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Some Thoughts on Penmanship


For most formal correspondence or official kinds of documents I use black ink since it guarantees better reproduction. Any ink that does not exhibit dense coverage on the paper probably should be avoided. This is especially true for permanent or record documents.

Paper selection is important too. Wood-based papers will deteriorate more rapidly with time, and are less environmentally and nature friendly. In the 19th and early 20th century, a system of etiquette emerged for personal correspondence that included a variety of stationery, essentially comprising a “stationery wardrobe”. Today, that need may not be so prominent, but people using a fountain pen will look for better grades of paper. For further discussion of paper, refer to the fountain pen portion of this site.

Pen selection is important to your penmanship. If you have the option and or different “hands”, you may have specific pens you use to respond to this need. For example, I have pens for italic and scripts as well as designated inks. The key here is that poor quality paper and writing instruments will not yield a good result.

Although the teaching methods of the great nineteenth-century master penmen have unfortunately been out of vogue with academics and educators since the early 1940s, many adults today, educated as late as the 1950s, still recall – fondly or otherwise – penmanship instruction emphasizing correct body position, muscular control and a rhythmic motion. I will not pretend to advance any discussion of the relative merits of the kinds of instructional methods used, except to say that the sad examples of penmanship so pervasive today speak volumes. So much for all the educational theory and academic yibberish. Discipline is not an enemy!

In this article, the focus is on a script hand, one that was taught in schools in the late-19th and early 20th century. The examples and practice sheets will guide you through the process of improving your handwriting generally, or assist in adopting this particular style of handwriting. The examples and tracing pages are arranged in a way to speed acquiring good results.

General Guidelines

Body Position

Figure 1

The position of the body, hand, and pen is important to good penmanship. Sit squarely in front of the desk, with both arms resting on the surface as shown (Figure 1). Lean forward slightly, to position your eyes twelve to 18 inches from the writing surface. Position the chair to allow your body to be close to the edge of the desk, place feet flat on the floor. The paper should be position at a slight angle and moved gradually as the writing progresses. An surface with a slight elevation, say 7-15 degrees, may prove beneficial for some writing tasks, and is the way I personally prefer.

Position of Hand

Figure 2

The position of the hand and the way the pen contributes to both the quality of the writing and reducing finger, hand, and arm fatigue. The hand should hold the pen as shown in Figure 2, with the wrist nearly flat on the writing surface and brings the pen to a position where it points about over the right shoulder. Notice the position of the index and middle fingers, and the pen in Figure 2). No part of the wrist or hand should touch the paper except the third and fourth finger. Unless the correct hold of the pen is acquired, no amount of practice will yield a good “hand.” Further, incorrect hold of the pen will produce cramping of the fingers and hand. The pen must be allowed to “rest” in the hand, in the hold, with the hand almost completely relaxed during writing.

Hand Movement in Writing

Developing the practice of free hand movement is, ultimately, the foundation of all great writing, and especially with a dip or fountain pen. The arm should always rest full weight on the desk surface, moving on the muscular portion of the arm below the elbow as a form of pivot. It is important to develop this technique before attempting the more challenging exercises provided in the accompanying practice sheets. Use the movement exercises to develop the freedom of movement. Generally, this is the most difficult technique to develop and is instrumental to overall development of the writing.