How to digitize handwritten text in Adobe Illustrator CC

*This tutorial was written on March 26, 2018 by Bobbi Reyda and is based on Adobe Illustrator CC, version 22.1. Checked for accuracy on April 7, 2020 in version 24.1.

There are many reasons why you may way to digitize handwritten text—but the reason is not important here. This tutorial will show you how to make it happen in Illustrator, which means you’ll also end up with a vector of your text (win). Let’s get into it.

1: Write your text

If possible, choose a dark ink on white paper. The more contrast you have between the text and the paper, the better. However, if that is out of the question (if, for example, you already have something in front of you that’s written in red ink on off-white paper), don’t worry—not all is lost.

Write at a legible size. Don’t worry about writing anything ginormous (we want it to be natural, after all); just write in whatever size you normally would for the style you’re after.

2: Photograph your writing

Take a photo of your handwriting, in good lighting. Again, we’re aiming to achieve the greatest contrast we can. Try not to include any shadows in the photo. I’ve always been able to achieve what I needed with a simple photo snapped with my iPhone.

Once you have the photo, go ahead and crop it so it only includes the text you want digitized. This isn’t necessary, however it gets rid of unnecessary space and makes the file smaller.

Send this photo over to your computer. For me, Apple’s AirDrop works seamlessly for this, but you can always email the photo or add it to your favourite file sharing software instead.

3: Drop photo into Adobe Illustrator

Literally, just drag and drop it into an open file. Depending on the size and resolution of your photo, it may take over the entire artboard (plus some), so just resize it if need be.

4: Image Trace + Expand 

Select your photo. We’re going to Trace and Expand it by going to Object > Image Trace > Make and Expand. If we’re lucky (and also depending on your pen, photo, paper, and lighting), we’ll get a good trace and be good to move onto the next step. If you like how it looks, skip the rest of this step and move on to the next one.

If not, we’ll need to work a bit harder. But have no fear!

First, undo the initial trace attempt (Edit > Undo). Then go to Window > Image Trace. The Image Trace window will pop out. We’ll be using this to refine how the handwriting gets traced. Click the Preview checkbox in the bottom-left corner so you can see how the adjustments you make affect the output. If you haven’t touched the settings yet, the image should trace just as it did before.

Now, the best way to learn what the settings do is to play with each of them. Move them to their far lefts and rights and see how the trace is affected. Try out the presets.

Once you’re done perfecting, we need to go in and expand the photo. Go to Object > Image Trace > Expand.

Often this process is very much trial and error. However, it’s still possible you may end up with something you aren’t 100% happy with. There are many reasons for this, but it often ends up being the type of pen or the type of paper. If you are using rough paper and a pen that doesn’t always put out a smooth edge (like mine—if you look close at the photo of my text, you’ll see the edges are a bit rough in some areas), these things will be reflected in the trace.

When I’m creating something that is meant to truly represent my handwriting, I do not mind the imperfections. In fact, the flaws in the trace match up with the flaws in my writing, and I like this. However, if I am working on writing that needs to be digitized in a more polished manner (perhaps for a logo), I’d like it to be more perfect.

In those situations, there are a few things that can be done:

  1. Use smoother paper and a pen with more even flow of ink
  2. Edit the traced path afterwards to smooth out any rough areas

5: Get rid of unnecessary whitespace

Expanding the image created a few objects that we need to get rid of if we want to easily change the text colour and/or place only the text on a background. To illustrate the problem, I’ve place a coloured layer behind out traced + expanded image.

Let’s fix this. Open up the layers panel. You’ll see a Group inside Layer 1 that contains a whole bunch of paths. What we need to do is find and delete the ones that correspond to the whitespace within letters (like the centre of an ‘O’) as well as the one that corresponds to the white background.

The paths we are looking for show empty whitespace in the path preview, like the following image. 

If you are unsure, you can hide a path to test it.

Find, target, and delete each of the whitespace paths. This can be a little tedious, but I’ve found that often the within-letter whitespace paths appear at the top of the layer list, while the background whitespace path appears at the bottom.

If you are unsure, you can hide the path the test it. Or, you can target the paths by clicking on them directly within the expanded image, then deleting them.

6: Use your digitized handwriting to create awesome things

You’re done! Now you can use your text however you’d like (perhaps on top of a masked photo, learn how to do that too!). As well, since each letter is separated into its own path, you can make updates at whatever level you’d like (you can straighten letters, words, or entire lines if need be—just be careful not to lose the ‘i’ dots).

Have fun, and happy handwriting!

Note: This process can absolutely be used for more than just handwriting. You can use a variation of it to digitize almost anything created on paper—you just need to find the trace settings that work with what you’re digitizing.