A Curious Historical Artifact For You

I’ve mentioned to people before that I tend to write very small when I hand letter things. How small? Well, while going through some old writings, I unearthed this letter, which I wrote on standard 8 1/2 by 11-inch paper when I was 19 or 20:

I have the letter because it was one of those letters, i.e., the ones that are better as cathartic exercises than something actually read by someone else, and also, let’s face it, if someone wrote you a letter that densely packed with no-margin scribblings, your “holy crap, this dude’s nuts” sirens would be going off full blast even if the content was just about how much the person liked puppies and sunflowers (note also that it continues on the other side). It was just as well I never sent it, is what I’m saying, and I’m glad I recognized it at the time. Don’t worry, I’m much better now.

But for all that, maudlin content and flagrant inattention to margins aside, the lettering size was standard for me at the time, and even today I don’t write all that much larger; I’ve just always written really really really small.  I had to train myself a bit to write larger when I started writing handwritten notes in people’s books; it’s not nice to make fans squint. I didn’t have to make my signature larger, though. It’s always been big and swoopy. What it means that I have a huge signature yet really tiny lettering is left to the observer to hypothesize. I’m sure it means nothing good. There’s a reason I mostly type things these days.

49 Comments on “A Curious Historical Artifact For You”

  1. Tiny, accurate block letters are good in my profession, but ignoring margins is a sure sign of lunacy. Good thing you had this outlet called writing for money to prevent any highly publicized bell-tower moments.

  2. That page immediately made me think of John Doe’s library in the movie Se7en. Nothing good indeed…

  3. I also write very small – not THAT small – but small. I’ve always attributed it to the fact that when I was in primary grades in the early 70’s, learning to print and write cursive, there was a paper shortage. As readers we probably best remember this as when book and magazine prices really skyrocketed and lots of legacy periodicals finally went out of business because paper was so expensive.

    We were taught by our teachers to conserve paper. We turned sheets over and wrote on the back. We used old sheets of paper to do additional assignments if there was still room. and so on. To this day, I find myself going crazy trying to figure out how to re-configure a document so that it doesn’t use that one additional sheet of paper for just a few lines.

    I believe you are a little older than I am, but I wonder if some of that environmental effect hit you as well…

  4. Tom:

    There’s a reason it’s a low-resolution image. But anyone who took the time to try to decipher it would very likely find it tedious rather than interesting. I mean, shit. I found it tedious fifteen minutes after I wrote it.

  5. I was a cartographer for 8 years. We had to letter National Wetland Inventory maps, some with 25,000 labels, all 2MM high. For 8 hours a day. We used Rapidograph pens, 000 and 0000. Talk about a pain. But hey, my block letters are beautiful. Have to be careful I’m not too critical on daughter’s handwriting.

  6. When I do any handwriting, it’s also tiny (and mostlt illegible) but I actually know why – when I was a kid it was hard to get my family to buy me notebooks, so I tried to get as much on a page as possible. The habit stuck.

    Actually, I can also pinpoint why my J-squiggle J-squiggle signature looks that way, too – when I worked in TV I had to sign my name dozens of times a day, and I ended up with a signature that contained the minimum amount of information necessary to establish that it was me.

  7. Enhance 224 to 176. Enhance, stop. Move in, stop. Pull out, track right, stop. Center in, pull back. Stop. Track 45 right. Stop. Center and stop. Enhance 34 to 36. Pan right and pull back. Stop. Enhance 34 to 46. Pull back. Wait a minute, go right, stop. Enhance 57 to 19. Track 45 left. Stop. Enhance 15 to 23. Give me a hard copy right there.

  8. Give me a hard copy right there.

    “I Love Sarah Palin.”

    Astonishing. No wonder it’s obscured.

  9. I started writing very small in 6th grade when my teacher was trying to encourage good penmanship…one of the few obvious forms of rebellion allowed in the early 1960s. I blame that teacher for my horrible handwriting to this day…Sometimes even I can’t read it… but it works very well for the book collection in my doll house…

  10. Some years ago my wife and I were spending some time with my parents at their house on the Gulf Coast of Florida and my mother decided to sort through some boxes out of a closet, mostly old stuff of mine. There was a high school paper I’d written that, as soon as I saw it, I remembered it was an extremely foolish scree that said some things that weren’t all that complementary of my parents (at least in retrospect). I hadn’t realized that the paper had made it back home, much less left around for my parents to read and digest.

    My mother, since deceased, kept it, I suppose, because it was probably one of the few times she actually understood my feelings about things (since I certainly didn’t talk about them as a teenager), understanding that I eventually grew out of the snippy, immature views I had at the time. But man, it HURT to know she’d read it! I’ve kept the paper, mainly because it reminds me how stupid I was at one point in my life.

  11. When I was in high school, mechanical pens had just made it mainstream, and my friends and I would kind of compete to write the smallest we could, and still remain legible. We wound up all buying narrow ruled paper (which you I can’t even find anymore), and we’d write 2 or 3 lines within each of those rules. Unhappy teachers. Good times.

    Still miss narrow ruled paper, though. College ruled isn’t narrow enough.

  12. Low resolution? Bah. I’ll just run it through that magical image enhancement software they always use on CSI/NCIS/SVU/3P0 and capture a copy of the text from the reflection of that shiny button which in turn was reflected off the camera you used to take the picture, use secondary shadows reflected off that pen next to it, run it through the “Plot Hole Filler” tool, then a OCR tool, and viola, we can extract the original text.


