Tips from the Pros: Help for Hard-to-Read Handwriting

The challenge of blurred or just plain sloppy handwriting in old records is one that has plagued genealogists for centuries. One trick for deciphering a hard to read character or word is to retrace it. Enlarge the word and then print it. Then trace over it with a pencil. Sometimes by retracing the lines you’ll be able to figure out the letters.

17 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: Help for Hard-to-Read Handwriting

  1. In addition to enlarging and retracing, I’ve found that increasing brightness and/or increasing brightness and contrast using a graphics program helps, esp. with bad microfilm copies. I’ve also copied the bit I’m trying to decipher, and move it (on a new layer) next to parts of the document that contain known letters (like lowercase “A”s or “O”s) to do a side-by-side comparison.

    And of course, after you’ve been staring at it for hours, come back later for another look.

  2. The previous screen indicated I could print or make a comment. I find no indication on this screen that I can print the article. What am I missing? I know at least two ways to print the text, but that is not the point.

  3. Some times when reading older documents, if you step back you can read from a distance, usually the words become more clear. We did this while reading old land documents and it really helped.

  4. Look for words that you know –A legal document was usually
    stated a certain way, look for the words you know.
    Early Virginia marriage licenses had a stated form with blanks
    to be filled in and most were written. Census records: look for given names that you can read, then check to find the name you are looking for. There are books(and some websites)that show how letters were written going back to the 1700s. And very few letters are written as we write today.
    Remember words/names were written as the words were heard by
    the writer.

  5. Decyphering difficult handwriting ……. I use combinations of the following:- enlarging, or decreasing .. Sharpening image .. varying the contrast .. create a negative .. change the colour of the image. My main area of research is in the UK, I use Google Earth to verify my “guesses” when researching place names. Trying to decypher place names without a map of the area is just plain crazy .. The UK is divide into Countries, Shires and Counties (the’re different), cities, towns, municpalities, villages, Landed estates of the aristocracy,and over the top of this are the ecclesiastical divisions of over Church of England 12,000 Parishes. Other churches/religions may use other names to identify their district. .. With sub-divisions to ALL of the above, a place may be recorded with 5 or 6 different equally valid names. Add to this that place-names may change or disappear, borders and boundaries are moved, …. If you cannot obtain external verification of your “guess” COPY the actual image (copy,cut & paste, DO NOT ADD another transciption error), and hope someone else has better luck…. Ed Brand

  6. Look at the other capital letters made by the writer. Sometimes your L might actually be an S or even a T. There is quite a variation.

  7. Find a word where you recognize all the letters then compare those letters to other words in the document or census. Most people wrote individual letters the same way.

  8. I have found it helpful to make an extra copy of the handwritten document, then cut the lines apart and afix to a clean piece of paper, leaving a blank between each of the handwritten lines. Then under the originals, write down all the words you can be sure of … going back and forth between the different letters and their forms you can often determine possible letter combinations and “new” words. This has been helpful to me several times.

  9. Now that my 17 year old has become interested in family history she is a great help. She copied and pasted the relevant section into “Paint” the standard windows accessory which comes with it. Then on the top toolbar choose “image” and then “invert colours” to make it a negative which might make it easier to read.

  10. I have found by using a hi-liter pen (I like yellow color best)to run over specific words (handwritten or typed)on census and other data I have printed, that I can achieve a better read of the material. Of course one must first have the ability to print off the computer the material with questionable writing.

  11. Shifting the page slightly to the right or left sometimes makes it easier to read the writing.

  12. Another fact tp be aware of is the way cursive letters were formed. The r and t are two letters in particular that had different shapes and can be misconstrued as an n or even a v.

  13. Actually I have found a tip given to me by an elderly lady to be the most effective.Scottish records can be very hard to decipher at times.The tip was,and it works,take a pencil use the non -leaded side(upside down) and read the script and draw it whilst reading it.It is surprising how easy it becomes to decipher name or writing

  14. Another way to decipher difficult handwriting is to put a yellow see-through plastic sheet over the words and most times the word becomes readable. This works even when you are looking at it on your computer screen. You can’t highlight your computer screen, and this is a substitute. I purchased a dozen of these at my local office store. Students use them for reports.

    All of these ideas are great, and sometimes we need all the help we can get.

  15. I’m a nurse and have developed a few tricks trying to read doctors writing. One of the best is to turn the page upside down and read it that way. I can’t tell you the number of times that has worked.

  16. I’ve found several things work for me in helping to decipher difficult handwriting:

    First, I try to find a word in the document which I understand, and note any similarities in the way they drew the letters, thus enabling me to basically play the matching game and figure out the word in question. This helps a lot!

    Second, if the first way doesn’t cut it, I turn the document upside-down, often times this will help me see what the word is.

    And thirdly, if I still can’t figure out the word, I try reading all the rest of the information on the page to get an idea of what’s being said, and often in this way, I can identify the word being used.

    Also, as a side note, I was reading an article about older documents and found these tips:
    1)You may find what appears to be an ‘f’ followed by an ‘s’ in the script writing. It may not be that though, apparently, the custom of the day when writing a word with a double ‘s’ was to make the first one large and swirley, and the second one regularly (i.e. as we do now) rather than making both the same as we do now.
    2)The letter ‘d’ at the end of a word, the method at the time did not have them end the ‘d’ off as we learn to now, where you draw the tail up, and then follow it down. In earlier time periods, they would simply draw up and curl it inward.

    Sorry, it’s rather hard to describe in words. In the article they showed examples, so please forgive my rather awkward explanations.
    Hope this can be of help!

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