Handwriting: mental or physical?

Question is whether people’s distinct handwriting is primarily the result the unique way their mind is telling them to write the letters, or the result of the shape of their hands and fingers, and the way their muscles & ligaments interact etc. (The field of graphology is largely premised on the notion that it’s the first, but that field is itself very tenuous, and I wouldn’t make too much of it.)

What made me initially think it was primarily physical was that so few people write with the exact perfect shapes they were taught as kids. This would seem to suggest that it’s difficult physically to make the perfect shapes, in which case everyone would be varying in some manner or other based on their own physical structure.

OTOH, ISTM that when people write in a different physical manner, e.g. hold the pen differently, they still keep the same basic handwriting. This would suggest that it’s primarily mental.

I’m wondering if maybe it’s a loop of sorts. People initially try the “perfect” letters, but vary based on physical idiosyncrasies, and then come to think of their own handwriting as the way to make letters, such that it spills over into other circumstances.

I always thought it was my utter lack of fine motor skills, as evidenced by my inability to succeed in sewing, woodworking, soldering, drawing and pretty much anything that requires my hands to do what my brain tells them.

The old bugaboo my biological psychology professor would repeat is that whatever part of your body you use to write your signature–dominant hand, nondominant, feet, mouth, butt–it will look more like your signature than like anyone else’s. That isn’t to say a skilled forger couldn’t copy it, but that you’ll naturally attempt–and largely achieve–to sign your name the way you sign it.

From that, I extrapolate that handwriting is largely mental. Of course fine motor skill issues can affect it, but the broad shape, whether loops tend to be closed or doubled, etc is about your mind not your body.

Well, I have a nerve disorder that makes it nearly impossible for me to write with a pen anymore. So for be me, it’s all about the physical.

I learnt to print letters relatively clearly when I was very young, then, when I was learning to write ‘joined-up’ (as my school called it) I crushed my index fingertip in a door hinge, and had the finger immobilised for several months. What I wound up learning for handwriting, working round a bulky splint and bandage, looked a bit like the trail of a spider on speed. It’s barely legible to me, forget anyone else.

My printing still looks normal, and my cursive is still diabolical. I even still hold the pen differently for the two types, switching between the two without consciously realising.

I vote mental.

Handwriting is a very different skill than other hand related skills. I am very good with my hands for most tasks but I have horrible handwriting. I think it is a combination of physical and mental issues.

If you don’t have any physical issues to prevent you from writing correctly then I guess you could say it is just mental. I write very similarly when writing small in the notebook as I do writing large on the blackboard, despite there being very different muscles/movements used. This makes me think it is for a large part a mental skill.

I know there as some people who can also write in very different styles so for them it is definitely a mental skill.

At first blush, Im inclined to think of it mostly as muscle memory based on repeated motor skills. In my case, my penmanship instruction and drill as a child was faulty, and I have been practicing my own mistakes ever since.

As a young stamp collector, often encountering torn envelope corners, I discovered that in each European country, there was great uniformity among writers. Several examples from, say, Denmark, would look like they were all written by the same person, quite different from those of Spain, which in turn would look like they were all of the same hand. Each country drilled pupils in the “correct” form according to the standard of that country.

From my own 1940s recollection, American students were subjected to no such rigidity, and pupils were allowed a relatively free-style penmanship. So they could write pretty much as they chose, and redouble their faults the rest of their lives.;

Not for us! Penmanship was one of our subjects and grades; it had to mimic the alphabet on the wall. I think I could still write that way if I needed to, but normally I write some mix of printing and cursive.

You spent so many minutes a day with a dip nib in a desktop inkwell, but if you slacked off and didn’t get it right, nobody cared. How well you penned was not carried over into the rest of your schoolwork, affecting the overall grade of the slackard.

My dad has beautiful and very distinctive writing which I “inherited.”* Yeah, I know handwriting isn’t genetic but maybe there is something about hand musculature, brain-hand coordination, and ability to imitate writing? OTOH, my siblings have notably horrendous handwriting.

*This sounds braggy, but throughout my life I’ve received compliments from both people who know me and total strangers (bank tellers, DMV clerks, et al).

I think so too. You know those newfangled cellphone-based credit-card processors that folks sometimes bring to your restaurant table these days? The ones where you sign your credit card bill with your finger on the cellphone screen? When I use those, my signature comes out almost exactly like it does if I’m using an ink pen.

Meanwhile, you know those devices in the supermarket checkout lines that have a little rectangular screen and a plastic stylus pen to sign with, but the place where the black path of your signature-in-progress doesn’t quite match up with where the pen stylus is touching? Like they’re always off by 8-20 pixels? When I use those, my signature looks like someone squashed a spider on the screen. That makes me think I’m relying on visual feedback (although I’d probably do a decent job blindfolded — better than when I’m getting confusing visual feedback), and that indicates that I’m carving a preconceived shape with the tip of the pen (or finger).

I think it’s almost certainly both. Fine motor skills are one of the main things we use our brain for, especially when it comes to our hands and fingers. I can perfectly imagine how my fingers would screw a nut onto a bolt, or write my name, or balance a golf ball on the top of a Coke bottle. I suspect I could do those things almost the exact same way after a ten year hiatus. Or even if I lost my right hand and had to learn to do them with my left hand, after the learning phase I’d probably end up doing them in the same “style” I did with my right hand. The same way I could ride a bike after years of not doing it, or when I came back after driving Humvees for a year in Iraq and had zero problems driving my manual transmission Saturn on US highways when I returned.

Those years you drilled in handwriting taught your brain how to do it, and your brain in turn taught your fingers to do it better, but in its own unique way. Which is why there are distinct handwriting styles based on region and teaching method, but nevertheless we each have our own unique spin on whichever style we learned. It’s a whole feedback-controlled brain/finger system. Not one or the other individually.

My Mom’s Mom apparently won prizes for her penmanship, and my Mom’s was beautiful. Even her shopping lists were gorgeous.

Sadly I didn’t inherit it.

If the thing records any recognizable mark, the transaction is accepted. I just make a squiggly line. I could meticulously write out Mickey Mouse in school penmanship or Arabic, it wouldn’t matter.

Handwriting is a learned skill.

The amount of time you spent practicing it (ages 7-9) determines how good or bad it is. Very few adults ever improve their handwriting. It can be done but few people ever make the effort.


Disclaimer, I preferred being outside playing during my early childhood. I didn’t practiced writing daily like I should have.

I’ve been embarrassed by my writing for my entire life. I was a stupid idiot for screwing up in the 2nd and 3rd grade.

I hated cursive capital letters. I always print my capital letter and then use cursive writing to finish the word.

I don’t even remember how to draw most of the cursive capital letters. I haven’t used them in 45 years

Another vote for mental. I once had legible, “correct” cursive writing. It was attractive and readable. I went through a very rough patch mentally and spent a few years putting myself back together. Now I rarely use cursive, favoring block letters which look as if they were drawn by a crack-addled 2nd grader with advanced arthritis. When I do take out the cursive it looks completely different. More like the scrawl on Pink Floyd’s The Wall lyric sheet. I notice my thought mechanics are a lot different as well. Like my handwriting, it’s a lot more rushed and a little sloppy.

That was my experience in the late 40s as well. I had one teacher who could have written those charts, even when writing on the blackboard. She failed me in handwriting. I can write fairly legibly if I take the time, but my normal scribble is pretty bad. I try to write more carefully on a blackboard, although with a lot of abbreviations. But I could never duplicate those wall charts no matter how hard I tried and how much time I took. I cannot draw worth a damn either, so it must be physical, at least partly.