Immediately after every lecture, meeting, or any significant experience, take 30 seconds?—?no more, no less?—?to write down the most important points. If you always do just this, said his grandfather, and even if you only do this, with no other revision, you will be okay.
Computers, texting, IM, Twitter, Facebook—all great technologies that have all but made the concept of “by hand” obsolete. Why write a letter when you can shoot off an email? Why pass notes in class when you can text them (showing my age, I know)? As a result of our migration away from writing by hand, it feels as though we’ve lost sight of an art form. Efficiency has usurped legibility.
In no way is this a missive against computing or using computers to complete tasks once done exclusively on paper. Neil Gaiman may write first drafts of his novels with a pen, but many writers just want the words out of their heads and on the page as fast as possible and for that, one cannot beat a full laptop battery and a blank screen in Scrivener. Instead, this is an acknowledgement of a deficiency I realized later in life regarding a, for lack of a better pun, signature part of my identity—my penmanship.
My handwriting has never been horrible, but I’ve never been happy with it. I’m not giving any doctors a run for their money. However, I’ve always envied those who could jot on a Post-It with the caligraphic elegance of someone writing out table numbers on wedding placecards.
My father’s all-caps penmanship was the first I studied, with its clean, sharp angles and deliberate strokes, like Rockefeller Center in words. I wrote my name, I transcribed passages from books, and took notes all in capital letters in an effort to mimic my father’s style. As a result, I developed a slower, but much clearer way of writing.
After that, I took special note of the way he wrote the letter “R”, which is perhaps the only “flowing” letter in his alphabet. One stroke. He doesn’t go down and double back up the stem, then complete the large horseshoe and kickstand like a normal R. He goes up, swings left with what looks like a backwards “P”, then crosses over the stem and travels down.
I watched him form that letter over and over again, which was easy since it’s the first letter of his first name, and practiced it myself any time something I wrote called for a capital R. It wasn’t enough for me to draw the letter by itself repeatedly on a page. I needed to work it under my fingers, to become familiar with the shape and comfortable enough to compose it along with the letters that preceded and followed it in a school handout or essay.
Once I’d mastered it, I did the same with the cursive lower-case S he weaves into the hybrid print/script style he uses when writing quickly.
And that’s the best piece of advice I can give to anyone looking to improve his or her handwriting. It’s what any music teacher or coach will tell a student who wants to hone a skill: study the greats. J.R.R. Tolkien, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson all had incredible handwriting, most likely due to an early educational focus on legibility and years of refining their styles. In addition, they no doubt utilized tools and techniques to keep their hands and wrists in check.
Remembering the joys of nature—the wild flowers, the smooth pebbles, the beams of sunlight, the flight of birds across a sky traced with wispyclouds—he mingled round and angular, light and dark, trailing vines and curling stems, slender upstrokes and shaded downstrokes, swooping capitals and judicious flourishes.
An example of Spencerian script can be seen here. 
Spencerian script also incorporated the “whole-arm technique,” which relied on the writer’s entire arm to create each letter, as opposed to utilizing mainly (or only) the wrist. These days we let our wrists do the writing, which can result in choppy “chicken scratch” when rushed.
For those interested in trying their hands (another pun!) at the whole-arm method, the easiest way to start is with a chalkboard. With chalk in hand, compose each letter of the alphabet using the shoulder to do the heavy lifting—not the wrist. Go slowly and make broad strokes. As this gets more comfortable and you’re able to increase speed without a loss in quality, make the letters slightly smaller. Only when the letters are small enough is it time to move to pen and paper. This is not an easy thing to master, but the results are a prettier, more fluid script.
Of course, not everyone in the 1800s had the time to devote to the flourishes and swoops of standard Spencerian. As a result, variations on the script were developed, including a “business” Spencerian that “could be markedly faster and less ornate than the script one might use to copy out a poem or write a love letter.” This came about after individuals such as Charles N. Hall worked to improve their penmanship using the original Spencerian techniques.
Put another way, by studying the handwriting of others, one person was able to develop a style uniquely his own. This has been my goal for roughly 10 years and I like to think I’ve made some progress during that time. I’m always working at it. I’ve been trying my hand at more ornate capital letters and have a particular fondness for John Adams’s capitals, as written in his many letters to his wife, Abigail. They’re fancy without being too ostentatious.
The key to my success thus far has been emulation and constant practice. I start slowly, rendering each new letter one stroke at a time, then build up speed until my S-es and Fs flow effortlessly from my pen. Once they’re under my fingers, my natural style mutates the original letters so they no longer belong to Adams or Jefferson, but to me. That’s my capital M in “Marks.” That’s my R in “Rat.”
The journey from scratch to script can be arduous. You will have plenty of moments where you’ll want to jam your pen into the table and walk away, but to me, the benefits of better penmanship make the frustrations worthwhile. My notes are clearer and more pleasing to read. The first draft of my current novel could be in a museum and I wouldn’t feel ashamed at the handwriting, just the choice of words on the page.
The Cramped is a love letter to the analog. It celebrates the art of doing things the long way and I can’t think of a better way to leave you, dear reader, than with a quote by William Morris that kicks off Script & Scribble and inspires us to appreciate that art:
A true source of human happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life and elevating them by art.
