10 tips on deciphering old handwriting

10 tips on deciphering old handwriting

A trunk of old letters. A pile of postcards tied with string. A paper copy of the will of an ancestor. All can be fantastic primary research or a font of ideas for stories—if you could only read them!

Reading old handwriting on historic documents can be difficult. Just as in modern times, penmanship skills were often poor, or more likely, the script, language and abbreviations used are unfamiliar.

Here are ten tips to help with old documents written in English:

1. Create a clear working copy

To make things easier for you and to minimize any damage to the original document, scan or photograph the original to make a working copy. With all the digital advances at our disposal these days, adjust brightness, deepen colour for faded ink, and zoom in.

2. Identify the historical period.

A quick look at the array of fonts available shows how different the same words can look when written in different styles. Different periods in history had distinct styles and if you can pinpoint the century, you can then focus on that style. You’ll come across old conventions like the “long s” or the old Anglo-Saxon letter thorn, “þ”. pronounced “th” which became a “y” and shows up in words like Ye (The).Below is a visual sampling of scripts used from the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries (photos from www.ancestry.com/) For even earlier scripts the University of Nottingham has a wonderful section on reading old manuscripts.

16th Century – Chancery Script
17th Century – Italic Script
18th Century – Secretary Script
19th Century – Round Hand

3. Print an alphabet sheet

Once you’ve identified the right century, (see tip #2) Google image search and print a reference sheet of the alphabet in typical scripts of the period. “19th century handwriting alphabet” produced this result:

4. Do an initial read through

Read through the whole document (out loud if possible) to get a “feel” for the document in its entirety. Even if you stumble over more words than you decipher, your eyes and ears will start to get familiar with the handwriting, and you will begin to recognize some words. Do it again. And again.

5. Think Phonetically

Spellings, punctuation and capitalizations weren’t standardized until well into the 19th century. Many people couldn’t read or write and scribes or officials wrote what they heard. People’s names and place names in particular can have a wide variety of spellings, even on the same page. Patterns of speech and local dialects would have affected what scribes heard. So, for example, if it’s a Scottish document, “William” may be written “Weelum”; “hundred” may be written “hunnert” and “more” might be “mair”. That’s where reading aloud helps too. (see tip #4)

6. Be aware of abbreviations, short forms and jargon

Every profession and era has its own abbreviations, short forms and jargon. A letter in your grandmother’s time might have said “Thank you for your letter of the 14th inst.”(this month) An email message today might end with “TTYL” or “Thx”. Take time to research the meaning of any unknown abbreviations you come across. A few examples:

  • et al = and others
  • wit = witness
  • do = same
  • w/o = wife of

7. Name shortforms and nicknames

The trend in prior times to use nicknames and to abbreviate names when writing them, while annoying, can be helpful because the short forms are easily recognizable and having deciphered them, it will help with further identification of letters.

Here are two resources to help you:

8. Start with what you can read.

Be a word detective. Remember the movie The Imitation Game about the enigma machine? They broke the code when they realized that the German messages always contained a salute to Hitler, so that gave them 6 deciphered letters to begin with. Use the same idea of beginning with what you can decipher and building on it.

So, if you are reading a will, look for words or phrases that you would expect to be there: “last will and testament” “bequeath” “my wife” my eldest son” “property”. Check the address on letters for familiar place names; look at salutations and sign offs. Words like days of the week, months and seasons or even simple ones like “the” and “and” give you a starting point to see how the writer formed lower case vowels or certain capital letters. Then compare them to your alphabet charts (see tip #3) and other words in the document.

9. Fill in the blanks

Write out the text leaving placeholder blanks for words you can’t read. Then in each blank space put dashes for the number of letters in the unknown words. (Example: “_ _ _ _ _ _”) Next, based on your comparison of known words and letter formations in the document and your reference style sheets, work on filling in partial words based purely on the formation of letters. (Example: “_ _ _ ish”) A hint to help here is knowing that where a letter begins the ink is often thicker and the direction it thins is the direction it was formed. Work on long words first, as having many letters gives more clues to completing the word.

