SitRep: Two Months of Handwriting Practice

A little more than two months ago I began working towards acquiring the skills of a Graphic Recorder. That’s a big project; it’s both internalizing principles and strategies as well as actual physical practice of the craft.

I do say “craft” rather than “art” because one of the principles is “Ideas, not art.” There’s also a lot of pushback in our culture about being an artist (my own mother, upon taking a look at my Instagram feed, called me with a worried tone “Are you…becoming…an artist or something? 

But more to the point, a Graphic Recorder’s job is to help others recall and understand information, usually that they’ve already received in one format such as text or voice. When I did a skills assessment at the start of this project I took a look at past flip charts I’d used in my public speaking, and recognized something very obvious.

My handwriting sucked. It was hard to read, was full of misspellings, and had no real consistency much less visual heirarchy, and it was a shortcoming that stretched beyond the flip charts into my own journals and sketch notes.

Jumping in the Deep End

Luckily, handwriting is both something that you can improve as well as something that you can measure. I began looking around for instructional treatises on handwriting, especially as it applied to graphic recording, and was quickly drawn to the work of Heather Martinez. Aside from a wealth of free video and online content, she also had a course online of “Lettering with the Masters” which looked like exactly what I needed: direct training from people who were graphic recorders, people whose work I already admired (like Mike Rohde).

Have you spotted the flaw in my plan?

I didn’t, until Heather herself pointed it out to me in the 1:1 lettering session she provided gratis to help me with the natural disadvantage of being a left-handed letterer. “You really jumped in the deep end,” she said. “This was a course designed for hand letterers who had already done it all and were looking for something different. It’s called Lettering with the Masters, after all…

Yep. I’d been struggling with hands (you might want to call them fonts, but you shouldn’t, because that’s what machines use) and cursing myself for a lack of progress, when the whole time it was like being frustrated at being on a football team when you hadn’t really ever played or watched the game before.  

(I’ve had that experience, too, by the way. Why do I keep finding myself in these situations?)

Here’s the other thing about it, though: when I was practicing the lettering, or learning about the hands and the strokes and such, I was almost immediately in a state of Flow. Doing this stuff totally engages me, in a way that very few other things ever have. And looking at my past notes from the decades, even during the Marines or High School, I’ve always been drawn to this.

So I Quit My Job to Follow My Passion…


Nope, in fact, I didn’t even do what I would have told anyone else to do, namely: Set up a time every day where you can practice, and a different time when you can learn more about it. Enjoy the process of learning, the gradual improvement from regular practice, and leave the product to itself.”

That’s not to say I haven’t practiced. I’ve spent hours with brush pens and papers learning new fun words like majuscule and exemplar and tittle. I’ve learned pangrams – phrases containing every word in the alphabet – to practice with, as it’s better to write the letters as they will be used rather than in rote repetition. “Waltz, bad nymphs, for slow jigs vex” is one of my favorites, though there are times when I’m in more of a “Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs” kind of mood.

It has not, however, been a consistent practice.  This is not so much a “here’s how you do it” post as a “Here’s how I’ve been doing it, and what I think I could have done better” post. 

Despite Self Sabotage

I could hold up something like “I’ve been traveling a lot” as a contributing factor to my lack of a consistent practice, but if I were being honest it has more to do with that whole process – product dichotomy. When I’m spending time practicing a hand, it feels great – and that must mean that it’s play, right? And therefore it’s not work, and therefore not profitable, and I’m still in the freelance/entrepreneurial world so that means I gotta hustle 24/7, and if I’m not being productive I’m losing cash and going to end up a failure and a shame in the eyes of my family and loved ones…

OK, so maybe the brain goes a little overboard. But you get the idea – any time I am practicing it feels like I am wasting time that should be spent whittling away at the ever-increasing to-do list. 

It feels that way. It’s not really that way, of course. Because here’s the thing: in spite of that particular self-sabotaging voice trying to draw me away from the practice, my handwriting is getting better.

Comparing where I was two months ago to where I am now is almost like night and day. I recently spent two days as an impromptu graphic recorder for a movement workshop I was assisting with, and again, it was like jumping in the deep end (turns out that drawing knots and rigging in specific detail is a pretty challenging thing) but I did it. And at the end, I got the reward that every G.R. hopes for: people stuck around to take pictures of the posters so they could remember things better later.

It’s a happy milestone in my process, and it’s a reminder: if I can get this good with intermittent practice, how good could I be with a deliberate practice?

I think we should find out. I’ll keep you posted, in another two months. In the meantime: what could you be practicing?

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