When you can’t read the handwriting

Tips and tricks

Digging into the past is a fun experience and we enjoy what we can uncover about who came before us. As we find more out, we can go back further and further in time. But this can lead to frustration when we cannot read the handwriting on the documents. This could be due to the penmanship of the writer, the fading of the ink on the paper through the passage of time, or the paper itself get soiled and deteriorates with improper storage. Regardless the reason, unreadable documents are a frustraion.

Below, I have gathered some tips and tricks that I have used and come up with to help in deciphering this ancient script.

  1. The first thing you should do when the writing is hard to read is learn the writers handwriting style. Are their other words you can make out to help you understand how they wrote different letters? Read the entire document as best you can and see what you can make sense of. Use context clues to help you understand as well. Then once you can start understanding how this person wrote, it might be a little easier to understand.

2. Find a handwriting chart from the time period of the document. Believe it or not, the style of handwriting has changed over the years. Letters like P and S have changed quite a bit over time. Also, make sure to have the alphabet from the documents country of origin. German lettering was much more ornate at one time and had different S styles for where it landed on the syllable.

3. Scan the document in and adjust the contrast, brightness or even coloring in a photo editing software. This is one where you will have to play with your self to see what works for your particular document. Adjusting the sharpness might help as well on documents that might be a bit blurry.

4. Write it out yourself. This trick might help in understanding the motion of the lettering in the word. Grab a pen and paper and try to mimic the writing exactly as it appears. Your memory of how to write a letter (say a cursive b) might help you figure out what letters you are trying to write. Also seeing it in your own (though sloppy!) handwriting might help you see the letters better.

– Another idea is to print out the document and trace the writing. It works on the same principle as discovering the letters through muscle memory. Tracing the word will help you “feel” the letters and perhaps understand how the writer wrote his/her letters better.

5. Write what word you think it could be. Instead of just mimicking the handwriting, write (in the same style of cursive) the word out that you think it might be. How does the word look in your handwriting? Is it similar? You can also have someone else write it for you and compare their writing to the document’s.

6. Play “Hangman”. Just like the game we liked to play in school, we are trying to find the missing letters to figure out the mystery word. Begin with figuring out how many letters there are. It’s okay if you can’t figure out if there are two lowercase Ns, and R and a W or M and R, or other letters that look similar. That’s what this game is for. Write out the letters that you can read, and put a line for the ones you are uncertain of. Try different combinations of letters until it makes sense as a word, and in context of the document.

7. Sound it out. Try reading the text out loud and sound out the letters, just like a toddler learning how to read. It might seem a bit silly, but again, you are working on the knowledge you already have of letter sounds and sometimes hearing it can help you figure it out better. What word is it sounding like as you try to sound it out? Write it down and reread the text with those words until you can understand the context of the document.

These are just a few tricks that I have used to figure out handwriting issues in older (and newer!) documents. I hope these can help you in figuring out what your documents says.

What other tricks have you tried to understand handwriting?

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