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Bad handwriting is usually a tangle of things gone wrong. Sloppiness, wrong letterforms, and bad spacing all play a part. The first worry is often where to start the repairs.

Let’s look at the biggest trouble first.

Problem: sloppiness
Are you the only one who can read your writing? Unfortunately, other people do expect lettershapes they, too, can recognize. Here are four pitfalls.

Sloppiness 1: sawtooth writing

Problem: Italic sometimes degenerates into the zigzags it is based on.

Solution: Try slowing down. Make the extra effort of writing curves instead.

Zigzags make awful shortcuts. They are a good foundation for handwriting, but poor lettershapes. Regaining a legible hand isn’t hard. Just take the trouble of writing curves rather than straight lines.

Sloppiness 2: muddled exit strokes

The word in the middle has a confusing middle letter. The exit and the join are too high for the letter a, and too low for the letter o.

In fast writing, the biggest difference between the letters a and o is this. The letter a joins to the next letter from the bottom, the letter o from the top.

Is the middle word “us” or “vs”? The letter u joins from the bottom, the letter v from the top. Don’t bother looking for a happy medium. There isn’t one.

What is the middle word? Is it “burn” or is it “bum”?

The word on the left reads “burn”: the letter r is unmistakable. The exit stroke has a short downward wriggle before it joins the next letter.

The word in the middle is confusing. Does it say “burn” or “bum”? It may end with an indistinct letter r, followed by the letter n. Or it may end on a shaky letter m. Add a clear join on the letter r.

Sloppiness 3: unclear letterforms

The letter z can be misread for the letter r in looped cursive. Make yours recognizable.

The letter r can be mistaken for the letter v. The letter r parts from the stem halfway to the top. The letter v parts from the stem at the bottom, and goes back toward it a little at the top.

Sloppiness 4: topless wonders

The word in the middle can be either “bag” or “buy.” The letters a and g should be properly closed. And keep the letters u and y wide open.

In the middle of this line are either the letters anu or the letters dhll. Beware of short ascenders.

What to do?
Many people can see that their writing looks appalling but can’t tell where they go wrong. An explanation is often all the help they need. Spell out every last detail. Here are two examples. The first is a bad descender.

The lettershape on the right got lost halfway through. It began as a proper italic, with a triangular bowl. In the descender, old habits of looped cursive took over. Writing that loop where it doesn’t belong is no easier than writing the right shape. But when a clear idea is missing, you use whatever you’ve got.

The best way of correcting this descender is to explain it. (It should go down to the descender line. Then it should go to the left the full width of the letter, and a bit up at the same time.) How to make this simple and lucid? Connecting dots is one way. That usually works.

Our second example also demonstrates the same hazard. Again, if you lack a clear idea about the letter f, you do the best you can.

Muddled: The first of these letters f has a low crossbar. The second tilts backward. The third hasn’t got a crossbar.

Clear: the letter f, properly made. Once it has been understood, writing it is easy enough.

Teaching handwriting has two parts. Introducing the method and the letterforms is one. The other part is to help the writers spot their errors and put them right. This can take a lot of spelling out.

Here are more mistakes.

Problem: wrong letterforms
When you’re not looking, the right letterforms sometimes disappear. What takes their places ranges from the inventive to the bizarre. The list is endless; here are four examples.

Wrong letterforms 1: misplaced capitals

Wrong: capitals should not be used instead of lower-case letters.

Right: use lower-case letters where they belong, and make them legible.

The capital form of the letter r has been used at various times in history. Its use can be justified by tradition. But beginners should leave it alone.

Wrong: a capital letter K should never be used in place of the lower-case letter.

Right: use the lower-case letter where it belongs.

Wrong letterforms 2: minimalist trouble

The word in the middle has a stem missing from the letter n. The writer may think this innovation still reads “hand.” Others are likelier to think that the letter r has been borrowed from looped cursive, and read “hard.”

Wrong letterforms 3: ambiguous forms

Unclear: Is a loop the letter e, or a low letter l? It is the letter t with a crossbar left out, or the letter i with a dot missing?

Clear: the letters e l t i, properly distinguishable.

A loop can mean several things. Stick to lettershapes that aren’t easily misunderstood.

Avoiding wrong letterforms is no hardship. First learn simple italic. Only then should you add personal traits.

Problem: bad spacing
Be careful how you arrange your text. Bad spaces between lines and between words can disfigure good writing.

Bad spacing 1: gaps between words

For small children, a wordspace the size of the letter n is about right.

For anybody else, the width of the letter i is a good wordspace.

Bad spacing 2: a thicket of lines

Wrong: descenders of one line shouldn’t tangle with the ascenders of the line below it.

Right: Shorter ascenders and descenders don’t overlap.

If you really like long ascenders and descenders, all is not lost. Write on every second line.

There’s more, of course
This should give you a start on what to look for. Look at details. Copy the model alphabet as best you can. Use your eyes.