November 27th, 2020 by D. T. Grimes

“It’s such a shame that they don’t even teach kids cursive in school anymore…” is commonly heard in my industry. When I was in middle school, our teachers threatened that high school teachers wouldn’t even accept papers that weren’t written in cursive. Ironically, my instructors only commented on my handwriting a handful of times. In my young adult life, it became less and less important until I found a personal interest in calligraphy and penmanship.

Without an educational emphasis on handwriting, I was left to forage through the internet in search of people or communities that could point me in the right direction. I searched “How to Improve Your Handwriting”, much like you might have done just moments ago, and was faced with endless articles offering free PDFs and quick-and-easy “How-To” instructions. None of that was particularly helpful, but I pressed on anyway, eventually learning enough to become a professional penmanship and calligraphy instructor.

Since mid-2020, I’ve moderated a Subreddit dedicated to handwriting. In that time, I’ve regained some insight into what non-calligraphers are searching when it comes to improving their handwriting. What kinds of questions do they ask? What do they want to get out of their handwriting? How do they make decisions about which path forward is best?

I’ve tried to listen closely and put myself in the shoes of the people like yourself—setting aside some of my own biases to create this guide in an effort to help orient the would-be handwriting aficionado of tomorrow. If handwriting is something you’re thinking about getting into, this guide is for you.

A hand dilligently working to improve its penmanship

1) Why do I want to improve my handwriting ability?

It turns out, not everyone is interested in pursuing penmanship to a professional degree. Some just want to have a better signature, others more professional handwriting for the workplace. There are even those who’d like to improve their handwriting as a means of personal development or something akin to meditation. I don’t believe that any reason is nobler than the next, but it can be helpful to have an idea of what’s spurring on your newfound interest.

Each of us has unique needs for our writing and different tastes and opinions about what good writing should look like. One thing is for certain: our writing is seen as some kind of a reflection of ourselves and it does affect what people think about us and the information we use it to convey (Morris 2014). Is that reason enough to invest the effort necessary to improve? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Harold Wursthorn, a boy with no hands wins a penmanship certificate

Harold Wursthorn, a young man without hands, wins a penmanship certificate in hopes of studying law. 1925.

No course of action can be methodically undertaken until the motivations behind it are clearly identified. Handwriting is a discipline where a methodical approach will result in a much greater return on the time you invest into it. Remember: The first step to understanding how to improve your handwriting is to clearly define why you’d like to.

2) I know my goal. Where do I start?

From the tools you use to the method you study, you have decisions to make as a budding penman. Measure each commitment by how it helps you achieve your goals. Consider your effort towards better handwriting akin to a choose your own adventure novel; the choices you make provide you with unique experiences within which your pursuit of better writing will either flourish or stagnate. I don’t mean to paralyze you with indecision; merely to encourage you to ask questions and be thoughtful. Handwriting is filled with more rabbit holes than most penmen like myself prefer to admit.

The caveat to this “question everything” mantra lies in the topic of materials. Many students desire to acquire the absolute best pen, paper, and ink as soon as possible under the assumption that better materials equate to better results. While this is true in some circumstances, it’s rarely so in penmanship—even at the height of professional work. Experience, insight, and thorough training are far more valuable than the most popular fountain pen and a shimmering, golden ink.

My advice to you: Don’t look for shortcuts. There are no surefire ways to achieve true excellence in writing that work every time for every student. Progress is won through hard work and determination.

A copy slip of business penmanship written by Francis B. Courtney

Copies for Body Writing by F. B. Courtney, 1914.

3) What are the characteristics of a good handwriting style?

First of all, “good writing” erroneously implies that there’s some kind of consensus among the literate people of the world as to what makes handwriting legible, aesthetically pleasing, functional, or any other number of desirable qualities.

Good writing is going to mean something different to almost everyone. Instead of trying to define what the individual letterforms and shapes of good writing should be, let’s think more about what kinds of ideas and techniques can lend to our writing serving us better.

What are the universal truths which can be applied to almost any kind of writing that improve it as a tool for communicating with others and recording our thoughts?

Rapidity, legibility, and ease

A generally accepted trinity of desirable qualities in the penmanship ethos is that of rapidity, legibility, and ease. Writing styles that possess these three qualities are likely considered “good” by the general public. Similar to the old saying about “good, fast, and cheap”, certain styles de-emphasize one of these three aspects in favor of the other two. Some styles may be legible and rapid, but not easy, easy and rapid, but not legible, etc.

Ideally, we’re able to obtain all three through a methodical approach, untiring effort, and a strong desire to see our handwriting improve.

A venn diagram showing the three ingredients necessary to improve your handwriting.

