Most of us have been writing since childhood.
Most of us don’t remember the day we learned to hold a pen – at least I don’t Holding a pen seems a little like riding a bike, or speaking, or breathing. We just do it. Although we might occasionally ask why we write, I doubt many of us think about how we write.
But for those of us learning and/or using shorthand, how hold a pen might have a major bearing on what we write and, more importantly, how quickly we write shorthand.
Ben Pitman, the brother of Sir Isaac Pitman, knew the how of penmanship was controversial. Nevertheless, he was undeterred from making a suggestion. He said, in his Manual of Phonography: “The learner is advised to hold his (or her-Ed) pen or pencil in the manner usual in writing longhand – between the first and second fingers – unless he (or she-Ed) finds that in so doing, he (or she!) is unable to easily and accurately to write the stroke “t” in an exactly vertical vertical direction.
If after a few days’ practice any difficulty may be found in doing this does not disappear, he may find it of advantage to hold the pen between the first and second fingers, keeping it in place with the thumb.
“Whichever method is adopted, the hand should be supported lightly on the nails of the third and fourth finger and the student should sit squarely in front of the desk or table, steadying his body with the left arm, so that the right arm may be free and unimpeded as the hand glides smoothly from the beginning to the end of each line of writing.
As for his brother, Sir Isaac, well his advice was: “The student should be careful not to hold the pen as for common writing, for this position of the hand is adapted for the formation of letters constructed upon a totally different principle from those of Phonography. The pen should be held loosely in the hand, like a pencil for drawing, with the nib turned in such a manner that the letter “b” can be struck with ease.”
David Wolfe Brown, a famous reporter and shorthand exponent, made some interesting observations about the differences between longhand writing and shorthand writing, an appreciation of which, he believed, was of value to the shorthand exponent.
“In the shorthand writer’s manual discipline the first step is to get rid of certain habits often acquired in longhand, and which, unless corrected, must make high stenographic speed a physical impossibility. It may be desirable, for a time at least, that longhand practice be as far as possible suspended, so that a new set of manual habits may be the more easily acquired.
“One of the habits which shorthand writers need especially to overcome arises from the peculiar slant of the longhand characters. . . As the shorthand characters are written in almost every direction—probably more of them with a backward inclination, or with a horizontal motion, than with a forward slope—thehand and fingers, in being educated for shorthand writing, must be emancipated from the fixed position to which they have been accustomed in longhand.
“From these extracts it will be seen that, instead of previous experience and training in the writing of longhand being regarded as an advantage to the student of geometric shorthand, it is declared by these high authorities to be an obstacle. To do good work in geometric shorthand the student is told that he must “get rid of certain habits acquired in longhand,” and his “hand and fingers must be emancipated from the position to which they have been accustomed in longhand.”
Perhaps. But everybody holds a pen in a slightly different way. Our physiologies are different, meaning some muscles will be stronger and more toned than others. So there may not be a one size fits all solution. We will each have our own “best way” rather than there being a best way per se.
Modern shorthand teachers rarely focus a great deal on how we hold our pens. They do, however, suggest we abide by a loose set of guidelines.
One generally accepted piece of advice, is to hold a pen in such a way that it moves freely in any direction (this would tend to preclude the “hook” style of holding a pen).
This freedom of movement is just as important when it comes to how we hold the pen. The Nation Council for the Training of Journalists, for example recommends students, “Hold the pen or pencil lightly and do not press on the paper – gripping your pen hinders speed development. If you are doing it correctly, it should almost seem like you are “doodling”.
This is undoubtedly good advice. Holding the pen too tightly not only leads to tension (muscles opposing each other) it will hinder speed, because muscles move more freely when relaxed, it will bring on fatigue more rapidly and, if the pen is subsequently pressed too heavily onto the paper, speed will further be reduced because of increased pen/paper friction.