Improving Penmanship: Self-torture or worth the effort?

A few thoughts on penmanship.

The above title originally included the term personality traits, however given I lack a background in psychology, would likely have been a little misleading. Demonstrating certain obsessive traits in relation to pen and paper is a pattern of behaviour many in the pen world are all too familiar with. What follows is perhaps a commentary on human frailty as much as it is on well-formed handwriting. Personally, it is also part of an evolving process, which I may return to in future posts, these being my initial thoughts on the subject. This post is not ten steps to improve your penmanship.

Which brings us to the (dark?) art of penmanship. An interest in pen and paper, along with the large number of sites reviewing such items, exposes one to many styles, types and qualities of the handwritten word – clearly desirable if we are seeking an accurate portrayal of those products being reviewed. A double-edged sword no doubt, which can lead to awe, excitement and envy all at once.

So, what exactly is penmanship, and why does it matter to me?

Defining Penmanship

Here we can simply turn to any dictionary, or in this case Wikipedia, and find something along the lines of:

Penmanship is the technique of writing with the hand using a writing instrument. The various generic and formal historical styles of writing are called “hands” whilst an individual’s style of penmanship is referred to as “handwriting”.

Although no more accurate than any dictionary you may consult, the Wikipedia link above contains a photographic sample of “classic American business cursive handwriting known as Spencerian script from 1884”. Therein lies the problem – or magic depending on your view. Have a look at this sample Spencerian script – it looks fantastic, albeit is not something you will find much in business communication these days.

Irrespective of whether you like this particular style of classic cursive handwriting or not, the point is not the specific style itself, rather, what I believe to be the two characteristics making it attractive to the eye. Uniformity and consistency. Generally, even if a page of handwriting is less than perfect upon closer analysis, to my eye at least, if the letters and words are consistently formed and line after line demonstrates uniformity, what you see is an attractive page of writing. Whether it is legible or not may be another matter.

Motor Control

Interestingly enough, that same Wikipedia page talks about motor control (co-ordination), which is something I do have a background in, having studied this extensively in both my University degrees. Firstly, handwriting is an acquired skill. There are various internal components (posture, grip, speed etc) and external components (pen and paper type, surface etc) that need to be controlled or at least addressed to produce a certain output on the page.

Further, as learning proceeds and a specific style becomes embedded from continued repetition, certain components of the skill require less conscious thought. These become automated, allowing concentration to be diverted to aspects that make a significant difference to the resulting skill output (a key difference for example between how professionals and amateurs in most sports process tasks related to skill performance). Finally, as handwriting is a skill, it can be broken down into various components and re-learned. That is, handwriting is not an innate behaviour, and if we address some key components, the art of producing a stylish handwritten page is achievable – with a certain amount of effort.

Why does penmanship matter to me?

Let’s be clear in what I am saying here, my penmanship matters to me. I do not judge yours, nor I am I saying I believe you owe it to yourself to write better by hand. I will commend lovely script on a page to myself or others, however will not hold anyone to task over a page of chicken scrawl, as I am more than capable of producing exactly that myself.

Why does it matter to me then? As any reader of this site knows – quite simply I love pens. Does this love of pens necessarily require me to have great handwriting? Not really (thankfully), but I sure like it when that is what I see. As my collection of fountain pens (and inks) slowly grows, I feel not making at least some attempt to write well does not do such fine instruments justice. Perhaps a flaw in my thinking or an unnecessary standard, however one I believe in.

I also take pride in what I do, which is where things can become a little obsessive. I will never set the blogging world on fire, nor do Master Penmen or calligraphers have anything to fear, however I put a great deal of effort into what I write – both digitally and by hand. It therefore pleases me when I produce something I believe to be of reasonable quality, commensurate with my ability, that is attractive to read and look at. Even more so if what I have produced closely resembles my initial intention.

It therefore disappoints me when my handwriting misses the mark, whether through a need for speed (often ill-perceived), or simply carelessness, which sometimes I accept, however is mostly cause for a little rumination. The worst kind? When all the stars align, I have the perfect pen, an enticing blank page, all the time in the world, that quote from The Cramped in my head:

The page is blank. Own it.

…and it just. Goes. Wrong.

Finishes writing. Sits back and…wait. What happened there? This is where we enter the world of self-doubt, second guessing and well, a little self-torture. I may tear out the page and try again. A different pen, different paper. Take a break and re-write it later. Often enough, the first version was the best one anyway.

A final word – for now

Far from being a tale of woe, my point here is simply this – for something that does matter to me, with concerted effort I still believe I have the capacity to make significant improvements should I choose to. “Choosing to” is by no means a guarantee of success, as only through a mindful approach to handwriting, sustained focus, a clear aim and much repetition, am I likely to see positive results on a consistent basis.

So, in the end, is making an attempt to improve my penmanship really worth it? Philosophically, my answer is a resounding yes. The reality may be less resounding, however is yes nonetheless.

6 thoughts on “Improving Penmanship: Self-torture or worth the effort?

  1. Great post and general sentiment. One of my favorite things about the pen/writing community is that it both celebrates people who have great handwriting and welcomes / embraces people who aren’t great at it. That’s been my experience at least.


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