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in: Handwriting/Penmanship, Manly Skills, Podcast

February 13, 2019 Last updated: November 30, 2019

Podcast #482: The Power of Penmanship

In the 21st century, most of our written communication is done through typing on a computer or tapping digital buttons on a smartphone screen. But my guest today argues that we can increase our sense of humanity and our connection to the physical world and to other people by rediscovering the lost art of putting a real pen to real paper.

His name is Michael Sull. He’s a master penman, penmanship instructor, and the author of several penmanship books. Today on the podcast, I talk to Michael about what it takes to become a master penman and what exactly a master penman does for a living. Michael then takes us on a tour of the history of cursive handwriting, including insights into how culture has influenced handwriting styles throughout the ages and why penmanship has declined in the modern day. Michael then makes a case for why people should start writing in cursive again, how to get started with improving your handwriting, and why there’s nothing like getting a handwritten note in the mail. 

Show Highlights

  • How does a Master Penman become a Master Penman?
  • What does Michael actually do as a Master Penman? What does the work entail?
  • How Michael became so interested in handwriting 
  • Has the demand for hand lettering increased in recent years?
  • When did handwriting start taking on its fancy flourishes? Was it ever more basic?
  • How the various styles of handwriting differ 
  • How various cultural moods and movements affected how people wrote 
  • Why a man’s signature used to be of great importance 
  • Efficiency in handwriting, or what Michael calls “info writing” 
  • Why you should take pride in your penmanship 
  • The benefits of writing things by hand 
  • The importance of kids learning handwriting 
  • Practices to improve your penmanship 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

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Michael on Instagram 

Michael on Facebook

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. In the 21st Century, most of our written communication is done through typing on a computer or tapping digital buttons on a smart phone screen. But my guest today argues that we can increase our sense of humanity and our connection to the physical world and to other people by rediscovering the lost art of putting a real pen to real paper. His name is Michael Sull, he’s a master penmanship instructor, and the author of several penmanship books. Today on the podcast, I talk to Mike about what it takes to become a master penman, and what exactly a master penman does for a living. Michael then will take us on a tour of the history of cursive handwriting including insights into how culture has influenced handwriting styles throughout the ages, and how penmanship has declined in the modern day.

Michael then makes a case for why people should start writing in cursive again, how to get started with improving your handwriting, and why there’s nothing like getting a handwritten note in the mail. After the show’s over check out our show notes at aom.is/penmanship.

Okay, Michael Sull, welcome to the show.

Michael Sull: Well thank you.

Brett McKay: So you are a master penman and up until a few years ago, I did not know the title of master penman existed. So the question is, how does a master penman become a master penman?

Michael Sull: Well, a hundred years ago, there were many schools, we would call them vocational colleges today, that focused on handwriting for professional use. In the days before typewriters, everything had to be done by hand and so they had vocational training colleges to teach adults all of the different handwriting skills for detailed certificates, ornamental documents, and such as well as business writing if you worked in a bank and such, you had to write everything. Insurance policies were written by hand, and so on. When a person graduated from these schools, which are usually anywhere between 12 to 24 months of duration as far as the curriculum went, you had to make your own document, your own certificate, your graduation diploma. And based on how well you did it, you either … if it was just passable, today we would regard as a C grade. You got a green seal on your certificate. If it was what we would call today a B grade, you got a red seal. And if it was an A grade you would get a gold seal. And the people who earned the gold seal were usually regarded as masters.

And as they left the educational field and they went into their professions and their work became more well known, they started to become in a sense, sort of legendary. And they either taught at or they submitted their work for the magazines of the major penmanship institutions of the day. So it was an honorary type of degree you might say, that everybody regarded these men and women at that certain level. Well the penmanship profession sort of disappeared after the typewriter really became in a sense, a formidable tool in business. And that was, my teacher used to tell me that that was in the very middle of the 1920s. It had been invented many years before and was still used earlier in the century, but it really became a prominent figure basically due to World War I and the economic and business endeavors that were related to that event. My teacher used to say that the penmanship profession went down the toilet in ’28, because of the typewriter.

So years went by, and nobody heard of master penman anymore. And finally, I sort of brought it back in the sense that there’s a curriculum that we have now, where a person has to demonstrate certain skills in this penmanship arena, and if they in a sense, bring their skills up to the level of the old masters, they can be certified as a master penman.

Brett McKay: So you created an organization that governs the certification process?

