Preventing Hand Fatigue During Long Writing Sessions

March 23, 2021-Kirk Hale

Hand Pain

Oh poo, I’ve gone, and vice gripped my pen and broken my thumb

Exams. We all hate them, but we all have to do them. One thing that comes up regularly during long, fast-paced writing sessions is hand fatigue. About 20 minutes into an exam, people tend to get awful pain in their hand muscles that leads to messy writing and regularly taking breaks, something you can’t afford in a timed setting.

Recently a reader, Chris, emailed me about this very topic and asked for help on finding a great pen for those long exams. My response? Focus on your grip first.

The Foundation: Handwriting Grip

Gel Grip Pen

The Patented Grip is designed to – aaaaand it’s broken

Grip is something so often overlooked that we buy every brand of “gel-grip” pen on the market, thinking that the squishy covering will cure our hand pains. This doesn’t solve the problem, because:

Even a pen with a grip made from clouds won’t cure hand fatigue

You’re holding it wrong

The grip isn’t an issue, your hands are

You’re holding it wrong

Get the point? It’s akin to thinking that buying a Ferrari will make you a better driver, or buying a better computer mouse will instantly make you better at shooting people in games. These things may help, but much like the proverbial man who built his house on the sand, a weak foundation will mean the entire structure will fail.

Stupid Loopy Pen Thing

Who the hell designed this thing?

So we need to get you to demolish that house, and rebuild it on the rocks. You need to fix that grip such that writing with a pen made from barbed wire is a comfortable experience. Only then you can go ahead and buy a nice pen to complement your habit.

Just a quick note to those devoted to ballpoints: You will find it more difficult to find a ballpoint pen that is superbly comfortable because:

Ballpoints require more pressure by design

A lot of them are cheaply made

They’re just not as nice to use as fountain pens

Note that I said more difficult, not impossible. Of course you can write comfortably for hours using a ballpoint, it’s just that the grip and pressure required to write with a ballpoint pen is vastly different to writing with a quality fountain pen. Case in point: I cannot write using ballpoints as my hands are too used to fountain pens; I hold pens at too low an angle to write with ball pens, and my pressure is too light to coax ink out of most ballpoint pens.

The Pursuit Of Perfect Grip

Ask a hundred people to show you the best way to hold a pen, and they’ll demonstrate a hundred different ways to hold one. There is no “holy grail” way to hold pens, but there are definitely a lot of bad ways to do it. Let’s make a list, shall we?

Don’t hold your pen like it’s covered with grease!

If you hold your pen with the grip of Hercules, your hands will get sore in minutes. The firmer your grip, the more tired your muscles will become. Hold it like it’s made from paper; too firm and you will bend it out of shape. Imagine if you held a quill like this; it would break in two seconds flat, and people certainly managed to write for hours with quill pens.

Don’t press down!

You are not trying to pierce the core of the Earth; and your paper is not made from diamond, so why would you press down when you’re writing? This is where fountain pens hold their own against ballpoints; a quality fountain pen will write with the force of gravity alone. When testing pens, I often just lay the pen on the skin between my thumb and pointer-finger and drag the pen across the paper. If it writes just as well as it does when you hold it normally, it’s a great pen, and proof that pressure is not necessary.

Don’t use your finger muscles!

This may seem weird, but you should only be using your fingers to support the pen in your hand. They should conform to your handwriting grip, and stay there without moving. If you’re one of those people that writes primarily by moving their fingers around, you’re doing it wrong. Writing movement comes from the shoulder, and your arm should be moving, not your fingers. I’ve posted this article previously, but it’s the best explanation of proper writing form, and it’s what you should be doing.

Don’t use some whacky grip from your primary school days!

Chances are you taught yourself how to hold a pen when you were 7, and chances are it’s the wrong way to do it. Change your grip! Here are a few absolute no-nos when it comes to gripping your pen:

– The Death-Grip

Death Grip

Why anyone would ever find this grip comfortable is beyond me. The death grip involves strangling your pen by wrapping your thumb around your pointer and middle fingers. Never do this.

– The Pincer

Pincer Grip

This grip makes your hand look like it’s trying to swallow your pen, with all three fingers bent inwards and a huge amount of pressure being put on the pen. Stop it!

– The Four Fingers

Four Finger Grip

Don’t pretend like your pointer and middle fingers are sewn together. Your ring and pinky fingers should also be tucked away when you hold your pen properly, don’t let those rascals get involved. This grip CAN work for some people so if you already hold your pen this way and it’s comfortable then go for it, but I don’t recommend changing your grip to this one.

And now for the DO list.

Do practice your handwriting!

Handwiriting Shapes

Whether it’s making circles or lines on a page or copying a segment of text from a book, practice makes perfect. It will be very difficult to adjust to a new handwriting grip, but within a week you should be well on your way. Just make little notes for the sake of it, or use a pen to write something rather than a computer, and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice.

Do copy someone else!


Find a font you like, or a handwritten note by someone whose handwriting you admire, and copy it out. Emulate the shapes, the strokes, everything, until you have it committed to memory. Remember that mimicking the experts is way easier than coming up with something yourself, and there’s no shame in this regard.

Do have proper posture!

Writing Posture

Posture at your desk is very important to comfort and longevity of writing sessions. Sit up, shoulders back, chest out, and don’t bend over and place your cheek against the page like you’re having a sword fight with an ant. Oh, and breathe properly!

