Taking the Next Step as a Calligraphy Scribe

A class I taught for the Ansteorran Heraldic and Scribal Symposium 2016.

Taking the next step. What does that even mean?  It’s a nice sound bite or catch phrase sure, but what does it mean?  For the purposes of this class it means, improving your skills, materials and tools to produce a quality of work that is on average superior to the quality of work you are now producing.  That’s it.  Pretty simple idea right?

Here are a couple of morsels that many people have never been told.  Learning is a skill unto itself.  Learn how to learn and you will be much better off.  Knowing how to improve is also its own skill set.  Like all skills they take learning and practice and time.

So here are six that will help you be able to improve regardless of how skilled or unskilled you may be.

Step 1 – Honest evaluation of what your skills are and what you can do with the tools and materials you have.  Give yourself permission to feel good about where you are at.  Then feel good about where you are at.

Step 2 – Recognize what you want to improve on.  Be specific.  Make a list.

Step 3 – Look at your list.  Sort them into long term, medium term and short term goals.

Step 4 – For each goal create a reasonable step by step plan on how to achieve those goals.  These will themselves become their own set of goals.

Step 5 – Do those things.  No seriously, DO THOSE THINGS.  Get help. Talk to recognized experts and masters in the field.  Ask others in the field how to do those things and how they did those things.

Step 6 – Give yourself credit for having improved.  Really, this is very important to do.

Honest evaluation of your skills are and what you can do with the tools and materials you have.

You’re brand new and think you can’t do anything.  You’ve been at this a couple of years and are still having problems.  You’ve been at this for fifteen years and almost nobody you know is better than you.  Great!  That’s where you’re at.  Celebrate it.

Now stop kidding yourself and do an honest no bones about it evaluation.  Brand new and just learning how?  You have skills, you want to acquire more of them.  Can you hold the pen?  Can you dip it into ink?  Can you put it to paper?  You have skills then. They just need to be improved.  You can do that.  Do you have dip pens?  The right kind of ink?  What kind of paper are you using?  Get into what you can and can’t do.  Getting frustrated or focusing on what you can’t do does not help you improve.  Be honest about what you can and can’t do.  Don’t dwell on it.

You have some feathers and want to write with a quill but don’t know how to cut the feathers or what do to?  Okay, you have the material to become the tool.  This is good.

Are there people who know you well and what your skills are?  Ask those people for their thoughts on what you do well.  Don’t argue with them. Thank them for their thoughts and take them into consideration.

Recognize what you want to improve on.

So you know what you can do and what you can’t do.  So what do you want to improve?  Be specific.  “I just want to be a better scribe.”  Great but not specific and therefore not something you can act on.  What in your mind would make you a better scribe?  Writing only with quill pens?  Learning more scripts to write?  Having better pen control?  Letter forming being more precise.  Learning more about how period scribes did things?  You want period ink, a burnisher, gold leaf, parchment or more pens.  It is all fair game for the things to improve.

Write these things down.  Do it in any order as they come to you.  Just do the thinking now.  List them, thought bubble them, Venn diagram them.  It doesn’t matter, just get them written out.  Why write them?  Even if you never look at this list again, though I hope you will, writing things down helps most people make them more concrete in their memory.  Keep these goals in mind means you will be more likely to achieve them.

This is your game.  You can ask others what they think you should improve on.  But in the end YOU ALONE make the decision on what you want to improve on.  This is a hobby you make that choice for yourself.

Look at your list.  Sort them into long term, medium term and short term goals.

Now that you’ve created that mess of things you want to improve on, it is time to sort them out.  Be honest and realistic about the time span it may take to achieve these goals.  I tend to suggest to most people that they sort out the long term goals (five to ten years) first then the medium term goals (two to five years) and the short term goals (within the next year) last.  I do this because we often find that the long term goals build on the medium goals which build on the short term goals.  Doing it in this reverse fashion really helps things fall into place.  Doing it from short term to long term can create fuzziness about where to go next.  I recommend leaving space under each goal so you can write things from the next step underneath them.

Ask others if they had these goals.  Ask them about the realistic process it takes to get there and how long it can take.

For each goal create a reasonable step by step plan on how to achieve those goals.  These will themselves become their own set of goals.

Okay, now that you’ve sorted them out it is time to create a manageable step by step process of what it will take to achieve those goals.  You may have already done some of this when you sorted out your goals into long, medium and short term goals.  Now take a look at each goal individually.  What do you think it will take to get there?

This step means you’re going to create mini-goals to achieve your actual goal.  Want more pens?  You can make them or buy them.  Either way you need to lay down cash or time or both to get them.  You may also need to do research on costs, materials, skills and tools involved.

Write these mini-steps down under or near the goals they will help you achieve.  Incorporate the next step down (long term incorporates a middle term goal if it already exists. Medium incorporates short term goals if it already exists.)

Ask knowledgeable people in the field what they think are the best ways to achieve these goals.  Get help and advice.  Ask questions.  Thank people for helping you.  Don’t argue.  If advice from person A contradicts with person B or is different ask why they are different but don’t argue.  It isn’t worth the time and arguing with people whose advice you are seeking is rude.

Do those things.  No seriously, DO THOSE THINGS.

If you want to improve you have to take action.  So do the things you have listed.  DO THEM.  There are a lot of reasons that people have the most trouble at this point.  Here are the top ones I know of.

  • Fear of never having done it before. FEAR
  • Lack of knowledge on how to do this. IGNORANCE
  • Having to admit that improvement can happen or needs to happen. PRIDE
  • Lack of oomph.

