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Steps in Deciphering Handwritten Documents

The more 18th century writing you read, the easier it will become. If you are having difficulty reading a handwritten document, you could try some of these suggestions:

* Look at the document as a primary source. Try to find answers to the basic questions: Who wrote this document? When? What does it say? Why? How?
* In trying to date the document, consider the kind of writing instrument used, the type and date of the paper, the style of writing, the author, and inte
nal evidence such as dates, names, and events mentioned.
* Study samples of hands from penmanship books of the time and become familiar with the varieties of hands.
* In the document you are trying to read, find words that you know.
* Use internal evidence to help you. Figure out what kind of document this is and become familiar with some of the standard phrases likely to appear in such a document at that time. For instance, look at some deeds or probate records. Certain legal phrases are likely to appear and reappear.
* Begin transcribing the document by writing the words you know and leaving space to write the mystery words once you decipher them.
* Put guesses in brackets in your transcription. The brackets say, "This could be this word or these letters, but I’m not quite sure." For example, notice the brackets in the McCausland transcription of Martha Ballard’s diary.
* Find individual letters in the document, using the letters in the words you know as guides. Compare and compare. Eventually you will start to recognize letters and then combinations of letters more easily.
* Read odd looking words aloud, phonetically. Maybe the sound will help you recognize an oddly-spelled word.
* If the writer is particularly idiosyncratic and hard to decipher, create a personalized alphabet guide by marking letters on a photocopy. You could also cut and paste a photocopy to create a complete alphabet style sheet to use as a reference.
* Look up odd and unfamiliar words in the Oxford English Dictionary. This multivolume dictionary is the most complete available and includes archaic and obscure words unlikely to appear in abridged dictionaries.
* Some words associated with particular occupations or sciences might also be found in eighteenth- century instructional texts about those subjects.
* Get knowledgeable professional help if faded ink makes reading impossible. Ultraviolet light, various chemical treatments, photographing with colored filters, and infrared photographing are options that might help. Professionals with the proper equipment and know-how will help ensure that the treatment doesn’t damage the document.
* Return to the document several times after leaving it for awhile. Sometimes clarity will intervene, and words you could not recognize before will seem simple to read later.
* Ask others what they think mystery words say. Sometimes fresh eyes will see what you do not.
* Enjoy the quest!