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Learning business penmanship

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Erica McPhee:
Brilliant advice / knowledge from Jean! And the “vision” piece is so important. It’s like learning to draw. Anyone can learn how to draw but only a small percentage can really *see* what they are looking at in order to capture the details, have the muscle/ arm/ hand movements, and illustrate something beyond the rudimentary.

That is one reason I love modern calligraphy as well - because you can develop a style that doesn’t have to capture the rigorous details of say a Spencerian or Engrosser’s Script. Even with that though, line strength/confidence will make such a big difference. But that is a topic for a whole other post. LOL.  ;D


If you have persisted this far, it is your testament of perseverance.  I have tried to strive for better speed and have not been able to attain the speed as specified in Ziller's Business Penmanship.  In fact, I have traded speed for form.  I noticed that my speed had increased and continuing to increase as the years roll bye.  With my continued daily practiced, I wrote with much more confident and energy.

My micro muscular movement control have gotten better.  I suspect that yours too will improve in form while keeping the same speed or even increase in speed.  Your persistence will payoff as your perseverance keeps on ticking

Thank you for all your answers. I just want to try to learn BP in the way it is taught in the old methods. The first part worked very fine: through the first exercises (all kind of ovals and push and pulls, overspaced words, letter in a chain and so on) in quite a little time I have managed  to write with my arm while my fingers and wrist are locked (don't worry, David, I have my forearm on the table :-). Maybe this technique is not for every body, but for me it has opened a lot of possibilities (for example, I execute the Spencerian capitals and their ornamental variations in a completely new way). Perhaps this is something that everybody knows in the calligraphy world, but I am new to this craft and I haven't had the chance to take an "in person" course yet. Most of the videos I can find shows just the end of the hand and one can't see what happens above that. More than that, there seem to be no consensus about how you should write in physical terms (in any script)

Back into BP, I found quite easy to acquire the arm movement, the speed and even the light touch, but the question is if I can acquire the form without slowing down, as this is what the old time business penmen advocated for.

@InkyFingers Curiously the Ziller's method is the only one I know that makes emphasis in form from the very beginning: it shows the exemplars of "ideal letters" even before the usual ovals exercises and then it goes letter by letter and it even recommends to trace the letter before you start practicing on it. Palmer, Tamblyn an other are more fundamentalistic in this point.

My question, to put it in the most simple way, is this: I can write "Onion" 18 times in a minute using my arm (in fact, I think this is something anybody can do with a bit of practice). But will I be ever able to write this word beautifully (like the one in the exemplar) if I keep practicing at this speed?

@daviddigi I am sure this way of writing is difficult to acquire and all the old methods start with a disclaimer about that, but I don't think we should look at it as an arcane science, because it was intended to a wide public. BW was conceived for a large class of clerks, secretaries and bookkeepers, who would spend the whole day writing. The needed a system to write quickly, elegantly and not tiresome. One can play decently the piano in -let's say- four years with one hour of daily practice. And I don't think any kind of writing should be more difficult than that.

Well, I will keep practicing. I have nothing to loose and not very much to win, as one can spend all life happily writing with the fingers :-)

I really like Ziller's BP teaching as each exercise is accompanied with time signature (tempo) and the drills that is needed before the exercise.  Drills that help to develope the principals of forming the letters of that exercise.

Perhaps this will help you to gage as to when you will improve your form?  I am sure you will succeed.

@Trazo -

Good to know we are talking about the same thing (muscular movement).

In general, I did pretty much follow the old BP books and focus on developing arm movement and a light touch before I really began to study the letter forms at a high level. That said, all of the drills are also designed to teach you form, but it's always in the context of movement. I believe it is important to spend time studying form specifically, especially if you do not have a background in drawing or some other type of art that develops perception (I didn't). What really helped for me was drawing the letters slowly and comparing my drawings to the exemplar. I also spent a lot of time breaking down letters into their more basic components, which I think is helpful because it takes the meaning out of the letters and makes it easier to see the shapes for what they are.

Now regarding the speed (words per minute) that these books recommend, I have always found them unobtainable. Writing Onion 18 times/minute is really fast and difficult to achieve with accuracy. Note that by 18 words/minute, they only mean time spent writing (not including breaks between words). The BP authors' primary goal was to teach students to write fast and legible, which is why they stress speed and movement so much. They were not concerned with developing students to become artistic penman and my guess is that they did not write so hastily when preparing the copies for their books. That said, they certainly wrote the copies with movement.

Another thing to remember here is that everyone going to school in 1900 was learning something like the Palmer Method. That's a lot of kids learning to write BP, some of which particularly excelled, and some were good enough to make penmanship a profession, and a tiny % of them achieved such a high level of writing that they were in the position to publish the books that we study from today. We're talking about the best of the best penman coming out of a very large pool. So when we look at Mills business penmanship, I think we are looking at Michael Jordan level BP.

Another factor is that all of the published BP authors also developed their OP/Spencerian hand to a fairly high level. Many of them probably learned Spencerian first as BP wasn't really around before the 1880s. It's very possible that spending time learning OP/Spencerian develops a higher level of control because it teaches you to combine finger and arm movement.

Overall, I like your final conclusion, which is that you have nothing to loose. My recommendation is to study the old books, learn from contemporaries like myself and the others out there (have you seen the Chinese penman? if not let me know), and do not be afraid to experiment with things that no one else is doing.


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