Happy Fountain Pen Day

A notebook with ruled pages, cursive, and a fountain pen
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.com

Inspired by National Fountain Pen day, we’ve created a new forum at the Absolute Write Water Cooler. Analog Tools is about those non-digital, non-computer tools we writers love to use, including fountain pen, other pens, pencils, paper, and typewriters. 

Today is the sixth annual Fountain Pen Day, celebrated every year on the first Friday of November. It’s a great time to try writing with a fountain pen.

Five years ago I returned to writing by hand as a way to take breaks from the keyboard (and pain from carpal tunnel). I made a (to me) startling discovery. Fountain pens are hands-down easier to write with than a ballpoint pen, or even a gel pen (my previous pen of choice). This isn’t just me; this has to do with the basic design of the ballpoint or roller point pen. Ball point pen ink is deliberately thickened to make it less likely to leak. Moreover, the ball that gives the ball point pen its name must be physically propelled with some force across the paper in order to coat the ball with ink and transfer it to paper. The extra force required to propel the pen across paper, and coat it with ink, results in increased tension in a writer’s hand and arm.

Writing with a fountain pen did take some getting used to. But writing has been much less stressful on my hands and arms. I’m not fighting the ink. I’m also not gripping the pen tightly in an effort to physically push the pen across paper while bearing down in order to coat the “ball” with ink, and write. Fountain pen ink wants to spread. If you’re even a little bit curious, I encourage you to try a personal experiment in terms of drafting your writing with a fountain pen, or using a fountain pen for personal correspondence or journals and similar kinds of writing. NaNoWriMo offers a great opportunity to see if writing by hand helps your creativity. It does for some. Switching from my keyboard to writing by hand has helped me when staring at my laptop screen is frustrating rather than fruitful.

Your First Pen

You don’t have to spend much for a perfectly good pen. If you’re brand-new to fountain pens and aren’t sure they’re for you, consider trying a “throwaway” Pilot Varsity (it’s available in several colors) or the refillable Platinum Preppy; both pens are under $5.00. The Varsity is not meant to be re-filled; the Platinum Preppy is, and uses cartridges and can be refilled indefinitely (the Preppy is available in several colors). This is an affordable-no-real investment way to try writing with a fountain pen, and both pens are more than adequate for most writing. Consider using a fountain pen during NaNoWriMo, as a way to jumpstart your creativity.

If you are sure you want to write with a fountain pen, consider one of the highly respected quality “starter pens” under $30.00. These include the Pilot Metropolitan (around $15.00, with several colors of pen and Pilot ink available), the Lamy Vista (around $25.00), and the Lamy Safari (around $30.00), among others. I’ve used and really love all three of these. I’d suggest starting with either a Fine or Medium nib (the nib is the pointy part of the pen that contacts the paper).

Ink

When you first start, you’ll likely want to use pre-filled ink cartridges. Cartridges are sold in packs, they’re portable, and they’re easy to use. You will need to buy cartridges made for your pen; it’s not one-size-fits-all. Ink also comes in bottles, and it’s more economical to use bottled ink instead of buying cartridges (or refills). You need to have a fountain pen converter in order to use bottled ink, and like cartridges, converters are designed for a specific pen. Some pens will come with a converter, others require you to buy one for $5.00 bucks or so.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of ink colors. There are also several kinds of ink; inks that are water soluble (not for use on checks or anything that you want to keep), water resistant inks, archive quality inks, inks meant to feather less and thus perform better on poorer quality paper, and specialty inks that change color, glitter, or are invisible. Most people start with a medium or dark blue, a blue-black, or a black ink. But color can be fun, as well as useful, for for editing or for distinguishing one version from another (draft in blue, edit in red, new draft in purple, etc.).

Paper

You want paper that encourages the pen to glide smoothly, with little application of force, but which will display the ink without blots, or clogging the nib, or feathering.

There are numerous sites suggesting the Best Possible Paper for writing with a fountain pen. People often have very decided opinions about paper. The general rule of thumb is that the heaver weight the paper is, from about 70gsm up to say 100 gsm, the better it is for using a fountain pen. You’ll see people debating the virtues of Moleskine vs Leuchtturm 1917, or Rhodia vs Claire Fontaine, etc., but honestly, preferences are personal. Look for paper that is at least 70gsm; less will bleed or feather or otherwise fail.

If you’re writing rough drafts or person notes that aren’t to be kept indefinitely, HP 32lb Premium Paper (you can print your own lines if you want), I’ve found Mead Composition books made in Vietnam, or Mead Five Star notebooks with a Fine or Medium nib fountain pen are usable (if not viable for the long term) with most pens and inks, especially if I only use one side of a page. Amped Docket Gold pads or  Red ’n Black Notebooks usually work well.

