Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Italic handwriting

with 15 comments

A recipient of an inscribed copy of Leisureguy’s Guide to Gourmet Shaving commented that his wife admired my handwriting, so I thought I should post something about it. I’ll include links to instructional books (generally to inexpensive secondhand copies) and to stores that sell good pens.

I will distinguish italic handwriting (aka chancery cursive) from italic calligraphy. In calligraphy, as I use the term, letters are more drawn than written, and every stroke is pulled—no pushing. In handwriting, you’re simply doing the usual handwriting thing, though (for italic) with a specific pen point, letter shape, and angle. Technically, “calligraphy” means “beautiful writing,” so would apply to handwriting as well as to formal calligraphy, and others don’t necessarily make the distinction that I do.

I became interested in italic handwriting from an article in the New Yorker “Talk of the Town” section around 1962 or early 1963. The article was about Paul Standard, an American calligrapher, who waxed enthusiastic about the virtues of italic handwriting: legible and attractive handwriting that doesn’t break down and become illegible with speed. So I immediately bought a book (John Le F. Dumpleton’s Teach Yourself Handwriting) and an Osmiroid pen with italic nibs and taught myself.

It turns out to be easy, though some people seem to be queasy about changing their handwriting, fearing (of all things) that it will change their character or personality or some such. Weird.

Making the change is simply a matter of practice. In the fall of 1963, I was in graduate school, and I decided to take all my course notes in italic—lots of practice, willy nilly. I would focus on a single letter, and whenever I wrote that letter I would take pains to get it right. Gradually, letter by letter, my handwriting improved and established itself as a habit. In addition to the class notes, I also did some structured practice, using a trace-and-copy workbook by Fred Eager.

Italic handwriting has three components:

  1. the pen point, which is square-cut;
  2. the angle at which you hold the point (45º, so that a written “+” has the upright and crossbar the same width); and
  3. the shapes of the letters, so that the shading, which results from the point held at the correct angle, looks good.

Obviously, you also need paper that takes ink well and a good ink that will feed well.

Left-handers use the same point as right-handers, except left-handers hold the paper horizontally and write vertically down the page. This results in the proper angle for the point and the proper shading of the letters. Again, it’s simply a matter of practice. I introduced italic handwriting at a day school in Annapolis (grades K-8 at the time), and all the children learned it, including the left-handers, who were rather delighted by their classmates’ amazement at their skill at writing vertically. With the vertical orientation, left-handers enjoy the same comfortable position of the hand as right-handers, and their hand similarly rests on the unwritten portion of the sheet, rather than (in the usual cramped left-handed writing position) being dragged across the wet ink.

I should mention that having the children learn italic handwriting was a stroke of marketing genius. Their parents (who paid the bills) were tremendously impressed with their children’s handwriting and had visible evidence of the effectiveness and quality of the school’s instruction. 🙂

I later got another book—one I highly recommend—and it showed me some mistakes I had been making with certain letters—lowercase “p” in particular. The book is Italic Handwriting, by Tom Gourdie. In this book, as in Dumpleton’s, samples of italic handwriting by various people are included, so that you can see the variety (and copy letter shapes you like). Gourdie’s book includes a valuable section on common mistakes, and he also teaches a hand without the swash serifs that Dumpleton uses and that tend to present difficulties.

Peter Rudland’s From Scribble to Script is interesting. It’s aimed directly at helping adults reform their handwriting. And George L. Thomson’s Better Handwriting is a short Penguin book that has many excellent examples and also a valuable little template: trace it, cut it out and glue as indicated, and you have a model that shows the exact angle (angle to the paper and also the angle to the writing line) at which to hold the pen.

In Oregon there’s been an italic handwriting revival, using instructional materials and workbooks developed by Barbara Getty. You can order the books here. I have not used these, but trace-and-copy workbooks are quite useful.

The shape of the letters, together with the italic point, makes an attractive shading. Moreover, the italic point guides your hand and resists movements in the wrong direction, unlike a ballpoint or rollerball, which provides no guiding feedback—one direction’s as easy as another with those pens, so using them often leads to degraded penmanship.

