Last updated: 12 May 2016

Writing position & surface for everyday handwriting:

You have to adapt to the space and writing surface that is available. When rendering formal display calligraphy, scribes like to use a sloped writing table for comfort and visual acuity. Of course, such an ideal writing arrangement is seldom available in everyday writing situations.

If possible, I write sitting down at a table with a smooth surface. In that circumstance I sit with my upper torso bent forward and relaxed, square to the table, with both feet a comfortable distance apart and flat on the ground. I rest my forearms on the table top. I select a location that provides ample (preferably natural) light. I tilt the paper or document I am writing on a few degrees to the left (I am right handed) for writing comfort. Whenever possible, I use a pad of smooth paper under the writing sheet.

My writing position

Of course, in everyday writing you often have to write in cramped quarters with uneven surfaces and poor lighting, sometimes standing up. In those circumstances you have to make the best of the conditions and assume as comfortable a writing position as possible.

Paper guard:

Whenever possible I rest my writing hand on a folded piece of paper in order to protect the writing surface from the oils which are present in the skin (and which can cause skipping) and in order to provide a place to practice letter forms or test the nib for smoothness and ink flow.

Writing base line guides & templates:

These are necessary to keep the writing straight and evenly spaced on unlined writing paper. When thin, translucent, writing papers are used a thickly lined sheet of paper can be placed under them to provide visible guidelines. When thick and opaque writing papers are used, a template can be prepared from mat board, or a ruler can be used, and the guidelines drawn directly on the writing page surface using a soft lead pencil, the guidelines being erased after the writing is completed. I only use base line guides, for I subscribe to Edward Johnston's postulation that attempting to write using double base line/letter height guidelines inhibits fluid, rhythmic writing and is like trying to dance in a room where the ceiling is the same height as the dancer. In some instances, such as when addressing envelopes, writing guidelines can be dispensed with and the eye alone relied on to keep the writing straight:

Writing instrument hold:

I think that learning how to write well using a pen or pencil starts with developing the correct writing instrument hold.

It is my perception that numerous people these days do not hold pens and pencils correctly, and that causes much frustration for those who aspire to write well. I suspect that the widespread use of ballpointed pens, and maybe the teaching methodologies in schools, has resulted in the emergence of a restrictive, tight grip of the pen or pencil very close to the tip that results in letter formation using the wrist and fingers rather than the arm and shoulders.

The following photograph illustrates the pen hold I was taught as a schoolboy and which I have used ever since. All right handed students were taught, and required to use, this pen/pencil hold:

My pen hold

Note for Left handed writers: please visit the links provided at the bottom of this page for detailed information, instruction and illustrations.

The shaft is held between the thumb and first finger and rests against the large knuckle of the first finger, on the outside, and on the first knuckle of the middle finger which is curled up with the others to provide a "rest pad" on the writing surface. The writing action is in the manner of "painting" the letters rather than painstakingly forming them. Letter formation is via forearm and shoulder movement rather than by finger and wrist movement. The grip on the pen or pencil is light and relaxed in order to facilitate ease of letter formation and prevent writing fatigue.

Individuals may want to modify the above pen hold slightly in order to obtain a more comfortable writing position.

I think that the major problems people experience these days in writing with fountain pens, especially those fitted with "flexible" nibs, are mostly attributable to incorrect pen hold. The nibs were designed to be used with the hold I prescribe. I have a feeling that there would not be as much need for re-profiling factory nibs if the prescribed pen hold was adopted or, conversely, the tight, "claw" grip avoided.

Chisel edged nibs:

As a young Calligraphy student I was initially tutored in rendering letterforms using hand cut quills with chisel edged nibs and home made metal reservoirs. I subsequently used square cut chisel edged steel nib pens which came with small metal reservoirs already installed. I now mostly render all Chancery cursive (Italic) and round hand writing using fountain pens with modified iridium tipped nibs or square cut chisel edged nibs and bottled ink via converters.

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[chisel edged steel reservoir nibs]

The following diagram illustrates the correct attitude of an edged nib to the paper for Chancery cursive writing. It depicts a typical chisel edged square cut nib. Traditional fountain pen users often have their iridium tipped nibs reground to an edged profile by after-market "nibmeisters". Note that if the pen is used as depicted, writing rendered using the forearm and straight, but relaxed, wrist will be easily facilitated.

Relation of nib to line of writing
(by one of my students)

Writing with regular fountain pens

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Just about all fountain pens came equipped with what are now popularly called "flexible" nibs when I was growing up. Nobody knew they had a "flexible" nib in their pen and they didn't attempt to develop a technique of consciously producing pressure induced thick and thin strokes in their writing. Of course, everybody I was acquainted with used a light and relaxed pen hold when writing, a technique that seems to have become generally lost, the nuance of letter form line weight was incidental.

The general public just used their fountain pens as they had their school dip pens. Some wrote with light paper contact, as I always have, and produced writing similar to that on my exemplars here. Some wrote with moderate pressure and produced writing with nicely "shaded", as they say these days, letter forms. Some wrote with heavy pressure and produced noticeably, but often erratically, "shaded" writing, and lots of blots. Heavy pressure writers also risked ruining their nibs, all that excessive tine spreading eventually taking its toll. Fountain pens saw an enormous amount of daily use in those days.

Modern users of fountain pens with these "flexible" nibs can write normally with them, as they do with any fountain pen, but with a relaxed and light hold. Or they can use them to produce deliberately "shaded" writing by developing a conscious "pressure on the nib" technique, or even employ them for Copperplate writing.

I derive my own greatest pleasure in using these nibs from the soft feeling and tactile feedback that I experience when writing on fine paper, the subtle line variation being incidental. I believe that is what they were originally designed for.

The Information on this page, and on my other pages and scanned exemplars, pertains mostly to right-handed writers. The following links are to online reference and instructional pages that offer specific information for left-handed writers:

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