Michael Sull: Well I created a program within an organization. The organization was, it’s called IAMPEH. It’s the International Association of Master Penman and Engrossers and Handwriting. And I frankly got tired of people saying many things about the old penman, but not really promoting it to exist so that people could still be trained and inspire students. The program lasted for 15 years, I was the director of it. And through that time, we certified I think 12 or 13 individuals as master penmen. The program has gone under a revision now and it’s still undergoing a revision, but there are still some people who are going through a master penman program at a facility called the Ink Academy in California and it’s possible that some of the masters themselves can mentor students through their own program to become a master penman.

Brett McKay: So how did you get into this? Was this? You know, this idea of being passionate about handwriting and penmanship, was this something you had as a young person? Or was this something, an interest that developed as an adult and you decided to turn it into a career?

Michael Sull: Well, my mother was a very able secretary for many years. She was born in the teens, and like many women at that time, she was trained in handwriting. She became a secretary, and had very beautiful handwriting and shorthand and such, and through our lives as children, we always marveled at her handwriting for Christmas cards, greeting cards, the letters that she sent to all of us when we were in school or in scout camp, that kind of thing. Later on, after I went through college and my stint into the Navy, I just wanted to pick up a hobby and I thought it would be wonderful to write like mom. But there were no books on handwriting that were available in local businesses or bookstores.

The thing is that handwriting is such a pedestrian activity that nobody really thought of just writing a book on how to write cursive handwriting. It’s like there’s no book out on how to brush your teeth. It’s just something that we all do. But in that time, which was in the mid 1970s, calligraphy was becoming very popular. And so I got into that, and I really loved it. It was something that was consuming for me. I just loved to write like that. It was the closest I could do to writing in a beautiful way like my mother. During that period of time, I founded a calligraphy guild in Virginia Beach, and through that I met two elderly gentlemen who were master penmen. One was a master at engrossing. At the time that I started all this, I was 30 years old. And this teacher was 66 years old. He taught me how to do the old certificates, the very beautiful scrolled certificates. But the most amazing person I met was a man named Paul O’Hara.

He was one of the last living masters from the golden age of penmanship. He earned his master certificate in 1908 at the Zanarian College of Penmanship, which was like the Harvard University of Penmanship schools during that period in our country’s history. It was in Columbus, Ohio. And he taught me all that I know about penmanship. And it was interesting, he was a physical fitness enthusiast his whole life, in 1913 he wrote an article on physical culture for penmen, which showed him in a t-shirt with all of his muscles, and telling everybody how you have to be limber to be a penman. When I met him, he was 90 years old and he was still in great shape and was still very good at the art of penmanship and he took me and nobody had talked to him about penmanship at that point, in 50 years. So I was very lucky and fortunate. And they inspired me, both of these teachers to just work as hard as I could to do the best that I could at becoming a penman, master penman like them.

Brett McKay: So we’ll get into the style that you learned from them, and why that sort of went on to the wilderness a little bit. But before that, like master penman, as you said the typewriter killed penmanship. The computer I’m sure just shoveled dirt on the grave of penmanship. Like what, in a world that’s become, you know, we’re all just typing or tapping things on smartphones to communicate, like what do you do as a master penman?

Michael Sull: Well, those of us that are and basically all calligraphers and penmen who do a lot of this type of work or earn our living at it, do a variety of commission work. We still fill out many certificates and diplomas and documents. The biggest sector of the type of skill that we use is for the wedding industry, doing things like invitation designs, addressing thousands and thousands of envelopes and place cards, escort cards, doing marriage certificates. There are some of us who still do work on occasion for graphic design studios that need to have hand lettering done for various client jobs. It’s not, most of the time it’s not the entire text of an advertisement, but just the heading of it, or one particular word that maybe the branding of the industry’s name that commissioned this.

We also of course design logos, we still do that. I design a lot of monograms, and there are others who do that as well. So that’s the kind of work that most of us do. We do some work too, for stationary developers.

Brett McKay: Have you noticed that the demand for your skill has gone up in the past few decades?

Michael Sull: Well it’s interesting. When the computer came up, there was a big dip in the amount of work that all of us all of the sudden found that we weren’t really as popular anymore for our skills. But about 10 or 15 years went by, and all of the sudden, there was a resurgence of interest in hand lettered invitations, in hand lettered documents and such, because people start to value the hand generated skill of recognition. It’s sort of a recognition industry. Most of us who do this kind of work professionally I think are very, very fortunate, because what we really do is recognize human achievement. Whether it’s memorializing people who have passed on, congratulating people who have achieved certain levels of skill in their profession, perhaps in their church. But anything that involves recognizing people or their accomplishments, so by hand we still help people to recognize the human sense of achievement. And to me, that’s very special. Now, we’re very fortunate and it’s ironic too.

