Tips for improving your handwriting
Youve decided you want to improve your handwriting and youre probably hoping a fountain pen will do the trick -- maybe a friend told you it would. Maybe youre just adventurous and you want to try your hand at calligraphy (or you might, once your handwriting improves). Good for you!
A fountain pen may make your writing look a bit better, but if your writing looks as if frenzied chickens got loose on the page, chances are this wont be enough. Most likely, youll need to retrain your arm and hand.
After coaching handwriting and teaching calligraphy over the years, Ive learned to see the characteristics of those wholl be able to pick up the necessary motions quickly from those wholl have to work a bit harder.
Crampy, uneven letters are often the result of drawing the letters with the fingers rather than using the whole arm to write.
People who inevitably have trouble with handwriting and calligraphy write with their fingers. They "draw" the letters. A finger-writer puts the full weight of his/her hand on the paper, his fingers form the letters, and he picks his hand up repeatedly to move it across the paper as he writes.
If you use the right muscle groups, your writing will have a smooth, easy flow and not look tortured.
People for whom writing comes more easily may rest their hands fairly heavily on the paper, but their forearms and shoulders move as they write. Their writing has a cadence that shows theyre using at least some of the right muscle groups. They don’t draw the letters with their fingers; the fingers serve more as guides.
This exercise may help you determine which category is yours: Sit down and write a paragraph. Doesnt matter what. Pay attention to the muscles you use to form your letters. Do you draw each letter with your fingers? Pick your hand up repeatedly to move it? Have an unrecognizable scrawl? Does your forearm move? Chances are, if you learned to write after 1955-60 (depending on where you went to grade school), you write with your fingers.
My goal isnt to make you into a model Palmer-method writer or a 14th Century scribe. If you can compromise between the "right" methods and the way you write now and improve your handwriting so youre happier with it, then Im happy, too.
A few people hold the pen between first and middle fingers, which feels really awkward to me, but Ive seen it work.
It will take time to re-train muscles and learn new habits. Finger-writing isnt fatal, but it is slow and often painful (if you have to write much). The first thing you must have (beg, buy, borrow or steal it) is patience and gentleness with yourself. The second requirement is determination.
If you finger-write, that is the first, most important thing you must un-learn: Do not draw your letters! Do not write with your fingers! Put up signs everywhere to remind you. Write it in the butter, on the shaving mirror, stick notes in the cereal boxes. But learn it!
I hesitate to include this, because it sounds much more difficult than it is . . . but . . . lets look at the most basic things: holding the pen and positioning the hand.
Fig. 1. This is the most common pen-holding position, with pen between first and middle fingers, held in place by the thumb.
Most of us hold the pen between the thumb and index finger, resting the barrel on the middle finger (fig. 1). This works better than holding it between the thumb and the index and middle fingers, with the whole assembly resting on the ring finger (fig. 2). If you do it the first way, you’re off to a good start. If the second, youll be okay. In both, the remaining fingers are curled under the hand.
Fig. 2. The two-fingers-on-top method for holding the pen while writing.
Pick up your pen and look at your hand. Youll have better control and a better writing angle if your pen rests over or just forward of the bottom knuckle on your index finger, not between thumb and index finger (see fig. 3). (I hold my fountain pens in the latter position, but when I pick up a calligraphy pen, it drops obediently right over that big knuckle--go figure!)
Fig. 3. Note that with this position, usually used for calligraphy (or among really disciplined writers), causes the pen to rest atop the knuckle of the forefinger.
For handwriting, the pen position is less important than for calligraphy. I recommend working in your familiar position unless its really bad. Whats essential is that you be comfortable, the pen feel balanced and you have no tension in your hand. Rest the heel of your hand and the angle of your curled-up little finger on the paper.
Hold the pen lightly; dont squeeze it. Pretend the barrel is soft rubber and squeezing will get you a big, fat blot. (If you were using a quill, youd hold it so lightly that the actual act of drawing the quill along the paper would create the proper contact.)
Many books recommend you write with your table at a 45-degree angle, but thats impractical for most of us. If you can prop up a board or write with one on your lap, thats a good place to start, but a flat surface is fine. Once you try an angled surface, youre likely not to want to quit, so be careful-- here goes a whole new budget’s worth of art supplies!
Sit up straight, but not stiffly; dont sit hunched over or slumped. Don’t worry too much about this position stuff; the important thing is what makes you feel relaxed and comfortable. Your writing arm needs to be free to move, so squished into the La-Z-Boy probably won’t be productive.
Hold your fingers fairly straight and write slightly above and just between your thumb and index finger, right where youre holding the pen. Dont curl your hand over and write to the left of your palm; thats a crampy, miserable position. More lefties do this than righties.
Commonly called the "hook" position, this is often seen in left-handers. It makes it harder, but not impossible, for them to use a fountain pen, because their hands tend to drag over the wet ink.
