last updated: 19 June 2020 (approximate reading time: 8 minutes; 1585 words)
In a world where most of our written communication is electronic, it might seem strange to think about pens, but there much to commend analog writing, and getting the right writing instrument is not always straightforward.
Why Use a Pen?
There are many reasons to use a pen, such as speed, utility, and permanence.
I will often use a pen when I’m making notes—a phone can be useful, particularly for short notes and a computer with a keyboard is good when I want to write longer notes, but I think differently when I write things down, and I can lay out my written notes in a different way to how I lay out notes on a screen.
When I write notes, I can also bring a range of tools and techniques, for instance:
- Text no longer needs to be a linear stream going from top to bottom. Instead, I can place notes at different places on the page and a note at the bottom can be written before a note at the top.
- Each note can then be annotated.
- Different colors—whether by writing in a different color or underlining in a different color—can highlight different aspects.
- Links can be made.
Why Do You Need the Right Pen?
I’m not sure that anyone needs the right pen, or whether there is a perfect pen for anyone. However, it is certainly possible to try to use the wrong pen.
For me, I want a pen to be invisible in my hand—I want to not notice the pen that I am writing with. In other words, the pen must not distract.
There are many distractions a pen can introduce, for instance:
- It can be uncomfortable in the hand.
- It can scratch or feel rough on the paper when writing.
- It can smudge or put out blots of ink.
What may seem to be a trivial distraction can become a major annoyance over several hours of writing.
In the pursuit of good clean writing that can be read at a later date, clearly the pen is important—it’s the thing that the writer holds and so it needs to feel right and to be aesthetically pleasing (no one wants to pick up something that looks wrong). However, the refill that goes into the pen is equally important, if not more so, since that is the means by which the writer puts the ink on the page. A key element of the feel of a pen—whether it scratches, whether it splotches—is how the refill writes on the page.
The pen is the object that the writer holds in their hand. As such, for a comfortable writing experience, the pen needs to feel right. Feel is a very subjective matter, and there will be many factors which determine how a pen feels for any individual. And naturally, what is right for one person will wrong for another.
Some of the elements that combine to make up the feel include the shape of the pen, the weight, and the material the pen is made from.
At its most basic, the size and shape of a pen are the key determinants for whether a writing instrument fits in the writers hand. But there is also a taste element here—some writers prefer chunkier or slimmer writing instruments. Whatever the writer’s taste, a pen needs to be comfortable in the hand over a long period of time.
After the shape, the weight (or lack of weight) is another factor for how a pen feels in the hand, and again, this is very much a matter of personal preference. The distribution of the weight also affects the balance of a pen which will make the writing experience more or less comfortable.
The material that the pen is made from has an impact on the feel and the weight. Most pens are made from metal or plastic, with some made from wood or other materials such as concrete. (Beyond weight) the main differences that the material makes are temperature (metal will usually feel cooler, which can affect whether the pen feels sweaty, especially when used for a long period of time) and how the material feels. Also, plastic pens can often be less well finished with sharper edges (especially on the budget models).
Some pens have rubber padding and/or grips. These can be useful when a pen is new, but over time, these rubberized pieces tend to harden, shrivel, and collect dirt. Rubberized surfaces can also degrade and start to become sticky.
The size of the pen in the pocket and the robustness of a pen is important if a pen is to be carried. If the pen is to be carried in a jacket pocket or a purse, then there is less need for it to be tough or to be small. However, if it is to be carried in (say) the back pocket of a pair of jeans, then it needs to be both sturdy and compact with a lid that stays securely shut.
If you want to carry the pen in a jacket pocket, then a clip will be a necessary prerequisite (unless you have a pen pocket in your jacket).
Finally, there is the color of the pen (as opposed to the color of the refill), especially for plastic pens. On one hand the color is a matter of personal aesthetics, but there is also a function if you want the color of the pen to match the color of the ink.
From the reader’s perspective—and that reader may be you—all that matters is the result of how the ink has been applied to the page. The pen that was used for writing is only relevant to the extent that it allowed for the writer to control the refill (just holding a small refill doesn’t make for a comfortable experience).
And from the writer’s perspective, the refill can have far more of an effect on the writing than the pen. A refill that doesn’t work for a writer’s style—for instance, if it requires too much pressure or is too scratchy—will have far more of a detrimental effect on the end result than the choice of pen.
There are many choices for the writing medium—including pencil, ink, and fiber—but I want to focus on ballpoints and rollerballs. By preference I would always use a fountain pen and ink, but for convenience, I choose rollerballs, not least because I am left handed and prefer writing without the smudge.
I mention ballpoints and rollerballs—while both make their mark with a small ball touching the page, there is a difference between the two (and within each categorization, there are variants which can bring more confusion).
Broadly, a ballpoint is the more traditional (and cheaper) form of pen. It uses an oil-based ink that dries instantly, but requires more pressure to produce a mark on the page and that pressure must be consistently applied. These refills have a tendency to be a bit clumpy, giving a less precise result and there is a less wide range of colors.
By contrast, rollerballs use water-based ink which does not require pressure and gives a far more assertive line on the page. These refills are available in a wider range of colors and those colors are more vibrant than their oil-based equivalents.
The line between ballpoint and rollerball is further blurred as some manufacturers of ballpoint refills have developed an oil formula with more viscosity, intended to give a smoother writing experience closer to that offered by rollerballs. Some rollerballs offer a gel-based ink formulation which may offer more water resistance (when dry).
There are other differences, for instance the ballpoint will write on more surfaces (where the rollerball can be more finicky about shiny paper) and the ballpoint can be expected to last longer. Any difference will also be more or less noticeable depending on the width of the line—often a broader tip will give a smoother feel, but this smoothness may come at the expense of precision.
In addition to these differences, there are variations between brands. Different brands will have a different feel and their color choices will lay down a line with differing authority. Some refill manufacturers only make refills in certain sizes, so your choice of a pen body may dictate a limited range of refills, or if you favor a certain manufacturer’s refill that may necessitate a change of pen body.
What’s the Best Pen?
So after all this, you might be wondering what is the best pen…and that would be the wrong question. The better question is: what’s the best for me?
Any pen has to fit your hand. The ink color has to be right and the line laid down on the page must work with your writing style. And the pen/refill combination has to work when writing over a sustained period of time.
For me, this combination works. The pen has a good weight and is small enough to fit in my pocket. The octagonal cap means that the pen doesn’t roll when placed on a flat surface. The ink writes well, and I like the color (although it is maybe a touch closer to midnight green rather than midnight blue—however, that’s a compromise I’m prepared to make since I like the shape of the pen and have to go with the refills it takes).
Go get yourself a good pen. You’ll appreciate the investment.