A calligrapher explains how to achieve penmanship you can be proud of.

By Brigitt Earley
April 16, 2021
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woman writing in notebook at cafe
Credit: dusanpetkovic / Getty Images

Though it's a skill most of us use each and every day, it seems that penmanship is, in some ways, a dying art form. As more and more work is done online, handwriting instruction is minimal, with many schools no longer teaching cursive. But here's the thing: According to research, kids with better handwriting do better in school.

Proper—and attractive—penmanship isn't just an important skill for kids to learn, though. "Handwriting doesn't just come from your hand, it also comes from your brain," says says Kimberly Shrack, owner of Hoopla Letters. Because of that, increasing the amount you write by hand has benefits that go way beyond pretty penmanship. "The physical act of handwriting activates areas of your brain that aren't triggered by typing. Among a myriad other benefits, studies show that when you write things by hand, you understand and remember the content more than if you were to type it out. That's why you remember the one appointment you write in your planner and space half of the Zoom meetings sitting in your Google Calendar," she explains. Plus, with good handwriting, you can more confidently pen thank-you notes or even create unique DIY gifts.

If your script, or even your print, looks more like chicken scratch, there's hope. With these tips from an expert calligrapher, your penmanship will improve—and you may even be able to give hand lettering a whirl.

Choose a pen you're comfortable with.

"Just like having a top-of-the-line camera won't make you a better photographer, simply owning a fancy pen isn't going to make your handwriting any better," says Shrack. "In fact, depending on how you write, it may even make it worse." The best pen is one you enjoy writing with—and one that works well with your particular style of writing, she explains. If you're a lefty, for example, you'll want to choose a pen with fast drying ink to avoid smudges. Or, if you're heavy-handed, you'll want to avoid fountain pens, since they're prone to blotting with too much pressure. And if you write very quickly, choose something with a fast, steady ink flow—like a gel pen or rollerball pen.

Keep your grip nice and loose.

Although it may sound counterintuitive, a tighter grip doesn't necessarily mean more control, says Shrack. "If you hold your pen too tightly, will not only lose the range of motion you need for fluid writing, but you'll also suffer from some serious hand cramps."

Take a look at your hand as you write: If you can see the whites of your knuckles, you need to relax. "When I notice my grip is too tight, I employ what I like to call the ice cream trick," she explains. "I pause, take a deep breath, and imagine my writing hand is a scoop of ice cream. On my exhale, I imagine my ice cream scoop is beginning to melt. Like ice cream melts from the edges in, I first consciously relax my fingertips on the pen, then my first row of knuckles, then my second. I let the side of my hand that's resting on the page melt down into it. The result is a loose grip, a relaxed hand and a much more fluid line."

Angle your paper to mimic your natural movement.

Like the type of pen you use, there isn't one right way for everyone. "The angle you should tilt your paper is dependent on two things: the natural movement of your arm and hand, and the angle you prefer your writing to have," says Shrack. Try this experiment: Place a piece of paper directly in front of you, straight up and down. Then, close your eyes and write your name. You'll notice that your name is at an angle. This is because the natural movement of your hand and arm happens at an angle, she explains. If you want your handwriting to be straight from side to side, you need to angle your paper to mimic your natural movement.

To determine exactly what this means for you, place a piece of paper straight up and down, then close your eyes and draw a straight line, says Shrack. Tilt your paper slightly to the left and draw another line. Keep doing this until the line you have drawn reflects the angle you want for your handwriting. (Here's a complete tutorial.)

Practice, practice, practice.

Ideally, you should practice your penmanship every day, says Shrack. "The more you write, the quicker you will develop the muscle memory you need to make marked and sustained improvements to your handwriting." So, how can you practice without making it feel like another task added to your to-do list? "Handwrite everything you can," says Shrack. "Going shopping? Write down your grocery list on paper instead of in an app on your phone. A friend celebrating a birthday? Send them a handwritten letter instead of a "hbd" text. Like to bake? Write down your favorite recipes on some pretty recipe cards." Any writing—even something as small as a sticky note reminder to pick up milk—is a stepping stone to improving your handwriting, she explains.

And if you do want something a bit more formal to practice, handwriting and calligraphy worksheets can be a great option. "Using these worksheets forces you to slow down and pay close attention to your movement and letterforms in ways that day-to-day writing cannot."

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