A Man of Illegible Letters

Oof. I had a look at my handwriting the other day, when I scribbled a note to accompany a package I was sending off. My chicken scratch looked horrible, nearly illegible, even. After years and years of keyboard use, my penmanship has clearly deteriorated.

It’s not that I write by hand so rarely that it was a shock for me to see how poorly formed my letters are. But I was writing at a moderately greater length than usual, and it made an impression on me how malformed many of the letters turned out. I had to go back in and add missing strokes and stems to many of the otherwise inscrutable letters just to make sure I didn’t come across as some kind of maniac.

Handwriting Sample
Above: Letter by letter. A sample of my deteriorating penmanship. Points if you know where this passage of text came from.

I was also struck by how uncomfortable the act of writing seemed to be. It was only a few lines that I was scribbling, but fatigue quickly set in from pushing the pen across the page, and my writing quickly got even worse the more I wrote.

Maybe the worst part of it is that I’m more or less just resigned to this terrible state of personal craftsmanship. When I think about how people used to routinely write pages and pages of correspondence by hand (yes, it’s true that many still do) and how penmanship was a point of pride, I realize how far from that I stand today. And it causes me virtually no regret. In the grand scheme of things, exemplary handwriting would seem to be one of the least crucial tools I could call upon in meeting the challenges I face. It’s sad and I wouldn’t argue that it’s short-sighted, but it doesn’t really seem to matter much to me.

  1. I had one of these moments just the other day. Over the years I feel like I’ve fallen from calligraphic grace to the depths of inscrutable scribble hell. Props to the poor soul that can decipher the coded messages I leave behind me on a trail of unapologetic Post-Its.

  2. It’s bizarre how my rigorously taught primary-school writing has degenerated toward my own father’s scratchy scrawl (ruined by years of writing up police reports).

    When I looked at your writing I assumed you had somehow got hold of one of my notebooks. Except I have a tendency to end most words in an incoherent barely vibrating horizontal line.

    I think it’s the speed that ruins penmanship, we’re used to spewing ideas and then refining. Letter writing is something that takes time and content has to be fully considered before committing pen to paper. There is no backspace button on a fountain pen.

  3. Here’s a question: when was the last time you wrote cursive?

    I think, more than bad penmanship, the real loss with the advent of computers is cursive. If your childhood is anything like mine you had cursive pounded into you for years at school.

    I couldn’t write cursive now even if I wanted to, and if I did, it would probably look a lot like it did way back then.

  4. Neil: the last day i wrote cursive was the last day i was required to write cursive in grammar school.

    i’ve been printing in all uppercase block letters since. probably why i ended up at architecture school. heh. i still have the writing, and the student loans. doing web dev now (14 years on) i don’t often get to write, but when i do, it’s slow, deliberate, and generally worthy of remark.

  5. Yep, I’ve noticed this too, my own writing has deteriorated from years of keyboard use. The one place I always seem to get something wrong would be writing a birthday or Christmas card to my grandparents, for some reason they were the main people I would want to write nicely for, but invariably I’d make some really dumb mistake which when fixed just made it look even worse, and made me feel like a total dufus!

    The Delete / Backspace key is my friend 😉

    Actually though, I can write either blocks or cursive though, but cursive descends (no pun intended) into total chaos very quickly!

  6. Yes, I’ve noticed this same descent in my own penmanship. Nowadays I tend to write almost exclusively in block capitals with a mechanical pencil – it just looks too shameful with a pen. Without doubt it is another casualty of this hyper-information age and is fast becoming a lost art.

  7. What’s particularly interesting about this is, that as we use computers more, our handwriting gets poorer, but due to exposure to high quality lettering, our tolerance for other people’s bad hand writing is considerably lower.

  8. I think I may be missing the point of this article. I like the fact that as we grow older we lose the forced taught style of handwriting to something more looser and free.

    If you wrote what you did above with a nice fountain pen it would look fantastic and soulful.

  9. As an illustrator in college I did most of my lettering and had excellent, tight penmanship. But the less I use it the more loose the letters become, and the less sense the relationship between them makes. Half my letterforms look like they could’ve come from another hand.

  10. I think about this all the time. I also felt that I had excellent penmanship at one time (even if it was more in the architectural style I learned in drafting class in high school) before I began using computers so exclusively. Now when I write it looks like I have some sort of muscle-control ailment. :/

  11. I’m in the opposite camp: I’ve always taken pride in my handwriting only because I somehow made it through cursive and immediately discarded it and over years developed my own handwriting. Essentially, like Mike above, I’ve embraced a full-caps, block, print style, which many times people comment on how nice it is or how neat or how cool with a corresponding amount of if I was ever in architecture school. The sentiments are appreciated of course.

