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How to Improve Your Handwriting (or Anything Else) at Will


When I was taking French classes a few months ago, we were each asked to write a composition in French and pass it to another classmate to read. It struck me then that I very seldom write more than a Post-It note’s worth these days. By the end of a paragraph, my hand is cramped and sore.

And what an ugly paragraph I created. My letters were inconsistent and strangled. To this day, after nearly twenty-five years of handwriting experience, I suck. With considerable shame, I passed my composition, which demonstrated both the penmanship and language skills of a six-year-old French boy, to another classmate.

As if to redeem me, I received an even uglier paragraph from the student to my left.

My generation is lost for handwriting. I’m a computer person. I write thousands of words a week, almost entirely by pushing buttons. My penmanship skills are rarely called upon, and I know I’m not the only one.

After a few weeks of class, I had a chance to see everyone’s penmanship at least once. It ranged from virtually indecipherable to pretty good, but none approached the elegant cursive one might see in a Christmas card from an aunt born before the war.

There is one definite pattern that I’ve noticed, not just in my French lessons, but all throughout grade school: girls are better than boys.

When I switched papers with a female student who had good handwriting, I asked if she knew why women almost always have superior handwriting to men.

She said yes, and that she noticed that guys seem to be trying to get the information down as fast as possible, and women take their time. She’s right, though I hadn’t really thought of it like that before.

I suppose there is a general male preference for function over form. A gross generalization: Guys like machines and systems. Girls like art and beauty. Women tend to be tidier, in both their personal quarters and their appearance. Handwriting seems to be a natural extension of that.

Psychologists say girls have better handwriting than boys simply because they just tend to be more calm and patient than boys the same age. This is a general tendency, but it is quite obvious. Exactly why isn’t so clear. Interestingly, it has been noted that gay boys have better handwriting than straight ones, and tomboys tend to have worse handwriting than most girls.

My fellow French student’s statement stuck with me for the rest of the class. As I wrote, I slowed down, instead of “trying to get the information down as fast as possible.” Abruptly, my writing became several grades neater.

I can type about as fast as I can articulate thoughts, but I sure can’t handwrite that fast. So I figure my hand, if unchecked, will attempt to approach the speed at which I think, making for some awful handwriting. With my hand, I can’t fulfill the keyboard’s high level of “function”, so the “form” part falls off the map as I try to keep the same pace.

When I slow down and take pride in the form side of the equation, I notice I feel better. The feeling of rushing disappears, I just watch my hand make the strokes and usually the result is not bad at all. Far from elegant, but not chicken-scratch either.

Trying to get the information down as fast as possible is an example of a bigger, more dangerous habit. We all do it to some extent, though not necessarily with our handwriting. If you’ve ever lamented waiting in line for something, tried to kill time, or struggled to endure the workday, you’ve done it.

Often we treat the moment we’re in as solely a means to an end. We readily dismiss it as having no intrinsic value except that it can get us to a moment we really do want. The trouble is, most moments are not what we want. It is fairly normal to spend eight hours a day doing something we don’t particularly want to do, so that we can earn enough to get to moments we do want. Or would you do your job for free?

It is a minority of moments that contain the “good part,” and if we only value those moments, life can be bleak. One is always trying to be somewhere else, chasing certain occasional feelings of “arrival,” such as getting off work, finishing your errands, or starting into the entree once it’s served.

It is possible though, to embrace the means, even while you prefer the end. I guess it’s called patience.

Not to confuse patience with waiting, which is simply the act of politely bearing the means while internally you yearn to get to the end. Real patience is diving into the in-between part, the work, with enthusiasm. The act of doing a good job is pleasant.

When I decided to focus on the act of forming the letters, rather than the result of having the notes recorded, the change was sudden and dramatic. I’m not in the habit of doing it all the time but apparently I can do it at will.

Aside from the improvement in the quality of my lettering, I also noticed that it became a more relaxing activity. When you’re leaning towards the end of the activity, you don’t want to be where you are, not quite anyway. There is tension in the body, and in the head, that insists on getting to a better moment. That’s when tasks become chores — when you can’t wait to be past it.

For something familiar, like printing or handwriting, producing better results really just amounts to making the decision to genuinely embrace the means as you would the end.

