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Penmanship & Calligraphy: Where it all Started & Where it is Today

17 Nov

Penmanship & Calligraphy Series by Cole Imperi on
This post is not meant to be an in-depth look at the history of penmanship or calligraphy by any means, but it is meant to provide a little insight and maybe a new perspective.

At the root, writing is a way to both preserve and mark. It exists because humans communicate and writing is just one form of communication. We communicate all kinds of things through writing: things like recipes, an address, or notes in our kid’s lunch boxes. Because of writing, we have ancient texts like the Bible or the Rig Veda, for example. We have maps that show us names of places long gone and love letters and family trees. Hundreds of languages and dozens of alphabets exist. Communicating via the written word is rich and diverse and always has been.

To understand the actual act of writing, we need to be familiar with the tools: the 26 letters within the English alphabet. Did you know we have four cases that are taught in most schools here in the US today? We don’t even notice, but many people who have English as a second language definitely do notice. We have:

  • Capital print
  • Lowercase print
  • Capital cursive
  • Lowercase cursive

Granted, many of the letters (like ‘O’ for example) don’t have much variation between the cases, but some truly do (like Z or Q). By comparison, Hebrew has two cases, a print and a cursive. There is no capital/lowercase. Most languages use multiple cases and the purpose is generally to provide more clarity in writing and reading. Unicase refers to languages, like Hebrew, that don’t make a distinction between upper and lowercase. Arabic is also like this. (You can read up on letter case on Wikipedia and capitalization on’s Hot Word for more details we won’t go into here.)

Humans have been embellishing letterforms about as long as we’ve had them. In fact, initial forms of writing began with pictures (called ‘pictograms’). Pictograms turned into ideograms (A sun symbol might mean sun, but also day). Phonograms came next (symbols representing sound) and we made the jump from inscriptions on cave walls to stone, clay or wood. With the development of the reed brush, we made the jump to writing on papyrus, wax tablets, and animal skin. Fast forward through the last millennia and our alphabets developed quickly. Punctuation and spacing were added in as well as grammar rules. All the while, we kept extra embellishments in tow, whether that was images accompanying text or beautifully illuminated drop caps.

Sennelier Calligraphy Pad on

Sennelier Calligraphy Pad; specifically designed for calligraphers.

In the 20th century, shorthand was taught in school and in places like Secretarial college. (In high schools across the US, it was basically replaced with typing classes.) Writing shorthand is called stenography. It’s an abbreviated way of writing and it lets you write as fast as people speak. This has mostly disappeared today due to computers; however, it can be argued that texting has appeared as a new incarnation of shorthand.

Looking at things from a broad perspective, really not much has changed. Writing styles are still evolving (hello graffiti) and we still use different styles of writing for different purposes (like calling up Edwardian Script in Microsoft Word for party invitations or writing in large capital letters on your ‘GARAGE SALE’ sign). There are still people who have a career in penmanship (hello calligraphers) and exquisite writing is still highly prized.

I’d like to make the argument that we are pretty much in the same exact spot we’ve always been, it’s just we have new applications and tools. We have text messaging, email, thousands of typefaces to choose from, graphic design, and a multitude of other bits and bobs.

And we still have those brushes, pencils and ink, just like we always have.


Meet the Writer: Cole Imperi is a business owner and a proponent of the handwritten word. When not at Doth Brands, a Branding & Identity firm catering to the health, wellness & deathcare professions where Cole works as Owner and Creative Director, you might find her on her yoga mat teaching yoga or behind a laptop writing for Simplicity Embellished, a letter-writing and lifestyle blog.


Editor’s Note: This is Article #2 in a series of 6 on the topic of penmanship & calligraphy by Cole Imperi. Read the other article here:

Article #1Where to Start


Penmanship & Calligraphy: Where to Start

3 Nov

Penmanship & Calligraphy Series by Cole Imperi on
Have you ever gotten a note from someone who was both thoughtful and handwritten? I know I have, and I probably saved every single one. No matter the handwriting, whether big and loopy or small and abrupt, the handwriting is unique to the person writing. It’s a lot like a fingerprint.

If you’re at a spot in your life where you might want to work on your penmanship a bit, then you are in the right place. Or maybe, you just want to do justice to your nice pens and paper. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to talk about penmanship and calligraphy. And this first post? It’s all about where to start.

Where to Start

What is the difference between penmanship and calligraphy? Penmanship is your specific and unique style of writing. Calligraphy is taking a particular style of writing and basing your strokes directly off of that. It’s that simple.

So to start, we’ll focus on penmanship. Know that you have a unique style of writing and the purpose of working on your penmanship is not to erase that uniqueness, but perhaps just to work the craft a bit more. Spending time on your penmanship results in a style of handwriting that is even more uniquely you—it’s just polished. Think of some of the great painters. They all had a unique way of working with their paintbrushes and paint. They all spent time on their craft. They all had a very distinctive style that was all their own.

You’re all great painters; you just haven’t worked on your craft enough. But the goal of penmanship is not to copy someone else’s style—it is to refine your own.

What Tools Do I Need?

You’ll need a pen and some paper. And no, you don’t have to use a calligraphy-specific pen, any pen will do. I keep plain white notecards and envelopes in my desk drawer at all times for basic correspondence. I also love Rhodia’s Dot Notepads for writing little bits and bobs and for practice. My favorite journal paper can be found in the Moleskine Volants. I love this paper with ballpoints, fountain pens, and pencils equally.

Does the Type of Pen Matter? Does the Type of Paper Matter?

A random piece of my handwriting to analyze the penmanship.

The answer is both yes and no. Personally, when I write something important, I use ‘important’ tools. I pick up a fountain pen rather than a cheap plastic ballpoint pen. There are a few reasons for this, the most important being that a nicer pen will generate a better flow of ink and can show more variation in your strokes. If you write with a ballpoint, the intricacies and nuances of your natural handwriting very often become lost. The same is true for paper. If you are using standard computer paper, you are more likely to run into problems (like tears, bleeding ink, and smudges). Nicer paper is actually designed to hold ink and deal with the point of the pen scratching the surface of the paper.

Finally, it is good practice to find some of your recent handwriting and take an extra minute to notice the details. For me, it’s a to-do list I made last week (pictured). This is my writing in its natural state, written just for me. I will take a look at this and look at some of the letters I naturally (and therefore comfortably) tend to embellish a little. This is what you should do with your writing. Look at your tendencies.

Next time, we’re going to talk more about penmanship and calligraphy from a historical standpoint and where it stands today.


Meet the WriterCole Imperi is a business owner and a proponent of the handwritten word. When not at Doth Brands, a Branding & Identity firm catering to the health, wellness & deathcare professions where Cole works as Owner and Creative Director, you might find her on her yoga mat teaching yoga or behind a laptop writing for Simplicity Embellished, a letter-writing and lifestyle blog.