    But I do find it interesting nonetheless that my writing style, which was born out of art and type but at a young age, unbeknownst to me.

    I do find that my writing style is slow and taking notes is much slower for me than most.

  12. I think most people who work in front of a computer all day will admit that their penmanship has suffered. I, on the other hand, have had horrible penmanship all my life. I still believe teaching kids to write consistently in block and cursive lettering is a crucial task. Who knows what our handwriting would be like now without that solid foundation.

  13. Take heart — according to recent research (JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, May/June 1998), the fastest and most legible handwriters don’t use cursive-as-we-know-it. Highest-speed highest-legibility handwriters use print-like letter-shapes occasionally joined (they make just the easiest joins, and skip the rest) — which means that you just have to somewhat refine what you have here to write very fast and very legibly too. For more info, visit my Handwriting Repair web-site.

  14. I happen to take pride in the fact that I have decent handwriting (although it does depend on how much of a hurry I am to get my thoughts out). Being an artist, and someone who carries around a moleskine for notetaking does help, I suspect.

  15. i guess Anton and i are in the exception here.

    my own penmanship doesn’t actually suffer from speed so much — less accuracy, but not less readable. sometimes it can actually look pretty cool if i’m in a hurry.

    i think that’s due to the architectural way of lettering; every stroke is a downstroke, where your hand has the most power and control.

    all through college i took notes with a speedball ink pen. i probably went through a gallon of ink in my career, heh. i can see how carrying a moleskine would help – you just stay more in practise.

  16. I also suffered from the dreaded “Doctor’s prescription pad” handwriting, until I replaced that stinky Copperplate Cursive they teach in school with an Italic hand I learned here.

    Now I get compliments (compliments!) from people when I write them a cheque.

    I’m not perfect though – the ugly scribbly hand creeps back when I’m jotting notes during a phone conversation.

    One thing I’ve really noticed is that the ballpoint pen allows a lack of discipline in penmanship. Switching to a fountain-pen practically demands adherence to good technique, or the nib claws at the paper and writing becomes unpleasant.

    Of course, modern office stationery is rarely suitable for use with fountain-pens. It is too rough, and the thinner ink runs and soaks the paper.

    As we have allowed our tools to become coarse, so has the craft of penmanship followed.

  17. Thinking about this, and my own handwriting, the thing that I keep coming back to is that this so-called decline in penmanship is really a result of who our audience is.

    As more and more of our communication with others is done via keyboard — email, IM, twitter, etc. — we’re less likely to need to conform our handwriting to something others can decipher. Most of the writing we do these days is soley for ourselves — whether it be quick notes or long missives in our Moleskine — so we’ve fallen back on what works best for us.

    For my own handwriting, which is *extremely* tiny, I find that a hybrid printed script with connections wherever it’s easier than lifting pen from page is not only fastest, but also most legible, as I believe strongly that we recognize words not by the individual letters, but rather by the form those letters combine to create.

  18. I have always had horrible penmanship and have wanted better penmanship for a while, but I have zero time to work on it. Plus, I work at a graphic design firm and EVERYONE here has gorgeous writing, so I have envy. Though in a small twist of irony, the Creative Director, who can draw ANYTHING, has an astoundingly bad scrawl. It’s a running joke in the studio.

  19. I can identify. I used to have excellent handwriting that got compliments all the time. But, after 6+ years of not having done much handwriting at all (the computer keyboard is to blame!), everything I write looks like chicken scratch now. I don’t know if this is of help to anyone, but I’ve noticed that my handwriting is a little better when writing with a slightly dull pencil than with any pen. I think it has to do with the higher coefficient of friction of the pencil lead against paper. Whenever I use a pen, particularly a smooth rolling ballpoint, my writing turns into a total mess with the pen sliding all over the paper.

  20. I recall experimenting quite a bit with my handwriting in elementary and secondary school. At times my writing was quite small, and other times it was rather large and blocky. Once I was college, my Industrial Design courses emphasized all caps, block-lettering style used on architectural blueprints.

    I use a computer keyboard for nearly all formal communication now, and that’s definitely impacted my penmanship. If the message is intended for someone else, I’ll use all caps. But my own notes tend to be a menagerie of cursive letterforms and lowercase block letters. I tend to use ligatures a lot too. I guess it all depends on the speed with which I need to capture information.