Unless you’re already very tidy with your writing, give it a try. Cut the speed in half, and make a point of making letters consistently. Touch each letter to the thin blue line on the sheet. If you overshoot, correct it next time. No worries. Keep the intention for quality there. Like magic, the writing neatens up. It wasn’t really skill that was missing, and certainly wasn’t experience. It was just attention.

We all have many years of writing experience, but some are much more skilled than others. The old adage “Practice makes perfect” is incorrect. Whatever you’re practicing is what you get better at. You can practice all your life, and only get better at being mediocre, if those are the motions you’re going through again and again. So that’s why some of us, at age 29, still write no more legibly than a ten year old girl. Most of the time.

But it’s not writing itself in which we lack practice, it’s patience. And patience is applicable and valuable anywhere. For free. We know how to do it, we just have to commit.

Think of the areas in your life whose quality could be instantly improved with the intent to be patient. Job performance. Exercise. Housework. Conversations. Cooking. Driving. Errands. When you respect the in-between part as much as the results part, the results tend to become correspondingly more respectable.

As I said earlier, girls are generally better than boys in this area, so if you’re a dude, I hope you’re paying attention.


Photo by Kevinzim

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Patty - Why Not Start Now? October 15, 2009 at 12:40 am

David, again, just a pure pleasure to read your words. Now I’m imagining them as calligraphy, flowing across a page of parchment. And your post is such a lovely reframe on how productivity is usually couched: go faster, do more. I like that you’re saying: slow down, go for quality. Sink into the act. I think you’re talking about the difference between living life as a foot race, or living life as work of art.
.-= Patty – Why Not Start Now?´s last blog ..The Archetype of Relationship =-.

David October 15, 2009 at 9:51 am

Thanks Patty. I think one day I should take on calligraphy, just because it’s something I’m certain I have no natural talent for. My brain would have to do something completely different.

Positively Present October 15, 2009 at 6:10 am

Great post. I’m really interested in handwriting (and, yes, I fall into the stereotype of the girl with the perfect handwriting) and I also love how you tied this specific topic into the general one of looking at the journey instead of just the destination. Awesome stuff!

David October 15, 2009 at 9:51 am

Somehow I knew you had great handwriting, Dani.

Lisis October 15, 2009 at 6:30 am

My favorite part:

“There is one definite pattern that I’ve noticed, not just in my French lessons, but all throughout grade school: girls are better than boys.”

See? You DID learn something in school. ;)

You know, I’ve noticed this handwriting issue with Hunter, since I get to be his teacher. He HATES it. Writing bores him, it hurts his hand, makes him tired, etc. He may cry and pitch a fit if I “make” him write a whole paragraph.

But then, he can use that same pencil and DRAW for hours on end… with the same “tired” hand!!! When he puts labels on his drawings (little engineer that he is), they are BEAUTIFUL. Perfect letters, all the same size, easy to read. Hm.

So, really, it’s not an issue of skill or ability at all but, rather, a matter of interest. Just like the boys and girls argument. I figure, if one day he is interested in having pretty handwriting (maybe if he wants to be an architect) he’ll make himself do it. In the meantime, since he considers it a waste of time, I don’t know that there is anything I can do to make his handwriting any better.

(“Girls are better than boys”… I love it!) :)
.-= Lisis´s last blog ..Costa Rica is Paradise (And Why I Don’t Live There) =-.

David October 15, 2009 at 9:55 am

Sounds a lot like me. I loved to draw, hated to print. I think you’re right on, it’s a matter of interest. It’s easy to keep your attention on something that is interesting. I guess that determines what we become good at for the most part.

Here is an insightful article on handwriting, and why some people who are good at drawing are not so good and handwriting:

Tips for improving your handwriting

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) October 15, 2009 at 6:42 am

How zen~ a monk once said that if one is bored with a task, keep going for 2 minutes, still bored? keep going for another 2 minutes, bored? keep going…~:-)

When I am in a line and I find myself impatient I’m like~ you are so ungrateful, you were wanting “more time” an hour ago and now here it is. Actually, I call these learning moments~ cultivating patience.

My handwriting is not so legible~ as a poet and writer I need to get the concepts down. I have been told “my language”, including the written, is harder to learn than French. And I’m often labeled a machine. I think the gender differences are cultural more than biological.