If you consider your current handwriting ability, you can likely determine which of these three characteristics you are most lacking in. Below, we’ll go through some generalized advice about how to shore up weak spots in your technique and lead you towards higher satisfaction in your quest to improve. While many of these talking points are relevant for both print and cursive styles, this guide is written from with a slight cursive-centric bias.

3a) Gaining Rapidity

One marker of useful handwriting is that it can be produced rapidly. As humans, we think and speak at much faster rates than we are capable of handwriting. The average handwriting speed of adults is around 20 words per minute (wpm). Even award-winning typists are only able to achieve slightly over 200 wpm (the average person clocks in at just around 40). By comparison, the average English-speaker speaks at about 150 wpm, and the average listener can comprehend around 400 wpm.

George Hossfield's fingers are the fastest fingers in the world

George Hossfield became the World’s Champion Typist in 1929 with a staggering 135 wpm on the mechanical typewriter shown above. This record has since been broken, but it provides some insight into the necessity of a rapid handwriting, doesn’t it?

If handwriting is meant to be a tool used to record thought, then surely we can agree upon the value of reducing the discrepancy between our ability to receive information (through listening or thinking) and our ability to encode information into our handwriting.

How can I speed up my handwriting?

Certain types of handwriting emphasize smoothness and rhythm as a means of attaining speed. In the case of cursive (from Latin “cursus” or, “to run”), the hand typically does not lift from the page, but flows from one letter into the next through what are known as “connective strokes”. The reduction of interruptions and disturbances in the written line typically increases the speed at which letters can be formed by the writer.

Over the last century, a majority of penmen have advocated a strong, fluid arm movement driven by the larger, more easily coordinated muscles of the upper arm, shoulder, chest, and back as a primary origin of the forces used to move the writing tool.

These techniques stand in stark contrast to the typical finger and wrist writing that many children are taught to use in their first exposures to handwriting. Writing with the arm allows for a penman to execute any letter using a simple gesture rather than crafting it meticulously using individual strokes. By using the gross motor skills associated with larger muscles to drive the stylus, the writer exposes themselves to less strain and increases their endurance and speed greatly.

A demonstration of arm movement. Note the elevation of the wrist from the surface of the paper and the lack of movement in the fingers. When using arm movement for writing, the arm oscillates on the muscle of the forearm directly in front of the right elbow.

Observe your own handwriting at a faster-than-usual speed. Do you notice that your movements are emanating from the arm rather than the fingers? If not, how long can you write at a high speed using the fingers, exclusively? To a discerning student, the endurance benefits of using the arm should be apparent.

Fluidity as well as speed

When you begin thinking about how to reduce your over-reliance on the fingers in your writing, you’ll often end up stumbling across movement exercises aimed at developing the muscular memory necessary for fluid movement. These drills adorn the beginning pages of nearly every practical cursive book from the last century.

E. C. Mills Movement Drills from his 1903 book Modern Business Penmanship

Movement Exercises, Edward Mills, 1903

This muscle memory is cultivated through a regular practice of a gamut of exercises aimed at producing specific patterns to a given tempo. A cursory glance at any number of historic penmanship manuals shows that writers have been thinking about the speed at which the pen should move for hundreds of years—often citing a certain number of “downstrokes” each minute. So too should we, but to what end?

These numbers give us some idea of the rate at which we should move the pen across the page, during practice, but our best contemporary writers slow down significantly when producing their finest work, known as “model” or “copy” hands. As a result, we’re left confused regarding differences between the speeds required to develop movement and the optimal rate at which it is utilized in both every-day and model writing.

I asked my friend and colleague Michael Gebhart for his thoughts surrounding speed in the context of practice, performance, and demonstrative environments:

“I would only recommend practicing fast writing once legibility and rhythm have been secured. And even then we must be careful to not make a habit of writing fast, but to build up speed methodically by way of dedicated practice and conscious muscle memory training. Most writers will develop speed naturally over time without thinking about it—this kind of rote “practice” will always result in a messy and imprecise pathway towards faster writing. Muscle memory is a powerful thing and has a way of sticking around even against our better judgement. Better to be in control of the habit building from the beginning.” (Gebhart, Message to author, November 25th, 2020)

It is not likely that a certain speed will be best suited for every person attempting to improve their handwriting. Nor do I hope to insinuate that the acquisition of a faster technique should overshadow your pursuits towards increased legibility or belabor the execution of your chosen hand. The importance of speed versus rhythm in Gebhart’s words highlights a critical aspect of developing usable handwriting: it should be methodical, smooth, and easily orchestrated—which in turn leads to it being fast. In this circumstance, the old swimmer’s adage applies: slow is smooth and smooth is fast.

