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9 Tips for Reading Old Handwriting

Toni Carrier
by Toni Carrier

Old Handwritten Documents Recolored

We’ve all been there – we find a handwritten document that we know is important for our research, but the excitement of the new find quickly turns to despair when we realize that we can’t quite make out what is written there. Reading old handwriting can be quite a challenge, but with a bit of practice you can learn to decipher handwritten documents. Here are 9 tips to help you get started.

1. Start by Transcribing Letter by Letter

Start transcribing the letters you can recognize in each word. You can place a question mark in place of letters you can’t decipher. As you go on letter by letter transcribing the document, you may find that you become better able to recognize letters as you settle into the handwriting. When you reach the end of the document, go back and revisit the words in the first few lines of the document. You may find that you can more easily read the letters you did not recognize at first.

2. Second Pass: Look for Words

After you have transcribed what you can by going letter by letter, go back through the document to see if you recognize entire words based upon the letters you have transcribed. You may be surprised at how many words you recognize.

3. Third Pass: Use Comparison Examples

You can use letters and words you have recognized and transcribed as comparison examples to transcribe more words in the document.

4. Learn About the Document Type

Learn more about the type of document you are trying to read. If you learn to recognize common terms and abbreviations found in that type of document, you can transcribe those first, then use those handwritten words as comparison examples for other words in the document you are transcribing.

To learn more about common legal terms and abbreviations found in old documents, you can consult FamilySearch’s Genealogical Dictionary of Legal Terms and Glossary of Genealogical Terms. For more in-depth learning about legal documents, follow Judy G. Russel’s blog The Legal Genealogist

To learn more about common medical terms you may encounter in documents, see Cyndi’s List and Old Medical Terminology at the USGenWeb.

5. Check the Microfilm

If you are reading a handwritten document online from an entire digitized microfilm (such as on FamilySearch, Ancestry.com or Fold3), look at a few frames before and after the document you are reading. If the same person recorded those pages as well, you may spot more words you can recognize on those pages, and take that learning back to the page you are transcribing by using those words you recognized from another page as comparison examples. 

6. Study Early American Handwriting

Tips for Reading Old Handwriting from Ancestry.com includes two helpful tools to keep handy:

  • a table of deciphered handwritten words that are good examples
  • a table of individual letters with examples of various ways they may appear handwritten.

Script Tutorial: Making Sense of Old Handwriting from BYU is in-depth and very helpful guide to reading old handwriting that includes

  • tools for recognizing abbreviations, numbers and dates 
  • examples of entire handwritten pages from church, court, military, poor law, property and other records.
  • interactive exercises where you can practice your new skills

7. Learn About Common Transcription Errors

Reed College has developed a fun yet effective game “Early American Handwriting,” that will help you recognize commonly confused letters in American handwriting. 

8. Ask a Genfriend

Ask a fellow researcher to have a look at a document you are having difficulty transcribing, or post an excerpt on social media and ask Genfriends to take a run at it. Sometimes another pair of eyes can be helpful for deciphering old handwriting, and your fellow researchers will enjoy the challenge of helping you.

9. Take Your Time

Finally, take your time. It’s exciting to find a new record and frustrating if you can’t read it easily. If you become frustrated, put the document aside for a bit and try again later.  You will find that over time, you will become more at ease with reading old handwriting. 

What tips would you recommend for reading old handwriting? Please share in the comment section below so others can learn with you!

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