10. Get help from social media.

Genealogy groups on Facebook can be most helpful with reading old scripts. Post a good quality image of the section you want help with and put your incomplete transcript in the message section (see tip #9). Note that having an image of a good chunk to work with is more effective than posting a picture of just a few words, because, like you, your helpers will need context. Don’t forget to say please and thank you, and to limit your ask and expectations. Asking for translation of a highlighted sentence with three important missing words is more likely to get assistance than asking for a full-page translation.

Handwriting vs. Keyboarding

Handwriting vs. Keyboarding

Gwynn Scheltema

Often among writers, the recurrent discussion over plotting versus pantsing ends with us acknowledging that there is no definitive “winner.” The creative mind, after all, is an elusive, complicated, temperamental entity.

So what about the question: Write by hand or keyboard?

 I’m sure you’ve heard these common arguments for or against:

  • I can’t write as fast as I think!
  • I love the tactile feel of a pen and paper.
  • It’s much easier to carry a notebook with me.
  • I can’t read my own handwriting.
  • I have to waste time typing up what I’ve written afterwards.          

It is already a proven fact that taking notes by hand improves learning, understanding and processing information, and remembering it afterwards. It’s also obvious that our writing needs to be typed up at some point and many of us are faster on the keyboard. We can also edit typed text more readily and send it out.

But, I know for myself, I feel differently when I’m holding a pen. I believe I’m more connected to the work and I feel like I write more authentically. So is there evidence that this could be true? Can our choice of writing implement affect how we create?

My Experience

I’ve been a creative writer for almost thirty years and I write both ways— but I always create in the same patterns:

I always compose poetry longhand,  I do free writing by hand, and I begin fiction pieces longhand.

I prefer to type when I’m working from an outline or extending something that’s well underway. I also find it easier to write genre fiction on the computer than memoir or literary fiction. I always type business writing directly into the computer.

So pulling back and analyzing this, it seems that I choose longhand for projects where I must delve deeply into my creative well and find ideas and get the juices flowing.  I also use it to access memory and emotion. Once I have the ideas in my head, I revert to the keyboard to get the work done. And as business writing for me is largely formulaic, it’s always a case of “getting the work done”.

Could my choices be based in science?


We’ve all heard about writing being cathartic, relieving stress and helping diminish trauma. This is one of the great benefits of journalling. And there’s evidence that handwriting may be better for this form of therapy than typing:

Virginia Berninger at the University of Washington concluded from her studies: “When we write a letter of the alphabet, we form it component-stroke by component-stroke, and that process of production involves pathways in the brain that go near or through parts that manage emotion.”

Another 2005 study by Chris R Brewin and Hayley Lennard in the Journal of Traumatic Stress found that writing about a stressful life experience by hand, instead of typing it, led to higher levels of self-disclosure and a greater variety of words used to describe the experience.

Perhaps the emotional component in my poetry. freefall writing and non-genre writing is the reason I prefer to write them longhand?

Motor activity and focus

When we write, we are finding, formulating and externally processing our thoughts, all at the same time.

In the words of neuroscientists, writing is a complicated combination of perception, motor commands and kinesthetic feedback. Writing by hand is a two-way street, an inter-dependency, with the visual focus at the point of the pen.

Typing, by contrast, is a physically disembodied action, we’re focussing only on the screen. There’s no physical two-way communication.

“The primary advantage of longhand is that it slows people down,” says Daniel Oppenheimer, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

That makes sense for my process: The beginning stages of telling my story need to be handwritten. Slowing down gives me more opportunity to access thought and formulate it before communicating it. The kinesthetic process lets me feel more connected. I’m also free to scribble notes, make diagrams, shove in arrows or circle important matter. I’m dealing with an unformed creation and have the freedom to let it speak through me, before it is locked into formal text.

Once the ideas are formed, then typing can take over: faster, more convenient and easily manipulated.

So, handwriting or typing?

As I said at the start, there is no one answer. It’s all up to you. But perhaps knowing a smidgen of the science behind it, you can tailor your own choices.

Or perhaps technology will solve the problem for us with the new wave of e-writers: write by hand and convert to text.

Last word (or video?)

Jake Weidmann is one of only 12 people in the world who holds the title of Master Penman. He sees handwriting as a creative art form in itself and a direct link to his creative mind.