Do take it slow!

Slow Down

I said that it will take a bit for your head to connect with your arm and learn your new grip, so take it slow for the first week. Practice writing as slow as you can until your writing is neat and consistent. Remember that as soon as you master the slow speed, you can up the pace until you can write lightning fast and still keep it neat!

Now that you have your grip sorted and you’re writing like a total master, it’s time to reward yourself with a fancy new pen.

Pen Myths and You

– The grip section matters

No, not really. Most pens have a round, smooth grip that’s universal, and doesn’t force you to use come weird grip you’re not used to. Having a gel thing just means another part to get broken, and it’s unneeded. This is why not all pens have weird gel grips. And don’t put one of those rubber thingies on a pencil, please.

– Fountain pens are hard to use

If this is the case, how did anyone get anything done before the advent of the ballpoint? A man’s ability to write was limited by his lack of knowledge, not his ability to use a pen. Remember that people used to write using flimsy feathers with a chisel cut out of them, dipping periodically into an ink bottle. If people were able to write the bible two thousand years ago with a stick*, you should be able to use any pen to write your essay.

– It doesn’t matter what pen you get

No. If you get your grip 100% correct and you go ahead and pick up a steel pen weighing near half a kilogram, you’re going to tire in no time. If you’re going to be writing for ages (~3 hours or even more) then get a nice, light pen/pencil that won’t weigh your hand down.

– Avoid cartridge pens for long exams

Absolutely not. Unless you’re using the wettest nib ever devised, a single cartridge fill should last for a lot longer than a three hour exam. Fill your pen fresh before stepping inside and you’ll be fine. If it helps with your stress levels, bring in an extra cartridge. It takes ten seconds to replace a cartridge in a fountain pen.

*Truth be told, I have no idea how they wrote the bible. I doubt they used quills, or maybe they possessed technology far beyond what we have today. Hey, Star Wars was supposedly set “long ago”, and they had holograms to type on. You never know.

The Tools: Your Pen

Pen Types

Now I really don’t mind if you use a pen or a pencil, or even chalk, just find something that fits your hand comfortably. I’m not going to advise Shaquille O’Neal get a TWSBI Mini because that thing will be a toothpick in his ogre-sized hands. Get something that works with you and not against you, and you’ll be a lot better off. That said, if your grip is right, you’ll be a lot more compatible with more pens. Here’s some tips for choosing a pen.

– Try it out

I think that if you’re going to spend a lot on a pen, either buy it from somewhere with a solid returns policy, or try it first. I wouldn’t recommend getting a Lamy Safari unless you’re certain your grip will go well with the cutouts in the pen. If you’re buying a cheap pen or pencil, go ahead and load up until you find the right one, they’re cheap as heck.

– Don’t get what everyone else gets

Just because a lot of people like it doesn’t mean you will. I know that a lot of people hate the Safari despite it being well loved across the globe, so don’t go read one of my, or someone else’s, reviews and think “Hey that works for him/her it will work great for me”. This is why I give you all the technical specs of every pen I review, down to the millimetre, because you shouldn’t be buying a 20cm long pen if you have small hands.

– Try the pen posted and unposted

The Sailor Sapporo Mini is a teeny tiny pen that is absolutely impossible to write with when unposted. posted, it fits my hand really well. If you find a pen is far too large or heavy when you pop the cap onto the rear, then take the cap off and try that.

– Go for something light

As I mentioned above, the lighter your pen, the easier it will be to write for ages. If you’re getting a fountain pen, go for something that’s balanced and not too heavy towards the front or back. You’ll also want it to not be too light, or else there won’t be enough pressure from gravity for it to write in your well trained grip. If you’re going for a pencil, they’re light as hell anyways so you’ll need to press down just a little. Consider going for a heavier grade of lead in this case, like 2B, because you will be able to write with a lighter grip.

– Go for quality, not price

Use your hard earned cash and buy something for $30 instead of buying a bunch of $2 bottom shelf pens. Shop around to find a cheaper price, of course, but don’t opt for a lower quality model to save a little money, that would be a bad idea. Your work is often more valuable than anything, and getting a higher mark because your pen didn’t break halfway through an exam is priceless.

– Get a good ink

For fountain pen users, a good ink is a great investment. You’ll want quick drying, neutral colours like black, blue, or even dark brown. I recommend Noodlers Black, Lamy Blue, Parker Quink Blue, or a blueblack ink from Diamine for starters. They’re all very neutral colours and very pen-compatible.

– Buy a thinner nib/refill

The best thing about having a light grip is that your pens will feel a lot smoother, so you can afford to go for a thinner pen tip without worrying about that scratchy feeling. I personally love Japanese fine and extra fine nibs, as they’re great for getting a lot of words in a small space. The Pilot Hi Tec C range also features some extremely thin line widths, and so does the Uni Style Fit range. If using a pencil, sharpen it often to keep the point thin, or use a mechanical pencil like the Uni KuruToga that will keep that point consistently thin.

Kirk Hale

Kirk developed a passion for writing since the age of 8, since then, he has been collecting pens and then extended the hobby to collect stationery and art supplies. An extension of that hobby resulted in this blog about pens, pencils and everything in between.
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