David October 15, 2009 at 9:57 am

Hi Char. I love the monk’s approach to boredom. I’ll try that on my upcoming 13 hour flight.

Jay Schryer October 15, 2009 at 8:04 am

My penmanship is horrible. So horrible, that I’m the only person that can read it, and sometimes even *I* have a hard time deciphering what I wrote. I have other excuses though…not just laziness and impatience :)

About the larger issue, though, I think you’re absolutely right. If we can just slow down sometimes, and focus on what we are doing…be mindful of the moment…we can greatly improve any skill. The key to success in any endeavor is to think about what you are doing, and focus on what you are doing as you do it.
.-= Jay Schryer´s last blog ..Memories Best Left Forgotten =-.

David October 15, 2009 at 9:58 am

Haha… once in a while I honestly can’t read what I’ve written, but only if it’s been a long time. Even if I can’t make out the letters, it reminds me about what I was thinking about when I wrote it, so I can make a pretty good guess.

Srinivas Rao October 15, 2009 at 8:46 am

Interesting post David. I think you made a great point about slowing down. It enables us to focus more on quality than on quantity. We live in such a fast paced frenzied world. My handwriting sucks :). But, I definitely think there is something to be said for perfecting your craft through slowing down.
.-= Srinivas Rao´s last blog ..How to become a connector and leverage the hell out of your network =-.

David October 15, 2009 at 10:01 am

Quality vs quantity is what it comes down to I guess. We can all do both on a sliding scale with just about anything. I’ll have a slower day today, so it should be of high quality :)

John October 15, 2009 at 9:34 am

It is actually quite funny – when I was younger (I suppose before puberty) I was much slower. Throughout grade school, people would tell me I had pretty handwriting and (despite myself feeling that was a ‘girly’ compliment) I liked it. I guess you could say I liked ‘drawing’ the letters of words to make them look nice in the same way I used to draw pictures.

Then of course puberty hit, and I became more focused on results and efficiency instead of beauty and art. My handwriting became sloppy, and I no longer drew anything.

I’d like to start drawing again, but that’ll be sometime in the future. And as for my handwriting, I think I’ll stick to typing for now :)
.-= John´s last blog ..What I’ve Been Reading This Week – Issue 1 =-.

David October 15, 2009 at 10:03 am

Yeah in the 21st century, typing keeps us oppressed in the handwriting department. I blame The Man.

Eric October 15, 2009 at 10:33 am

Good stuff! I have also never had great handwriting, but I did practice calligraphy, and got quite good at it. It’s definately a matter of taking your time and also about practicing to become better.

I also have difficulty with nice handwriting being that I am left handed. It’s more difficult to flow across the page when you have to push the pen instead of pull it. In fact, when I was in elementary school learning to write in cursive, my teacher wasn’t happy with my cursive because it slanted the wrong way. Trying to slant the “right” way, which was obviously the “right handed” way, just made it that much more difficult to have good hand writing.
.-= Eric´s last blog ..School taught me to HATE reading =-.

David October 16, 2009 at 10:15 pm

My heart breaks for southpaws. I remember in school they always had grey-smudged hands because they were constantly dragging their hand across the fresh pencil. The world is not kind to them.

pannonica October 20, 2009 at 8:56 pm

Should be allowed to write in mirror-image. Easy enough to accomplish and reading in reverse is similarly an easily-acquired skill, so teachers haven’t any legs to stand on. Who knows? If there was a more flexible yet attentive approach to orthography perhaps dyslexia would diminish.
.-= pannonica´s last blog ..Watch this space. =-.

Mike D October 15, 2009 at 12:28 pm

I have to disagree Dave. My wife’s writing is by far the worst I’ve ever seen, and I remember yours lol. Mine on the other hand is often believed to be a girl’s. I’m left handed as well and like Eric said it does take a lot more practice than the “normal” way. I’ve always believed that the world is built for short, right handed people and almost everything takes a little adaptation and sometimes some ingenuity. Personally I blame Mrs. Gervais for scarring me when she bitched and complained because I’d drag my hand across the fresh pencil, making a giant grey mess of what should have been arithmetic. It was all she could talk about at parent teacher night, like I was the first one to ever have this problem. lol

All I know is that now I’m the one who fills out all the important forms in my house. :)

David October 16, 2009 at 10:17 pm

Haha these are generalities, of course. Yeah my writing is a little better than it was in elementary school. A little.

