Practicing Penmanship: Learning Lower Case Letters


In my quest to learn the handwriting of an Accomplished Young Lady, I’ve found some good model hands and made myself the right kind of pen. How would learner in Jane Austen’s era practice this new skill? In order to find out, I turned to my educational treatises and writing manuals. All these sources are available in full-text online- links are on my Sources page.

The Useful Art

In The Polite Lady, writing is one of the first things the daughter focuses on at school. Her mother writes her an encouraging letter, describing all the benefits that writing has to offer: “Were it not for this art, the knowledge of every person would be confined within the narrow circle of his own experience and observation; but by means of this, we can enjoy the knowledge and discoveries of all those who have lived before us, and in some measure make them our own.”  All of the educational texts I’ve looked at have this sort of sales-pitch for writing. I wonder if modern parents and kindergarten teachers feel the same need to explain how useful writing is, or if this attitude belongs to a world in which literacy is not universal, and writing skills are even scarcer?

The Greatest Care and Deliberation

The practical advice offered by the mother is (as usual) scant, but she does suggest: “When you write never be in a hurry, but proceed with the greatest care and deliberation: always write as well as you can, and then your hand will be still improving; for if you do not, instead of improving, it will, every day, become worse.”  All right- I should take my time and try to keep improving. Something about that last line makes me a little nervous- what if everything I’ve ever learned is, every day, becoming worse? The Young Man’s Best Companion and Guide to Useful Knowledge tells me that: “The young penman ought also to lay it down as a law to draw every stroke, and form every letter, with the greatest deliberation.” These maxims suggest that I should be practising not like a child learning to write for the first time, but like a calligrapher- with care and attention to every mark I make.  No wonder elegant writing was considered a “Polite Accomplishment” (as The Polite Lady calls it)- it’s an art form in itself!

Large Letters

The Young Man’s Best Companion also has more concrete advice for beginners:

In the beginning the learner ought to practise the formation of his letters of a very large size. For in large characters, errors more readily strike the eye, and may consequently be more easily corrected, than in small writing.  In writing on a large scale the proportions of the several parts of a letter amongst themselves, and of the broad and fine strokes of which these parts consist, are the most accurately and easily attended to ; and he who is expert in forming a large character will, with great facility, descend to the formation of others of a middling or small size.

-The Young Man’s Best Companion and Guide to Useful Knowledge, John Dougall, 1815.

I’ve been practicing the formation of my letters at a very large size: my broad strokes are about 1/16 inch wide, and my “n” and “m” are 3/8 inch tall.  That’s precisely the size that John Jenkins recommends for a “common copy hand” in his Art of Writing. The large letters with thick strokes use lots of ink, so I have to dip my quill pen very frequently- often for each stroke. The quill is definitely the right tool to get the fine hairstrokes to curve into thick shades- it’s flexible and responsive, more like a brush than the sorts of pens I’m used to.  But I can see why writing technology moved in other directions. With the quill, every factor affects how the lines look- the slope of the work surface, the angle I hold my quill, the consistency of the ink, the depth of the ink in my inkwell, the texture and composition of the paper, etc.  It makes me appreciate the simplicity of modern roller-ball pens!

Ruling paper

But what about paper? When I was learning cursive in 4th grade, a task I loathed, we were furnished with workbooks that had lots of lines to show how high and how low each letter should extend. Paper in Jane Austen’s era rarely came ruled, so the Young Man’s Best Companion gives instructions for ruling your own paper:

In ruling the paper for writing, the close marks of the wires used in the manufacture of the paper and the open lines running across them, will be of great service : but the beginner should not trust implicitly to this help : he should mark off, with a pair of compasses, on the margin of the paper, a number of points, at regular distances, and through them draw light pencil lines, within which the writing must be confined.  At first compasses and a plain flat ruler are to be employed; because by them the lines are drawn with the greatest accuracy: but when the writer’s eye is more experienced, he may judge of the distance to be left between the lines, without using compasses; and then for expedition’s sake, employ a round ruler, which ought to be perfectly cylindrical, that is of precisely the same thickness in every part of its length.

-The Young Man’s Best Companion and Guide to Useful Knowledge, John Dougall, 1815.

I have a pair of compasses , otherwise known as dividers, and a straight-edge, so I can mark off equal sections of my paper. I’m not ready to switch to a rolling ruler for speed- in fact, I’d never heard of one before!  Here is a picture of two ebony rolling rulers stamped with the sign of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, if you’re curious. I will have to try using a round ruler when my eye is more experienced!

