PENnant Article Left-Hand Writers

This is an article submitted to The PENnant, the magazine of Pen Collectors of America for the winter 2000 issue.

Notes from the Nib Works

Left-hand Writers
revised 6/8/04

While just over ten percent of Americans are left handed, they represent a disproportionate number of fountain pen users (at least from the perspective of The Nib Works.) This may at first glance seem strange, given the difficulty that they have using fountain pens. But, on further thought, this may not be so strange. Faced with a difficult situation, left-handers seem to push ahead and embrace the challenges that are thrown their way.

In the last presidential race Al Gore, Bill Bradley, John McCain and Steve Forbes were all southpaws (note: there is some question as to whether or not Al Gore is actually a lefty). While George W. is not left-handed his father is. And so is Bill Clinton. Other famous left-handers include Colin A. Powell, H. Norman Schwarzkopf, George S. Patton, Winston Churchill, and Napoleon. (1.) None of these people could be said to shrink from challenge.

Historically, left-handers have come in for a lot of trouble. Gauche and sinister are synonymous with being left-handed. Many school children were severely "corrected" from this defect. Three hundred years ago, questions of witchcraft lurked in the minds of the pious. Suspicion and prejudice of lefties was very common. (No pope would be chosen from their ranks.)

As it turns out left-handers do not have a shorter life span than right-handed people. (According to the New York Times, Tuesday June 8, 2004 , three recent studies shows that lefties are not more prone to accidents and serious injuries. It contradicts an earlier study that did not take into account that many older people were required to use their right hand, skewing the population of older people. This made it seem that lefties were dying off at a higher rate.) Faced with more obstacles, left-handers become adapters. This is certainly true of their writing. Cursive western writing is performed from left to right and, because they tend to dig into the paper more when they are pushed, fountain pens are harder to push than to pull. Left-handers must push their fountain pens at least some of the time, while a right-handed person pulls or draws most of their marks. Add to this trouble the problem of slow drying ink, and left-handed people are sometimes faced with ink stained palms as well.

So, how do left-handers accommodate this dilemma? They develop numerous strategies to compensate. Some turn their left hand hard to the right, so that they write over top of the line. These "over writers" manage to write parallel with the writing line, and over the top and out of the immediate wet ink line. (See Rick Propas's writing sample) If the ink is very wet or slow drying, and the writing is fast, some of the alphabet is bound to be smudged. With many overwriters, the predominant direction of the writing neither pulls nor pushes the pen on the paper. Some overwriters turn their paper so that they write straight away from themselves, vertically up the page. (See Linda Amanzino's writing sample.) In a second strategy southpaws hold the pen below the line. These "underwriters" have several variants. If the paper is placed squarely in front, most underwriters must push their pens into the paper. If the top of the paper is turned radically to the right, to give more comfort to the hand and a better direction for the point, the writing is seen as coming down toward the writer at a sharp angle. (See Pat Ackor and Emily Eldredge's writing samples.)

Because of the variety of unique approaches lefties bring to their writing, (and to their lives, for that matter); any generalizations made about left-hand people are sure to be wrong for more than a few individuals. Left-handed people run against the grain of our physical world. For this reason they frequently think differently. They handle our world in unconventional ways. Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Leonardo da Vinci are prime examples. (2.) Several times, when I have asked to see how a left-handed person writes, they have given me a choice of methods. "I can do it this way or I can do it this other way". And they proceed to demonstrate more than one technique. One lefty told me that she chose to write with her left hand when she was confronted with the prospect of being in a class of first graders who were all writing alike.

The right and left hemisphere studies of the brain relate the left side of our bodies to the right brain. Intuitive thought and spatial relations are believed to reside there. The physical process of writing is handled in the area of spatial attention, giving left-handed writers a more direct mode for writing. As well as that, other brain studies suggest that a greater number of left-handed people have more cross over between the hemispheres of the brain. This is where, many researchers believe, much creative thought is generated, especially the kind of thought used by artists and architects. Betty Edwards, in her classic drawing instruction book tells us that drawing forms that remain nameless requires right brain thinking, often more accessible to left-handed people.) (3.)

Left-handers have a lot thrown their way that is not so easy. Poorly designed scissors, corkscrews that turn the wrong way, wrist watches with stems on the wrong side and anything with a molded pistol grip are among the obstacles that southpaws have to contend with.

Left-handed writers do find solutions to their problems.

Waterman’s pens in their 1927 advertising list a "Ball point tip", not to be confused with the ball point pen. Waterman's describe it as "suitable for left-hand writers". The tip of this pen writes well and consistently in all directions. Inspection of this tip reveals no sharp corners or edges. The inner margins of this point, where the slit separates the two halves, are rounded and regular in shape.

The kind of pen point that a lefty chooses is important to their comfort in writing. Waterman's was on to a good idea with their "ball point tip". Because it is well rounded, especially on the leading edges, not excessively fine, not flexible and not too wet, it serves as a model for the ideal southpaw point.

Fountain pens are an excellent choice for portsiders. They force care in forming the letters when writing. There are, however, good choices for pen points and bad. The best are rounded evenly especially to the top of the point and are medium size, not too fine and not too large and wet. Because any minor miss-adjustment will be felt more intensely by left-handers, the tines must be perfectly set. The worst are the needlepoints, the italics, and the flexible tips. But, of course, with left-handers, there will always be exceptions.

Why do so many left-handers take up the fountain pen in an age of ballpoint pens and computers? They are rising to yet another challenge that has been thrown their way. "Oh, you are left-handed. You will not be able to use a fountain pen."

1. Forget Left-Wing. Say Hello to Left-Handed Politics. Melissa Roth, New York Times. Jan 23, 2002. 
2. Ibid.
3. Drawing on the Right Hand Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards 1979, J. P. Tarcher, Inc.