I am lucky to be right-handed, I need all the advantages I can get in the penmanship department.

Tim October 15, 2009 at 2:24 pm

I have never thought of handwriting as a meditation on being present in the moment, but it makes sense. My handwriting is usually decipherable only by me or someone trained to read it, but oddly enough I do very nice calligraphy. (I learned it as a child.) Moreover, when I write Russian in the Cyrillic alphabet, my writing is neat, but not when I write in any of the Latin based languages that I have studied.

I am not so sure about the gay connection though. I am a type-A MBA with a partner who is an artsy writer. Neither of us write legibly unless we print. We have even given up and ordered Christmas cards with pre-printed greetings so that we could just sign them. No one could ever read our personalized messages. :(

David October 16, 2009 at 10:20 pm

Oh wow, I think Cyrillic is so cool. I love foreign scripts. It is interesting that the more obscure languages yield neater writing for you. I suppose being less familiar means it takes more focus?

suzen October 15, 2009 at 10:25 pm

Did you know John Grisham wrote – handwrote – his first novel on legal pads? Of course maybe only HE could read it, but point is, you’re right about handwriting things being almost a generational thing. I’d like to offer up something in the way of why girls writing is neater and pretty actually. Girls at any earlier age really care about looks – of anything they have or do – and they are often competitive about little things like handwriting with their friends – who has prettiest anything is a big deal. Boys? Not so much, eh?
.-= suzen´s last blog ..Monkey See, Monkey Do =-.

David October 16, 2009 at 10:21 pm

I think you are right. I do not remember ever trying to show up another boy by writing legibly. :)

Nea | Self Improvement Saga October 15, 2009 at 11:11 pm

All I can say is thank heavens for computers and printers. I’m a girl that didn’t get the good handwriting gift. Some type of cruel joke from the Universe? I’m not sure. But I do realize that your article is so right. If my improving my handwriting was really something important to me, I could slow down and make it happen. It’s not as if I have to accept it the way it is. I just have to have the patience to change it–if I want to. I love how that principle applies to anything in life. Thanks for posting this.
.-= Nea | Self Improvement Saga´s last blog ..What It Really Takes to Achieve the Impossible =-.

David October 16, 2009 at 10:23 pm

I too am computer-dependent. I handwrite so infrequently that I don’t often remember to make a point of doing a good job. Since I’m traveling now I’ll be doing some of my writing the old fashioned way, maybe it’ll straighten me out a bit.

Hayden Tompkins October 16, 2009 at 3:28 am

I saved an envelope from an ex-boyfriend because it was almost the only thing I owned that had his actual handwriting on it.

My handwriting isn’t perfect but I do take artistic pride in it being beautiful. I think great handwriting starts with a great signature. If you can consciously and mindfully write your signature, you can expand to include the rest of your writing.
.-= Hayden Tompkins´s last blog ..Creating a Passion Plan =-.

David October 16, 2009 at 10:28 pm

Oh my signature is so lame. I still do not have a consistent signature. I’ve been signing a fair number of official documents lately and I’m ashamed at how I never seem to be able to make a respectable one. I’m afraid someone is going to accuse me of being an impostor because the signatures don’t match.

I will work on it during downtime.

Kaushik October 16, 2009 at 12:42 pm

Everything improves when we are present. And you’re right, handwriting is excellent way to see this. There’s a fabulous book “Drawing on the right side of the brain” which is required reading for artists. It teaches drawing and penmanship, but it’s not all about drawing and penmanship. It’s all about presence and allowing intelligence to work through us.
.-= Kaushik´s last blog ..Positive Thinking =-.

David October 16, 2009 at 10:31 pm

I find my writing is best when I’m able to slip into an elusive ‘zone’ where I’m really just watching my hand write, as if it’s doing it itself. It happens from time to time, not just with writing but other things too, where my body seems to know exactly what to do and I just watch it happen from a first person perspective. That might not be what the book is talking about, but it feels very ‘right-brained.’

