3 Ways to Improve Your Handwriting
Over the last 7 years I’ve devoted a significant chunk of time to handwriting. At first my intention was not at all to improve my handwriting quality - although I believe nice handwriting is a desirable skill by almost anyone - but rather my intention behind handwriting was more closely related to my personal development practice. You can learn about the 3 most significant ways cursive handwriting helped me in the last article.
Inevitably, over 7 years of regular handwriting I experienced a slow progression in its quality,
but there were a few tricks that I used to greatly accelerate the progress when needed.
Most recently my interest in handwriting has become extremely aesthetic. I still perceive handwriting to be first and foremost an exercise, but as I have found a talent for the practice I’ve made strides to more aggressively improve my handwriting.
There are, unfortunately, no shortcuts to improving your handwriting, but in this article I’ll provide you with 3 steps to improve your handwriting that are effective, insightful, and eccentric.
I shall relay these tips in order of recommended implementation, but all three are simple enough to get started on in the matter of single practice session but complicated enough to implement regardless of your skill level. So, whether you’re a beginner or reaching the level of an expert, there is a tip here that can elevate your practice.
Work From An Alphabet Exemplar
The first thing you should do, prior to even picking up a pen or pencil, is find an exemplar featuring an alphabet you love.
This is by far the most important step in attaining the handwriting of your dreams.
Whether it is print or cursive you’ll either want to find an exemplar you are fond of, or draw up your own exemplar to use as a reference.
Handwriting is a very technical act that combines mental and physical coordination to a degree greater than almost any other task.
Many penmen from the Golden Age of Penmanship recommended that you study twice as much as your practice.
When I made aesthetics the focus of my practice, deciding on an exemplar was the one determining factor that greatly accelerated the quality of my penmanship.
Once you have an exemplar that you’ve either made or found, you are going to want to study it intently. The goal is to have a clear vision of each letter and all of its intricacies in your mind’s eye.
Remember this is a task that combines mental and physical coordination. Think of it this way, if you’re learning to shoot an arrow from a bow you would use a target to judge your progress. The more often you hit the bulls-eye the more easily you can conclude that you’ve improved.
Penmanship is no different except that the target is the exemplar version of the letter. Ideally, you’ll want study each letter fully so that you can write fluidly without reference of the exemplar. This means that your understanding of each letter must be thorough enough to exist in your mind.
I would recommend starting every practice session with a thorough study of the letter you are working on that day. I often spend several days working on a single letter.
As you progress in your understanding of each individual letter you will begin to notice stylistic and geometrical similarities between letters. This is an important point to reach in your study because noticing these details allows for your handwriting to become more uniform and cohesive.
A true indication of someone’s proficiency in handwriting is their ability to keep their writing consistent.
Don’t forget to also enjoy your time with the pen or pencil. Perhaps some days you study intently and other days you simply enjoy the practice writing free form in a journal. I often notice the pay off my study more when I’m at ease writing in my journal, so don’t forget to balance your study with play.
To summarize this first tip, you want to find or make an alphabet exemplar, and then study each letter until you’re able to easily and thoroughly visualize the details of each individual letter. You will want to create a cohesive understanding of the alphabet you choose and pick up on all the similarities between letters to create consistency in your writing. Lastly, I highly recommend you focus only on one alphabet style/exemplar at a time and don’t forget to have fun!
Study Your Movement
So, now that you’ve chosen your alphabet exemplar and you’ve began to gain a visual understanding of each letter you are going to want to study and revise the second important element to nice handwriting: movement. For those who are only passively interested in handwriting, movement is often an element overlooked.
In my own practice I went about two years before the significance of movement was shown to me. In college, I met a person who continues to be a great inspiration to me for calligraphy and penmanship, Bryan Chabolla.
Master Penmen of the past put great emphasis on their study of movement, using the larger muscles of the arm and back in order to tap into muscle memory. This approach allowed them to create beautiful flourishes in their writing with great consistency.
For the purpose of your handwriting you’re going to have to investigate the type of movement that best fits your style of writing. We can break down the movement of writing into these sections:
Whole Arm movement.
It is rather unlikely that the casual handwriting enthusiast will embrace forearm and whole arm movement as they are technically more difficult, but if you are interested in this I will briefly explain it’s origin and purpose.
Forearm and Whole Arm Movement was reserved for the execution of highly ornamented flourishing of the past, however, in the late 19th century Austin Palmer introduced his approach to the common form of cursive most of us are familiar with. At the time the style was known as Business Handwriting and was a rather technical skill that demanded a strict emphasis on whole arm movement.
When using whole arm movement one does not move their wrist or fingers and solely relies on the movement generated by the arm, or as Palmer referred to it, the writing machine. This style of writing was intended to be quick, consistent, and a tool in business. It is also important to note that this style of writing was competing with the up and coming technology in writing of the time, the typewriter.
Today few are familiar with this approach to handwriting and even fewer are proficient at it.
A majority have embraced finger and wrist movement in their day to day writing with a heavier emphasis on finger movement, and for good reason. Finger movement allows for greater control of the writing utensil when the palm planted on the table. The difficulty is that the muscles and the tendons of hand are more easily strained in long writing sessions, and more prone to sloppiness with speed.
What I suggest is a combination of wrist and finger movement to be your primary focus if you print, and if you wish to embrace cursive I highly recommend that you spend time learning the basics of whole arm movement and forearm movement to incorporate a degree of that into your writing as well.
Reprogramming your hand to write in a new way can often be the most challenging thing to do.
