Penmanship for the Heavy Handed

by J. D. Bentley

Before this week, my penmanship had stayed slow, stagnant and terrible for the entire two decades I’ve known how to write. I never thought to improve it. I never even thought it could be improved. I figured I was predetermined to have terrible handwriting.

First of all, around the age of ten I developed a love for computers that had me trading pen and paper for keyboard and mouse whenever possible. That I could type quicker than I wrote and that it was always legible gave me all the reason I needed to abandon handwriting altogether.

On top of that, I’m a man. All but a few of us are destined to have shitty penmanship, I thought, and I certainly wasn’t the exception. I’ve heard that the quality difference between female handwriting and male handwriting can be accounted for by girls having more finely tuned motor skills at the age handwriting is taught. I don’t know if that’s true, but a quick glance at my unevolved chicken scratch seems to confirm it.

The older I get, though, the less appealing the computer is. As the digital world gets bigger, more social, more crowded, I have gotten far less interested. I use the machine mainly to write in Ulysses, read a few of my favorite writers and manage my homestead. But back in September, my hard drive bit the dust and I was left computerless for nearly three weeks. In that time, as a paper notebook became more appealing than ever, I began to wonder for the first time in my life whether or not I could make my handwriting not only more beautiful, but also more natural and effortless.

My handwriting is heavy, clumsy, and (as you might expect) cramped. Every stroke carries so much weight and is made with such incredible deliberation that it somehow looks completely faithful to the intended shape and also horribly deformed. When you write as I do, there’s only so much time you can handle it. The muscles in my hand get tighter and more sore so that the already ugly words I manage to spit out of my pen get even uglier and less legible.

I was recently taking handwritten notes for a great book I’m reading—The King’s County Distillery’s Guide to Urban Moonshining–and I could barely make it thirty minutes. There was plenty to write, and I was slow and tense enough to make it all a miserable chore. But these were notes I desperately wanted to take, and not on the computer. They had to be taken and they had to be in a physical notebook. This was around the time I first heard about The Cramped. This site and my need spurred me to attempt to fix my handwriting. It could be faster and more practical, if not more beautiful.

After hours of writing and rewriting the same few phrases, testing different styles for each character, different techniques for the strokes, and a variety of other things, I think my handwriting is fixed. I happen to think it’s much prettier now than ever. I might even go so far as to say that with a little more polish it will be the exact handwriting I’ve always wanted.


But whether or not you agree with my aesthetic sensibilities, this new handwriting is fast, painless and legible, which is all that really matters to me.

Here are a few of the ways I improved it:

Let Loose of the Pen

I’ve always recognized my terrible penmanship, which is why I’ve always grasped the pen way too tight. I think it was a subconscious attempt to form better shapes, but it only makes it worse. First, because the best handwriting is light, free flowing and effortless. Second, because it destroys your hand. You exert so much effort just holding the damn thing that after a while you abandon it for a keyboard.

Shapes are better when they just happen, not when you try hard to make them happen.

Slant It

The letters in my writing were always straight up and down. I always hated them. It made it feel boxy and stiff. One of the features of good handwriting, in my opinion, is that it looks like the writer is hurriedly dragging a line across the page, whether it wants to go or not. This results in a bit of a slant to the letters. They bend just a bit into the direction of the writing.

Open It Up

If you think cramped handwriting is ugly and impractical, then simply stop doing it. Start making letters a little bigger and increasing the space between them. Your hand will hurt less and it will be more legible.

Change Your Grip

Growing up, I recalled that the best handwriters I knew held their pencils funny. They would bend their wrists at a 90-degree angle so that they ended up writing from above rather than hovering over. So, I tried it and it worked. It doesn’t feel natural yet and getting used to it slows me down a bit, but I like what it does for my handwriting.


As with all things, the most important way to improve is to practice. For people so steeped in the digital, like myself, just showing up might prove to be the toughest part when you’ve got that nice shiny keyboard to bang away at. But the more I write by hand, the more I enjoy it. The more I write, the more often I surprise myself by forming lines that are nearly beautiful, which makes me want to write all the more.

In the end, handwriting is becoming more than just practical. It is actionable poetry. It is meditation. And for the first time ever, I like it.

J.D. Bentley writes at on the topics of tradition, self-reliance, and the strenuous life. Join his mailing list to receive your free daily shot of the good stuff.