Some pen manufacturers provide italic points, though you must specifically request them. Sometimes they are called “italic” points (“broad italic,” “medium italic,” and the like), and sometimes they are called “stub” points. Sheaffer, for example, uses the “stub” designation, and it’s quite a nice point. Parker uses “italic.” Pelikan doesn’t make a point that fits the bill, but John Mottishaw custom grinds pens to a square italic point. I have a number of Mottishaw points, and they’re excellent. I send him a Pelikan pen (the M800 is my favorite) with a Broad point, and the pen is returned with the broad modified to a square italic point. Take a look. Pelikan pens are particularly nice in that the nib units screw out, so you can have different nibs for the same pen. Mottishaw also sells pens with the points already customized: no waiting.

You might want to try grinding your own  point. Here’s how.

You can also find inexpensive (and thus not quite so good) italic pen sets and materials in any good art supply store and in stores that specialize in fountain pens. These sets are very good for the beginner since they typically include nibs of different widths. Sets made by Sheaffer, Parker, or Platignum are available. They are often called “calligraphy” sets, but with a fountain pen they are really designed for handwriting, rather than formal calligraphy (usually done with a dip pen).

There are a variety of good inks. I like Waterman Florida Blue, a washable ink with a very nice color. If you need permanence, the most permanent I have found is Doctor Black, made in China. It resists sunlight, water, and everything else — a good ink for a journal, for example.

A good pen store will let you try the pen, and will quite happily order the pen with the point you specify (e.g., a Sheaffer with a stub point). Here are some good dealers who sell over the Web, in their store, and by mail. The Fountain Pen Hospital catalog is especially useful, so you may want to request a copy:

UPDATE: Via Google, italic handwriting worksheets.

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Written by Leisureguy

17 August 2007 at 10:06 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Writing

15 Responses

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  1. I found your post on italic writing very interesting and wanted to share my experiences as a left hander–while I have not had any training in the italic writing you described, when I was in first grade and starting to learn writng(not sure of the time of the grade, I am now 74 so memory fades somewhat), my teacher had all of us put our papers at an angle of approximately 45 degrees facing somewhat to our left oblique ( I hope that is clear) and since I was left-handed I turned my paper the opposite direction–the teacher would come by and turn my paper as a right hander should have it–this happened numerous times as I would return it the left oblique after she turned her back–we were both frustrated!! In the evening at home I related this to my father, who was also left handed and wrote with a straight wrist (mirror image of a right hander)–it so impressed my father (we were farmers) that he came to school the next day to discuss this with the teacher–she had never considered the differences! I am now retired but I write with a straight wrist and in most of my working years most people did not note that I was left-handed!! I think teaching methods have changed alot as I don’t see many young people writing these days with the classic bent wrist–thanks for listening!


    Hal Yutesler

    17 August 2007 at 1:39 pm

  2. Dear Leisure Guy — since others admire your handwriting, would you please post some scans thereof?


    Kate Gladstone

    14 April 2009 at 12:07 pm

  3. I will, as soon as I get a scanner. However, my devotion to keyboarding and my discontinuing handwriting several letters a day have made my hand much less polished than it was. I’ve just begun to try to handwrite some daily, and once my hand recovers it poise, I’ll scan some writing.



    14 April 2009 at 12:11 pm

  4. I still hope to see some scans of your writing — polished or not!


    Kate Gladstone

    29 June 2009 at 1:58 am

  5. Yes, do post scans.



    21 September 2009 at 8:25 pm

  6. Hello Almost a Neighbor! I am in Aberdeen, MD. Wonder why our paths have not crossed. I too teach and preach the italic method. I hope to learn more about your teaching experiences.


    Nan Jay Barchowsky

    16 June 2012 at 8:49 am

  7. I still hope, LeisureGuy, to see scans of your doubtless very attractive italic handwriting. At what school in Annapolis do you, or did you, teach?



    23 February 2015 at 11:24 pm

  8. I taught at Key School for a year, and also at St. John’s College for three years (while being director of admissions as well as tutor).