    Dude, you were writing slash about metal-bikini Leia and Princess Buttercup? Not cool, man. Just not cool.

  13. Sometimes you just gotta write small. You ever try to pack three different shot descriptions on the left side of an audio/video script when there’s only one sentence of narration on the right? And only a double-space before the next line of narration? (This was in the days before I owned a personal computer.)

  14. My handwriting is almost that small. In college I got in the habit of taking notes on engineering paper using a 0.5mm mechanical pencil. Engineering paper is kind of like graph paper, with 5 squares to the inch. I wrote one line of text per row of squares, so I had to fit ascenders and descenders in that 1/5″. I still mostly write with a 0.5mm pencil.

  15. My favorite artifact was the spiral-bound notebook for lefties- with the perforations on the right side of the page- opposite the punched holes.

  16. When it came time to sign yearbooks in high school, I wrote so small that most people needed a magnifying lens to read it. But it was legible…

  17. I like to write tiny too. (Although my writing has morphed into ginormous scribbling lately.) But until my mid-twenties, that was about my default size too.

    For folks who LOVE writing tiny, try the Micron pens .005. I lurves.

  18. Micrographia (appearing later in life, in a person who previously wrote at “normal” scale) is sometimes a symptom of Parkinson’s Disease.

  19. In grade school, the teacher instructed the class to write within the lines. I complied. That cheap paper coarse grey paper we were given had relatively fuzzy lines, so it wasn’t that hard. I don’t remember if there were any consequences for my egregious display of smart-assery.

  20. Is that a G2 Pilot Pen. Man, those are things of beauty. Probably one of the rare pens that would allow you to write that fine for pages on end without splotches of ink like morse code.

  21. @ #17: People who observe my handwriting fall rather neatly into two camps–those who love it “because it’s so neat (as in tidy/legible)”, and those who hate it “because it looks like chicken scratch”. When I was in school I used college-ruled paper/notebooks whenever I could find them, to try to train myself to write as neatly and legibly as possible. I’m wondering if college-ruled is going the way of narrow-ruled. Even during my academic career, beginning in kindergarten in ’76 and ending with college graduation in ’95, I had a terrible time finding college-ruled paper. It seemed like wherever I went, the ratio of college-ruled to standard lined paper was about 20/80, maybe even 10/90.

  22. I write tiny block letters, albeit ones about 2x the size of your writing. About 9 years ago I was the company commander of a reserve unit and my First Sergeant was (in civilian life) a police detective.

    She referred to my writing as, “your serial killer handwriting…sir.”

    I worry about you.

  23. There is another and more likely explanation for Mr Scalzi’s tiny lettering. In handwriting analysis, small writing denotes an ability to concentrate, and the smaller the writing is corresponds to greater powers of concentration.

  24. I’ve been on unforum.net working out clues for the Super 8 ARG. My first reaction was the same as everybody else, “I can crack this.” I think there are Fuzzy Nation clues hidden in there. :-)

  25. Gilmoure — Lettering with 000 and 0000 pens, does that bring back memories. Hamilton power drafting tables. Back in the day.

    My favorite pen for handwriting (as opposed to lettering) is always a Parker 75, one of the early ones with the adjustable angle nib holder, and the Bookkeeper duo-nib, which is close to the 000 and 0000 in size.

    By the time I was writing screeds, I was typing. Pages and pages and pages of mostly blather, all long gone, or for most of it, I hope so. There was a little tiny bit of it that might have been worth keeping.

  26. It would be pretty amazing for me to leave clues for a book I wrote two years ago in a letter I wrote 22 years ago, that’s for sure.

    That’s just good planning.

  27. The best trick I’ve heard of for cramming information onto a page was passed on by my college physics professor: he allowed people to make notes on both sides of a 3×5 index card, then bring that into the final exam. One previous student had written about that small in blue ink, then /wrote over it/ in red ink. Said student then either brought in 3D glasses or just loose blue/red plastic so he could read the layers individually.

    He disallowed the layering trick the following semester.

  28. My girlfriend in college wrote that small, and even crazier, her letters were all perfect block letters–meaning readers had a hard time believing it wasn’t typed in Arial or some similar. Amazing…but more than just a wee bit crazy.

  29. I absolutely adore the arrow at the bottom, helpfully pointing to the back of the paper. Does THAT bring back memories of badly-thought-through notes gone by!

  30. My goodness, why would your publisher bother sending your books to a printer? Admittedly most books (other than, of course, “coffee-table” ones, which are usually mostly images rather than text anyway) aren’t 8-1/2 x 11, but your characters-per-page has gotta be pretty close to commercially printed books.

  31. John Scalzi: As noted before, really not that interesting; it’s mostly me being intolerably mopey.

    Indeed, but then most long letters written a little after 3:15 in the morning at that age usually are. :)

  32. I was in the Cal State Fullerton archives looking over some Frank Herbert papers (yes, this is what I do on vacation. Shut up), when I noticed the guy next to me had a stack of pages that looked suspiciously like your sample up there.

    I asked him what he was working on. “Phillip K. Dick,” he replied. Those were PKD’s hand-written notes.

    So you’re in very good, if mildly crazy, company, John.

  33. I have two 3×5 notecards with tons of physics aids on them. The handwriting’s small, but I had to be careful, because the reason he let us have two cards was because he made us promise not to write “too small.”

    He was very impressed by the clarity of my penmanship, though.

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