Because the big hero has been social media. All of us who do this work of course, are scattered all over the world, not just here in the United States. And now, it’s absolutely effortless for someone in Kansas, like where I live, for our work to be seen in Iceland or in Australia. All over the world. And there’s an inherent beauty in hand generated lettering that you don’t find in digital reproductions of decorative or ornamental lettering. There’s something very special about it. The certain styles that invoke a sense of gracefulness because of the curves that are inherent in its development are all based on nature and nature is the same here as it is anywhere else in the world. And people really enjoy and flock to it, because it’s something very different than the somewhat arid type of environment that most people have to work in today with computers and corridor walls and such.

There’s a beauty to it that really brings back to mind a time from long ago when that was valued so much. The biggest response that I get is when I do people’s names. Because no one sees their names like they used to be written. And so it’s very encouraging to us, and it’s ironic that the typewriter killed the art and now social media is spreading it all over the world. I teach in countries all over, where English isn’t even their native language. But the beauty of the penmanship attracts them and they want to learn how to do this kind of work.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I can definitely see an increased demand for hand lettering. Because as you said, a computer, you have fonts on the computer that can look fancy, and you get that and you’re like, “Well, I can just type and I can do that.” But it just seems more authentic, more real when you see that. Like, “Oh, this actually came from someone’s hand.” It becomes more valuable.

Michael Sull: Very much so. I have a collection of vintage, handwritten pieces, original pieces, specimens from our great masters. The pen masters from 100 years ago. I bring those with me to all my workshops and people are just amazed that what they’re seeing isn’t just a reproduction. It’s not just a print. It’s not something they see on the computer, but they knew that that penman, 100 years ago was there at that piece of paper and their hand touched it. And that sings to them, it resonates with a tone that’s very special.

Brett McKay: So let’s talk about the different styles and the history of penmanship. Because I think it’s interesting because it reveals a lot about a culture, right? How they style their handwriting or their writing. Because then you talk about how business has changed, handwriting, politics has changed handwriting. Education has changed handwriting. So I think this will be a fun topic to delve into, so there’s all these different styles of penmanship out there. When did the penmanship or handwriting start looking really fancy? Right? Has it always been that way, like in medieval times? Or was there a moment in history where people started getting like really flourishing with their writing?

Michael Sull: Yeah, the answer is yes. There was a time, but you need to go back as you say, to the Renaissance. The scribes back five, 600 years ago, they created documents for the glorification of God and for their church. And so it was very special. The text of course, the psalms, examples from scripture were very precious, very sacred. And so the scribes of long ago would take a great amount of time to write or to scribe the different texts that were illuminated to make them very special documents in praise of God. And that’s when a lot of gilding, the use of gold took place. The use … they started, oh gosh in the 1400s I think, where they would write these beautiful texts in a broad style of lettering. There were many names for these, there was Carolingian, there was Gothic, many others. But they were all broad pen styles. The years went by, technology started to increase. Civilization started to bloom with the mechanization, the industrialization of the different countries. And the certificates just really kind of ceased in a way, starting really, oh, maybe like in the late 17th century, I think it was.

But when America was founded, things really changed quite a bit. And it wasn’t just because we’re America. The big change really came with a man named Platt Roger Spencer, and the invention of the steel pen point. When our country was founded in the 18th century, we were originally of course, a colony of England. And so all of our people from that period of time, all of our founding fathers, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, all of them were taught as children. They were taught in the United States, but they were English colonists, they were subjects of England. So they were taught an English style of handwriting, it was called English Round Hand. Today, we call it Copperplate.

In that style of writing, all of the downstrokes are shaded by pressing down on the writing tool with a little more pressure and so the point will spread with the pressure, the ink fills the gap between the two points and you get a thicker stroke. On paper, that means it’s a darker stroke. It’s heavier, it’s more bold. And so the writing becomes more emphatic or more respectful, such as for writing people’s names. But all of the lower case letters, all of them, were written with a downstroke. So they were very heavy and shaded. And the letters were a little more based on a round shape than an oval shape, and capitals were fancy compared to what people write today, but they weren’t really flourished very much. They were huge in terms of the proportion to the lower case letters. And the idea was that if you and I were students back then, we would need to write just like our teacher and just like each other. So uniformity and consistency were the most important values.

