Let’s step into the shoes of an assessor for a moment. It’s exam-marking time, and you’ve got a deadline to make. Piles of essays (or rather, digital folders full of scans of piles of essays) await your judgment. You’ve already done a hundred and you’ve barely made a dent. You’re cranky because you lost your car keys yesterday, and you stubbed your toe on the coffee table this morning. When you finally sit down to mark the next bundle, you see the page is full of handwriting so bad, it looks like hieroglyphs. It’s barely legible, and it’s taking you a full minute to decipher each line.

Be honest, how much would you rather ditch that essay and just watch TV instead? How tempting is it to just give that one a standard 5/10 and call it a night? How committed are you actually going to be to understanding whatever that essay is trying to say?


On the flip side, let’s say you open up the next file, and the handwriting is so clear that you barely have to put any effort into reading it. The words flow as smoothly to your mind as they presumably did from that student’s hand to the page. And sure there are some errors and a bit of crossing out along the way, but the fact that you’re able to skim read most of it and still plainly follow all the ideas makes you predisposed to give this piece a way better mark than the one before that nearly made you cry.

Now, we all know that the content of what you’ve written matters more than how fancily you’ve presented it, hence why you spend all year learning about actual stuff and not just decorative typography and pretty cursive. But if your assessor is straining to work out what you’ve written, it won’t matter if you’ve got the most ingenious answers in all the world. Those markers aren’t going to set aside a whole half hour just to interpreting your chicken scrawl. What’s more likely is that they’ll just read through as much as they can and give you credit for however much they understand, so if the entire second paragraph of your essay is totally illegible, it’ll be like that second paragraph isn’t even there.

Bad handwriting is a gradable thing, of course. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle when it comes to writing clearly, and it may seem like the kind of habit that you can’t un-learn. But whether you’re writing is so bad it makes the Rosetta Stone look like Times New Roman, or you’re just looking to up your speed ahead of your next timed assessment, these tips should help you ensure handwriting isn’t holding you back.

Choose your handwriting weapon

On the VCE Forums, we have this running joke about how there’s a discussion about pens every single bloody year, and whilst it can seem odd to stress about something so seemingly small, you wouldn’t try and flip a pancake with a wind chime or mix cement with a desert spoon, and you wouldn’t try to get through an essay with a less than optimal writing tool. Students will differ in their preferences, but splashing out on hundred-dollar fountain pens isn’t necessary – the general consensus is that you should get something smooth, fast, and smudge-free. In most subjects, blue or black ink is a necessity too, so make sure you haven’t got a pack of artsy green and purple ones. Gel or ball-point pens tend to be the most popular, and thinner nibs are definitely better than thick ones greater than 2.0mm. You may also wish to experiment with different shapes, sizes, and grips to see what suits you best.

And if you can’t tell your Staedtlers from your Bics, then swing by your local Officeworks and make good use of their try-before-you-buy table. As someone who used to work there, I can attest that there will be plenty of Year 12s doing exactly the same thing just before the exam period. And I have fond memories of chuckling at the crowds of kids in school uniforms who’d spend 20 minutes scribbling away before coming to the counter with handfuls of the best pens they’d found. For the most part, they all had different favourites though, so it really does depend on your writing style.

Avoid anything too chunky or liquid-y, and if you’re left-handed, a fast-drying smudge-free pen should be your biggest priority. Those packages of discount, grainy plastic instruments that write in broken lines might suffice for day to day tasks, but when time is a factor and marks are at stake, you’ll want to have some decent quality (and a decent supply) of writing tools.

Basic letter formation

Most issues with handwriting stem from improper letter formation, which is a fancy way of saying that drawing words wrong makes them hard to read. So if your ‘d’s look like ‘a’s and your ‘o’s look like ‘u’s, and suddenly ‘the edition of poetry’ becomes ‘the eaitiun uf puetry,’ it’s no wonder the person reading your piece would lose their patience. Try to pinpoint which particular letters or kinds of letters are causing confusion, and you can fine tune things from there. Are the upper stems of your ‘h’s, ‘d’s, and ‘b’s tall enough? Are the circles in your ‘e’s, ‘o’s, and ‘p’s clear enough? Is your writing slanted way too far to the left or right? Getting someone else to read through your work (even a friend or family member) can be a big help here in locating your trouble spots.

