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I'm not... good with a pen. Years of hastily-scribbled notes and quality time spent with my trusty Model-M keyboard have left my penmanship in a sorry state; it's not completely illegible when I take the time to make it so, but the notes covering bits of paper on my desk can be more than a bit difficult to decipher at times.

But... Is this a problem? Granted, it looks sloppy and disorganized, but I can tell what I meant even if my wife scratches her head wondering why I'm headed to the grocery store for "Pondered Scya".

So is there any potential value, productivity-wise, in taking the time to re-acquire this increasingly anachronistic grammar-school skill?

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Learn calligraphy. It will help you appreciate the art of writing. (And you will naturally start writing better.) – Mateen Ulhaq Dec 9 '11 at 7:02
up vote 29 down vote accepted

You may be able to decipher your unclear handwriting, but you probably can't read it as quickly and easily as you could if it were neater. Additionally, the right business hand ("hand" is the handwritten corollary to "font") would allow you to write much more quickly than you do now (in addition to being neater).

I highly recommend Write Now by Barbara Getty and Inga Dubay. It made my handwriting faster, clearer, less tiring, and (for the first time, despite my predisposition to RSI) pain free. For the 2 weeks of 10 minutes/day practice it took me to master, the investment was well worth it.

The handwriting taught in almost every American elementary school is a form of looped cursive. Looped cursive hands were not designed to be handwritten -- they are based on fonts designed for movable type printing presses. You see, in order to make movable type printing economical, printers needed a script with as few variations at the joins as possible, so they would have to stock fewer distinct pieces. Ms. Getty and Ms. Dubay researched how writing was done before the movable type printing press, and until you try it, you won't realize how much more efficient their cursive italic writing is.

As a side note, you would probably benefit greatly from investing in a decent fountain pen. A good entry-level pen will run you $14-20 US, last for years, and ink is incredibly cheap (a year's supply for less than $10). The advantage of a fountain pen, apart from price, is that it requires so little pressure compared to a ball point, roller ball, or gel pen. This reduces strain on your hand and wrist from writing, allowing you to write faster and more neatly.

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Cool! I had no idea that this was an option. I too have heinously bad writing but let myself get away with it by always having a keyboard of some type nearby. I also carry a voice recorder and record ideas rather than handwriting them and then transcribe them later. I'm going to take a hard look at this book. Thanks for the tip! – Todd Williamson Jun 23 '11 at 2:22
Thank you for the link to the book! – Larry Smithmier Jun 25 '11 at 22:50

There are two key questions:

  1. Is it legible to you?
  2. Do others read your notes?

If you can't instantly decipher what you've written, then you're wasting some time. Instead of aiming to "perfect" your handwriting, a more useful goal would be to get it to the point where you can comprehend what you've written without issue.

The above applies if you're the only person who reads your notes. If there are others who need to interpret your handwriting, then you are going to be wasting time explaining what you've written, and that implies a drop in productivity. If nobody else reads what you've written, then that issue is negligible.

It's said that clear handwriting leads to clear thought, so that's another incentive to write clearly, but this endeavor has diminishing marginal utility. After a certain point, the effort you put into improving your penmanship will not truly affect comprehension or anything other than aesthetic factors, and at that point you are "done".

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The answer to your question is Yes and No, according to the context of your work and definition of your goal. Let me elaborate:

  • Yes:

    • If you have lots of tasks that involve writing on paper, such as essays that are evaluated.
    • If you want to keep an example of good penmanship before your kids or friends.
    • If you have to take notes from lectures and you do not have access to an iPad or other voice recorder.

    Then you may want to practice the skill to make them readable for a long time and keep them looking good for others.

  • No

    • If all you want is to be productive, and writing on paper is not an essential thing for you.

    I have not written a single word other than a 'sign' on paper since last 10 years due to technology advancements, and yet I believe I am productive enough. I write reports and emails, take notes, produce movies and documentaries—I even write poetry—all on my MacBook at home and some form of PC in the office.

I am writing this here for the record as I believe there may be many more like me in the world and hence this can become a representative answer for such people.

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Thanks @Dori you made my answer bulleted and good looking. It has become easy to understand now. – Tushar Joshi Jun 27 '11 at 13:49

Research shows: the fastest and most legible handwriters avoid cursive. They join only some letters, not all of them: making the easiest joins, skipping the rest, and using print-like shapes for those letters whose cursive and printed shapes disagree.

Besides the Getty-Dubay WRITE NOW (an excellent textbook), there are other Resources for learning to write this way. Some of the best are at — others are at — there is even now an iPhone/iPad app that's a suite of resources for Lerning this new/old style (go to the App Store and search BETTER LETTERS) — and there are other downloadable adult-teaching softwares (by me) among the resources for this re-training at my own web-site.

The style itelf is called Italic handwriting ... With Italic, you pen will pwn!

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Do you write more than you type? If not, focusing on your typing speed seems fine. Just bring a computer or iPad to meetings. If you do write a lot, learning/creating your own abbreviation system could help. Writing less characters means being less rushed to write them sloppily.

That said, my handwriting has gotten steadily worse over time. I find myself writing slower and more clearly if I am writing somewhere else and scrawling if it just for me.

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Typing during meetings has been... Problematic for me. Model-M, remember? I learned on an actual mechanical typewriter - when I type, people hear it. Even on a squishy laptop keyboard. Some folks find this... off-putting. – Shog9 Jun 23 '11 at 5:01

So is there any potential value, productivity-wise, in taking the time to re-acquire this increasingly anachronistic grammar-school skill?

This suggests to me you already have some bias against improving your handwriting.

One of the questions that no one appears to have asked you is this: how would you measure your productivity gains if you put the work into making your handwriting more legible? And it's not clear to me how many people other than your wife, for example, have cause to try and decipher your handwriting.

I know for myself, for example, most handwriting that I do is in my worktracker book, which only I read, and the odd phone message left on people's desks. But occasionally I have to whiteboard stuff and there, it is important that people can read my writing quickly and easily.

Do you write a lot? If you do, I'd put some effort into making it legible. If not then...I'm not so sure you really care because like I said above, you already lean against the value of the effort.

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Me, I keep a keyboard nearby. Failing that I carry a voice recorder and transcribe later. If what you have works for you then there's probably no need to go to the hassle of re-learning the skill. Myself, I have two young children and I'm thinking about fixing up my handwriting as they are giving me grief about my horrible chicken-scratch script.

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