Building the Writing Engine: Simple Movement Exercises for Developing Strength, Rhythm, and Control


If your first experiences with muscular movement writing were anything like mine, your early practice sessions might have looked a little something like this:

Following the advice of almost any historical penmanship method book, after first securing the recommended pen-hold and position at the desk, you then jumped in earnestly with lines and lines of mis-matched ovals and haphazard push-pulls. Despite the struggle, you persevered, encouraged by the author’s assurance that your first awkward attempts at the exercises would improve with repetition, and eventually yield something as inhuman-looking as this:

Canan ovals.png

Though I didn’t realize it then, learning in this manner is a bit like trying to run before you can crawl. Certainly, the oval and push-pull, being the two foundational gestures of business penmanship, must eventually be mastered, but they are not exactly beginner-friendly. These two exercises are actually quite complex by nature of their interdependence with a number of variables like arm position, paper slant, pen-hold, etc. They also demand a good deal of power and control. To achieve a consistency of form and slant requires more than just endless repetition. Over time, as I experimented with new approaches to practicing, I began to consider more efficient and effective ways of developing muscular movement.

When learning any new physical skill, whether that be a sport, dance, fitness, or a musical instrument, we obtain the best results by first practicing the most basic of movements, and gradually building up to performing more complex maneuvers. This same process applies to movement-based penmanship. In this and subsequent lessons we will treat the push-pull and the oval as the goal, rather than the starting point of our practice, using a number of simple introductory exercises to develop our “writing engine” in stages, while cumulatively building in the strength, rhythm, and control we need to progress further.

A Note About Rhythm

We can’t begin this lesson without first discussing rhythm. It is a crucial component of arm movement-based penmanship and is the key to achieving consistency and continuity in our movement, and subsequently, in our script. 

Until recently, I considered rhythm to be too advanced of a topic for a series focused on the fundamentals of business writing. The more I delved back into the basics, however, the more I realized how integral an understanding of rhythm is to writing, and how necessary it is to incorporate it into our practice from the beginning. While rhythm certainly has advanced applications, in its most basic form it is actually quite simple.

So what exactly is it?

The word itself appears in countless penmanship and calligraphy texts, and pops up frequently in forum discussions, but it often seems that everyone has a different idea of what it means. It would be wrong of me to say that one definition or interpretation of rhythm is more correct than another; after all, the concept itself (essentially musical) in the context of penmanship is an inherently abstract, and therefore subjective one. For the purposes of these lessons, however, I have defined a very specific application of rhythm to the training of muscular movement writing, and I will attempt to explain it here.

I think that the word rhythm is sometimes overgeneralized and used to refer to what are essentially consequences of ductus—how individual strokes are combined, where pauses or pen lifts are made, changes in the speed of the movement, etc. Certainly, many of these interpretations are valid. In a way, it makes a great deal of sense why we might use the word rhythm in this context, as we are speaking of repetitive patterns and sequences of strokes. But rhythm can also describe something much more specific—and simple. To understand what I mean, let’s take a look back at the push-pull movement that I analyzed in my post “Anatomy of the Writing Engine.”

The push-pull is a superb exercise for both observing the phenomenon of rhythm, and understanding its integral function in movement writing technique. There are two reasons for this:

1) It involves a continuous, regularly repeating movement.

2) It is the purest application of the composite forearm + upper arm mechanism—what I have called the “engine of muscular movement.”

Observe in the following video how the rocking motion of the arm is nothing more than a regularly repeating alternation of a forward-back movement against the desk, executed at a constant rate or tempo.

Think of rhythm as simply the natural pulsation that results from this movement. We could transcribe it like this:

PULL-push PULL-push PULL-push PULL-push… OR

Any subsequent variations, such as patterns that include pauses, lifts, subtle changes in speed, etc.,* all stem from this basic binary pattern. 

*See excellent demonstrations
of some of these rhythmic variations, by Marcus Carlini, here.

You may naturally feel the first stroke of each individual rhythmic unit (represented in CAPS) as being the more accented of the pair. In practice, this accent is purely the result of how the brain “hears” and organizes the repetitive movements; it does not result in one stroke being heavier that the other.

It is also possible (and often helpful) to organize the rhythmic units beginning on the upstrokes, which would in turn receive the imagined emphasis:

UP-down UP-down UP-down UP-down... 

Now let’s see how this works in practice with our first movement exercise.

Exercise 1: The Forearm Sweep

The first exercise is a simple horizontal line—a sweep across the baseline made using the forearm hinge. It can be found in a number of business penmanship instructors. Before beginning, note my position and paper angle—I am sitting parallel to the desk, my arms at an approximate right angle to each other, with both elbows just off the edge of the desk. My paper is angled slightly to the left:

Writing position close_2.png

Though the movement is from side-to-side, not forward-back like the push-pull, the same rhythmic principle from above applies. We alternate right and left repeatedly, maintaining a constant tempo without any pauses in the movement.