In America, there was a man that was born in 1800, his name was Platt Roger Spencer. And in the 1820s, he created a style that was very different. It was revolutionary at that time. He thought that people shouldn’t have to write like everybody else. And America was founded on the principles of individual freedom, individuality. For us not to believe that we had to do everything just like everybody else, a sense of freedom. It was part of who we are. He felt that it should be based, handwriting rather, would be much more adept to human endeavor, it was based not on the strict disciplines of English Round Hand, but on all of the varieties that you found in nature. He felt that God created nature, and God created people. Everywhere you looked, nature had several consistencies, and that was a sense of variety.

That’s why when you look out anywhere, you see different plants and different birds and so on, there’s variety everywhere in nature. You also had the ideas of contrast and contrast isn’t just dark to light. It’s a contrast of size, of shape, of color, of direction, of pressure and so on. And all of that is part of this sense of variety. And the two most important parts were a sense of curvature because every living thing has a sense of curvature about its body. Nobody has cells in their body that are square. Every time anybody moves a muscle, it moves in a curve. Everything from insects to elephants, all moving parts of creatures move in a pivot type of direction, just like your fingers and your hand and your forearm. So curvature was universal and the idea of movement, you know, every living thing has movement, even if it’s just cell division, that is a sense of movement. But all creatures that we know of that move, move. The wind blows, but the wind doesn’t blow in the same direction at the same speed as if you put a fan in a room and just directed it in one position.

When you see leaves blow in the wind, they also blow you know, not just in the air, but they always move in curves when the wind blows them. The wind isn’t like a fan. So he felt that those were, well they were fundamental concepts that people could do and that we could use in the nature of our handwriting. When your hand and fingers and such move, they move in a curve, so that’s nature. When you write, besides the movement, you write with curves. It’s harder for a person to draw a straight line than a curve, because our bodies aren’t made to do that. We can, but it’s a little more effort. If you close your eyes and just move your hand up and down, you know, basically pivoting from your elbow, you can make a curve, a perfect curve on a piece of paper.

So those four fundamental concepts changed everything. And when he introduced them in the early 1830s, it was immediately popular. The reason why was because all of the sudden a farmer in Iowa, or a mine worker in Pennsylvania or anybody that wasn’t in those days what they called an academic, a doctor, a lawyer, a formal teacher, who learned penmanship at a college or at a school, a university, the higher educated type of people. Now the common folk, anybody who worked anywhere could do penmanship, and it would be correct, and they would have something that nobody else had. They would have their own style. Their individuality, and that’s what made it their handwriting. Spencer’s idea was as long as the curves were smooth and the letters were consistently slanted the same angle, and that the letters were consistently spaced, then that’s all that was really needed. If you wanted to shade a letter, that would be great. If you didn’t, that’s fine as well.

He felt that if you shaded all your letters, they would be pretty, but they’d be kind of boring. Everything would be the same. If you didn’t shade anything, then it would also kind of be boring because it would all be the same. So shading of letters to him was an accent, and it gave a sense of enthusiasm or respect. If you wanted to write someone’s name and have it be very pronounced. You would write it, but you would maybe make the capitals with more shade, and a little more fancier, with perhaps more curves. It just changed the way everything was done in America. American script, which was called Spencerian script, became our national system of handwriting in the 1800s, in the 19th century, and it stayed that way until the 20th century when a man named Austin Norman Palmer, again changed it by modifying Spencerian script.

Brett McKay: Well and the other thing that was going on there, talking about how handwriting can reveal a lot about a culture, I mean you talked a lot about nature and like, that’s part of what was going on with the Spencerian. Like during America during that time, that’s when the Romantic movement was going on.

Michael Sull: Yes.

Brett McKay: And you had Thoreau and Emerson talking about getting back to nature. And so the handwriting in America at that time reflected that mood or feeling that was going on there at that time.

Michael Sull: It definitely was a style for the time. It really was. You know, England of course had their Victorian era, and that carried over to a certain extent into America as well. You know, with romanticism and such. And well, as you said, the literature that was coming out at that point with the naturalists and such, this type of writing was perfect for it. It was also romantic in the sense of people writing social correspondence and love letters and such, because now you could write your feelings in a much more ornamental way. And that again, that just fostered more and more of the feeling that writing should be nice. The other thing that was prominent during that time of course was how significant a person’s signature was. Today, when people write, they just usually scribble their name and don’t think much about it. Well, during this golden romantic period, your name was everything.

