A historian doing original research will usually find herself working with handwritten historic documents. These can include letters, diaries, account books, census pages, tax records, and anything else that people think they need to write down. And some of those people have difficult handwriting.
Sometimes it’s a matter of style. A certain late nineteenth-century town clerk in Connecticut (if I recall correctly, he was in New Hartford) had a beautiful, educated copperplate hand. It’s not easy for modern eyes to read, and this particular man used a pen with a very fine nib; as a result, the normal fading of the ink over time was close to obliterating a lot of the thin lines of words on the deeds he’d copied.
Seventeenth-century English handwriting actually shaped a number of the letters quite differently than later penmanship standards called for. That’s another challenge.
And then there’s the hurried or idiosyncratic penmanship problem. Official records are usually (usually!) written carefully, but other documents were often written in haste, or for the use of just the writer, who presumably could read her own handwriting. All of these issues are a problem for the scholar who has to decipher the documents.
To begin with, it helps to have some talent and experience in reading handwriting, especially bad handwriting. From there, though, deciphering the difficult stuff requires a kind of internal detective work. The key here is that whatever the handwriting looks like, it will (generally speaking) be consistent. That is, the way a person writes “g” will be consistent across a relatively narrow range of shapes for “g.” (This is part of what handwriting analysts work with.)
The key, then, is to study the parts of the writing that are clear enough to read. There will almost always be portions like this. Then, it is possible to compare the shape of the letters in the less legible parts to those in the more legible parts, while keeping in mind the way that letters are usually written. For example:
The letters in the right-most column, which recorded the race of the individuals, are rather unclear. Are they messy Ws, for “white,” or messy Ns, for “Negro” (which, incidentally, was not an official Census category anyway). They’re probably not Ms, since they really don’t look like the Ms in the male/female column just to the left; notice how the Ms have a clear downstroke in the middle, and also end on a downstroke, while the possible Ws end on an upstroke, as capital Ws generally should (also compare the W in William in the first line). But let’s also compare with some Ns in the census-taker’s own handwriting:
This is from the top of the same page. It contains a sample of an N written as an initial letter (Nichols, in the first line), which does end on an upstroke – and also a less formal N (in the last line, Maria N). The less formal one ends on a downstroke, just like the Ms and unlike the possible Ns in the right-most column.
My conclusion is that the questionable letters are messy Ws. The fact that there shouldn’t be any Ns in that column is also important; sometimes it’s necessary to interpret poorly-written words from context. Sometimes it’s not possible to read them at all, which is just something one should expect to happen from time to time. With a little care and study, however, most handwriting will yield up its meaning to the persistent scholar.