece of writing to copy; this is mechanical and artistic practice, so you should not be focusing on invention at the same time. You might use the Preamble to the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, or the first chapter of John from the Bible. I recommend PreScripts: Cursive Passages and Illuminations for more choices.
Set a timer for one minute and see how many words from one of these passages you can copy in that amount of time. If possible, test cursive and print, pen and pencil. The first time, I wrote in cursive with a pencil (twenty-three words in a minute). I then wrote the passage a second time in cursive with a pen (twenty-seven), a third time in print with a pencil (thirty), a fourth time in print with a pen (thirty-six), and a fifth and final attempt returning to cursive with a pencil (twenty-six).
I drew several conclusions from this experiment. First, copying the Gettysburg Address repeatedly helped to implant the words in my memory. By the fifth time through the exercise, I barely needed to glance at the speech in order to copy it. Second, my dexterity and neatness improved with practice. Even though my cursive is rusty, the letters became more recognizable as I repeated the task. Third, when it comes to the muscles of a writer, I am a certified wimp.
My hand was tingling and smarting as I finished the experiment and I could feel the sweat that was already budding under my armpits, yet I wrote only 141 words in a grand total of five minutes. Now imagine writing for twenty-five minutes straight. My hand cramps just imagining the sensation. Is it any wonder that students dread the SAT writing section, where they must write multiple essays by hand? We are sending untrained runners into a marathon!
Like athletics, writing demands two types of proficiency: physical and mental. We expect young writers to demonstrate rhetorical skills such as invention, arrangement, and elocution at the same time that we test a set of mechanical skills that our students rarely drill in this digital era. Athletes complete separate workouts for strength and endurance training, but writers do nothing of the sort.
Perhaps that is one reason that writing produces such anxiety for so many people. I felt that anxiety keenly when I was pitted against a timer that was judging my proficiency (albeit, by nineteenth-century standards), but that unease also exists when I sit in front of a blank document on a computer screen. Typing this paragraph, my body is similarly tense, my shoulders hunched, as I struggle to think of the right words and put them on paper at the same time.
Part of the problem is that we lump together skills that ought to be practiced individually. I love the moment in the movie Finding Forrester when the reclusive author (played by Sean Connery) tells his would-be protégé (Rob Brown), “No thinking—that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is…to write, not to think!” Brainstorming, outlining, and drafting are vital parts of the writing process and, I am beginning to realize, so is copy work. How can we write if we do not practice the art of writing?
I would take the argument one step further to say that copying by hand not only strengthens our muscles and frees us from the distractions of the Internet, iTunes, and Angry Birds; it also creates a synergy between mind and body that helps us to slow down and engage thoroughly with the ideas we first copy and then invent. Writing in cursive adds an element of beauty to the act of composition and engages our artistic side. An old book about collecting manuscripts describes well the poetry in this kind of writing:
[The manuscript reader] can hear through those walls of paper and of parchment, amid the stir and tumult of past centuries, the voices of those truthful witnesses which tell their secrets to him… How does he delight in the fervent syllables which reveal the emotion that once thrilled through the hearts of heroes and heroines whose names shall live for ever! There are the accents of patriotism, of genius, and the sweet expressions of love, with the hopes and aspirations uttered in the rude struggles of right against wrong, all pent up in those faded leaves, and ready to come forth when bidden.2
I would not want to lose the convenience of typing and word processors for everyday use, but there is something deeply human about handwritten work. Copying by hand the writer can express anger, sadness, joy, and angst in a way that no quantity of emoticons or exclamation points can replicate.
Sometimes, we just need to travel on foot. Sometimes, we just need to write by hand. Just as stretching and deep breaths can release tension from the body, so, too, the deliberate curves of the cursive letters can help to smooth away the sharp corners of writing-based anxiety. Whether you are six years old or sixty and whether you copy thirty words a minute or only three, the physical stamina you acquire and the artistic expression you engage will carry over to many other aspects of your educational journey.
1 Call, W.T. Remarkable Autographs with Notes on Indications of Character in Handwriting. Prologue. New York: B.W. Dinsmore & Co., 1897.
2 Scott, Rev. Dr. and Samuel Davey. A Guide to the Collector of Historical Documents, Literary Manuscripts, and Autograph Letters, etc. 55. London: S. J. Davey, 1891.
Booth, Mary H. How to Read Character in Handwriting: A Guide for the Beginner and Student of Graphology. Philadelphia: The John C. Winston Co., 1910.
Call, W.T. Remarkable Autographs with Notes on Indications of Character in Handwriting. New York: B.W. Dinsmore & Co., 1897. http://www.archive.org/stream/remarkableautogr00call#page/n3/mode/2up
Jackson, John. The Theory and Practice of Handwriting: A Practical Manual for the Guidance of School Boards, Teachers, and Students of the Art. London: S. Low, Marston, 1893. http://www.archive.org/stream/theoryandpracti02jackgoog#page/n10/mode/2up
de Salamanca, Don Felix. The Philosophy of Handwriting. London: Chatto & Windus, 1879. http://www.archive.org/stream/philosophyofhand00ingrrich#page/n5/mode/2up
Scott, Rev. Dr. and Samuel Davey. A Guide to the Collector of Historical Documents, Literary Manuscripts, and Autograph Letters, etc. London: S. J. Davey, 1891.