Retrace the line, making 8 complete back-and-forth strokes, counting:

1-and 2-and 3-and 4-and 5-and 6-and 7-and 8-and

Practice the pattern beginning from both directions (RIGHT-left RIGHT-left/LEFT-right-LEFT-right.)

Focus on the following:

1) A continuous motion and an even rhythm.

2) A swift, vigorous movement.

3) Keeping the shoulder/arm/elbow mechanism loose. Even though the motion is coming primarily from the forearm, the muscles in the upper arm, chest, shoulder, etc. are providing the power, and must be allowed to act freely.

4) A light touch. Support the weight of the arm on the first joint of the pinky and allow the pen to glide on the paper.

Variation 1:

Now try the same exercise alternating 4 retraces with 4 “ghost” strokes. The motion remains continuous, except that the pen is lifted off the paper every 4 counts. This variation is a great way to develop precise control of where and when a stroke begins, and develops a habit of maintaining a continuous rhythm between strokes. It has many applications that we will explore in future lessons. Note that this exercise begins with 4 ghost strokes (shown in parentheses.)


(1-and 2-and 3-and 4-and1-and 2-and 3-and 4-and (1-and 2-and 3-and 4-and)…etc.

Variation 2:

This is similar to Variation 1 except we begin a new line of retraces after each set of ghosts. 

Try reducing the number of transition strokes from 4 down to 0. See how precisely you can place each new line. 

Variation 3:

In this variation we ghost every other stroke. In effect you are making single lines in one direction, but maintaining the alternating left-right rhythm. Nothing should change in your movement here; the pen is simply not in contact with the paper on the “and.” This technique of ending a stroke without stopping the pen has applications in how we employ pen lifts effectively in our script. Try both directions, counting:

1-(and) 2-(and) 3-(and) 4-(and)

Exercise 2: The Forearm Sweep, extended

This is one of my favorite warmups. I love how freeing it feels—as if my arm is swinging under it’s own momentum. The idea behind it is that the retraced horizontal line acts as a “wind-up” to a narrow horizontal oval, which begins forming with an almost imperceptible “opening-up” of the side-to-side movement.

Be sure to let your entire arm get involved in the movement. When the arm and shoulder mechanism is kept loose, the weight of the arm creates a natural momentum that helps drive the pen across the page.

When you feel that the transition from the line to the oval is smooth, experiment with opening up a little wider while maintaining a constant tempo. Pay attention to what new muscle groups are engaged when you do this.

Exercise 3: Finding the position for the push-pull

This is a variation of an exercise on p. 11 of H.P. Behrensmeyer’s Lessons in Practical Penmanship. Behrensmeyer’s original exercise (below) is great for building strength. I demonstrate it at the beginning of the following clip. Practice this several times first:

behrensmeyer arcs.png

My version uses the under-arc specifically to transition to a comfortable position for the push-pull. The importance of a good starting position cannot be overstated, though it will be slightly different for everyone. The efficiency of this movement relies heavily on the relative angles and positions of the arm, pen, paper, and your body at the desk, as well as the interaction between the shoulder and elbow hinges, each of which produces a different directional component of the movement. (See the post “Anatomy of the Writing Engine” for my explanation of this.)

This exercise is designed to help you find the position where both the upper arm (shoulder hinge) and forearm (elbow hinge) are engaged, and the relative arm and paper positions are such that the pen pulls naturally toward the center of the body, along the writing slant. 

I like to think of this exercise in three steps:

1) “dip” (trace the under-arc.)

2) “swing out” (push arc out along main slant, engaging the upper arm and extending the forearm hinge.)

3) “retrace” (from the extended position, begin the push-pull.)

Take particular note of the second half of the video, where you can better see the position of my arm relative to the paper. The critical factor here is the swing out to the right, which helps establish the proper amount of engagement of the forearm. Remember that we want to utilize the flexibility and the lateral range of the forearm hinge to help drive the pen forward and along the slant, but not so much that we actually pull the stroke with the forearm. The slightly extended position ensures that the pull towards the center of the body is made primarily via the upper arm, powered by shoulder, chest, and back muscles above it. *Notice that the tempo of my push-pull is about as twice as fast as the arc. Try to keep yours like this as well.

This has been only a small sample of the exercises we can use to train a strong, rhythmic, and reliable muscular movement. Leave a comment and share your own favorite movement exercises and drills! Movement training is all about getting creative and experimenting with what helps you, as I have done here. Now to get back to practicing…


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