Handwriting Your Novel Part 2: Choose Your Weapon

This is where we get to talk about the good stuff—pens, pencils, and paper. I am not afraid to admit my own love of fine stationery; in fact, I believe a good office supply store is one of the two best venues for creative problem solving [0]. Your choice of writing implements can make or break your handwriting experience. There is nothing more frustrating than a pen that skips, or paper that accepts too much ink or too little. On the other hand, when you have just the right pen on good quality paper, the words flow effortlessly from mind to page.

There are a huge variety of writing implements to choose from because it’s very much a matter of personal taste. Two general rules apply—try everything at least once, and you get what you pay for.

If you are lucky enough to work in a cube farm or other office-type environment with a well-stocked supply closet, there’s your chance to try before you buy. Raid the supplies for one of everything—because you’re going to put back the things you don’t use, right? Right? Try them out, and you’ll get a good feel for the things that work for you—the size and shape of the grip, weight and balance, type of ink or lead. If you see an interesting new pen or pencil on a coworker’s desk, ask if you can try it for a minute. Then give it back [1]. You’re looking for a pen or pencil that feels good in your hand, doesn’t skip or smear, where you don’t hold it in a death grip, and is well-sized and balanced. In general, fat, contoured, and cushioned grips will be more comfortable than a thin cylinder.


The big advantage to pencils is that they come with built-in error correction features; that is, you can erase a pencil mark. I use them for writing narrative because I’d rather erase and replace text, maintaining narrative flow, than deal with crossouts. Pencils are easy to use and will write upside down and on almost any kind of surface. On the other hand, they require more care and maintenance than pens. You can’t go wrong with the classic #2 wood pencil, and I once had a fondness for the large pencils intended for small children; but these days I prefer mechanical pencils with contoured rubber grips and a .7 mm B lead.

About lead—lead ranges from 2B (very soft and a dark, smudgeable line), to B, HB/#2 (the standard), H, and all the way up to 4H hardness which will give you a very precise, thin line. Wood pencils are nearly always HB/#2 unless you buy an art or drafting set. You can get leads for mechanical pencils in B, HB, or H hardnesses. Pencils and leads come in .5 mm or .7 mm sizes; pick the size appropriate for the size of your handwriting.

Wood pencils require a sharpener, and the little blade gets dull pretty quickly. You might also want other accessories; cushy grips or replacement erasers. You will definitely get what you pay for here— dollar store specials tend to fit poorly and perform worse [2]. My favorite eraser is a handheld one called Black Pearl—instead of being the usual rhomboid shape, it’s oval and tapered all the way around. Using it maintains the taper rather than obliterating it, so you always have a sharp edge available for precision erasing.


Pens are all about the ink. Ballpoint pens have an oil-based ink, which is why you need some serious solvents (like hairspray or WD-40) to remove stains. Again, you get what you pay for—a $5 refillable pen will give much better performance than a dozen-for-$1.49 cheapie. However, they’re easy to find, relatively inexpensive, and work well on all types and quality of papers. The ink dries quickly, making it good for left-handers. You can even fake a feather pen by binding the chopped-off guts of a Bic to a turkey quill for that extra-special old-timey look.

The ink in a gel pen is an emulsion of oil, water, and pigment. Gel pens are notoriously finicky— if you don’t hold them fairly upright they tend to skip, and they smudge more easily and dry out much faster than oil-based inks. On the other hand, the colors are amazing, you can get pale, opaque colors that are visible on dark papers, and they don’t bleed or feather as badly on pulp paper as liquid inks. I suggest you try before you buy. Check out the quality of the cap—if the cap comes off in your bag or drawer, you’ll soon have a useless plastic stick.

Liquid ink is what you find in rollerball and fountain pens. The colors are great, and you get a very smooth line with almost no dragging for effortless writing. They don’t get along with water, though, and will wash right off unless specially formulated. Another problem with liquid inks is they are choosy about the paper they will play with. Inexpensive pulp or thin papers will soak up too much ink, leading to feathering (the line is blurry and thicker than the pen nib) and bleeding (the line is visible on the other side of the page). Try doing the crossword in the newspaper and you’ll end up with a blot. I’ve used hand-laid papers that had such a rough tooth they can’t accept liquid ink at all. But the combination of liquid ink with a thick, smooth-finished paper cannot be beat.