The Nib

The nib is the metal part of the pen that contacts the paper when you write. People have pronounced preferences about nibs, but for your first pen, you’ll probably want a fountain pen with a Fine or Medium nib.1)Fountain pens made in Asia tend to have finer nibs because many Asian writing systems work better with a Fine nib; a Platinum Preppy or Pilot M is close to a European F.

TIPS:

  • Use decent paper
  • Don’t grip the pen too hard or use force to propel it across a page, or bear down on the nib. Let the ink do the work for you; gently guide the pen.
  • Practice writing or even scribbling first; try your signature, try a couple of test sentences.
  • Most problems with fountain pens can be resolved by cleaning them; if it’s a refillable pen, clean or rinse it every time you refill it, if possible.

References   [ + ]

1. Fountain pens made in Asia tend to have finer nibs because many Asian writing systems work better with a Fine nib; a Platinum Preppy or Pilot M is close to a European F.

Handwriting: Is it Part of Your Process?

I still like writing by hand. Normally I do a first draft using pen and paper, and then do my first edit when I type it onto my computer. For some reason, I much prefer writing with a black pen than a blue one, and in a perfect world I’d always use “narrow feint” writing paper. — J. K. Rowling 

Image credit: Petar Milošević

I prefer to take notes by hand because I’m actively listening when I write, in ways that I’m not when I’m typing. Sometimes I choose to handwrite because being able to write with paper and a pen or pencil and a convenient light source makes it possible to write in places where even a Chromebook or iPad are cumbersome.

The primary reason I choose to write by hand that my brain works differently with pen (or pencil) and paper. I’m less distracted by aesthetics (typography, for instance, is not an issue). I often turn to pen and paper (or pencil) when I get stuck, particularly on when I’m writing books, or lengthy research articles. Often, I’ll draft in long hand, then edit in longhand, then keyboard it and edit again before I submit.

Recently, I’ve noticed a lot of other writers also choosing to write in longhand, or print, even when they could use a keyboard. I was surprised by how many of my favorite novelists are prefer pens and paper for drafts.

When you’re writing with pen and paper, you’re working in the same direct mode you use to tell a story to children, and for a first draft, that’s maybe not a bad thing. — Joe Hill  

J. K. Rowling deliberately chooses to write by hand, though as she notes, she prefers narrow-ruled paper and black pens. Neal Stephenson, in a now defunct interview for Barnes and Noble (quoted here) notes that he started writing his novels with a fountain pen with Quicksilver, the first volume of his Baroque Cycle. Stephenson said

What I was noticing was that I’ve become such a fast typist that I could slam out great big blocks of text quite rapidly — anything that came into my head, it would just dribble out of my fingers onto the screen. That includes bad stuff as well as good stuff. Once it’s out there on the screen, of course, you can edit it and you can fix the bad stuff, but it’s far better not to ever write down the bad stuff at all. With the fountain pen, which is a slower output device, the material stays in the buffer of your head for a longer period. So during that amount of time, you can fix it, you can make it better, you can even decide not to write it down at all — you can think better of writing it.

I think that’s true. I noticed that the amount of time it takes for me to formulate a thought into a sentence, because it’s slower to read the paper than the screen, often means that I realize that it’s not something I want to write, that the idea or sentence isn’t ready for committing to paper. ItÆ’s less a matter of the internal editor interfering, than one of my “inner ear” noticing that those aren’t quite the words I want, In the time it takes to hesitate before committing the words to paper, my brain supplies other, better words. In other words, there’s less to edit or delete. Stephenson comments on that too, observing that the process of editing is often easier with pen and paper:

Editing, strangely enough, is quicker and easier with a pen. Because drawing a line through a word is just faster than any sequence of grabbing your mouse and highlighting the word and hitting the eject key. That act of editing leaves behind a visible trace of the word that you decided to change, and sometimes that’s useful; you may want to go back and change your mind about that. Finally, I find that writing with a pen is a physically healthier activity. There’s actually more range of movement involved with it than there is sitting with your fingers on the keys for hours at a time. So I just physically felt better when I was using the pen rather than typing.

Jonathan Carroll, famous for his contemporary fantasy and slipstream novels, notes that:

Handwriting anything makes me think hard about what I really want to keep or throw out. Because the process is generally slow, I’m thinking all the time while my hand moves across the page. While using any kind of keyboard device, my fingers are whizzing much faster than my mind can think and that is a dangerous thing if you want to write it right.

I find that the experiences of novelists in terms of their writing process, is true of my much less interesting process as well, when I’m writing scholarly or academic pieces or even when I’m writing pieces that I know are destined for Web publications; I think differently, and write differently with a pen in hand. As Joe Hill says:

Finally, in a notebook, you’re stuck with yourself. You’re cut off from your games, the internet, Twitter, Facebook. The only thing you have to entertain you is your own imagination.

What about you? Do you write by hand? Have you ever tried switching to pen-and-paper (or a pencil!) when you’re stuck? Is handwriting part of your process? If not, consider trying it.