Whose handwriting is this anyway?

Have you ever seen a copy of the Declaration of Independence? Did you know that Thomas Jefferson didn’t actually write it? Oh, he authored those famous words declaring “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” but the curving lines of ink that memorialized them on the paper you see were penned by a calligrapher named Timothy Matlack.

But what did normal people use for everyday writing? In the latter half of the 19th century, most people in America used a beautiful form of cursive devised by Platt Rogers Spencer called Spencerian script. Inspired by nature and designed to write keeping time to a metronome, Spencerian handwriting was taught in school and dominated American paper from 1850 –1900.

It was the telegraph that brought the downfall of the ornate style of Spencerian around the 1920s when handwriting simplified into the lovely loops that you may have seen in your grandparents’ old letters. When stenographers complained they couldn’t keep up with the rapid-fire clicks of Morse code, a man named Austin N. Palmer devised a plan. While Spencerian focused on the use of the hand, Palmer created a style of writing called “musical writing,” which employed the use of the entire arm as opposed to simply using the hand muscles. Developed for commercial use, this form focused on speed and freedom of movement. The Palmer method infiltrated school systems where it dominated until the 1950s. People who learn handwriting after this time likely learned the Zaner-Bloser method or the D’Nealian method.

My little trick for sprucing up handwriting.

Now that you know why your handwriting looks so different than that of yesteryear, what can you do about it? If you’re like me, you may wish that your handwriting looked not only neater but even held a touch of elegance. I’ll tell you a secret. My handwriting is not very good. Despite best childhood efforts practicing with handwriting books including the Spencerian method, I was mocked in Jr. High by an entire tableful of peers for having “kindergarten handwriting.”

Even though I played with pens and pencils while completing several journals in my youth, and wrote entire manuscripts by hand, I still had a small heart attack the first time I realized hosting a book signing meant actually signing a book. But do you want to know another secret? For the last few years, I actually get compliments on my handwriting, just because I made one little change.

I taught myself to use fancy capitalized letters.

One day while working on the story for Across the Distance by writing from Andrew’s point of view, I looked up several script fonts, chose one I liked, and painstakingly wrote the capitalized letters onto the front page of the book. While writing the book, I began adding the capital letters, flipping the pages over for easy reference. I focused first on one letter, like “A” or “I” as those were often at the beginning of a sentence, but when I had more time, I would look up others.

As I wrote, some of the letters began to change and take on their own characteristics. If you look at my handwriting today, the letters have not changed much since my 2004 journal. But that extra swirl on the capital letter has become a game changer. It still shocks me, though, when strangers glance over and comment, “Oh, you have pretty handwriting.”

“Thanks,” I say, and this time genuinely smile.

And that’s my little secret for quickly improving my handwriting.

It isn’t necessary to practice curves timed to a metronome, (Though you could if you wanted to.) Sometimes improving your handwriting is as simple as adding a swirl to the top of your A or a slight curve to what would have been a straight line. Look to existing fonts for inspiration, write the font somewhere where you can easily see it while you’re writing journals or lists, and start making little changes one by one. We don’t all have to become the next Timothy Matlack, but we’re going to be writing anyway. Let’s add a touch of elegance back into our lives.

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