There is a balancing act to consider, and our goal should be to achieve as much as possible in regards to improving speed without introducing adverse effects elsewhere in our writing. Illegible writing is nearly useless, no matter how quickly it is produced.

While arm movement tends to be more commonly applied to cursive writing than print, many of the same concepts regarding arm movement can be applied to both. The important take-away is that large muscles tire less quickly than smaller ones, and they also tend to be easier to coordinate, resulting in a faster, more fluid writing experience.

3b) Improving Legibility

Of course, it doesn’t matter how quickly one can write if what is written cannot be read. Speed and legibility are often envisioned at opposite ends of a spectrum, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be that way. To some degree, this dichotomy is managed by carefully electing where increased speed comes from, and at what costs (if any) to the tenets of legible writing.

It should be understood that legibility is a somewhat subjective quality that relies heavily on the familiarity of the reader with the styles and letterforms being utilized in a specimen of writing. Readers who were never taught to print may find certain styles difficult to decode, while others may believe that cursive always looks like a pile of spaghetti. Don’t be fooled by the belief that any particular style of handwriting is legible to everyone. Instead, let’s focus again on general concepts that can be used across-the-board to improve legibility, as that is a more efficient use of our energy.

Legibility is influenced by several factors when it comes to handwriting. Endeavor to cultivate these attributes in your work and it will typically improve in the eyes of most people you come into contact with.

Pursue regular and familiar shapes

Reading is a type of pattern recognition. The writer takes information that is within their mind and encodes it upon a piece of paper by utilizing a system of consistently formed shapes to represent phonetic sounds. The reader then recognizes these characters and uses them to access their memory for the sound associated with each letterform. Legibility influences the speed at which a shape may be seen, recognized, decoded, and stored in memory. The more recognizable a letterform is, the more legible it tends to be.

Maintaining consistent letterforms requires the reader to become accustomed to fewer shapes present within a specimen of writing and allows them to parse the information from it more efficiently as their experience with it increases. Shape idiosyncrasies can be thought of as a writer’s “accent”. As long as a writer is consistent within their own system, the accent soon disappears to the reader. It is only when a new letterform is introduced that the reader is forced to recognize the writer’s accent again, which can be distracting and therefore harmful to legibility.

A photo of apricots to help with the penmanship accent analogy.

Apricots, by the talented Sophie Louisnard. I’d have taken my own photo, but it turns out apricots are a summer fruit so I couldn’t find any locally. Typical.

For example, there are two common ways to pronounce the word “apricot“. The first is to use the long a “ape-ricot” and the second is to use the short a “a-pruh-cot”. Both pronunciations are generally considered correct and relate to the same idea, but depending on which version you grew up with, an extra step of translation might be required before you can conjure forth in your mind a small stone fruit. Think back to the last time you heard someone say a word like “apricot” using a pronunciation that you don’t use yourself. Isn’t it jarring when a word doesn’t work as efficiently it’s supposed to?

This cognitive lag when a reader is trying to determine what type of letter they’re reading is something to be avoided in a general sense. By reducing the differences between each instance of the forms used in your handwriting, you are decreasing the effort it takes for readers to decode it.

This also applies to what are considered standard forms, or those typically understood as standard models by the general public. If you employ an unconventional variation of the letter p, the reader might still struggle to understand your script even if you are mechanically consistent with all of the other unconventional p‘s you use on the page. Try to show the reader something they expect, and your legibility will increase dramatically.

Maintain a consistent slant

There are numerous acceptable slants in writing. It’s been debated by professional penmen for almost a century that one style is more acceptable to teach children, or for business use, or faster than another. The truth is that each slant has its own benefits and aesthetic quality. Deciding the right slant for you is a question best asked with a bit of experience under your belt, so don’t be too keen to settle on one slant right now as if you’ll stick to it for the rest of your life.

Whatever slant you choose, make it regular. Aim to keep all of the downstrokes in each of your letterforms as close to the slant as possible. Doing so will give your writing a uniform appearance and does not tire the eyes of the reader as they move across the page. One good tip to evaluate your own work is to take a page of your writing and hold it up to your eye so that you can look across the surface from the lower-corner along whatever slant you choose. From this angle, you will be able to see letters where you are regularly off of your slant in the same way a carpenter determines if a board is crooked.

The easiest way to manage slant is to rotate the paper so that all downstrokes are pulled directly towards the center of your chest. For a typical right-handed writer, this would mean that while writing vertically, the baseline is parallel to the edge of the table. While writing forward-leaning script the paper should be rotated so that the baseline departs from the writer to the right. For a backslant style, the orientation should be the opposite.

