One of the Best Ways to Get Better at Lettering


Lettering is all about building muscle memory. And it is built through constant repetition. However, it is not just any kind of repetition. It has to be specific and systematic. It aims to address and break bigger chunks of learning into smaller, bite-sized pieces. That is called deliberate practice. I first heard of the term deliberate practice from a podcast from Seanwes, and I've also read about it from James Clear.

What does it mean in Lettering?

In lettering, this means practicing each letter, breaking them down into strokes and identifying the quirks and nuances of each character. Spend enough time doing this weekly and you will find yourself becoming more comfortable. Whatever your skill level is, you will only benefit from doing this. Even pros have to revisit their roots and look through each of the letters one by one.

The goal is to be focused and put your attention into getting better. Take it slow and draw each character. Afterward, take account of the mistakes that you encountered and try again. By doing so, the better you can retain information.

Do first, then seek to understand

I first did it when I began lettering. At first, I was also skeptical, and I couldn't understand why some letters have to be drawn like that. I just went through it anyway. And after a week or two, I noticed that it became a lot easier and more comfortable drawing them even without and reference. Two years down the road, I finally understood why I had to go through that. I now understand that it is a necessary (evil?) step that I needed to go through to become better. There are just some things that we need to do even if we don't understand in the beginning.

Deliberate practice helps me become proficient in lettering. Because I know that the characters are from a well-thought out type that is widely used everywhere, I can be assured that the principles I am learning are on point. This means that when I practice with these fonts, I ingrain the concepts in my mind and in my muscle memory.

How to begin?

To start with, identify fonts that you want to copy. Choose from the more traditional types well-known for their form and structure. It could be Helvetica, Garamond, Bodoni, etc. When I started, I chose Georgia and Gotham. These fonts will give you the basics.

Font Sampler
Font Sampler

Print them out and lay a tracing paper on top of it. Start tracing and drawing over the letters. You can also print the letters out in a light gray color, so you can write directly on the page. Identify what makes each letter unique. It could be the distance from the x-height, or the space occupied be the curve. Is it overshooting from the baseline?

It will look something like this:

Deliberate Practice Exemplar
Deliberate Practice Exemplar

Repeat this multiple times, continually familiarizing yourself with the strokes. Then you can try to do it yourself without tracing.

If you prefer brush strokes, you can also do it using some brush lettering exemplars. Or if you are into Gothic calligraphy, you can also do that.

Commit to a schedule

Finally, deliberate practice is not going to be helpful if you don't do it enough. So, commit to a schedule - whether it's daily or 3x a week, set a time for it.

That's it! Start printing and start tracing now.