Josh Hanagarne October 16, 2009 at 6:07 pm

I can write better with a crayon in my mouth than holding anything in my hind. It’s wretched and then some.
.-= Josh Hanagarne´s last blog ..7 Life Lessons We Can Learn From Where The Wild Things Are =-.

David October 16, 2009 at 10:32 pm

Reading your comment made me taste crayon, just for an instant.

Brenda October 17, 2009 at 7:32 am

I just took a break from reading and scoring handwritten online SAT essays to find that you’re writing about handwriting. Too funny! I read about 200 of these papers a day, so I may be your current resident expert on handwriting.

Here’s one thing I can tell you for certain — minus context clues there is absolutely no way to determine a person’s race or gender from a handwriting sample. Of course, the same applies to typed text. With the SAT, students are generally trying to use their best handwriting, even though handwriting counts for nothing on the scoring rubric. High school students are highly practiced in the art of handwriting. Most of them print rather than using cursive. I actually enjoy viewing the beauty of these carefully crafted papers.

Here’s another thing — there is absolutely no correlation between penmanship and intellect. Some of the prettiest papers are mere fluff, while the difficult to read one may hold the most potent content, or vice versa. There does seem to be a problem with the form and content of papers written in a heavy-handed, dark and dense manner. I generally send those back without reading them so I don’t get a headache. White space, please!

Well, this was great fun but I’m not making any money, so I’ll get back to work. Where are you now, David?
.-= Brenda´s last blog ..Back to Work =-.

David October 20, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Hi Brenda. I definitely noticed the lack of correlation between handwriting and intellect. I always thought of myself as a pretty smart guy, but my handwriting is no smart at all.

Walter October 19, 2009 at 1:22 am

I guess I suck at handwriting too for reason of technology and male attitudes. Patience has been a forgotten virtue of our time and I’m glad that I’ve always implemented such virtue in my daily life. Excellent metaphor. :-)
.-= Walter´s last blog ..Self mastery: the feared path =-.

David October 20, 2009 at 1:05 pm

Your’e right, patience is so uncool these days. I’m in a place right now (Hollyhock) where everyone is exceedingly patient, and it’s taken some getting used to.

Dayne | TheHappySelf.com October 19, 2009 at 4:51 pm

My writing seems to be getting worse and worse. But at the same time, it seems to be gaining more character. And that is what I like about life…it’s character (because it sure isn’t perfect). Some things are better when they are a bit sloppy. :)

Loved this post!
.-= Dayne | TheHappySelf.com´s last blog ..YOU =-.

David October 20, 2009 at 1:06 pm

I know what you mean, about losing neatness while gaining character. I think that’s happening to me too.

pannonica October 20, 2009 at 9:17 pm

No need to go cold turkey and short circuit your brain. Write at a speed that suits your thoughts. Then rewrite. And rewrite again. And again. Rote is how they wrote in the good old days of enforced penmanship. Just because you may (think you) know how to hold a guitar doesn’t mean you know how to play it. Practice makes better! (Perfection doesn’t exist.)

Dusty January 11, 2011 at 8:34 pm

I’m not a dude – at least, not last time I checked – but I assure you, my handwriting is AWFUL. (And yes, I know you said generally. :) ) Even as a child, when I wrote by hand every day, my writing was atrocious. As a teenager, though, long after it would have made any difference I was “diagnosed” as a “gifted child” – one of the symptoms being that gifted children have atrocious handwriting because they try to write as fast as they think.

My first thought was, “Wait, you mean most people don’t do that?”

I’m not entirely sure I believe it, but if you write every day and your handwriting is still awful – could just be that you’re very intelligent.

David January 11, 2011 at 8:46 pm

Oh I am! :)

But still not very mature.

janet January 13, 2011 at 7:06 pm

hi thanksfor this !

Kayla March 30, 2011 at 11:19 am

I’m a girl, and I have terrible handwriting. I’m always embarrassed to let other people see what I have written. When I was little, I was a tomboy, probably because I have three older brothers (I’ve always said I was meant to be a guy, I’m horrible at all of the “girly” things). Oh yeah, I’m also left handed, so everything gets smudged up too. I think I’m going to go practice my handwriting right now :)

yody February 10, 2012 at 12:33 pm

i think u should have chicken !

manasvi June 5, 2013 at 11:02 pm

I m a girl and I have terrible writing. plzz help

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