I have a deep love of fountain pens. I’m not a collector. But since I was a little kid watching my mom making out her bills with a gray Esterbrook pen, I’ve been fascinated. 

There’s that arcane complexity of the nib. That satisfying rock of the ink lever or the swivel of the converter. Or the ink! So many different colors and styles of ink, from jet Japanese to incredible iridescences. And I love what it does to my penmanship—turning it from coarse hen scratches to a rather elegant dash. 

I’ve written about handwriting before, in my essay Step Away From They Keyboard: How Our Hands Affect Our Brains. In that piece, I made three key points. 

  • First, I argued that there are developmental advantages of learning two different writing styles at two different ages. Many children—especially boys—don’t have the fine motor skills to master handwriting when it’s first taught in early childhood.  Learning a second style (cursive, for example) in the third grade when their coordination is better gives them a second chance to master the skill.
  • Second, I argued that research has shown that people process information differently when they write it than when they type it. It engages a different part of the brain and they tend to remember it better. 
  • Finally, people who take notes by hand tend to perform better on tests because they think more when writing than when typing. Many of us can type so fast we can almost transcribe lectures. That’s fine if you’re a stenographer, but doesn’t serve you well as a learner. Instead, your notes should summarize information you have processed. It’s the cognitive consolidation that aids learning.

In addition, I would argue that learning cursive has other advantages. It gives you an additional arrow in your quiver of communication tools. Writing a condolence note? You can send an email, sign a printed card, or hand-write a letter.

Cursive allows you to read handwritten notes from older people or those from other countries who will often write in cursive. In addition, it allows you to access historical materials. Reading the lab notebooks of famous psychologists in their original handwriting provide a visceral connection that reading typed notes just does not. (Jung's black notebooks were not typed!)

LOwens, used with permission
Source: LOwens, used with permission

I'm Not Alone

It turns out I'm not alone in enjoying writing by hand. Take out your fountain pen and you'll find a small group of fellow eccentrics who will happily engage in an intense discussion of nib styles, barrel shapes, and inks.

And notebooks! Quad rule, dots, size, paper absorption...Everyone has their own gig. Start to write by hand and suddenly you'll fine yourself among a crowd of eccentric individualists. Handwriting, after all, is unique.

Why You Want To Learn

Even if you're not impressed with the artistry of beautiful hand, good functional handwriting is an essential skill.  

  • If you can't read your handwriting, you can't communicate with your future self. There are always times when a keyboard isn't available - that's why they invented the post-it note.
  • Math works better in handwriting.  If you can't read your numbers, you'll make mistakes.  If you don't line up the numbers, you'll get them wrong. This is RAM - external memory that allows your active mind to work on complex problems while the paper holds the information in storage. I cannot disclose how many of my statistics students have gotten problems wrong because they can't read their own writing or line up their numbers.
  • There are times when you will edit or comment on paper. Research has tended to show we read more effectively on paper than on screens. So when you're editing, you need to work in the non-digital world too.

How To Get Better

Good writing is a small motor skill that requires practice. It also probably requires unlearning some of the things that are impeding the good handwriting you may have been taught.

There are two essentials to clear handwriting:

  • Consistent form: All your A's need to look like A's.  Your F's need to look like F's. Find a style for each letter.  Stick with it.  I find some cursive letters hard to form - capital F's and T's, for example.  I print them. It improves the legibility - I care not for consistency.
  • Three consistent levels: The single easiest thing to to do to improve your handwriting is clearly distinguishing high, middle, and low.
    • You need a strong baseline. Having all your letters sit on the same level makes everything else look neat.
    • Make your highs high.  All those loopy L's and H's are easy to read if they are clearly higher than the base letters.  Otherwise they look like i's and n's.
    • Lows should be in the basement.  If the tails on your Y's curl into your baseline, you can't tell what those letters. The shapes of the words really help you read them.
  • Relax your hand. If you tense up, your muscles get tired so you can't write for a long time.  
    • Find a pen that fits your hand. Hold it. If it's too small, you'll tense. If it's too heavy, you'll get tired.  
    • Take a pen you like and do nice round doodles. Big loopy ones. Long lines of little ones.  
    • Now do some waves. Like the curved tops of little N's waves. Breathe while you do it. You can use it as a mindfulness exercise.
  • Turn the paper. Because establishing a strong baseline is so important, turn the paper so your arm is comfortable. Writing sideways? Fine! All that matters is that it looks consistent at the end.

  • Write big! This is a small motor skill. If you relax a little and write bigger, it's easier to control your pen.

  • Accept your handwriting as a unique expression of who you are. Some people practice until they have perfect copperplate penmanship. But lots of us enjoy a beautiful hand that we can read. Do you remember glancing at the note of a love one and immediately seeing them before you? I bet you don't feel that way about their email.

The most important thing though is to practice. It's like playing the violin or learning to hit a baseball. If you haven't done it for a while, you need to get yourself up to speed again before it starts looking good.

Want some help? A very nice blog on improving your handwriting with a great practice sheet is available here.


You are reading

Thinking About Kids

Use Mindfulness To Improve Your Life, Not Escape It

Being mindful of negative sensations helps you change for the better

Using Psychology to Boost Your Grades: Taking Notes

Note-taking isn't about transcribing, it's about processing information.

When Kids Hurt: Chronic vs. Acute Pain

Thinking about chronic pain as an injury hurts treatment.