Handwriting without tears.
September 16, 2013 8:41 PM   Subscribe

I never learned to hold a pen correctly. My extremely awkward method involves pressing my index and middle fingers hard on the top of my pen. As a result, my hand quickly gets tired and cramped. Can I change this? How much practice would be involved? It's easy to find descriptions of better grips, but I don't find advice for adults who want to change long-established bad habits.
posted by Wordwoman to Education (17 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
I write the same way, and always have. As a kid, my teachers thought the solution was a triangle shaped pencil grip. I have distinct memories of them smelling nice (like vanilla!) but not helping at all. Curious to see what other suggestions there might be.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:48 PM on September 16, 2013

Oh, and incidentally, when I draw I use this grip. I have no problem switching back and forth and have far less fatigue and better control--but other "standard" pencil grips just seem to baffle me.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:52 PM on September 16, 2013

I have precisely the same problem. So far, I have found it impossible to change. Made exam time hell when I was in law school. I'll be watching this thread with interest.
posted by Salamander at 8:56 PM on September 16, 2013

You can change your grip - I had to learn for calligraphy and things in art school. My secret talent, though, is writing on unlined paper in straight lines, which I apparently can only do with my weird pinchy-grip I "learned" from the kid I sat next to in 1st grade. So now I can switch back and forth.

It takes practice and dedication! You can't just decide to do it and switch it up. You might want to look up techniques people use for learning how to write on chalkboards - lots of grad students/teachers have tips and lessons for this. Writing on a vertical surface requires you to do lots of things differently, so you might find it easier to hold your writing utensil in a different grip than usual on top of everything else, and then switch to horizontal once you get used to it.

I think that it varies from person to person for how much practice would be involved. Are you visually inclined? Tactile? Detail-oriented? If you can pick up a craft or physical skill fairly easily, you might need less practice than if you've never done anything else precise with your hands.
posted by Mizu at 8:57 PM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Try a better pen like the Jetstream, which flows a lot more readily and doesn't require as much pressure. Then hold it like a chopstick and see what happens. In fact, treat it like a pair of chopsticks, with a delicate touch. Remember that if you pinch your chopsticks together too roughly the dumpling will go flying, so think about delicately chopsticking the dumpling.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:58 PM on September 16, 2013

I'm a fan of the PenAgain.
posted by oceano at 9:02 PM on September 16, 2013

I managed to change my pen-holding style when I was in university, as well as my chopstick holding style to the "correct" way.

I sat in my lectures and practiced by doing lines of loops, then graduating to the alphabet, then by copying lines of text. I don't remember how to do ordinary differential equations or design control systems so your milage may vary. Maybe practice while watching tv or on boring conference calls.

I practiced using chopsticks properly by using them to pickup peanuts when feeling like a snack.
Took about a month or so for each but I didn't force myself to use it in the real world till I was reasonably confident I could write fast enough and not drop food all over myself.
posted by captaincrouton at 9:04 PM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just checked to see if I 'naturally" hold my pen the way you describe - yep. But when I'm sketching or taking dictation I place it between my middle and ring, moving it around lightly with my thumb. I think it took me a long time using chopsticks/doing lots of sketches before I learned to loosen my grip and be comfortable holding a pen in a lot of different ways - so maybe some hand-eye coordination exercises like with the Drawing On The Right Of The Brain Workbook? Or just internalizing and reminding yourself you only really need to have the tip touching the paper, and most of your writing force should come from the ARM and WRIST, not the fingertips. The fingertips just hold it in place.
posted by The Whelk at 9:35 PM on September 16, 2013

You can definitely change it. Diligent use of an ergonomic pencil grip worked for me. After a couple months my hand started to form the "correct" grip naturally, I stopped using it, and promptly forgot all about it until now. I was in my late teens but I don't see why it wouldn't work for an adult. The process seems analogous to learning a tricky guitar chord.
posted by Lorin at 9:36 PM on September 16, 2013

You can learn how write/print all over again by getting a tutor to teach you Italic handwriting.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:37 PM on September 16, 2013

Get a good pen that writes smoothly, with a triangle guide for your grip. There are plenty of great pens that have this built in, but you can buy a rubber sleeve for other pens. Then just write a little every day, being careful to start in the "correct" grip.
posted by robcorr at 9:51 PM on September 16, 2013

