Most people who keep journals can attest to the joy of rifling through old ones. It feels like excavating a past self, a chance to recall all the things that were too mundane to store in your memory over the long term: that weird design you were really into doodling; the conversations that seemed unimportant but, in hindsight, turned out to be significant; the small worries and joys that occupied your thoughts.
And it’s not just the things you wrote — sometimes, the way you wrote them can be just as fun, and surprising, to rediscover. Old handwriting, too, can be a relic.
In a way, it’s strange that your handwriting changes over time; scientifically speaking, there’s no reason it should. At a certain point, you’ve learned all there is to learn about it: You’ve mastered the fine motor skills, you know the right way to grip a pen, you’ve written enough that you no longer need to think about the physical act of forming letters with your hand. But still, odds are decent that your handwriting right now looks a little bit different than it did five years ago, and will look different again in five more. When I look back through my notebooks from middle school to now, I see a long, slow progression from meticulous and teeny letters to bigger, sloppier ones, plus a few side detours: Sometime in high school, for example, I decided those loopy cursive lowercase f’s were just the coolest, adopting them as the lone rep for cursive in my otherwise all-print handwriting.
Which, according to Laura Dinehart, an education professor at Florida International University, is an example of one major reason why handwriting can change: Because we will it to. Consider what my colleague Melissa recently confessed on Slack: “In the Babysitters Club series, which I was obsessed with, a chapter would often begin with a journal entry in the girl’s ‘handwriting.’ And so I would often change my handwriting as an 8-year-old to look like Kristy or Stacey or Dawn,” she wrote. “And so now mine is a hodgepodge of all seven of the babysitters.” Dinehart compares the process of changing your handwriting to learning a new artistic skill — something that can be taught, and something you can teach yourself through repetition.
It’s a straightforward explanation, but it also points to something about the nature of handwriting that often gets lost: It’s so malleable because, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t bear any relationship to our inner selves. Despite the enduring appeal of graphology, the study of handwriting to reveal things about the writer’s personality or mental state, the practice has been widely dismissed as pseudoscience; the British Psychological Society lumps it together with astrology as a discipline that has “zero validity.”
To be fair, there are a handful of situations in which handwriting analysis can be indicative of something larger: In seniors, for example, increasingly illegible handwriting can be a sign of progressing Alzheimer’s. And in both kids and adults, dysgraphia — a fancy name for messy writing — has been linked to ADHD. But otherwise, handwriting isn’t a window to the soul or whatever. It’s a tool. Your handwriting doesn’t define you; it works for you.
Which brings us to the other major reason your handwriting can change over time: It evolves to match your evolving needs. “I’m not a big proponent of the idea that handwriting has to be perfect, or the form has to be a certain way and we all have to have the same handwriting,” Dinehart says. “It’s more about the function of writing than it is about the form, and as individuals develop, that’s going to change based on whatever works best and is quickest for them.” Sometimes, that means your handwriting will change between contexts within the same period of time: A message on a card, for instance, will look a lot different than notes you’ve jotted down during a meeting.
Frequency, too, can play a role in morphing your writing — like anything else, handwriting becomes rusty with disuse. “It’s like riding a bike,” she says. “You never forget how to do it, but certainly the first time you hop back on there after you haven’t been on for a while, you might feel shaky or a little uncomfortable.” Similarly, the look of your writing can vary depending on how much of a role it plays in your day-to-day.
Looking back on the fluctuations in my own writing, it fits. In high school, I took notes by hand every day; in college, where I switched back and forth between a laptop and paper notebooks, I wrote less; these days, aside from scrawling my signature on a receipt, I can sometimes go a couple days without picking up a pen. And in each of those phases, my letters took on a new look. Handwriting change, in other words, can probably be summed up like this: It’s life that changes, and handwriting just keeps up.