Individual Characteristics - Questioned Documents - Norwitch Document Laboratory
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Individual Characteristics

As considered in the discussion of the learning process, individual characteristics, unlike class characteristics, are thought of as unique to a specific writer.  This is not quite true; it requires a combination of individual characteristics and frequency of occurrence to make an individual’s handwriting unique to him.  Just as one number to a safe combination lock can be found in numerous other safes, a large enough series of numbers in a specific order will be unique to only one safe.

The following handwriting characteristics are some of those that tend to lend themselves to individualization and as such, are closely scrutinized by the examiner during a handwriting comparison.

Skill Level

Skill level can best be described as an appreciation of beauty as applied to handwriting.  An individual with a high skill level produces writing that is fluid, rhythmic, perhaps artistically embellished and, in short, aesthetically pleasing to the eye.  An individual with a low skill level produces a product that is hesitating, slowly executed, may contain grotesque, although repeated letter formations, and in general, is not very pleasing to the eye.

Skill level, by itself may be one of the more important characteristics of identification or non-identification.  One of the basic concepts of handwriting identification is that a person with a low skill level cannot write above that level, while a person with a high skill level can write to a lower level, or generally produce writing of a lesser quality than what is his norm.  This concept will, at times, allow for the disassociation (if not elimination) of a suspect from a questioned body of writing. If the questioned writing displays an extremely high skill level, the writer that can only produce a much lower quality of writing could not have written the questioned material.  A person with a lower skill level attempting to produce a higher level of writing is for the most part abandoning his own handwriting and is attempting to fashion an artistic form of an imagined handwriting style.  This is, in fact, a disguised form of writing.

Slant or Inclination

Slant refers to the angle of inclination of writing or a letter of writing from the base line of that writing. It may be forward and leaning to the right, or “backhand” if it leans to the left.  The slant of a writing may change from the beginning of a word to the end of a word, or from the beginning of a sentence, paragraph, or page to the end of that sentence, paragraph, or page.  If this change in slant is reproduced habitually, it may be of itself an identifying characteristic.  Often a forward or a backhand slant is thought of as indicative of a right-handed or left-handed writer.  This is far from definitive.   Although many left-handed individuals do maintain a backhand slant to their writing, this is not specific to just “lefties”.

Writing slant, as an individual identifying characteristic, does not normally carry the weight that many other areas of examination would.  However, a questioned body of writing that maintains a forward slant is obviously quite dissimilar from another body of writing that maintains a backhand slant.

Many graphologists actually attempt to quantitate slant by physically measuring the angles and putting the results into report form.  They may then draw conclusions that slight differences are indicative of one writer because they are, after all, only slight differences, or different writers because there are differences.  This is patently absurd.


This is probably the most basic of individual characteristics.  Form is the pictorial representation of a letter or writing movement. A highly visible dissimilarity in the form of the same letter found in both the questioned and standard material is an inherent difference in handwriting.

Form is the first of the individual characteristics that will receive the document examiner’s close scrutiny.  It is the lamppost that lights the way for the rest of the handwriting comparison.


This is the manner in which the pen moves in order to form a letter.  Some parts of movement have been historically referred to as “Garland” if the pen moves overhand, or clockwise, producing rounded letter formations, or “Arcade” if the pen moves underhand, or counter-clockwise, producing saw-toothed letter formations.  While correct these terms are often found in the speech patterns and report language of graphologists.

The importance of movement is readily apparent.  Two letters that are correct in form and pictorially similar, can be quite different when it comes to the direction that the pen was moving when they were produced.  Two similar appearing lower-case “t’s” may have the crossing strokes made with the pen going left to right in one, and right to left in the other. While appearing similar, these two “t’s” are, in fact, fundamentally different.

Direction of movement of the writing implement can often be determined by low-power microscopic observation of the ink or pencil line.   A majority of ballpoint pens, because of normally occurring defects in the ball housing, leave behind striae in the ink line.  During changes in pen direction these striae will move from the inside of the ink line to the outside. The shorter “leg” of the striation indicates where the pen came from, and the longer portion of the striation, where it is going.

Determining pencil direction is quite different but again relatively simplistic.  While the surface of writing paper appears to be very smooth to the touch and naked eye, it is in reality made of fibrous material that has definite texture, albeit microscopic.  These randomly crisscrossing fibers remove portions of the pencil “lead” as the pencil scrapes across the paper’s surface.  Microscopically, a buildup of the lead will be observed to be thicker on the trailing edges of the fibers than on the leading edges.  This will indicate direction, the pencil moving from the direction of the heavy deposited sides of the fibers to the sides of lesser deposits.


Proportions generally refers to the symmetry of an individual letter.  Using the letter “B” as an example, is the top “bulb” the same size as the bottom “bulb?”  Is one portion of the letter thinner than another?  This concept usually develops a relationship between one portion of a letter to another portion of that same letter.

Height Ratios

Height ratios are a comparison or correlation of the height of one letter or letter segment to another letter, usually within the same word or signature.  One would expect all capital letters in the same writing system to maintain the same height throughout a body of writing.  However, the heights of capital letters in an individual’s writing may vary from one letter to another.  A capital “K” may always maintain a slight height advantage over a capital “L”, or “Z” or other letter.  The same concept is likewise utilized in a comparison of lower case letters, or in a comparison of lower case letters to upper case letters. Thus, combinations of various height ratios are often uniquely individual and habitual to a specific writer.

