Pen Pals Interview: Penmanship Expert Kate Gladstone On How to Improve Your Handwriting

Pen Pals Interview: Penmanship Expert Kate Gladstone On How to Improve Your Handwriting

An interview series featuring notable people whose lives intersect with the world of pens. Kate is a handwriting repair expert who has made a career of helping individuals with poor penmanship improve and develop their own unique, legible script.

Please tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Kate Gladstone, and I am a professional handwriting repair expert.

I live in Albany, NY, with my husband, whom I have been married to for twenty years. I was born in Brooklyn in 1963, and have a brother and two sisters. Both of my parents spent most of their lives teaching English, but my father was also an inventor working mainly on energy systems for alternative fuels.

Although I am right-handed, I have taught myself to write left-handed well enough to demonstrate effectively with that hand for left-handed students (I can also write in mirror-writing — with either hand — but there is less practical use for that ability).

What exactly does a Handwriting Repair expert do?

Since I formally launched my career in 1992, I have been helping people in the USA and around the world improve and maintain the speed, legibility, and attractiveness of their handwriting, through classes taught in person and through distance learning arrangements. I have taught individuals of various ages and families, as well as a variety of businesses and organizations. I almost always teach an italic handwriting, generally with some customization to suit the individual.

Until the early 2000s, most of my clients were in the healthcare profession — hospitals looking to improve the legibility of physicians' handwriting without loss of speed. Since the spread of electronic prescribing, there have been far fewer medical clients; most of the current and recent inquiries are from individuals in a variety of walks of life. About half of them are looking to improve their own handwriting, while a growing number are teachers, curriculum coordinators, and such people concerned with education. Others are looking to improve the handwriting of one or more of their children.

Until about ten years ago, the average age of people referred to me by their parents or other family members was around 15, but over the past decade it has been steadily rising and is now around 25. Usually, the inquirers are interested in gaining two skills: how to read cursive and how to write legibly and rapidly, but in some simpler way than what conventional cursive offers.

Before and After comparisons featuring the handwriting of four physicians
Before and After comparisons featuring the handwriting of four physicians (Click to enlarge)

How did you get into this field of work?

It began in 1987 with my attempts to correct my (then) very dysfunctional and problematic handwriting, which had been that way since kindergarten and which had me in despair. I was in graduate school at the time, and I resolved to improve my penmanship at the very moment I realized that I was leaving my electric typewriter on all day, just so I wouldn't have to write by hand ...

Even then, I didn't want anyone to know I was typing things like "while-you-were-out" messages — so I was typing the phone message, laboriously copying it by hand, and then ripping it up. One day, I decided I could not make a keyboard my crutch, as useful as it was (and is). From that moment on, my quest for some answers began — I read just about everything I could track down about handwriting. I discovered almost half a millennium of handwriting books, right back to the first one that was ever published: an italic textbook that had been printed back in the year 1522.

Working though this and other books, I saved and applied what I found helpful and discarded the rest. Once I reached the most modern books on italic, of course, many of them had authors or publishers who were still alive, and to whom I could write to for more information. Often, the books even had "before and after" samples — frequently on letterhead with names and addresses and even the occasional phone number. This made it a little easier to get in contact with people that would otherwise have been nearly impossible to track down.

Before and After comparison of a student's handwriting after two lessons
Before and After comparison of a student's handwriting after two lessons (Click to enlarge)

Can you walk us through the process of reinventing/repairing one's handwriting?

I begin by checking whether the client can read cursive; if not, I include this in the lesson design. With the aid of the client's writing samples, provided right before the beginning of instruction and at the start of every lesson thereafter, I work with the client to change details of the writing.

I start with changes that will produce the greatest immediate improvement for the effort expended to learn and practice them. Self-progress is important as well, and so I always take careful attention in showing the student how to teach him- or herself independently and how to monitor his/her progress after the lessons end.

The beginning steps involve basic rhythm exercises, such as series of downstrokes, which we then build up into simple letters such as "l", "i", "t", "u", "v", "w", and eventually into groups of more difficult but resisted letters. (For instance: from the letter "u" we can get to "n", and from "n" we can get to "m", "r", "h", "b", "p", and even "k".) Each letter and word is approached both as an exercise and as something to apply immediately in everyday writing.