When you’re practicing and you reach the level on the paper at which it becomes uncomfortable to continue to move your hand down the paper to write, move the paper up. Once you recognize your "writing level," the paper should move up at that spot rather than your hand moving down the paper. (This isnt critical. If you notice it and it bothers you, that’s what you do about it. If it doesn’t bother you, skip it.)
Ive found only one reference to using the right muscle groups to write, and this is critical. I can’t be the only person who knows this; Im neither that smart nor that good. Calligraphy instruction books address hand position, desk position, lighting, paper, you name it--but for some reason, not using the right muscles.
As youve probably surmised, the "right muscles" are not those in the fingers. You must use the shoulder-girdle and forearm muscles. This muscle group is capable of much more intricate action than you think and tires much less easily than fingers, besides giving a smooth, clean, sweeping look to the finished writing. Though it seems paradoxical, since we’re accustomed to thinking of small muscles having better control, the shoulder-girdle group, once trained, does the job better.
To get a feel for the proper muscles (and start training them correctly), hold your arm out in front of you, elbow bent, and write in the air. Write big. Use your arm and shoulder to shape letters; hold your forearm, wrist and fingers stationary and in writing position. Youll feel your shoulder, arm, chest and some back muscles doing most of the work. Thats good. Thats what they’re supposed to do. Try to duplicate it each time you practice.
People always look puzzled when I mention the shoulder girdle. If you raise your hand in the air and make large circles, note the muscles you use in doing so (here, shown in darker pink). Thats the shoulder girdle.
Write in the air until it becomes as natural as breathing. Itll be awkward and feel silly at first. If you have a little kid around, get him/her to do it with you. Youll both have fun, you wont feel so alone, and itll be good for the childs handwriting, too. If you dont have a kid, tell your co-workers youre improving your financial karma or hexing your boss.
As you become comfortable, reduce the size of the air-letters you make. If you have access to a chalkboard or a stick and a fence (or even a finger and a wall), write on them. Theyll give you a feel for the muscles you need to use and writing on a vertical surface makes it virtually impossible to finger-write. (If youre one of the people who cant write on a blackboard because you keep wanting to shrink the writing down so your fingers can do it, this is really important for you.) If you keep wanting to hunch up close and put your hand on the chalkboard or wall to write, resist the urge! Youll be indulging those dratted fingers.
Remember: Your fingers should move very little and your wrist even less. Your forearm does most of the guiding, while your shoulder provides the power.
At some point, youll want to try this with a pen. Hold it gently. Place it on the paper in an ordinary lined spiral notebook (the lines act as ready-made guidelines for size and spacing). If you can get hold of a first-graders Big Chief tablet, which offers big lines with a dotted line between two bold lines, use it. Theres a reason children start out writing big and the letters get smaller as they get older and more skilled—-that’s the easiest way to learn.
Start making Xs and ///s and \\\s and OOOOs and overlapped OOOs and spirals and |||||s. Do not draw these strokes and figures! Use the same shoulder-forearm muscles you’ve been practicing with. Make your lines, loops, circles and spirals freely. Work into a rhythm and make it a habit.
When you start making slashes and circles, theyll be uneven. With practice, theyll become more uniform, and uniformity is your objective.
Your goal is smooth, uniform, evenly spaced lines, loops, circles and spirals, without drawing them.
This is where youre most likely to get discouraged. If you use a spiral notebook for practice, you can leaf back and see your progress. At first, your strokes and lines will be bad—over-running and under-running the lines, too small, too big, crooked, uneven, just ugly. Check your position; check your muscle groups; and try again. And again.
Concentrate on keeping wrist-hand-fingers largely stationary and in proper alignment. Let the big muscles do the work. It will be more tiring at first, because you’re using muscles that aren’t accustomed to that kind of work. Itll be hard and frustrating, cause your body will want to do it the way its done it since first grade… even though that way is wrong. It may help to concentrate less on the accuracy of the shapes youre making than on the muscles making them. Retraining your arm is the goal, not making pretty little circles and lines first time out.
Uniformity and consistency are your aim in all the exercises, whether loopy or slashy. Though it seems uncomfortable, these exercises will make a huge difference in your control and smoothness.
When you start putting the strokes and lines on paper, start out big. Three, four, even more lines in your notebook. (Big Chiefs are handy for this.) This helps ensure that you continue to use the shoulder girdle. Dont try to make pretty letters at this stage. Do the exercises as much as you can—-shoot for every day. Ten or fifteen minutes a day should show results in a few weeks for most people. And note that both air-writing and paper exercises can be doodledduring meetings and while on holdwaiting for somebody!
Concentrate on that shoulder girdle. Let it do the work. Write big. Write words and sentences at the same time youre doing strokes and exercises. You need both working together to succeed.
Gradually, as your control increases, make your strokes and letters smaller until theyre the size you normally write. Youll know when you get there. By this time, you probably wont have to make extra effort to incorporate this stuff into your writing; itll be automatic. And your writing should look much better (and be easier and feel better, to boot).
Copyright © 1998-2005 Dyas