Your name, the way that you wrote it on calling cards, that gave other people the impression of if you were educated, if you were you know, a person of culture. If you were a business person of reputation, because you took pride in your name. And many times, a person’s signature on a card is what gave them an entrance, as far as applying to certain positions and different jobs.

Brett McKay: And so it was sort of like an Instagram feed, right? That you could tell someone, about someone. Today, we just look at their Instagram feed. Oh, this guy’s a business person. They did that with your signature back in the 19th century.

Michael Sull: Yes, they did.

Brett McKay: Okay, so you mentioned Austin Palmer. He changed the handwriting game in America. Tell us about him and what changes he brought.

Michael Sull: Well, A.N. Palmer, Austin Norman Palmer was actually from New Hampshire, but he lived most of his life in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And he went to a very famous college or institution of penmanship, and you know, graduated. And was able to do very, very fancy penmanship. But he was more interested in education and teaching penmanship and the business of penmanship, rather than just making a lot of diplomas, that sort of thing, as an engrossing studio would really exist for. And there were many of them in the country. So he developed a style, he began his professional career working for a railroad company, and his job was writing cargo manifests. You know, the detail of cargoes on trains. And he saw that the men and women who were paid the most, who got paid by how many cargo manifests you could write in a day. So you were paid by each one you could create.

And the ones who were paid the most and wrote the fastest, did not put shade on their letters as Spencerian did. And they didn’t put any extra curves or ovals on it for ornamentation. It was just the bare bones letters themselves. They were still spaced properly, they were still the correct shape, but there was no ornamentation at all. Well they were using in that period of time, everybody who wrote was using their shoulder muscles, it’s called whole arm movement, where your hand doesn’t move a great deal itself. It’s not like you move your fingers a lot. But your whole arm is propelled by your shoulder muscles. And he saw that the people who were doing that wrote very quickly and they were able to get paid more because they had a greater volume of work.

But then he started thinking about this idea of teaching and he thought that it would be easier for children to learn if they were taught, not Spencerian, but sort of a naked Spencerian, like those people were doing, without any shades and ornamentation, but had their forearm on the table, whole arm movement, shoulder movement, your entire arm is off the table when you write. Just your fingers and the pen pointer touching the table. So there’s no friction and you can write very fast. But children didn’t need to write very fast. And he thought that if your forearm was on the table, with your elbow just a few inches off the table, and you used a combination of your forearm, your wrist and your fingers, you could easily write across a sheet of paper without fatigue, as long as you kept your posture correct.

He called it Palmer method writing. And he started to write you know, books, and instructional sheets, he started his own penmanship magazine. It was called the Western Penman. He started to experiment with it by offering to teach it to the nuns at some of the various schools in the Chicago area. And it was again, it was an immediate success. They really enjoyed it a lot. It was just easier for children to learn. It became a huge popular method of handwriting. And at the World’s Fair I think it was in St. Louis, just at the turn of the century, he introduced it with a display and he had some models there, and he did demonstrations. And one of the superintendents of the New York City School System saw it and took it back to New York and adopted it, and it was a huge hit in New York City. And when that happened, it wasn’t long before the whole country took it over. So Palmer method writing surpassed Spencerian script. And once that happened, and it was so popular, many of the other penmen jumped on board, and they started to write their own books on the same style and name it after themselves.

So there was McClain’s System of Handwriting and Barrens Myers System of Handwriting. It just went on and on. But it was all basically Palmer method writing and that lasted pretty much through the 1960s. And beginning really in the very late 60s and early 70s when the computer era was in its infancy, that people started to think of it as old fashioned. They were forgetting about how important it was in the sense of encouraging good posture and you know, just the idea of having a concept of language when you write. Because of course, the only way you can write is to think of what you want to write, which means you have to think about grammar, in a proper usage of language. So in the 1960s and again with the freedom movement that was part of the 1960s, people started to get away from what today we would call the vintage styles of penmanship. As you went ahead now another 10 years or so, now we’re into the early 1980s. There were several people, who because, really of a, you know, desktop publishing and the use of computers, there were several people who became fascinated with handwriting and really thought that Palmer method writing was too obscure and too dated.