If a student is struggling with "b", for instance, I will have that student pick "b" as a "Letter of the Week" to receive most attention in his or her daily writing that week. Once "b" is well in hand, we might add the rest of that group — as a "Group of the Week". Most students require 3 to 6 lessons for a full repair — though some have managed it in one or two lessons, and a few have needed more than six.

The next few images show the progress of a student over time
The next few images show the progress of a student over time (Click to enlarge)

What is your opinion on handwriting instruction in elementary schools today?

For the most part, it is poor — nearly non-existent, sometimes actively destructive — and is getting worse. Many of the teachers, including those who are quite proud of their handwriting and who try to emphasize handwriting, do not even write legibly themselves — or they write legibly only at an impractically slow pace.

I observed one first-grade teacher who, while trying hard to teach reading, wrote in such a way that "cat" and "cut" and "eat" in her handwriting all looked identical. Five minutes after she had written a word, she herself could not usually read which one it was!

Even when there is some attempt to do anything about handwriting instruction, too often it is very narrowly focused on the promotion of cursive. In certain state legislatures, people are getting laws passed to mandate that one particular form of handwriting, and unfortunately the lobbyists and legislators involved have been steadily misquoting or otherwise misrepresenting the research on the subject in order to make the research appear to support cursive, when in reality a mix of cursive and print is often more efficient.

Student writing sample showing a mix of cursive and print

Any advice to someone who is struggling with poor penmanship?

Whatever your preferred form of handwriting, here are three basic tips that will help almost anyone with almost any approach:

• Think of your pen as a baby bird. The nib is its beak — the gripping section is its throat. Don't strangle the bird! Don't clamp down with your fingers — Hold it just firmly enough to keep it from leaving your hand. If you are holding your pen so tightly that someone else would not be able to pluck it from your hand — you are holding your pen too tightly.

• Position your paper a few inches left or right of center — right side for right-handers, left side for left-handers. Experiment to find out how far right, or left, you need to place it. Everybody is different — because every body is different.

• Think of your writing hand as your "pen hand," and the other hand as your "paper hand." Just as your pen hand is in charge of positioning and moving the pen, so your other hand is in charge of positioning and moving the paper. Your paper hand should be moving the paper a couple of times per line, and at the end of every line — to give you room as you fill up the page.

Student writing sample with an italic pen

Tell us about the World Handwriting Contest!

I've been running it for fourteen years — before that, it was the Annual Amerrican Handwriting Competition, but in 1999 and 2000 I started to get inquiries from people worldwide. We have several hundred entries per year, and so far these have come in from every continent except Antarctica. (I hope to hear from them too, one day.)

The Contest has five age groups — children, pre-teens, teens, adults, and seniors — with three divisions within each group, and a first and second prize within each division. There is also a "World Pen-Champ" award, for which I select the best writer of all.

I want to make the point that no one contest or organization has a monopoly on good handwriting — all forms of handwriting are accepted in the World Handwriting Contest, as opposed to various other contests which require that the participants all use one or two particular types of handwriting.

The Contest is judged every year in late summer, with entries usually up on the site by September.

A sample written by an award winner of the 2013 World Handwriting Contest
One of the winners of the 2013 World Handwriting Contest (Click to enlarge)

Give us a little insight as to how you use JetPens products in your process.

I have more than one favorite pen, and my preferences shift back and forth over time, but here is a sampling of what I am currently carrying in my bag.

Lamy Fountain Pens

My most frequent favorites are various Lamys — but always with a 1.5mm nib. The Lamy Safari or (better yet) the Vista, with a 1.5mm nib is what I use for most letter-writing and most teaching; it is also the pen I most often recommend to students.

Lamy Joy Calligraphy Pens

However, when I give classes or speak to groups I often use a Lamy Joy with a green Lamy Al-Star cap substituted for the Joy cap — I like the look of the black and pale green together, and the length of the pen lets it effectively double as a pointer when I am teaching in a classroom.

Pilot Plumix Fountain Pen When I have to write small, what I enjoy are the Pilot Plumix and its miniature cousin the Pluminix. Both these pens come with the same steel nib, a narrow italic.

Pilot Petit Mini Pens I also like to use the Pilot Petit Pens. Currently, I have the red Petit 1 fountain pen with a blue-black cartridge, the blue-black Petit 2 with red cartride, and a green Petit 3 with a corresponding green cartridge.

You can learn more about Kate and her work over on her website, Handwriting Repair.

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