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Writing With Skill

Handwriting is, as a subject, disappearing from schools in North America.  Despite evidence to the contrary, it is not seen as being worth the time it can take up in the classroom.  Even when it is taught, the focus seems to be more on the output (is it legible?) than the input (do your wrists hurt?).  My aim with this page is to give a little assist to the “how” side of getting a pen to work for you properly, and trust that once you’ve got that sorted out, the shape of the letters will come along.  Apart from the basics of clinging to a fountain pen, there are also some more advanced instructions for italic writing and writing with a flex pen.

Basic Grip

This 1955 ad for the Parker ’51’ has the right idea.

The first thing a newcomer to fountain pens needs to do is overcome the urge to press firmly. Fountain pens don’t need nor welcome being driven into the writing surface. Those familiar with vinyl records and the turntables which play them will have a sense of the right approach from arranging the tone-arm to only just maintain contact with the record. With that image in mind, here’s what I recommend: holding the pen properly (described below), touch the wrist to the writing surface first, and then rotate the hand so the pinkie finger and then the pen make contact. This gives plenty of control over the final application of the point to the paper; this contact should be only just enough to notice that it has occurred at all.

When using a fountain pen, angles are important, and it is in this area that most people find themselves in trouble when they first start writing with one.  In considering angles, it’s worth thinking of the orientations of aircraft; they are the same general shape as pens, if one ignores the wings, and borrowing the jargon simplifies the task of describing correct grip

Roll: Imagine for a moment that the pen does have wings.  Writing, like flying, is much easier if the wings are level, and becomes nearly impossible as they come closer to vertical.

This is the most common cause of complaint for people recently started on fountain pens

While turning a pen on its side doesn’t raise any dangers of plummeting to earth, it does prevent ink from getting onto the page.  With the pen in the correct degree of roll, the slit of the point is perpendicular to the paper, and the ink makes contact easily and flows out readily.  If the slit is rolled away from the paper, the ink can’t make contact, and without that connection there’s no writing.

Some pens are more tolerant of over-rolling than others, depending on the precise geometry of the tipping.  For example, I find Parker 45s, while otherwise charming pens, to be deeply intolerant in this department, and in general terms modern pens are more forgiving than vintage.  As a rule, a fine point will give less trouble in this direction than a broad, because even when rolled well over the slit on a fine point is still nearer the paper.  The ink used will also have an role in how willing a pen is to write in a bank, depending on its surface tension.

Pitch: The other major concern about angles for fountain pens is the angle defined by the paper and the barrel of the pen.

This diagram is the result of serious overthinking of the matter

Fountain pens are meant to hit the paper at an angle of a little below 45°, with something between 30° and 60° being an allowable operating range.  Below this range, and there’s really not room for the writer’s hand to get in between pen and paper without grabbing the pen extremely far out towards the tail.  Above this, and the part of the tipping intended to touch the paper will get rotated out of position, potentially leading to scratchy writing.

Looking at the front end of various pens, one finds that there is something of a hint about pitch in many of them.  Notice how the underside of the feed is cut to an angle: that is to allow the pen to pass over the paper when it’s held at the right pitch, and is frequently (although not always) at such an angle as to be parallel to the paper.

Yaw: This is actually a freebie.  As long as roll and pitch are within the pen’s tolerances, yaw has no significance… for regular writing.  In the more artistic forms of pen use, it can be a serious issue.

Pen/User interface: “All that is nice, but where do I hold the blooming thing?”  On many pens, the suggested grabbing areas are very obvious.  Some German-made school pens, like the Safari and the Pelikano, come very near to insisting upon a specific grip, reinforcing old notions about German pedagogy.

With the Parker “51” at left, I use an older index-atop grip, but the clip on the Pilot Vanishing Point requires a modern version of the tripod hold (click for bigger image).

Unlike most other writing instruments, the attitude requirements of the fountain pen do enforce a general mode of holding.  However, this mode, the “tripod” grip, is actually just about the most comfortable way to hold a pen possible, as long as there’s no arthritis or similar bone deformations.  The name comes from the fact that the pen touches the fingers at three points (and one is to ignore the contact between the tail of the pen and the back of the hand).  The exact nature of the contact varies with the the relative sizes of pen and hand, and also with shape of the pen, but always involves the thumb and the first two fingers.  Thanks to the interest of the Dutch Masters in tedious daily chores, one finds evidence that this way of holding a pen goes back to at least the 17th century, and there’s an article in The Atlantic showing it in a penmanship manual from then as well. Update: I have also been shown a lettering manual by Mercator (he of the maps) written in 1540, which is also to the point.  It’s the eleventh image along, and has a bad example to go with the good (Mala and Bona, respectively).

To avoid ink on fingers, you should not touch the inky portions. Much like other ink-distributing items.

Whatever the exact way one has of forming a tripod grip, one constant should be observed: the fingers should be as relaxed as possible, working only hard enough as is needed to keep the pen from dropping out of the hand.  Handwriting is not, in fact, and activity of the hand.