Of all individual characteristics, height ratios seem to be the most difficult characteristic for a forger to accurately reproduce.

The “i” dot

A portion of writing as small and as innocuous as an “i” dot may at times become a prominent identifying characteristic.  “I” dots come in all sizes and shapes.  They may be horseshoe shaped with the open end to the right, up, down or left, or be simply dots, circles, or dashes inclined up or down.  In many teenage girls, they may be made in the shape of hearts.


The “t” crossing

“T” crossings occupy much the same weight, or more, for the document examiner as the “i” dot does.  A “t” crossing may go from right to left, left to right, it may incline up, incline down, or be perfectly horizontal.  It may be heavily shaded on the right or heavily shaded on the left.  The “t” may be crossed at the top of the letter, near the bottom, or in the middle.  It may be connected to an exit stroke from a terminal letter of a word in a hasty attempt by the individual to cross the “t” without lifting the pen from the paper.


Loops found in a cursively written letter may be symmetrical or may be flat on one side and therefore be asymmetrical.  They may be thin or bulbous.  They may be rounded at the apex or may be sharply pointed like a needle.


This concept is the study of changing width of a line as pen pressure varies.  It may indicate the direction of movement.

Alignment To Baseline

This is simply the relationship of the questioned writing to a baseline.  It is the adherence of the writing to either a preformed (printed) or imaginary baseline.  The writing may slant upward, downward, be concave or convex, or have a pattern of changes for different words, word portions, or signatures.  It may follow the baseline, or go through the baseline, or be irregular with regard to the baseline.

Pen Lifts

Here we note where the writing implement lifts from the paper, usually interior to a word or signature.  It may be a natural occurrence for a specific writer to lift the pen at an unusual point in the writing or it may be an indicator of spuriousness if it is in the form of patching or not found in the standard material.


Pen speed is often an essential element of the examination process.  As will be discussed elsewhere, fast, fluid pen movement is difficult to duplicate by a forger.  The following comparison depicts many of the indicators of fast or slow writing:

Fast         Smooth Writing Movements
Elongated & misplaced “i” dots & “t” crossings
Words or initials connected
A “flattened” appearance.  Lessened legibility

Slow        Hesitation, tremor, more angular writing
“i” dots & “t” crossings in corrrect position
Sharp delineation between separate pen movements
Blunt starts and stops
Writing is made of individual letters and legible
Movements may be ornamental



Embellishments are most often located at the beginning of a letter, but may be throughout the written material.  They usually take the form of an added movement that decorates the writing, such as swirls, added loops, concentric circles, flourishes, etc.

Entry/Exit Strokes

The entry and exit strokes of a letter may repeat themselves in similar letter formations such as “U’s” and “V’s” or perhaps “M’s” and “N’s”.  However, they may be in the form of a beginning or ending embellishment or a continuation from one letter to the next.  Entry and exit strokes can be habitual movements and therefore identifying characteristics.   The same may be said for connecting strokes from one letter to another in cursive writing.  Some connecting strokes may be similarly found in hand printing where letters are quickly written creating a bridge between them.  Connecting strokes tend to allow the individual to be more creative while developing individual characteristics as they may not have been emphasized to any great extent during the learning process.


Retracing is the process wherein the pen reinks a written portion of the line, usually in the opposite direction, such as a downward movement followed by un upward movement over the existing line.   While it usually is a natural part of the writing experience, if it occurs as a form of patching to correct the form of a letter, it may be indicative of forgery.


The simple act of misspelling words can, of themselves, be individual, in combination, to a specific individual.  Take for example the actual case of a Lithuanian seaman who in the body of one questioned document spelled: “because”-“b’cause”, “shoes”-“schoes, “tennis”-“tenis”, “sweater”-“sweather”, and “pajamas”-“pygemas”.  These same spelling errors were found in standard material that had been dictated to the suspect.  Without looking any further the examiner already had a pretty firm grasp on who the writer of the disputed document was just from the similar misspellings.

Likewise, there are those writers who will put pen lifts and breaks between specific letter combinations.  Spacing between adjacent letters or even words in a questioned writing may again display habitual characteristics of a specific writer.


The format of a disputed document may additionally be an identifying characteristic.  Using a personal check as an example, one individual may use the term “no cents”, another may use “00/xxx” or perhaps “00/100.”   Ampersands, if used, also tend to be unique.

In much the same manner, dates appearing on checks may be in the form of numeral days, months, and years separated by dashes or diagonal lines. Abbreviations of the months of the year, or spelling the months out in their entirety may be habitual.  Each of these different date formats may be the habitual characteristic of a specific writer.  A writer asked to write exemplar material when the questioned document is a check, may disguise his writing admirably, perhaps even to the extent that a viable handwriting comparison is precluded, but he may then slip and duplicate the questioned format.  While this in itself may not be enough for an identification, it may be enough to couch an opinion in probability.


On occasion, a writer will use an upper case form of a letter in a place usually reserved for the lower case form, or vice versa.  These characteristics, if found in both questioned and standard material may be highly significant.

Rev 3/16