And it was too fancy. And so they created styles which I call compromise styles. Where lettering is really sort of a secondary thought. It’s more of, we want to make it easier for children to write, so they started to invent styles that weren’t as slanted, they were more upright. And they were more boxy in terms of the way that they were shaped. And they tried to make it an easy transition from printing or today, what they call manuscript, to an adult style of handwriting. They did excellent marketing of these different styles, that became very popular, and they’re still popular today, but they don’t really foster good penmanship. So today, there are several people, and I’m one of them, who have been asked over the last few years to write books to bring back the traditions of good handwriting, where you don’t lean over your work, where your posture is correct. Where you don’t get aches and pains in your shoulder and such.

What you do, what was done many years ago. So because of this and because of social media spreading the news about it, and because of all of the various locations that several of us are going to to teach, it’s making a big comeback. The books that I’ve written are unprecedented in the kind of sales that they’re receiving. I find it hard to believe myself. And my book on Spencerian was just translated into the Mandarin language. I just came back from teaching in Macao and Taiwan where the book was released, and it’s amazing, the enthusiasm that people have there for writing these old styles, because of the beauty of them.

Brett McKay: So a lot to unpack there again. I loved how you talked about the Palmer method. It came out at the same time in America when industrialization was really picking up steam. It sounds like the Palmer method was sort of like tailorism. Right? Looking for efficiency in writing, but still look nice. But like, it was very efficient, and that kind of fit the ethos of the country at the time.

Michael Sull: Absolutely. And remember, it was before typewriters.

Brett McKay: Right, so yeah. So I’ve read some of those books and it’s amazing how detailed they get. On you hold your hand, this is how you … it’s kind of overwhelming sometimes.

Michael Sull: Yes, you had to write a certain number of characters a minute. They would, in the books they would say, “We want you to write 60 of these letters a minute, or 70 per minute, because they were trying to get you to write quickly so that you would be marketable to get a job in business, as a secretary, or even a manager. Because the faster you could write, the more productive you were.

Brett McKay: Right, and so the Palmer method, about the standard up into the 70s, they developed this more simplified version. The one I think I learned in elementary school was Denillion script?

Michael Sull: Oh yeah.

Brett McKay: That was the one I learned. And I think every kid who grew up in the 80s probably writes exactly the same way.

Michael Sull: That was one of the ones that became very well marketed, and most people who, and I’ll be criticized for this, but most people who learned as children, those types of scripts that weren’t really slanted and were more primary don’t use them at all when they become adults. They just sort of forget about it. They do today, most people today write for only two reasons. One is to either give or receive information, and to write as fast as you can and the only thing that’s important is legibility, and I have a term for it. I call it info writing.

You’re writing for the sake of information. And so there’s many people, probably 80% if not more, of the adult population writes in a way that is more or less a combination of cursive, where you have joined letters in manuscript or printed letters, because they just write as fast as they can, in the easiest way that they can make their letters legible, so that they can be read. A lot of people say, “I can’t read my own handwriting.” Well handwriting that can’t be read is pretty worthless. But if you’re conveying information and you don’t have a computer, so you have to write it, it’s got to be legible, but again there’s a real big surge in interest now of getting back to having pride in your penmanship, having it look nice. A lot of people feel that their handwriting now does reflect themselves.

And even if it doesn’t reflect it to other people, it does to themselves personally and it makes them feel more, how can I say it? More at ease, a greater sense of self worth if they can write nicely instead of just scribble.

Brett McKay: So besides that sense of identity that comes with learning how to write nicely with penmanship, why else, why do you think, what are the other benefits for writing things by hand in a pleasant script?

Michael Sull: Oh, there’s many. Handwriting is a purely human activity, we’re the only creatures that we know of that really write. And so there’s something very special about it. You’re actually transferring your thoughts into visible language on paper for someone else to read. There are two different styles, not styles, modes of handwriting. One is called business writing, where you’re basically just writing to give information. What’s value is up to you, but it’s just the sake of passing on information. The other is called social writing, and that’s when you want to write your Aunt Mary a letter and asking her how Christmas was, or you want to write a friend and telling them how much you miss them. Writing by hand for the sake of social writing, it’s a purely emotional kind of writing.

You choose because you don’t have to do it for business. You don’t have to do it in a certain amount of time. And so you choose where you want to write, what pen you use, you know, the lighting, what paper. And so it’s an expression of your own emotion to the value of the person that you’re writing with. You’re giving them the most precious thing you possibly can. You’re giving them your time. You’re giving them a part of your life. And so it’s an emotional feeling that makes us as people feel a little more worth perhaps, in the way that we communicate. It’s nothing that you can measure, it’s nothing that can be sort of regulated or measured by dollars, but it’s very real. It’s the way that we tell people how much we think of them, and how much we’re concerned, or what’s going on in our lives. It’s very special.