As far as slant is concerned, as in many things, extremes should be avoided. There is a safe zone inclined to the right and left of vertical where writing’s legibility is not affected negatively by the chosen slant of the writer. Too much in either direction, however, and the work becomes condensed and difficult to read.

a diagram showing the optimal slants used for improving one's handwriting

Extremes in Penmanship. A provoking graphic by Charles Zaner. 1896.

Develop even spacing

Similar to the way our eyes recognize consistent shapes within our letterforms, the space found between one letter and the next controls the rhythm and legibility of our writing to readers. By considering the white space between letters, we can see our writing as black marks separated by white spaces akin to the planks and spaces of a picket fence. Doing so makes it a bit easier to understand the importance of careful spacing. You wouldn’t want to build a fence with uneven slats would you?

The distance that letters, words, and lines are placed apart from one another has a lot to do with the effort required to read a page of handwriting. Take care to make sure that you evenly distribute the letters within your words and watch out for tricky letters that might need a bit more or less space than usual. Do your best to make sure that lines are spaced widely enough that the various portions of ascenders and descenders do not conflict with one another. Remain vigilant for scenarios where momentum might carry your pen between forms excitedly at the cost of the appropriate amount of lateral space.

One strength of cursive is that the letters tend to only be separated from one word to the next. In instances where poor spacing is applied, readers still have a good chance of corretly determining which word a group of letters belongs to. In print styles, lateral spacing errors can be more catastrophic as the reader must determine which word letters belong to in certain circumstances.

3c) Keeping it Easy

A final hallmark of a good handwriting style is that it does not require a magnificent effort to create. Certain types of calligraphy are laborious to assemble into writing. While beautiful, these styles of lettering should be avoided where utility is concerned.

Good, easy handwriting requires less strain on the body to produce, and can thus be sustained for a longer period of time without needing to rest. Proponents of arm movement declare that using larger muscles like those in the shoulder, chest, and back can help to alleviate the strain placed on the smaller muscles of the fingers, wrist, and forearm reducing what is commonly known as “writer’s cramp”.

Proper posture, position, lighting, and the development of smooth movement allow the writer to produce letters with ease. In turn, more mental energy is reserved to direct towards legibility and speed. An easy handwriting style is one that is not in the way. It may seem obvious, but sometimes the best solution to cramped, untidy, difficult handwriting is to make it as simple as possible and try to relax.

Improve your handwriting by adopting a healthful writing position

Penman W. R. Stolte of the Commercial High School, Providence, RI, demonstrates the correct position for business writing. How does yours compare?

“The first important problem to be considered in learning to write is the development of a natural, healthful position…it will be observed that muscular relaxation is absolutely necessary and is acquired only through a natural position. A natural writing position is one which is suited to your individual case. This is found to be logical when you observe how persons differ in size and weight. We could hardly expect, and it would be useless to advocate, the same position from a rather corpulent fellow and one of the “bean pole” type…” (Stolte 1927).

Simplifying your writing can be accomplished by a number of methods. The easiest way is to audit the forms that you tend to use and look for places where you can reduce their complexity without decreasing their recognizability. Small details like serifs and tails can be skipped altogether as they are unnecessary when it comes to letter recognition.

What type of writing feels the easiest to you will depend on many different personal, subjective factors. Similar to how a fast, illegible style is useless, a style that you do not enjoy writing or reading due to its over-simplification or sterile aesthetic is unlikely to be one that you spend the effort to cultivate. Find something that you like the look of, that you can systematize, and that takes no great strain on you to create.

Conclusion

This guide will help to inform you as you undertake this rewarding discipline, whatever style of writing you choose to pursue. By establishing clear goals early on and avoiding the trappings typically associated with getting started in a new pursuit, you’ll be well poised to tackle your handwriting improvement methodically and efficiently. Through continuous assessment of your handwriting against the tenets of rapidiy, legibility, and ease, you can strategically approach your practice in an informed and productive manner.

All progress in writing is made in single strokes. As the days of your life have joined together to create your memories, each stroke adds its strength to the legion penned before it; developing you slowly but surely into the penman you hope to become.

D. T. Grimes

D. T. Grimes

Questions? Criticisms? Feel free to reach out.


References

  • Gesell, Arnold L. 1906. “Accuracy in Handwriting, as Related to School Intelligence and Sex.” The American Journal of Psychology. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1412252
  • Morris, Kathryn J. 2014. “Does Paper Presentation Affect Grading: Examining the Possible Educational Repercussions of the Quality of Student Penmanship” Honors Theses, Salem State University. https://digitalcommons.salemstate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1025&context=honors_theses
  • Stolte, W. R. “Department of Business Writing.” The American Penman, February, (1927): 166.

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