Rocking and Rolling: Understanding the Oval Drill as a Modification of the Push-Pull


In E.C. Mills' Modern Business Penmanship, the plate of introductory movement exercises at first seems unremarkable; like most other texts, it shows a line of push-pulls followed by a line of ovals. There is one sentence that stands out, however, and suggests what I believe to be the key to developing a movement technique that really works for us in our writing.

Mills says, 

“The oval movement is the pulling movement slightly modified. It consists in moving the arm straight in and out of the sleeve, and in rolling the arm on the large muscles near the elbow.” (Plate 4)

As is typical in MBP, however, the explanation is spare, and could easily be passed over as insignificant. The accompanying illustration showing a push-pull transitioning into an oval is instructive, but it too could benefit from some explanation. 

In this lesson I will focus in on Mills’ point about the similarity between the push-pull and the oval gestures and will explore how an understanding of that similarity can help us develop a more effective muscular movement technique.

We will be building intuitively on two crucial concepts from the previous “Foundations of Business Penmanship” lesson, Building the Writing Engine, in which I focused primarily on developing the push-pull.

1) How to drive the pen rhythmically with a free, unimpeded motion.

2) A writing position that allows the rocking motion of the upper arm and the hinge action of the elbow to work in tandem with one other.

Different Shape, Same Engine

(Please note that though I use the common term"oval" to refer to the movement, the form that is produced is, properly, an ellipse, and I refer to it as such.)

Like Mills, I like to think of the push-pull and the oval gestures as variations of the same physical action—like two gears of a single movement "engine."

In simplest terms, the oval movement takes the “rocking” action of the push-pull and adds a small “rolling” component, causing the pen to move from a straight path to an elliptical one. Crucially, the rocking (or as Mills and others at the time refer to it—“moving the arm in and out of the sleeve”) remains as an active component of the oval gesture.

With practice, a seamless transition between the two gestures is possible, and is crucial for the execution of business penmanship—particularly letters like the capital I and J, which consist of a curved upstroke that morphs quickly into a straight downstroke.

Why it Works

In the previous lesson I hinted at this very same concept, using a horizontal oval exercise to demonstrate. You may have already observed intuitively while practicing why it works.

Remember that for this exercise I recommended letting your arm act as much as possible under its own weight—kind of like a pendulum. You are probably familiar with this phenomenon in which a pendulum's oscillation traces an elliptical orbit around its central point of equilibrium. (I'm not ready to explain all the physics behind this, but the analogy itself will suffice for now.)

I think this is such an elegant analogy for illustrating the natural elliptical shapes that can be produced with muscular movement. It explains the push-pull equally as well, though this may seem counterintuitive as we are talking about a series of straight lines, right?

Well, notice what happens at :56...

The orbit of the pendulum has narrowed to a point where the ellipse retraces itself and creates essentially a straight line before quickly opening up again.

You'll find an exercise based on this in most business penmanship manuals. It's one of my favorites—I demonstrated it on Instagram back in 2016.

As the pendulum demonstrates, there is an elliptical path hidden at the top and bottom of the push-pull. These points are not angles, as is apparent at first glance, but small, compressed turns. This is because the motion of the pen is continuous. A full stop would create an angle at a change of direction, whereas a continuous movement results in a turn.


If we were to zoom in and expand the push-pull we would see a long wave shape made up of a repeating compound curve, not an angular “zig-zag” as we might expect. Assuming we are traveling across the page to the right, the pen curves clockwise at the top of this wave and counter-clockwise at the bottom:

N.B. Keep this in mind as you practice the ‘v’ shape: It’s one of the most difficult movements to make but it’s easier if you think of it as a stretched-out push-pull.

N.B. Keep this in mind as you practice the ‘v’ shape: It’s one of the most difficult movements to make but it’s easier if you think of it as a stretched-out push-pull.

When we create the push-pull we are essentially restricting the curving tendency of our muscular movement—limiting the lateral range of the motion to the point where each stroke retraces the previous one and the turns at the top and bottom become imperceptible.

I like to imagine that this restriction of movement creates potential energy that can be used to launch us into the oval shape. If we “release” or “open-up” towards the right at the top or bottom of the gesture (*), we can easily start the pen along the path of a narrow clockwise or counterclockwise ellipse, respectively:


Completing the shape requires little alteration to the push-pull movement—only a conscious effort to maintain the same left-to-right range, while directing the bottom turn to the left (clockwise.)  

Why the Push-Pull First?

You might be wondering why I consider the push-pull and not the oval as the parent movement, if the common denominator between them is a tendency towards a curving/orbital motion. Isn’t the oval the more obvious choice? The reason is simply that an ellipse is a difficult shape to get right. Because it is not a drawn shape, but rather generated as a result of an automatic, continuous movement, the form can only really be manipulated by modifying the action behind it—specifically, these two things I mentioned earlier:

1) Driving the pen rhythmically with a free, unimpeded motion.

2) A writing position that allows the rocking motion of the upper arm and the hinge action of the elbow to work in tandem with one other.

The push-pull is a naturally more forgiving “shape,” and allows us to focus on position, slant, rhythm, and control, without the frustration of trying to make a perfect running oval drill before a secure movement mechanism is developed.

How to Practice

With the exercises shown above, experiment with using the "pendulum effect" to connect the push-pull and oval. As you practice, it is important that you maintain the same DOWN-up, DOWN-up rhythm in both gestures. In other words, a complete revolution should take the same amount of time for each. The rhythm is quite audible in my demonstrations—try using it as a guide. 

Be mindful also of a proper elliptical form. Use the push-pull as a central guideline and open the oval out equally on either side. With practice, this will produce a balanced, symmetrical shape whose axis lies correctly on the main slant.

Take it slow and remember to not “run before you can crawl.” Try a few retraced ovals at a time; stop, evaluate both your movement and the visual result, and try again. Aim to improve one or two things every time you repeat the process.

Also remember that certain problems may be caused by an underlying factor. Inconsistent slant might be a result of your position. Misshapen forms could be a result of uneven rhythm. Making these types of connections and learning how to diagnose your problem areas is the best way to see improvement.

I hope this will be helpful in your practice. If you have questions, please leave a comment or send me an email below. Good luck!


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