    Good idea on the scanning. I’ll have to look for some samples. The familial tremor has had a negative effect on the quality of handwriting.



    24 February 2015 at 6:18 am

  9. Italic is so damage-resistant that I’m bettering yours will look at least adequate despite the tremor. (After all, I have successfully taught It to at least one student who had Parkinson’s. Although I no longer have a sample of his writing, he had visibly less tremor when writing italic than when attempting the conventional cursive he’d been brought up on.)
    Do the Key School and/or St. John’s College still teach italic handwriting?



    24 February 2015 at 9:02 am

  10. St. John’s did not teach handwriting at all—not a college-level course in a Great Books program—but when I was at Key School I personally convinced them to standardize on italic handwriting as the hand that was taught to all students, and used the standard italic nib, with left-handed students orienting the page horizontally so that they wrote vertically down the page. They picked it up easily, though at first they would have to turn the page 90º to read what they had written. 🙂

    The use of italic was a splendid success: the students enjoyed it and—important for a private day school—the parents were extremely impressed: their child’s splendid handwriting was visible evidence of something learned at the school. Since at the time handwriting rather than keyboarding was the way most text was created, the students got lots of practice (which naturally produced improvement), with many occasions on which their handwriting was seen.



    24 February 2015 at 9:32 am

  11. I asked about St. John’s because there is (or was once) a preparatory Hugh school calling itself, oddly, St. John’s College. Regarding the Key School — LeisureGuy, you may want to go back there and do some re-convincing. Their current handwriting curriculum is a conventional cursive, not italic at all —
    In my experience and observation, when a school discontinues italic after a thoroughgoing adoption, this happens because the originally trained cohort of teachers has neglected to train successors, and/or because the school administrators have stopped requiring new teachers to learn and use the school’s handwriting program as a condition of their employment. In at least some cases, teachers’ or administrators’ softening in this regard has been traced to parents who had felt embarrassed that their own handwriting looked bad next to that of their children.

    One irate mother said to me, after hiring me to work with her son on handwriting: “The problem with italic is precisely that it looks so legible, so confident and competent, If you put my eight-year-old’s handwriting nowadays next to mine, anyone looking at both of our writings would imagine that he is the adult and that I am the child. It is disrespectful to parents, teachers, and other adults to turn out children who write better than most adults, and who know it. It is wrong to have put me in a situation where my son may be tempted to ‘look down’ in any way on my handwriting. The fact that his handwriting is, objectively, actually better than mine cannot be a justification for this to have been allowed. The adults in a family or community — NOT the children — need to be the ones who can be ‘looked up to’ in every way: handwriting included. It is particularly obnoxious that his handwriting is not only better than real [sic] handwriting, it is better at faster speeds. This makes it impossible for him to go along with the important cultural truth that, in our culture, cursive is agreed to be the fastest handwriting. Whether italic is good or bad, italic is bad because it is against the culturally accepted truth and it changes that truth.”

    Comments? Are you as perplexed lay outraged as I was, and am?



    24 February 2015 at 10:59 am

  12. Wow. It’s unusual to have a parent so nakedly competitive with their child. Parents who quite openly sabotage a child’s accomplishments so the parent can feel superior are a pathetic sight: obviously insecure and so obviously destructive that one wants to call Child Protective Services.

    I suppose that part of the problem is that expectant parents really get no training or education in parenting. It would be good if some sort of (required) program and training could be offered, but I suspect in this case it would do little good. The parent described seems psychologically unfit to be a parent (or a teacher), seeing any accomplishment by the child as damaging the parent’s (very weak) self-esteem.

    Most parents, I hope, want their children to excel, to do better than the parents. But some, obviously, want to make sure that their children do not.



    24 February 2015 at 11:17 am

  13. I cannot think of any _practicable_ way to enforce a mandate for parenting classes.



    26 February 2015 at 8:46 pm

  14. Your blog”s “Books” link to “Italic handwriting instruction” is now dead; the materials can now be found at — therefore, please update your link.



    11 May 2019 at 10:43 pm

  15. Link updated. Thanks for pointing that out.



    12 May 2019 at 5:45 am

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