Maybe you haven’t done this before and that is scary to you.  Fair enough.  Seriously that is a valid concern.  What isn’t valid is that fear stopping you.  If you let the fear stop you then you will never do anything new and that means stagnation as a person.  Get a buddy to help you through it.  Ask for help from knowledgeable people.  The online scribal community is amazingly gentle and helpful to people asking for assistance.  Every single time.

You don’t know how to take that next step.  Also fair.  Well follow the advice above.  Ask for help.  You can also research how to do it from online tutorials to videos to books and more.

Sometimes pride gets in the way.  This one is hard.  But you have to give yourself permission to learn at this point.  Give yourself permission to not be the all awesome, or good enough.  It is good to learn and improve.

Lack of oomph.  Sometimes the world is just too much.  Kids, job, significant others, lack of spoons, moving, neighbors, sick, and all the other things that eat up our oomph.  If you lack oomph because of something you can control then control it and get back your oomph.  Sometimes scheduling time to do your scribal is what it takes.

Give yourself credit for having improved.  Really, this is very important to do.

Milestones.  They are so easy to set, yet so hard to recognize you have passed them.  Too often people set a goal for themselves and years later think they haven’t improved despite passing 10 milestones in the meantime.  Give yourself credit. Recognize you have improved.

Go back to that darned list.  MARK OFF THE THINGS YOU HAVE DONE.  Yeah, you did that!  You have improved!  Sure you have other goals. So what?  You have improved.  Give yourself some credit for it.  Do a happy dance.  Have your favorite beverage or dessert.  Throw yourself a small (or large) party. Whatever works for you but darn it celebrate your improvement!  That’s not egotistical. That’s not presumptuous.  It is giving credit where credit is due.  Nothing more. Nothing less.

So why is giving yourself credit for having improved part of the skill set for improving?  After all isn’t that what you do AFTER you have improved?

Well, really it is just going back to step one.  You need to realize where you are at, what your skills really are.  You need to give yourself that honest evaluation.  The only difference between step 1 and step six is that you recognize you have a new skill.  Sure you’re giving yourself positive reinforcement for that with your celebration, but in truth in step one you should have done that also.

In every step you need to be realistic.  Don’t be all down on yourself or all rose colored lenses.  Be realistic about where you are and what it will take to get there.  Take action. Do the things.  Sometimes it is just 15 minutes a day of drills and practice. Sometimes it is taking a six week workshop on how to make parchment.  Other times it is saving up money to get the tools and materials you want.  Be realistic about it all.  And celebrate your successes.  After all this is a hobby for our own fun and joy however we may share that with others.



  • Do warm-ups. Draw your curves, horizontal and perpendicular lines. They help get your brain thinking about calligraphy and they help to teach as well as fine-tune your muscle memory for controlling your pen.  There is evidence that even for sitting activities doing stretches and movement actually helps you at your sitting activity.
  • Practice using pangrams. Pangrams are words or sentences containing every letter of the alphabet at least once.  One of the most famous in English is “The quick brown fox jumped over a lazy dog.”  Using pangrams let you practice your letter forms as well as inter-letter spacing, inter-word spacing and even practicing spacing paragraphs.
  • Practice only for a short time each day. It is all that is needed to develop the muscle memory and to learn to control the pen correctly.  Going for longer than that for most beginners will cause arm fatigue as well as mental fatigue.  When you are fatigued you start to do things wrong, not catch that and you end up developing muscle memory for doing it the wrong way.  This causes you to take a much longer time to learn to do the calligraphy correctly.  So for whatever you are working on, finished project, first draft or just doing pangrams and fooling around, keep to 15 minutes at first and then grow out your fatigue limit step by step to a couple of hours.
  • Practice large, work small. Larger nibs, generally Speedball 0, 1: Brause 4 mm, 5 mm and Mitchel 0 and 1 are the nibs to do your practice work with.  You learn to control your nib better, you see how your strokes can be improved much more easily and you see how your connections are actually doing.  Large work translates to small work very well.  You do your work small and everything just works really well.  However, small to large doesn’t work well at all. Small work hides your mistakes so when you go larger, your mistakes get magnified and now you have to overcome all that muscle memory you already developed.  Just practice large and work small and you won’t have that frustration.
  • Seek out constructive criticism of your work. Ask knowledgeable people to review your work and tell you what you did right and what you need to improve on.  If you do nothing else to improve your skills, do this one.


Specific Goal(s)  (in absolutely no particular order whatsoever)

Tighten up calligraphy
Learn more scripts
How to make ink
How to make parchment
How to do bookbinding
More colors of ink
Where to find manuscripts
Page layout
Period method for X
More pens
Cut a quill pen
Scribal Preparation
Slanted desk
Teach others
Ink horn
Scribal area in home
Scribal culture
Hold Workshops
Attend workshops
Period tool X
Make material X
How to make a book
Design a charter
Do original scrolls
More precise lettering
proper line spacing
Writing between not on lines
Have more paper
Make paper
Tools used by scribes Historic scribes
French 12th century
German 15th century
Place X Time X
Scribal History
Specific Manuscripts
General Manuscripts
Prayer books
Edicts and laws
Personal letters
Fixing mistakes
Book Trade
Materials Trade
Division of labor for books
Actual Scrolls
Wax Seals
Seal Rings
Page repairs
Period lighting
Best way to store things
Keep things clean
Maintain tools and supplies
Where to buy things
Calligraphy books
This is hardly a complete list of things but it gives a good listing of things for you to think about and hopefully use.

One response to “Taking the Next Step as a Calligraphy Scribe

  1. Pingback: The Beginning And The Evolving Scribe – An Itinerant Scribe·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s