It’s one thing to build a new habit from scratch, however, breaking an old one seems to be twice as difficult.
The most practical approach I can recommend is to observe your current style of writing and observe closely which movements you are using regularly.
For example, if you primarily print, notice the movement that is used in all downward strokes.
Are you swiping downwards with your index finger? Or is the movement coming from your wrist?
Ultimately, the goal is to breakdown your movements in writing and simplify them to the lowest variance of movement that allows you to write the whole alphabet. Once you’re aware of these movement patterns you can create drills to further master these basic movements.
In some hand books for penmanship this work has already been done for you, and you’ll often see drills that translate into your writing. If you’re using your own unique alphabet exemplar, however, you’ll have to create your own set of movement drills that pertain to the alphabet you’ve created.
To summarize the second tip, you’ll want to pay special attention to the movement implemented in your handwriting. Pay close attention to the letters that share the same type of movement. Break down the movement patterns to the lowest variance that can be used to create every letter and create drills that further develop your coordination for these movements.
Practice With Both Hands
This last technique is something that I stumbled upon in my own journey of handwriting. When I first started handwriting it was recommended to me as a brain exercise. I was told to practice cursive for the sake of my mental health and acuity. Furthermore, I was told I should write with both hands. With the right hand, my dominant hand, I would write forward cursive as usual, and with the left hand I would write in mirror image cursive just like Leonardo da Vinci.
Reversing my writing and form in this way resulted in some curiously positive repercussions. As you might suspect, out of the gate my writing was horrible, and it remained that way for quite some time.
The more I practiced with the left hand, however, the quicker my right-handed penmanship improved.
At first, I wasn’t quite sure if this phenomena was actually taking place or if I was imagining it.
As the years went by I designed an art course around ambidextrous writing and drawing. In that setting, teaching college students and prison inmates, I got to witness others experience the same results. In 2017, I began to write my book, Creative Brain Training, on this new course. In my research for this topic I found that clinically this was a documented phenomenon. It is called intermanual transfer of skills learning and, most prominently, this approach to technical skill learning has been used in training surgeons.
If surgeons are using this tactic to accelerate their fine motor coordination in the operating room it is certainly worth the try at handwriting.
As I dug around for more information on this topic, I was surprised to find evidence of this occurring in studies from the 1940’s. I am stumped as to why this information isn’t readily available, or why our educational curriculum’s haven’t incorporated ambidexterity, especially in physical education.
Well there is one reason I can think, and perhaps you’re thinking of it too. Back in the 1960’s there was a lot of interest in whether or not people who were left handed or mixed handed were more likely to suffer from learning disabilities, and unfortunately many studies wrongfully concluded that yes, this might be the case. Luckily, a recent review of a century worth of studies finds that there is no conclusive evidence for whether or not ambidexterity effects intelligence. So no, writing with both hands is not going to give you ADHD or ADD as some people like to argue.
But still, I probably know what you’re thinking, “writing with my left hand!?” Or if you’re left handed, “writing with my right hand!?” – “I can’t do that! I suck with my opposite hand” or fill in any number of excuses you give yourself, but the truth is, this works. I taught ambidextrous handwriting in federal prisons for over 3 years, and even my most doubtful students were able to do it, and
those who were adamant about their practice all experienced this accelerated skill acquisition.
More recently a commenter in a YouTube video I made also attested to the utility of this approach stating:
“I've been practicing with my non dominant hand for a couple of months now and I'm impressed by the impact that this has had on the writing with my dominant hand.”
If you’re interested in this technique, I think the most important thing you can do is write in mirror image with your opposite hand. Doing this will allow you to mirror your form completely.
The process of mirroring your form allows you to very closely study your dominant hand, and flipping that technique to work backwards with the opposite hand will deepen your understanding of the movement.
This seems to take place on a neurological level regardless of your attention. I didn’t consciously take advantage of this approach till after 2 years of writing left handed. Once I did, however, I improved even more quickly.
There is much to learn from the blank slate of the opposite hand, such as the value of slow and precise movements, or the constant collaboration that takes place between the hands.
I highly encourage you to watch some of the videos I have on this subject as I have done much of the hard work in finding the most practical approaches to training the non-dominant hand for the sake of experiencing the intermanual transfer of skill learning effect.
Lets review the three tips I’ve offered for improving your handwriting in this article:
1. Work from a master exemplar, either one you’ve found and enjoy, or one you’ve created yourself. Each letter should have an ideal form. Study them, till you can visualize them perfectly.
2. Observe and tailor your movement. Understand what movement is being used most often in your preferred style of handwriting and master those basics. Tapping into your muscle memory will greatly increase your handwriting’s consistency and aesthetic value.
3. Practice with both hands. If surgeons are training in an ambidextrous fashion to improve their technical skills more quickly, you too can benefit from the intermanual transfer of skill learning phenomenon.
I hope you’ve found this article insightful and enjoyable to read. If you have any questions or would like to start a discussion on this topic feel free to leave a comment down below or contact me directly.
I discuss this article in a live stream and went in depth on the subject of movement and how you can begin to tailor your own movement drills based your individual handwriting style.
If you’re interested in learning about my journey in cursive handwriting, and exactly how I went about writing in mirror image with my non-dominant left hand, you can read my book: Creative Brain Training: Increase Attention Span, Build Confidence, Stimulate Creativity.
Getting started writing with your opposite hand can be quite a daunting task but you may find it easier than you think. Especially if you choose to get started with some mirror writing. In the video below I share why I chose to embrace ambidextrous handwriting, and how you can get started and potentially benefit as well.