Dividers (also known as compasses) are set to mark off the page in even portions. A piece of blacklead (graphite) in a brass holder draws the lines. The triangle serves as a ruler- it has an ebony edge so dark marks from the pencil lead don't show.
Dividers (also known as compasses) are set to mark off points “at regular distances.” A piece of blacklead (graphite pencil lead) in a brass holder draws the lines. The triangle serves as a ruler- it has an ebony edge so dark marks from the pencil lead don’t show.

I have used the methods described in the Young Man’s Best Companion for some of my English Roundhand practice, but I confess I’ve become impatient. I acquired a graph-paper pad made for calligraphy practice, so that less of my time is spent with the ruler and more on “draw[ing] every stroke, and form[ing] every letter, with the greatest deliberation.”  I also made a guidline for the slant of the letters, which I slip under the page so I can see the angle for each stroke.

The Principal Strokes from John Jenkins Art of Writing, 1813
The Principal Strokes from John Jenkins Art of Writing, 1813

Strokes and Turns

John Jenkins, the American writing master, recommends a clear series of steps for learning letters. First, master the 6 principal strokes, then practice forming each letter, and only then practice joining letters together.  This series parallels a pair of plates in the 1787 edition of George Bickham’s The Young Clerk’s Assistant.  Although Bickham’s Principal strokes are a bit different from Jenkins’s, the same progression from stroke to individual letters to joined letters is used.

Plate 8b from George Bickham's The Young Clerk's Assistant, 1787 edition.
Plate 8b from George Bickham’s The Young Clerk’s Assistant, 1787 edition.

I like to begin each practice session with Jenkins’s Principal strokes to remind myself of the basics. As I practice , my hand becomes more sure. But it’s also my eye that practices- the more I form the letters, the better my eye can distinguish “the proportions of the several parts of a letter amongst themselves, and of the broad and fine strokes of which these parts consist.”  It took several pages of practice before I could see exactly where in each letter the thin strokes began to flow into the the thick ones, and some pages more before I could get my turns to match.  I was helped by this calligraphy forum thread which discusses how different 18th and 19th century writing masters formed those turns- it was quite literally an eye-opener! This connection between hand and eye makes my handwriting practice feel meditative, especially because I have been copying single letters over and over again.


I just became confident enough to try “joining” letters into pairs, which introduces new challenges- judging the spaces between the letters and placing connecting strokes.  The practice plate from Bickham’s book (above) shows every letter joined to an “m”, which allows me to get lots of practice with the most challenging of the basic letters.


The lower-case “m” requires consistent slant, careful spacing, and elegant “turns” at the top humps and the bottom exit stroke. I must have written hundreds of them, and I still don’t get them quite right every time.  John Jenkins has a much more technical and detailed approach to teaching joins, as you might expect if you’ve taken a look at his book.

Joining & Distance, from John Jenkins Art of Writing, 1813.
Joining & Distance, from John Jenkins Art of Writing, 1813.

Each “class” of letter joins the others in their own ways, as Jenkins explains in a dialogue that he expects his pupils to memorize. I’m sure Jenkins would be very disappointed that I don’t memorize his Q&As, nor have I practiced picking up and holding the pen in correct posture for several minutes at a time. He has some very helpful ideas, but I’m so glad he wasn’t my writing teacher!

Next time: Capital Letters and Minums

4 thoughts on “Practicing Penmanship: Learning Lower Case Letters

  1. An excellent article and I applaud your persistence and perseverance to achieve your goal. I have done some calligraphy myself and am very impressed by your fine hand, and your inclusion of the long s, which was still in use in handwriting in Jane Austen’s day.

    A most informative set of articles on penmanship. Thank you!




  2. Thank you so much for your kind words, and for adding Her Reputation for Accomplishment to your blog-roll! I have a fondness for the long s, even though I find the rules for using it a little baffling still- I have a lot left to learn!
    Yr obdt svt,
    Lady Smatter


  3. It’s funny when you know ‘&’ developed as people hastily wrote ‘et’ (‘and’ in French) in cursive. First a round uppercase ‘E’ (like a mirrored ‘3’), then a small uppercase ‘T’, starting from the lower E stroke.
    The way you are instructed to draw it and most modern typefaces show it resembles what would happen if somebody copied it without questioning its origin. A similar thing happens when an occidental attempts to learn Asian ‘moon runes’ by copying them: The stroke order is very, very wrong.


    1. It is funny! I am fond of the forms that look more like “et.” My name begins with e, and I have a necklace in the shape of an elegant “et” style ampersand. In some dialects they were even called “epershand” instead of the standard English “ampersand.”


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