I’m sure that this will cause some disturbance of mind, so I’ll explain.  The hand holds the pen, but for the best results it should be the arm which moves it around.  Old writing manuals suggest arranging one’s body by the writing desk so that the forearm may act as a pivot, and the pinkie-side of the hand rests lightly on the paper as a slide.  There is some diversity of opinion on this, but I do find that if I keep the hand and wrist out of the act of writing, I can write indefinitely, while if I start waggling my hand and fingers, my wrist and forearm grow sore in a couple of paragraphs.  Some suggest the shoulder as the driving force for writing, and  I particularly recommend Paperpenalia for clarity of both instruction and picture; I find that I’m frequently using the big muscles of the upper arm to get the results desired rather than the shoulder, but the principle is the same.

Do not, by the way, imagine that this calls for writing to become suddenly gigantic.  While using the bigger muscles towards the core allows for big writing (anyone writing on a blackboard for the benefit of the back of the lecture hall had better not be using the wrist), those big muscles have sufficiently fine increments of moment to make very tiny writing work.

Note the implication in the text that my normal handwriting IS elegant – hubris!

One of the benefits of writing in this way that it is much easier to transfer the motions of the big muscles from one side to the other if injury requires.  I have found on a couple of occasions that, while not elegant, my sinistral writing is at least legible.

Italic penmanship

As with the previous section, I’m not going to concern myself with the variations of lettering that fall under the name “Italic”, but rather with the use of the pen needed to get it written; the stereotype “calligraphy” pen.  Italic pens are defined by the shape of their points, which are less pointy and more in the form of a duck-bill.

This is just an expansion of the previous section’s “bigger points tolerate less roll”

The problem with an italic point from a beginner’s point of view, especially one who is not used to fountain pens, is that they are the least tolerant pen imaginable when considering roll.  Because the end of the point is flat, almost any roll at all will leave the point standing on one of its corners and the slit hopelessly high above the paper.

Some people cheat with a second pen to make the fine lines

The good news is that with a little practice, the writer becomes able to feel when the pen has rolled off the paper, as that broad, flat point offers very good tactile feedback.  Some more advanced calligraphers can use this to embellish the ends of letters with little lines dragged out by the point’s corner.

Unlike common writing, the yaw of the pen must be considered when using an italic pen for calligraphy.  This is because the relative angle of the point to the edges of the paper establishes the shape of the letters, and if that angle wanders the letters are inconsistent and look funny.  A large part of being a good calligrapher is one’s ability to keep the pen at a given angle (for an almost inhuman example, have a thumb though this fellow’s site), and this is a skill only prolonged practice can master.

The effects of yaw on letter shape (I do not set up for a professional scribe, of course)


Getting Flexible

Flex pens are a step beyond italics in their requirements that the writer pay attention to business.  This is not because they are much more difficult to get to work, but because they are much easier to destroy through a moment’s thoughtlessness.

Isn’t that alarming?

The lettering made with a flex pen is superficially like that which an italic produces– there are wide bits and narrow bits, producing a visually pleasing effect.  This effect is not achieved by fixed shape of the point, as in an italic, but by varying the distance between the tines.  This variation is achieved through a simple but slightly hair-raising expedient:  putting more pressure on the point during the down-strokes.

The potential for disaster is pretty obvious; one has to learn the difference between enough pressure to get the maximum variation between closed and open tines and too much pressure.  Stepping into the zone of too much will of course see the pen’s point mangled and sprung (the tines stay apart when the pressure is released), or even destroyed entirely with a tine snapping off.

The nature of the point will determine how far it is capable of going.  There is a spectrum of flexibility, beginning at inflexible “nail” and running up to nearly unmanageable “wet noodle”, and while one might see references to some points in between like “springy” and “semi-flex” there really isn’t any guideline.  I will say “these points are semi-flex” in the same way as I will say “these paints are yellow”, but there’s a lot of different tones of yellow between orange and green, and I may disagree with others about the point at which greenish must start to be considered green in fact.

There is very little direction I can offer as far as learning to use a flex pen, since discovering how to tell how far a pen can be pushed is almost entirely a matter of learning through tactile feedback; art, with some slight overtones of magic.  I encourage practicing non-destructively.  One can build confidence by working up slowly, drawing lines, adding a little pressure each time, but until the awareness of the point’s cues is comprehended it is best to stop well short of what the possible limit might be.  Dip pens are currently available which have a high degree of flexibility, and one can get a sense of what flex feels like from them.  The cost is much less than a vintage pen (there are few modern flex fountain pens) and if one goes into too much, the lost pen can be replaced fairly easily.  Better results in flex writing can actually be achieved with a dip pen, as there are off-set holders to allow pressure to be more easily applied during the downstroke.  The one problem with modern flexible dip pens is that they are made of more resilient material (spring steel) than gold and will forgive more than a fountain pen– this is a problem if you forget it when switching to a gold point.

Noodler’s Ink is, as of this writing, offering some of the only known purposely-flexible modern fountain pens, at a reasonable price.  It is another way to get used to the sensations of flexibility without endangering a vintage point.  It is, however, only somewhat past the middle of the aforementioned spectrum; some people would call it a semi-flex at most.  Update: By 2020, the same style of flex point has started to appear in other pens coming out of India, and there are some higher-end claims of flex from Aurora, Eversharp, and Conklin, too, as well as a replacement feed unit for PenBBS pens which can support a dip point.

I will offer one small point of technique, just about the only one I can:  the pen will flex more readily at a low pitch rather than a steep.  Holding the pen well back along the barrel will help with this.

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