(Originally feature in the Arizona City Independent Edition, June 28, 2006)

Okay, here’s a brain teaser for you: What do I have in common with Jon Talton and Sydney Biddle Barrows?

I can assure you, the answer has nothing to do with Ms. Barrows’ former career as the Mayflower Madam, but don’t worry if you still don’t have a clue. It’s such an obscure fact that only two people on the planet besides me know it, and one of them’s on the list.

When I watched a documentary on Barrows’ life, I happened to notice that she held her pen between her index and middle fingers when she autographed copies of her bestselling books for a group of fans. And when he signed a copy of his first David Mapstone mystery, Concrete Desert, for me, I informed Jon Talton, who was then the business and editorial columnist for the Arizona Republic, that I share that rare habit with him.

What’s so special about the way the three of us handle our writing instruments? Since we don’t grip pens between thumb and index finger, we risk only a minimal possibility of developing writer’s cramp from signing too many autographs--and doing any other type of handwriting too.

So, if holding a pen correctly is the secret of preventing, or at least minimizing, writer’s cramp, no matter how much they write, why doesn’t everyone write that way? For the same reason that people continue to suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome when they use the QWERTY keyboard, even though they could speed up their typing and be free of almost all pain in their hands, wrists, arms, necks, and backs. Most schools teach students to write and type using the old-fashioned--and more painful--methods, and most people don’t even know there are better ways to do both of those things.

To be fair, there has been a growing awareness of the more efficient, pain-free methods lately, since a measure of media attention has been focused on them in recent years. Trouble is, the incorrect methods are so ingrained that few people are willing to change these habits on their own. It requires either a change of attitude, which is how I made the transition with both techniques in the late 1980s, or an organized program to retrain all those people who want to continue being productive, but without pain.

For me, that pain was the tipping point. By 1989, I was close to giving up writing altogether, both by hand and on the computer, because the pain I’d experienced since my teen years was finally getting to be too overwhelming. But as often happens in my life, help came just at the right time. Around the same time that I met a woman who used a Dvorak keyboard and inspired me to buy one myself, I discovered an article in one of the Houston newspapers that demonstrated the proper way to hold a writing instrument.

Retraining myself did take a certain change of mind-set. I detailed the process of relearning how to type on Dvorak in my article, “Keys to the Computer Age,” which is posted just above this one. As I explain in that article, the only reason it took me three whole weeks to master the new key arrangement was the lag time between starting to study the lesson book and actually getting my own Dvorak keyboard by mail-order. Most touch typists who have the keyboard in hand when they start learning the technique are able to master the new key arrangement much faster than I did. From that moment on, the sailing has been smoother all the time. I can now call myself a genuine typing whiz, since I can type anything faster than most people, with no pain at all.

On the other hand, the biggest obstacle to retraining myself in the proper handwriting method was reminding myself to hold the pen between the correct fingers. For several weeks, whenever I picked up a pen, I had to consciously tell myself to grip it between the two fingers, and make that little thumb behave itself! Too often, it wanted to push itself into the other digits’ business.

The point is to relax my hand as much as possible and just let the thumb gently stabilize the mechanism from the side. Truth is, after more than 15 years of handwriting the right way, that thumb still tries to intrude at times, especially when I’m concentrating hard on some writing task, but at least I no longer have to think about placing the pen or pencil between the correct digits when I start to write.

If you’d like to know more about either method of turning out words without pain, you can find more information on the internet. One caveat: You might have to wade through a lot of clutter in your search for the answers. Many of the Dvorak sites contain advertising and links that send you far afield of your original goal, so keep that in mind when you research the subject online. As for information on holding your pen correctly, I’ve found several sites that discuss the technique as an alternative method for people who want to ease their hand pain or improve their handwriting.

It occurs to me that if the more popular method causes that pain in the first place and doesn’t support better handwriting, why does anyone bother with it in the first place? Ah, well. Just one of those mysteries of the universe! Anyway, the following lists should get you started on some of the better sites.

For information on Dvorak keyboards, try some of the links listed on:

And to view illustrations that show how to hold your pen between your index and middle fingers, you can go to:

Finally, in my search for these sites, I found many products for people with arthritis that perpetuate the inferior method of holding the writing instrument between the thumb and index finger. On the other hand, the Ring Pen has the happy result of forcing the user to place the barrel of the pen between the two correct fingers. You’ll find information and an action photo of this product in use at:

Since we’re both newspaper columnists, other traits I share with Jon Talton are more obvious, but few people know that I also have more in common with the Mayflower Madam than our shared handwriting technique. As a lifelong night person, I published Night Owl's Newsletter from 1989 to 1994, which got me, among other things, a paragraph in Glamour Magazine and five minutes on “Good Morning America” (so I have another 10 minutes of fame left on my dance card).

That claim as an official “lady of the night” gives me something in common with New York’s most notorious “lady of the evening.” (Technically inaccurate, I know, since Ms. Barrows was the boss and not a hired hand.) Thus, while she was wrangling hookers in the Big Apple, I was serving owls across the country as the self-appointed CEO (Chief Executive Owl)!


Debbie Jordan