My handwriting changed dramatically when I got a fountain pen partway through high school, and I think this was partly related to the way I held the pen as well as the way the pen mechanically functions. Fountain pens have free-flowing ink (well, when you use them regularly; it has been known to dry up after months) which comes out much more smoothly than standard ballpoint/stick pen ink. My handwriting went from tiny, cramped chicken-scratch to something much more flowy and elegant, which I can maintain even when writing with crappy ballpoints. Though it's not as nice, and my hand cramps more and the pen isn't as nice to hold etc etc. I hold mine the same way you do, but with a fountain pen you don't need to grip it as hard because it's just better design/engineering.

They do make disposable fountain pens that are pretty cheap so you can try them out without having to commit to a really expensive fountain pen. If you ever do want to commit to an expensive fountain pen, I recommend Waterman but there was also a recent thread about mid-range ones.
posted by Athanassiel at 1:24 AM on September 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

The introductory self-instructed Palmer Method of Business Writing is now online. Palmer Method, or modified versions of it, was a standard method of cursive penmanship taught in many American public schools in the early twentieth century. It emphasized free movement of the writing arm, writing with a relaxed hand and use of the large muscles of the forearm and arm, moving the paper as needed to keep good body, arm and hand position, and a script style that was fairly plain and well spaced, as an aid to both speed of writing and legibility. If you are primarily a hand muscle writer, who moves hand and arm to accommodate a generally fixed position of paper, learning Palmer Method can seem strange at first. But within a few hours of practice, its advantages, principally speed and freedom from fatigue while writing, become clear.
posted by paulsc at 3:45 AM on September 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I leisurely jot down 1-3 pages of daily notes on the computer experiments I run, and I blame the mechanics of ballpoint pens for all the pain I experienced before switching to a fountain pen. I have been using the same pen since December of last year, with no small amount of glee and pride.

Ballpoint pens work by having a person push a pen onto a piece of paper to roll around a hard little ball with direct internal exposure to a pressurized ink cartridge. The ink in a ballpoint pen is generally more viscous than traditional pen ink, and the seal at the ballpoint is airtight to prevent leaks, so the onus is on the pen user to direct sufficient force to the pen-paper interface.

Fountain pens work on a different principle in that a nib makes use of capillary action to draw ink from an unpressurized ink chamber. The nib is always a little bit wet, so capping the pen after use is more important with a fountain pen than with a ballpoint pen. Because there is less mechanical action required by a fountain pen in that the user is not required to roll around a little ball on a sheet of paper to transfer ink, the potential for wrist pain is inherently reduced because the pen user does not need to work as hard to transfer ink to the paper. Less work, less pain with a fountain pen.
posted by oceanjesse at 10:19 AM on September 17, 2013

Nthing trying a better pen - higher quality ball points can be noticeably more pleasant to write with. But fountain pens are the best! The ink just flows onto the paper, no (or very, very little) pressure necessary. Definitely try the disposable Pilot Varsity that Athanassiel linked to - you can usually find them at a decently stocked stationer/office supply store for a few bucks. (One caveat is that most fountain pen inks are not waterproof. But Noodler's does make some pretty indelible ones.)
posted by usonian at 1:29 PM on September 17, 2013

I definitely found it easier to switch pens than to switch grip. Yay for the jetstream. Link goes to my personal favorite, now with four colors.
posted by nat at 6:08 PM on September 17, 2013

Response by poster: Update! I have made significant progress with my pen grip and handwriting with 15 minutes or so of practice a day. My handwriting has evolved from an ugly scrawl to something that's entirely legible and perhaps even pleasing to look at. I now use the correct grip without really thinking about it, and my hand remains comfortable and cramp free even when I'm writing for a long time. Here's what helped: the series of handwriting videos on YouTube by Nan Jay Barchowsky, the suggestion to use fountain pens (I love the Pilot Varsities), and a workbook called The Italic Way to Beautiful Handwriting: Cursive and Calligraphic by Fred Eager, which I'm still working my way through. I'm also starting to explore calligraphy, now that I've seen how doable the whole endeavor is. Thanks for all your suggestions!
posted by Wordwoman at 12:03 AM on November 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

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