The other thing about writing is that, and this has been proven time and time again, especially for children. When you write, you tend to remember what you’re writing about because it takes time to do it and in order to do it, you have to think a lot about what you’re going to say, what the subject is, and how it’s going to appear on paper. In other words, legibility. It activates certain portions of the brain that are very conducive to cognitive thought. So in children, handwriting is much more effective than keyboarding in teaching language skills and having the concept of legibility. The idea of writing gives children also a sense of grammar, sentence structure, and such, because you need to do that when you write. It’s very, it’s key for that. In the old days when master penmen were the kings of penmanship in terms of teaching and telling everybody about all this that I’m describing, because there really aren’t master penmen anymore that do that. If you want to call them the heroes of some supporting penmanship, or occupational therapists.

And some educators as well. Because they recognize these things. Handwriting also fosters good posture, you know, so that whenever you do write you’re not going to get aches and pains. It’s very conducive to the cognitive and motor skill development in children.

Brett McKay: I’ve seen that fact of you tend to remember more when you write things by hand. When I was in law school, my first semester, I had my keyboard there, and I’d just type everything, like transcribe everything my professor said. But I was like, I don’t remember any of this stuff. I’d have to like review over and over again. And then the second semester, I just started bringing a notebook and just started writing notes. And what it forced me to do was really listen to the lecturer and process and thing, is this really an important point?

And because I did that little bit of extra effort because I was writing by hand, I think there was a bit more payoff.

Michael Sull: Handwriting takes longer than keyboarding, so there’s more thought involved in producing it. And that does exactly what you just described.

Brett McKay: And another way where handwriting saved me in law school, there was this one day. I showed up for a test and my computer didn’t work, so I couldn’t take my test on my computer. And I was just freaking out. But I was able to hand write it, and because my handwriting is pretty legible, did it in cursive, I did well. So it saved me at the last minute, so I’m glad I still kept up with that skill.

Michael Sull: I’m glad you had that experience.

Brett McKay: Yeah, no. Let’s say someone’s listening to this podcast. And I’m sure a lot of people think this all the time, just, “My handwriting is terrible. I wish I could improve it.” Like what’s the best way to get started learning or relearning how to write in cursive but do it well?

Michael Sull: Well, there’s several things. First thing you just have to decide and agree upon is that you have to practice it every day. It’s a life skill. But your life, as old as anybody is, has probably been doing handwriting in a certain way all those years. So it’s a skill that you have to change and that takes time and you have to accept that and not feel that it’s such a negative factor that you’re not going to do it. But writing everyday can turn out to be something that’s very special and very enjoyable. You would start to write, you know, just notes to yourself, or letters to other people. Start journaling, create a personal journal. In the old days, they called them diaries. So that’s one thing. You would need to find the right writing tool that you’re comfortable with.

Now most of us, when we were children, we all had certain ball point pens that were inexpensive, or pencils. The pencil is actually an excellent tool to write with because the graphite is soft in the point and so it’s very smooth. You just need to sharpen it, you know, fairly often. If someone really wanted to do this, instead of the standard pencils which is what we call a 2H hardness in the lead, I’d recommend for someone to find a 3H pencil, because it has a little more clay in mixed with the graphite so it’s a little bit harder, and you don’t have to sharpen it as often. There are of course many tools out today that are absolutely excellent and don’t cost very much. There’s a lot of markers, roller balls, gel writers, besides you know, fountain pens and ball point pens. But it’s easy for someone with very little investment you know, $5, $10 even, to find a tool that they’re comfortable with.

But you should find it. You should find one of those, and then you should get yourself some pads, so that you, you know, you can start writing. Not just post it notes, not just something that’s something to scribble on a grocery list, but an actual tablet. And then probably the most helpful thing is to find a book that focuses just on you know, relearning or training yourself in cursive handwriting. That’s frankly why I wrote mine. I’ve written books on Spencerian, I’ve taught it for a long time. At one point, many of my students were mothers who homeschooled their children. And a lot of the primary grade instructional books for handwriting don’t really have a great deal of actual handwriting examples. They have short sentences and they’re written or they’re printed at a very large size.

