Experiment 1: The Letter M
Let's start with the basics, shall we?
One of my most vivid memories of elementary school involves a discussion with my third-grade teacher. I had just been sent to the hallway. And not because I was in trouble, but because I was crying. Even more embarrassing? The reason for the crying.
My dissatisfaction with one measly "S-" on my report card.
The subject area?
I distinctly remember she told me intelligent individuals had horrible handwriting. It was nothing to be concerned about. I would probably end up being a doctor someday, and poor penmanship was part of the job description.
In fact, I didn't turn out to be a doctor. Instead, I joined the one profession of people whom particularly wish that doctors would invest more time honing the craft of letter forms. These days I am a pharmacist, and for all the frustration trying to read messy handwriting, you might think mine has improved over the years.
Truth be told, it hasn't. I could blame it on my quick whit or fast-moving thoughts or busyness. I could even defend myself by saying that at least I, myself, can read it. (Sadly, that's only true about half the time anyway!)
But in reality, it's just not something that I have taken the time to care about, practice, or improve.
But ever since I started getting into pens, and more specifically fountain pens, I have been spending a lot more time writing. As I've spent more time writing, I've been thinking more about my handwriting. I've started caring more about my handwriting. I've even noticed some improvements. So I began to wonder how I could start to improve intentionally. The thought process continued when I listened to the Pen Addict Podcast Episode 136 (https://www.relay.fm/penaddict/136) which is one of the episodes where Myke and Brad spend some time giving advice on how to improve handwriting.
Then I ran across an article full of writing resources and a fantastic TED talk about the importance of handwriting. (http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/quickly-improve-handwriting-fantastic-resources/).
The best way to improve any skill clearly involves practice. In a very popular book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that becoming "world class" in anything usually requires about 10,000 hours of practice. While this number is aspirational, it certainly has its skeptics. Interestingly, this conclusion is based on the work of scientist Anders Ericsson, who adamantly disagrees with the conclusion that Gladwell attributed to his work. For more on this, I highly suggest listening to an interview with Ericsson on the podcast Inquiring Minds: (https://soundcloud.com/inquiringminds/134-anders-ericsson-how-to-do-everything-better). Ericsson argues that his work is less about the amount of practice, and more about the quality of that practice. He calls this type of practice, deliberate practice. (Note: I consider both Gladwell's book Outliers and Ericsson's book Peak well worth the time to the read.)
With all these big thoughts in mind, I turned back to my little handwriting problem. Although only spending time writing was producing some improvement, being more deliberate about improving would likely be even more efficient. Based on the science of improvement, both focus and feedback are important to improve. So I decided to start by concentrating with one single letter. I landed on the letter M after analyzing some of my more sloppy handwriting samples. I noticed that my M's were particularly disheveled, and potentially had the most room for improvement.
After choosing the letter, I started analyzing different handwriting to find M's that I liked. Comparing my handwriting and practice to a standard seemed like an easy way to incorporate some intentional feedback into my practice.
I spent several days writing M's. Before moving onto the next block of M's, I analyzed the previous one to see what errors were still present. I looked back at the original handwriting I was trying to replicate.
I still have ways to go to achieve the perfect M, but I have noticed that even in my everyday handwriting where I am writing more quickly, M's look a little less sloppy. I've also found that the seemingly trivial task of repeatedly writing M on a page is both relaxing and empowering.
Sometimes the smallest of changes are the ones that inspire you to tackle the monumental changes in life.
I think it's time to choose another letter.