Anatomy of the Writing Engine: How Muscular Movement Actually Works


Muscular Movement: it's arguably the most essential skill of a good business penman. It is the engine that powers smooth, continuous, effortless writing. Although nearly every penmanship manual discusses it to a greater or lesser extent, I have found it surprisingly difficult to find a satisfying explanation of how and why the technique actually works.

Even A.N. Palmer's lengthy definition is a bit vague:

"Muscular movement, as applied to writing, is the movement of the muscles of the arm from the shoulder to the wrist, with the larger part of the arm below the elbow on the desk, the fingers not being held rigid, but remaining passive, and neither extended nor contracted in the formation of letters. In this movement the driving power is located above the elbow in the upper muscles of the arm." (The Palmer Method of Business Writing, p. 11)

Here is my own attempt at a technical, but more precise definition:

Muscular movement is a mechanism for writing consisting of two physical actions—a rolling motion of the upper arm from the shoulder, and a lateral motion of the forearm from the elbow—operating in combination, with the forearm resting on the desk, acting as a pivot.

To put it more simply, it looks like this:

So why is muscular movement so important? The basic idea behind arm movement writing is that by training large muscles to make comparatively small gestures, a penman will ultimately be able to write relatively rapidly for long periods of time without tiring. Arm movement is also crucial for producing rhythmic, evenly-spaced strokes, but we'll get to that later...

How it Works

The following series of videos is intended more as a demonstration of how the shoulder and elbow joints work together in this technique, rather than as a comprehensive lesson on how to practice it (though that may come in future posts.) Certainly, there are as many ways to go about acquiring a good muscular movement as there are individual penmen, and this is just one example. (Please note that this is a right-hander's perspective!)

Starting Out

Begin by finding your position at the desk. I will avoid going into too much detail here as there are superior explanations of this in most business penmanship manuals. I highly recommend F.W. Tamblyn's Home Instructor in Penmanship (p. 9) 

Here are a few basic things I find helpful to remember when beginning a writing session:

1) Sit with your body parallel to the desk.

2) Rest both arms naturally on the desk so they form an approximate right angle with each other.

3) Keep both elbows off the edge of the desk. 

4) Angle your paper slightly to the left—this will help with writing across the page and maintaining your slant.

Writing position_wide.png
Writing position_close.PNG

I will save the topic of pen-hold for another post! I will say, however, that the movement technique demonstrated here was intended to work with the "knuckles-up" pen-hold described in penmanship texts of the day.

Ok, time to start writing!

The Forearm Hinge

With the pen on the paper, let your forearm swing back and forth from the elbow. Because of the relative paper angle, the strokes produced will be at a shallow upward angle from the baseline. This is the lateral component of muscular movement that allows us to produce connective strokes and glide unencumbered across the page.

Creating the Composite Movement

Beginning again with the lateral forearm movement, make an upward curve from the baseline. As the angle of the curve increases, notice how the movement naturally transitions to a forward-back motion of the upper arm from the shoulder, while still retaining a slight extension/retraction of the elbow hinge.

The Push-Pull and Oval

The very top portion of this curve lies along the writing slant. This is where the primary "engine" of muscular movement writing is engaged. In this zone, the upper arm is rocking forward and back, pivoting on the large muscle of the forearm. The rocking motion moves the pen straight up and down on the page while the elbow hinge provides just enough lateral motion to keep the pen tracing on the slant. This gesture is what we often refer to as the "push-pull." 

Notice that as I transition from the push-pull to an oval, the rocking of the upper arm very subtly expands to a rolling motion. I find it helpful to think of both the push-pull and oval as being of essentially the same movement. The seamless transition between the two gestures is what allows us to execute fluid business penmanship.


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