And they have a lot of you know, cutesy illustrations, but they don’t really have a ton of lettering. And they’re also, you write in the books many times, so theirs’ not a lot of, how can I say it? A lot of what I call onboard time, where you’re really writing sentences. Where you’re really writing language. If you’re writing, if you practice your handwriting by writing a, a, a, b, b, b, that’s good initially to get you started. But the best WhatsApp of learning is as you learn to write the specific letters and you learn to practice them together in words, because I don’t go up to someone and say, “B. B. B.” I speak to them in language.

So if you start to practice your writing in sentences, or with words, you’re using your penmanship in the way that we all speak. It’s much better that way. They asked me to write a book on traditional handwriting, because they weren’t pleased with these primary type of books of handwriting books. So I did, and it’s a huge book. 350 pages, there’s 122 lessons. It’s the most comprehensive book that’s been written on cursive writing, traditional writing, in probably 70 years. And I called it, because I didn’t want to name it after me, and it was very much like what Palmer did, I just called it American Cursive Handwriting. And I was amazed at how popular the books is. And then about a year or two ago I was asked to write a book for a commercial publishing company for adults, on handwriting. I said, “I already did.”

But of course it has, my book had a lot of references to teachers, and grades and parents and you know, educational basically primary schools. So I re-edited it and added some extra chapters on artistic writing, signature, fitting handwriting practice into the adult schedule and I called it the Art of Cursive Penmanship. And that book came out this July, and so it’s still, it’s only six months, and it’s already in its third printing and it’s for adults. So but there are others as well, I’m not trying to just promote this, but there are other books too that have come out in recent years, on you know, handwriting that’s not just a primary grade type of book. But a person who really wants to get back into writing well, it’s invaluable to have a good guide, a reference that shows all these things. And talks not just about letters, but about posture, about you know, what’s the difference between left handers and right handers. About the tools, how to use the different tools. My book even has a chapter on how to write a personal letter, because nobody teaches that anymore. So something that really is a thorough curriculum in a sense about all of these different aspects of handwriting.

So that the writer can enjoy it, and use it as part of their life to communicate, you know, visually with other people. If someone receives your letter, you know, how you write is a reflection to them of who you are. You can’t help it. And if you scribble something, that tells somebody that I’m not really worth their time. It’s like speaking too fast so somebody can’t even understand what you’re trying to say. It’s very hard to hear something like that. Does that make sense?

Brett McKay: That makes perfect sense. And I mean, I imagine too, learning how to hand write well, and doing it more often, it’s going to set you apart. Because not a lot of people do that these days.

Michael Sull: Oh, absolutely. It’s kind of an offshoot of this, there are many places where in America, you can buy some nice paper to write on, but the beautiful, you know, either hand made or what they called mold made stationary papers are hard to find anymore in America. They still make them in Europe and Asis, but in America people have gone from writing long letters to note cards. You know, because they’re short and you basically can write a few lines to say, Hi, how are you, without becoming really lengthy at explaining what you’re trying to say. That’s kind of sad in a way. But people don’t seem to have as much time as they used to that they allot for human communication. So if you can find some nice stationary, and there is still some available in America. Some of them that we have here are from other countries.

But they’re just, they’re wonderful. They really excite me to write on them, because the paper itself is just glorious, instead of just a lined sheet of tablet paper.

Brett McKay: Well, Michael is there some place people can go to learn more about your work?

Michael Sull: Yes, you certainly can. My website is Spencerian.com and my Instagram is MichaelRSull and so is my Facebook, Michael R. Sull. And people can go on there.

Brett McKay: And do you post some of your work on your Instagram?

Michael Sull: You know, I really, well my wife does. I’m not too good at the technical side of things, but I do write quite a bit, my teacher, my teacher, but my students and my wife post my work quite a bit. People can also look up my name on the internet, and there’s a lot of examples there of things that I’ve done in the past and that I’m doing now.

Brett McKay: Well Michael Sull, thanks so much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

Michael Sull: Well thank you, I hope this has been helpful and I just really would encourage people to remember that they’re a human being. They’re not just a machine that punches you know, a key board. You have thoughts and you have emotions and the best thing you can do is to share them with people through handwriting. It’s part of you that you’re giving to them and people really appreciate it. So thank you so much for this time, for letting me join you on this podcast.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Michael Sull, he is a master penman and penman instructor, you can find out more information about his work and find some of his books he’s written on improving your handwriting at Spencerian.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/penmanship, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast, check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find thousands of free articles on just about anything, penmanship, we’ve got articles about personal finance, social skills, physical fitness, you name it, we’ve got it. If you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot and if you’ve done that already, please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve learned into action.

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