  21. It’s fascinating to see my grandmother’s handwriting compared to my own. Even today, pushing eighty, her penmanship is flawless. Perfect cursive, and very distinct.

    This has everything to do with how people used to write letters to each other as a valid form of communication. Instead of the terse, non-verbose emails we send today, they used to take pride, and pleasure from long, detailed letters sent between friends. These letters had to be legible, and really, nobody typed anything beyond business correspondence, so you got more practiced.

  22. I have been meaning to learn the Italic technique mentioned above by Steve. It seems intuitive and elegant. Interestingly, the actual Italians now use an instantly-recognizable but very loopy, curvy cursive.

    As it stands, I use cursive to take notes in meetings (does nobody else take notes these days?), it’s pretty illegible, but theoretically confirms to the cursive you learn in grade school.

    I am fairly sure my parents don’t write things by hand very much, but whenever I see their handwriting, it is in excruciatingly correct cursive.

  23. “fatigue quickly set in from pushing the pen across the page”

    I’m assuming you’re left handed from this quote. I’m left handed as well and have never known a male southpaw that had good let alone great penmanship. I’ve tried using my right hand and am struck by how fluid and natural it is, it took me just fifteen minutes to write my name in a more legible manner.

  24. Keeping a notebook helps my scrawl a lot. I also think that I can translate my thoughts a lot faster when I type than when I write, so the act of writing forces me to slow down and labor more carefully over my thoughts.

  25. I find that my whiteboard penmanship is exponentially better than when using pen and paper. Same concept applies though: I write/draw on a whiteboard much more often than I write on paper. Also, whiteboard writing usually involves a live audience.

  26. My story is different.

    I have good, clear cursive and a decent (though less speedy) print. Despite spending the majority of my time working with computers, my handwriting has not declined.

    The only explanation I’ve got is that my cursive was scared into me. My print was decent (I took very notes-heavy classes in high school) but my cursive was non-existent. About a year before I graduated from high school (I graduated in 2002) as my mother received thank you notes from my peers for graduation gifts, after she’d read the fifth or sixth hastily and awkwardly scrawled note, she looked at me across the kitchen table and said, “You know, you will be writing your thank you notes in cursive. And it will be legible.”

    I was mortified. My cursive was horrible! I hadn’t used it since they’d stopped making us in sixth or seventh grade. I immediately began practicing, writing everything I could in cursive, and eventually settling on a routine of writing out a list of my high school classmates’ full names (there were only 34 of us, which made for just about 100 individual names–first, middle and last). It became a habit, a way to calm myself and gather my thoughts, almost meditation, as I focused on the letterforms and their connections. That spring, the notes were duly written, though I never heard a peep from anyone about my handwriting. By the time I arrived in college the next fall, I was glad I’d done it–my note-taking and exam-writing was fast and legible, and I could worry about other things.

  27. In spite of my heavy use of computers (I’m a computer programmer, writer and graphic designer) my handwriting has not deteriorated. I’d perhaps attribute that to the fact that I still handwrite notes and cards to my friends. I’d like to think that my friends smile a little when they find the hand-addressed envelope in their mailbox; I know I smile when I get a card from them. Email isn’t *everything*.

  28. In today’s world, I can’t help but think blame it on the fact that we all type most of our words, but when I look back on my own father’s handwriting, it closely resembles mine today. He never touched a keyboard. We must just get lazy as we age.

    On the other hand, my mother learned shorthand during her career in law in the seventies, so her handwriting picked up elements of that, making it even more indecipherable. I remember on more than one occasion bringing a note from her to school and it was about two-thirds cursive and one-third shorthand, which of course nobody believed that it was legitimate.

  29. As a kid I practiced caligraphy. For years, I had beautiful, beautiful handwriting. I wrote in longhand, and it was magnificent. Like you, after years of keyboard and mouse use, I write in a crabbed hand. It’s not so much that it’s illegible as that it’s utterly lacking in aesthetic value. That’s what makes me sad about it. What I’ve gained in typefaces I’ve lost in my hand.

  30. Don’t be too hard on yourself; I had no problem reading the sample. Although, that’s likely due to my penmanship looking very similar to yours… ?

  31. One factoid that may motivate some of you to sharpen up your handwriting: research shows the most valued thank you or reinforcement from a boss or colleague is a hand-written note. I’ve sent many in my years as a manager (not so indiscriminately that they lose their value, of course), and I’ve been touched not only by how many get tacked to cube walls, but how long they stay there. In our almost-100% electronic era, the handwritten has a wonderful, intimate power.

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