The whys and hows of good handwriting

I recently was digging through some of my old college papers, and I fell into reading pages of pages of essays I had written for a favorite  class.  I was beginning to be impressed with myself and my clear, coherent college writing when I saw a handwritten note I’d written to my teacher at the top of one page.  It looked like it had been written by a 7-year-old.  I was mortified for my past college self.  The handwriting looked so….juvenile.  It did not correlate at all with the well-crafted essay appearing beneath it!

We may not intend to judge someone by their handwriting, but studies show that most of us do it anyway.  Smooth, flowing penstrokes give the impression of strong thinking and confident penmanship.  Messy, uneven writing leads us to discount the intelligence of the writer.

A recent Wall Street Journal article commented on the phenomenon:

Steve Graham, professor of education at Vanderbilt University, cites several studies indicating that good handwriting can take a generic classroom test score from the 50th percentile to the 84th percentile, while bad penmanship could tank it to the 16th. “There is a reader effect that is insidious,” Dr. Graham says. “People judge the quality of your ideas based on your handwriting.”

Perhaps you have lovely handwriting. But if you’re like the rest of us, here are some tips for improvement.

Gather a variety of writing samples.

Look them over.  Do you prefer cursive or print?  Which looks better?  Note the ink of the different samples.  Which writing instruments give the best results?

Determine a style.

After reviewing your handwriting samples, decide what you want your writing to look like.  Which of your samples is closest to your ideal style: Is it cursive or print?  Small or large?  Make that your starting point.

Examine your grip

You should be holding the pen lightly, with a relaxed grip.  A tight hold will produce a strained, inconsistent hand.

Experiment with different writing instruments.

I struggle with having good handwriting, and the right pen makes a big difference.  I prefer a Uniball Vision Elite, medium point; the Bic Triumph is a close runner-up.  But I have friends who adore the Pilot G-2 and won’t use anything else.  I think my handwriting looks awful with a G-2.  It’s not a bad pen, but it’s not the right pen for me.  Different pens produce different results for different people.

Find what pen gives you the best results.  Gather a variety of pens, and do a little writing with each. Pay attention to two things:

  1. How comfortable is the pen in your hand?
  2. How does your handwriting look with that pen?
  3. Could you use this pen for nearly all your handwriting?

Pay attention to how you form your letters

Do you “draw” your letters?  You may be a finger-writer, which will make it difficult for you to achieve good penmanship.  Finger-writers put the full weight of their hand on the paper, which makes it difficult for the writing to flow because you constantly have to pick up and reposition your hand.  Rest your hand lightly on the paper so it can freely shift to the right as you write.

Which muscles are doing the work?

Your arm and shoulder muscles should be doing most of the work of moving your pen across the paper.  The fingers serve as a guide, but the bigger muscles do the heavy lifting.  This produces evenly-spaced writing.  If you’re constantly pivoting from your elbow or your wrist, you’re doing it wrong!


Developing the skill of good handwriting may take some determination, but  the opportunities for practice are everywhere. Look for opportunities to practice your handwriting: grocery lists, to-do lists, stickies at work, lecture notes, and thank you cards are all opportunities to practice.

Hire some help.

A variety of inexpensive books and manuals are available if you want more help.  I would choose Fix It Write if I wanted to invest $20 in my handwriting. Other recommended programs include Zaner-Bloser’s Self Instruction in Handwriting: For Students or Adults to Improve Handwriting, Write Now: The Complete Program For Better Handwriting and The Palmer Method of Business Writing: a Series of Self-teaching in Rapid, Plain, Unshaded, Coarse-pen, Muscular Movement Writing.


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      • I should have been more specific. If you care to take another look, Here is a copy of “Champion Method of Practical Business Writing” from the early 1900s:

        An elderly friend of mine who passed away several years ago at the age of 98, had the most exquisite handwriting I have ever seen. She had worked as a secretary when she was a young woman. When I discovered the dozen or so lesson guides that IAMPETH has from the late 1800s/early 1900s it reminded me of her. I have been thinking about printing some of them for my 7yr old daughter.

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