Handwriting and visual perception


‘Ordinary copybooks seem to have followed a highly doubtful tradition of engraver’s letters — which cannot really be copied in writing, even by an adult pen’ wrote Edward Johnston some 100 years ago.

Looking at contemporary copy books or ‘writing work books’ as they now like to call them, little has changed. The engravers burin imitating the flexible nib stroke variation was replaced by computer designs, but the impracticability of the exercise is the same.


As a child I remember the frustration as my writing would (and could) never be similar to the original.

Years later, studying typography and letter design I became aware of the impossibility of the task. The letters in my copy–book had been written with a pen that had a flexible pointed nib that could write hairlines as well as thick strokes on smooth paper and I had been given a pencil and ordinary paper.


Some might say that I am splitting hairs. That these small details in letters can be neglected.

The contrary is true. Letters are small things.

This is how correct perception works in practice: the difference of the outline thickness of bold letters in normal text is just around 0.07 mm thicker than the regular script, but is immediately noticeable.


Again some might think that there is no variation of stroke in contemporary models, but the variation is there.

Copying the subtle line variation and the sharp ending of the strokes in this particular example would be a serious challenge even for an experienced calligrapher.
This might even afford a discussion about the intellectual honesty of a model that can’t be copied by hand.


Subtle variations such as the one of letter r in the contemporary model might go consciously unnoticed but are perceived as pleasant to be read. Letters are two–dimensional things. Stroke variation is exactly what writing letters is about. People who design letters know this too well.

These are the traces of the broad-nibbed pen on writing paper and of a pencil on ordinary paper. One has a clear shape and clear outlines, the other one doesn’t.

handwritingandvisualperception03By shaping letters with a pencil one has a very limited control over the thickness and variation. The pencil does not even produce crisp outlines. The most basic analysis of a script which measures stroke thickness in relation to the white internal space of letters can’t be performed.

By giving the child a model that can’t be copied faithfully, gradually, through repetition, the differences between the two–dimensional model and the rough lineal copy are eliminated from consciousness.

Two different things slowly become the same.

Eventually the teacher is satisfied with the linear interpretation of the model letter and the handwriting education is completed. Children nowadays learn not to pay attention to the thin–thick parts of the model. In other words, they learn not to see. Seeing is part of reading. The consequence of this is unlearning process is called dyslexia.

For the correct perception of letters, the tools used to write models must be the same tools used to copy them and the models must be faithful to the letters we read in books.

Regular script is the best way to learn reading and writing.


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