As a child, I struggled with my writing. It was not just spelling, but writing in general. I am left-handed in a world of righties – copying others is difficult when you can’t do it their way. Plus, I constantly ran the risk of smudging my writing and getting ink over my hand.

Why did Leonardo da Vinci write backwards? People who knew him attest to his left-handedness and to have written backwards. In using mirror writing, Leonardo da Vinci would have avoided smudging ink which took its time to dry.

Writing backwards allowed Leonardo da Vinci to write quickly without ruining his words and without having to alter the angle of his paper. In doing so, he left us a rich set of texts outlining his ideas on areas such as art, engineering, philosophy, his daily routine, and his preferred way of eating.

Was Leonardo da Vinci left-handed?

We have eye witness accounts attesting to the fact that Leonardo da Vinci wrote and painted with his left hand. In describing both the actions of writing and painting show he truly was left-handed.

In addition to this, we have some evidence from Leonardo himself. He made sketches of his left-hand at work – not his right hand. The use of mirror writing to avoid smudging also suggests a natural lean to left-handedness.

Why did Leonardo da Vinci write backwards?

The primary reason for writing backwards, as noted above, is to avoid smudging. Today we have biros and ballpoint pens where the ink dries relatively quickly. 

It was not so in Leonardo’s time. During the middle ages, as in times before, writing meant using ink from an ink well and a quill. He would have dipped the quill in the ink well then he would have written what he wanted until the ink dried on the quill and he dipped it again. He would then have had to dry the ink.

Writing was a laborious process; especially if a quill needed fixing or replacing, or the ink ran out and the well needed refilling. And so on. Getting ink on your hands would have been ugsome too and best avoided. Given his genius, it’s no surprise Leonardo da Vinci found a way to write backwards.

Could Leonardo da Vinci write normally?

Looking over his writings, it seems clear that Leonardo da Vinci divided his writing into texts for public consumption and texts for himself. The former he wrote in a normal fashion, which must have been a pain for him as a leftie, and the latter was written mirrored.

When writing for yourself, it is easier to take a more natural approach. All of us do it. We scribble things down in our most natural way and we care less about the presentation of the texts – we just need to be able to read it or get those thoughts down and work out what we’re saying later on.

It seems clear, therefore, that Leonardo da Vinci wrote backwards for himself because it was easier for him. He could write more naturally as well as quicker. As someone who was interested in mirrors and ground his own, he would have had plenty around should he need one to decipher his own text.

Did Leonardo da Vinci write in code?

There is also a third possibility – what if he did it intentionally to block others from reading his work? Leonardo da Vinci did not write in code, but he did mirror write. He could clearly write normally when he wanted to, so why change it? 

Well, short of writing in code, writing something backwards is a good way to confuse those trying to read your work. He may have wanted to obscure some of his thoughts from prying eyes – or at least ones too lazy to find a mirror.

What is mirror writing?

In the west, unlike in the Far East, writing is incredibly uniform. If you’ve ever been to Japan or China or Korea, you’d see writing going all over the place. You’d also notice books with their spine on the right side not the left. Meanwhile here it’s all left-right.

Mirror writing is where you write backwards – not just in terms of word order, but in terms of letters too. The name for the style comes from the fact you need to use a mirror to read the text normally.

Mirror writing is incredibly rare. A survey of 65,000 newspaper readers in Australia found that only 10 were natural mirror writers. Other studies have shown left-handed people to be more likely to mirror write with about 15%  to find it more natural. 

How do you write backwards?

During my school days one teacher did try to teach me to write backwards. However, I found it incredibly difficult because I needed to know exactly what I wanted to write – usually I have not formed the full sentence when I start one, and I needed to know how many words of that sentence would fit on the line.

This is because the teacher tried to get me to write the words in the correct order – left to write, but write them last to first. It made no sense and as you might guess, it did not work out.

Writing backwards, mirror writing, is exactly the same as normal writing except that you start on the right side of the page and move left. As with normal writing, you start from the top and move to the bottom after that – starting from the bottom would defeat the point.

How do left-handed people write?

Most left-handed people do not naturally write in a mirrored fashion. They wish to conform to societal norms and to have their words understood without the use of a mirror. This requires a different method to avoid smudging.

At school I was usually encouraged to write normally with the paper flush to the angle of the desk like with the other kids, but this meant writing in such a way as my hand does not touch the paper as I’m writing. This is difficult to maintain.

The easier way to write from left to right for me was to turn my paper at a 90 degree angle so I’m looking to the right as I write. This meant my hand was then touching the paper below the line I’m writing. This stopped me ending up with ink on the padded side of my hand where it meets the wrist.

Was Leonardo da Vinci dyslexic?

There is no direct evidence that Leonardo was dyslexic. However, some scientists at Middlesex University have claimed he, like Pablo Picasso, was

Their notion comes from a test of just 41 people, half of whom were dyslexic, and how they processed and remembered images. It’s not much of a test and we should remember that most scientific studies cannot be replicated. 

In addition to this, some people have noted that left-handed dyslexic adults are more likely to mirror write – even naturally and without forethought. The article on this topic does not note whether this is a left-handed thing, a dyslexic thing, or a left-handed dyslexic thing. I’d guess that left-handedness is the key element here.

My experiences as a left-handed writer

I’m not sure when this happened, but during my school days we were taken to a fake Victorian school in another town or city, possibly Gloucester, but I don’t recall where exactly. All I remember is a dingy classroom, a fake spanking out of the room, and being forced to write right handed. As I’d never really tried it, I spent the whole class in fear of being humiliated and punished. 

It was a difficult experience as a young kid, but it was a one-off fake experience and it made me feel for the left-handed kids of the 19th century and before who were mistreated and forced to  write abnormally for them.

You can imagine my shock, then, when I went off to Japan in 2004 to teach. As I walked around my classes of 35-40 students noticing there were no left-handed writers. None at all. However, some seemed to write very poorly.

I then began to meet people outside of work and they’d say they were left-handed at first, but were forced to write right-handed and to use chopsticks right-handed in order to fit in. I’ve since seen the same with friends from China. It’s sad that conformity is forcing neurodiversity to conform all over the world.

Would you like to write like Leonardo da Vinci?

Let’s wrap this one up with a challenge. Have you ever tried mirror writing? You don’t have to be a left-hander or dyslexic or an Italian genius to try it. Give it a go and let me know how you found it – perhaps you could write your journal in this manner. Maybe you don’t write any more – fewer people do these days, but you might be surprised how much more you remember when you jot something down as opposed to typing it up online. Anyway, give mirror writing a go – teach your kids too – they’ll love it.