But it suddenly hit me that, if my grandchildren can’t write in cursive, will they also be unable to read it? Will they never be able to read the notes written by their grandparents, or even by me? Will the stash of WWII letters my parents wrote to each other will be gibberish to them? If they do original research that involves pre-21st century documents, will they need an interpreter for the handwritten ones?
The loss of cursive knowledge is a serious problem I feel. While my six-year-old daughter is familiar with it, and it was part of her learning in the Montessori pre-school she attended, it will likely be a distant memory to her in short time. For me, I have not written in cursive with any regularity since elementary school (30+ years) when it was required. That said, this short article has given me pause to make sure that my daughter can, at least, read cursive. If for no other reason than it may be a lost skill that few others have.
When I need to read deeply—when I want to lose myself in a story or an intellectual journey, when focus and comprehension are paramount—I still turn to paper. Something just feels fundamentally richer about reading on it. And researchers are starting to think there’s something to this feeling.
Yep. I find this to be true for myself as well. What is interesting, and what the writer mentions and researcher corroborate in this story, is that I find I can read things that take less immersion either on screen or on paper. When deep engagement is required, it has to be paper for me.
Later in the piece he writes:
Maybe it’s time to start thinking of paper and screens another way: not as an old technology and its inevitable replacement, but as different and complementary interfaces, each stimulating particular modes of thinking.
This Royal typewriter belonged to my grandfather. He learned to type on it 70 years ago. I wonder if he had to hunt and peck at the keys as I do now.
It is an interesting device. Fascinating and interesting and frustrating and wonderful, all in its own ways. How often do writers today pine for a distraction-free writing tool, one which gives you nothing but your thoughts, a blank page, and the means to put your words onto that page. This typewriter is the very embodiment of what so many wish for today.
An oldie but goodie from Shawn. It is often true that what many of us look for in our modern devices is a recreation of what we had long before them.
When it came to choosing a notebook to use for drafting my next book, the last thing I knew I wanted was “fancy”. I didn’t want anything that made me self-conscious about doing the work or feeling OK with making a mess. I wanted something utilitarian, functional, and with enough room to stretch my ideas. I also guessed I might need more than one — so it had to be something I already had a few of on hand.
I settled on a spiral bound notebook that I received for free. I have several, in fact. It’s a branded promotional notebook from my friends at Clockwork — a local interactive agency. These were handed out at just about every tech related conference here in town for a couple of years. So, I always picked one up if I saw them and put it into my (large) pile of unused notebooks. I always appreciated the design. Each page has boxes in the header and footer for metadata. They are grid-ruled — a nice subtle dashed grid on recycled paper. A lot of pages too! In other words, I always liked them but did not have a use for them… Until now!
Most times, you don’t need a fancy notebook or perfect pen. You just need to get started. Just find something — anything you can live with — and get to work. The perfect notebook — the perfect anything — is always what is right for you and the task at hand.
If anything, the goal of this site is to help you find that and, then, to encourage you to stick with it.
This post was first drafted in the generic promotional notebook written about above using a Uniball Signo 207 Micro with black ink. A scan of the draft is available for download (PDF).
I picked up the Baron Fig Confidant notebook after following their progress on Kickstarter. It looked interesting enough at the time, but not so much that I couldn’t wait until they were made available to the general public. That said, I was intrigued enough that I ordered one as soon as they were.
I do have to say that they have put a lot of thought and effort into every aspect of it’s presentation. The website is beautifully designed. It features their Idea Series of video profiles of people using the notebooks from many creative walks of life — musicians, dancers, builders, etc. The story behind the product is told very well.
The notebook (I ordered the blank style) comes in a sturdy box that makes for a dramatic reveal. The notebook itself is cloth-bound in a pleasing grey fabric with a yellow cloth bookmark ribbon. It looks nice — but not too nice. If I had to pick a single word to describe it overall I would say it is “approachable”.
At $15.95, these are not inexpensive notebooks. But, it is the myriad of thoughtful details that I think ticks up the value equation. The 192 pages of thick paper that takes most pens, inks, and markers well. The 12 perforated pages in the back, in case one needs to share a note. Even the dimensions are different than many others. In fact, it is exactly the same height and width of an iPad mini (I’ve been told this was not a mistake). This gives it a bit more breathing room than, say, a large Moleskine — the buyers of which is the crowd this seems most targeted to.
Over all, I think they did a great job with this. It is certainly a notebook I could see myself using on a daily basis. Especially for the notes and writing I care about taking a bit more care to preserve. It is certainly not cheap but notebooks of this quality generally aren’t.
I would recommend this to anyone who is in the market and I look forward to seeing how The Confidant stands up to regular use.
This post was first drafted in The Baron Fig Confidant Notebook using a Kaweco Sport fountain pen with an EF nib and a Kaweco black ink cartridge. A scan of the draft is available for download (PDF).
A good pen. Actually, consider two. One good one that you can enjoy using every day. And, one really good one that you use for special occasions. Like signing a bonus check, birthday card, or writing a letter to an old friend. I have far too many in both categories so I won’t recommend a specific one here. I will say that I keep a Uniball Signo 207 Micro on me at nearly all times. It’s a good pen that is inexpensive that I don’t mind losing and replacing.
I was recently invited to contribute to Mike Dariano’s Three Things To Read, Watch, and Use series at 27goodthings.com. The quote above is appropriate for here.