Once you know what needs to be improved, you can design a restriction to consciously change your style. For instance, you might deliberately stop yourself from writing your ‘m’s and ‘w’s in cursive so they don’t just look like squiggles. Or you could start writing your ‘y’s with straighter lines instead of curves to prevent them from turning into ‘g’s. Without these kinds of rules, it can seem difficult to alter habits that have been ingrained for years, but after writing a few pieces where you’ve been reminding yourself to do things differently, you’d be surprised how quickly changes start to occur.

Obviously, legibility is the priority here. Your handwriting doesn’t have to be neat, it just has to be readable! So unlike those Grade Two cursive exercises that depended on consistent perfection, as long as your Year 12 essays are relatively clear to the person reading them, they really won’t care if your piece looks a little rushed. It was written in exam conditions, after all, so it’s not like they’re expecting a masterpiece in calligraphy. But they also don’t expect it to look like you’ve written it with your foot.

The basics of letter formation will remain the same no matter what your handwriting style may be, but there is another trick which can help increase your legibility as well as the speed at which you write.

Tall and skinny wins the race

To explain this fully, I’m going to need you to humour me with a little practical demonstration. Loosely holding the wrist of the hand you use to write with, move your writing hand in an ‘up and down’ motion as though you’re patting someone on the head. Notice the flexibility of your wrist here, and how easily it can perform this movement. Okay, now try moving your hand side to side as though you’re wiping a window. Don’t move your elbow; just your wrist. It’s a lot jankier, isn’t it? You may even feel some of the carpal bones click and clack.

Because it’s much easier for the human hand to perform that up and down motion, you want to prioritise a mode of writing that is more ‘up and down’ than ‘side to side.’

Translation: make your letters tall and skinny, rather than short and cramped.

Note: This is also a great way to prevent hand cramps and writing fatigue for those extra-long exams!

If your hand is going to be making lots of small, sharp movements, not only is it more likely to seize up and start hurting after 20 minutes, but you’re also probably going to end up with a more tightly packed (and thus harder to read) piece of writing. Given that the average assessor in a subject like English is 487 years old and has the eyesight of a squinting bat, those taller, clearer letter forms will definitely be appreciated.

That is not to say you have to overcompensate by forcing yourself to take up four lines and write in size 72pt font, but if legibility or writing speed are issues for you, you should at least try and modify your writing style for your benefit as well as the assessors’.

Instead of writing as though you’re trying to scratch away at the surface of the page, hold your shoulder back, keep your elbow loose, and think of it like drawing a spiraling series of ovals on each line. You may even want to incorporate this with the ‘skip a line’ method favoured by many students at the end of the year who feel the need to edit their work, wherein they only write on every second line on the page. That way, they can come back to certain sections and cross things out or make changes without things getting too messy.

Just make sure you plant a tree after graduation to make up for all that extra paper you’ve used up along the way.

Practice makes perfect

Not only will you have to write your exams by hand at the end of the year, but studies have also shown that you are more likely to retain and process information more effectively if you’ve written it down as opposed to typing it up. There are some circumstances where doing things by hand would be untenable (eg. a huge document of revision notes that you’re constantly adding to and editing) but for average class work, you might find yourself better off sticking with a pen and paper. The extra effort  and time this takes can, in fact, help you learn better, particularly for subjects where the quality and precision of your explanations is important.

As such, practising your handwriting doesn’t have to be some laborious, rudimentary activity where you feel like you’re wasting time. You can incorporate it with your study and learning throughout the year so that when you get to the end of year assessment, you’re already fairly comfortable with your newer, more legible style.

Initially, you may have to start at a more basic level, especially if your letter formations are really bad and your writing is borderline illegible to anyone else. But if all you’re trying to do is speed things up a bit without compromising clarity, then there are entire guides that will take you through various modifications you can make. Don’t worry about doubling your speed right from the start – especially if you’re making some extreme changes to your normal way of writing – and just concentrate on improving readability, and if your method is efficient, you’ll naturally speed up as it becomes more familiar to you.

Consult the experts

Most of this advice is targeted towards those who struggle with bad handwriting either because of laziness or force of habit. But sometimes there are more serious underlying concerns. If you’re experiencing serious physical pain halfway through your first paragraph, or if your handwriting is the by-product of some injury or medical condition, then make sure you seek out the appropriate authorities at your school to grant you special considerations for assessment tasks. There are systems in place to get you a laptop or scribe to aid you in exams if you need (and there’s always some poor kid around the state who’ll break his arm before the English exam anyway) so don’t panic! Just make sure you talk to the relevant people at your school and get the relevant documentation to sort you out.