An example of your basic high-quality rollerball pen is the Pilot Precision V5. Great colors, great performance, affordable, and a line fine enough that I can use it for copyediting because I can fit corrections between the lines printed on the page.

I’ve made no secret of my love for fountain pens. I wrote many pages with a pair of Waterman Phileas pens; when they wore out after many years of abuse, I was heartbroken to find Waterman had discontinued the model. These days I work with a pair of Lamy Safari pens, one with a fine nib for everyday writing, and one with an extra-fine nib and filled with turquoise ink for copyediting [3]. These are made of durable molded plastic, you can order spare nibs and a converter, and they’re surprisingly affordable. Pilot makes a disposable fountain pen that’s good enough for getting your feet wet; it’s major disadvantage is you can’t refill it.

Fountain pen lovers are the writing equivalent of gear-heads; you can geek out for hours on the difference between flexible steel or hard iridium, fine line or calligraphy nibs, the pros and cons of cartridges versus converters, and finding just the perfect kind of ink. A word to the wise: DO NOT PUT INDIA INK IN YOUR FOUNTAIN PEN. India ink is made with shellac and will damage or destroy your pen, and should only be used with dip or specialized drafting pens.

Fountain pens are the ultimate try-before-you-buy purchase. A good one can range from $30 to $300 dollars (more than that and you’re buying it for its jewelry qualities), and so can a bad one. If you can visit a pen shop, you should be able to try them out, and try out various brands and colors of inks as well.

Cartridges are sealed plastic tubes filled with ink; you open up the pen and press the cartridge onto the business end. If you have a converter, you fill it with bottled ink. It doesn’t hold as much ink as a cartridge, but is perfect if, like me, you like to change colors a lot.

Fountain pen ink can be a little odd—different colors from the same brand can behave quite differently on the page, depending on their formulation. I have a dark blue ink that’s a champion, the medium blue of the same brand feathers badly, the pink can skip, and the scarlet went bad. The black was semi-permanent and tended to dry and clog the nib, so I got rid of it and am trying a different brand.


Paper is another you-get-what-you-pay-for. It’s worthwhile to be picky about paper quality. Composition books you can buy by the dozen and still have plenty of money for lunch are tempting, but in my experience they bleed liquid ink so badly you can only use one side of the page (this is not an issue if you use pencils or ballpoints). The big factors in paper are finish and thickness. Thin, pulpy papers bleed worse than thicker, smooth finished papers—unfortunately this includes lots of recycled papers. Never buy paper without feeling it first; usually there’s a pack on the shelf where somebody has already torn a hole in the plastic wrap.

Wide rule paper is good if your handwriting is big or you want to “double-space,” leaving room for in-line edits. College rule gives you more words per page. Quad rule paper is geek-chic and good for charts, but unless the lines are very narrow, hard to read from. You can also find unlined or dotted paper, or paper printed with specialty margins.

Then there’s the issue of the binding. Journals and composition books have permanent bindings that force linearity; you can’t just rip out or rearrange pages. Tablets are designed to have the pages removed as they’re used up, so you’ll have to find a binder or other way to keep your pages together. I realized recently that the 300 sheet pack of looseleaf filler paper we used to do our homework on has gone extinct, and I mourn it. Looseleaf paper is great when you’re editing and want to rearrange/rewrite/replace pages. Spiral notebooks are great, in my opinion; you can tear out pages if you need to, or they can stay all together in a nice package. Lefties often complain about the wire getting in the way of their wrists, but who says you have to start your notebook at the “front?” Flip it over and use the left-hand (verso or back) page instead. I usually have three notebooks going at any one time— a fancy hardbound journal for my personal diary, a composition book for notes and brainstorming, and a spiral notebook for novel narrative.

[0] The other is a really good hardware store.
[1] Because you are an honorable and decent person who would never steal office supplies.
[2] Cheap rubbery grips can even make your fingers smell like condoms. Yech.
[3] I ordered the pen with a red barrel so I can grab the dreaded red pen, but I use turquoise ink so that my coworkers can tell my copyediting notes from other reviewers’.

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