Doctor’s Handwriting


I have notoriously bad handwriting.

Students regularly ask me to decipher my handwriting for them. As a consequence I write on flip charts and white boards as little as possible.

I am not alone in this. Some of you have bad handwriting too. In our teched-up age most of us don’t write much or at all.

Unfortunately the NEBOSH exams are old-skool in that they require you to write answers by hand over a two or three-hour period of time.

NEBOSH Examiners’ Reports regularly make comments about the fact that examiners can’t mark what they can’t read.

To be fair, examiners see a lot of bad handwriting and they are generally pretty good at deciphering it. But there does come a point where poor handwriting becomes illegible.

So here are a few tips that can help:

Practice makes perfect – Your fingers, wrist and arm will probably be unaccustomed to the physical effort of writing by hand. You need to recognise this early on in your exam preparation and you need to take every opportunity to write with a pen on paper. Write full answers to exam-style practice questions and get into the habit of answering several questions back-to-back – to replicate what will happen in the real exam. Work-harden yourself.

Choose your weapon – experiment with different styles of pen (e.g. ball point or fine tip) and in particular different widths of barrel or grip. A thicker pen barrel can make a big difference to comfort and reduce hand and arm cramps.

Go ergonomic – There are a variety of very strange looking ergonomic pens out there. If you really struggle with comfort and cramp then these are worth a try.

Go large – Write bigger than you normally would and space your words out on the page. Allow your writing to expand and flow.

Double up – Use two lines of the lined paper in your exam booklet for one line of writing. This will allow you to go large.

Slow and steady – Your natural response to exam conditions will be to write lots and write fast. But remember that in the exams quality is more important than quantity. One legible sentence with one credit worthy idea is worth more marks than two sentences with two credit worthy points if the examiner can’t read them. Planning your answers and then writing slowly and clearly to that plan can help. Allow yourself the benefit of writing concise answers to that plan.

Longer is not always better – Short concise sentences that make the point can be better than long rambling ones. One sentence; one idea. Next sentence; next idea.

Give yourself a break – Take short breaks between bouts of writing in the exam and exercise your fingers, hands and arms. Do this routinely from the start of the exam onwards. Do not wait for soreness to tell you to do this – by then it’s too late.

Pad it out – No, not your answer. The sheet you’re writing on. Write on paper with the rest of the answer booklet underneath it. Don’t write on a single sheet of paper direct on the hard surface of the desk – it will not flow as well.

Two final thoughts for you:

Everyone will struggle to write neatly for two or three hours continuously. So even if you have reasonable handwriting you should think about doing practice and exercises to build up to the exam. After all, you wouldn’t run a marathon without training for it, would you? Stick “exercises to improve handwriting” in Google and see what you come up with.

If you have poor handwriting it may be that there are specific features of it that are causing the issue. For example, not leaving adequate spaces between letters or not leaving adequate spaces between words. There are resources out there that are aimed at improving adult handwriting. For example, see the ‘common problems’ chapter at the back of this guidance document from the National Adult Literacy Agency of Ireland (see here).

To quote Master Sergeant Farell again: “Through readiness and discipline we are masters of our fate”.

Dr Jim Phelpstead BSc, PhD, CMIOSH

RRC Consultant Tutor