Finding the Pen That's "Write" for You
Some may argue that with the rise of word processors, voice-to-text devices, and all the other technical marvels that continue to appear on the market, there may come a day when the plain old pen and paper are relegated to antiquity alongside other technological relics such as the slide rule, the videocassette, and analog television (on deck). But this Hubber is skeptical that manual transcription will fade away anytime soon. That being said, the question is, are all pens created equal? My answer to that question would be no. There are literally thousands of choices for different types of pens these days, and I've written this article to hopefully aid anyone searching for the right pen for them. To accomplish this, I've brainstormed a handful of categories which I consider relevant to the pen-selection process. They are: price, type, and quality. While reading this (and thanks for that, by the way) keep in mind that although I'm discussing these aspects individually, they turn out to be highly interrelated.
Note: prices quoted below were noted June 2008. You may be asking yourself what there is to discuss here. Find the ones that suit you and select the cheapest from them, right? Well, it turns out that pens, like other material possessions, have their Rolls-Royces and their Yugos. For those of you who want the gold-plated feel of luxurious writing in style, if you can afford it, there is the Waterman Fountain Pen, which Stephen King has called "the world's finest word processor." But with prices ranging from around $40-$50 for the "base" models like the Waterman Audace pens to upwards of $1,000 for ultra premium models like the Waterman Edson Diamond Black Fine Point, you might want to wait until you break through with your own Carrie before you invest in one of these. On the other end of the spectrum lie the cheapos you've undoubtedly seen in the 10-packs at the grocery store. One representative of this category which comes to mind is the Bic Round Stic ($5.99 for a box of 60 at Staples.com). How much of a factor should price be? Well, if you're on an extremely tight budget and just need to get things down on paper, then of course that 60-pack at Staples might be right up your alley, but if you're somewhere in the middle and thinking about maybe spending a little bit more, here are some tips: 1) Packs usually have a lower per-pen cost. We saw this with the Round Stics, and it carries over into the mid-grades too. You might see Paper Mate retractable ball point pens on sale for $2 each or $16 for a dozen. 2) Do you want something that's refillable? Getting a pen that can take replaceable cartridges or that has a refillable tube might be worth the extra expense, especially if you're the kind of person who craves constancy (you have your favorite old shirt, shoes, car, etc...). If the store has a stable supply of the exact type of refill the pen you get uses and the price is right, this might actually be a better deal! 3) I find that different classes of stores provide different ranges on the pen scale. Grocery stores usually have a small part of one aisle labeled "School/Office Supplies" which carries the range from cheapo packs up to about the $2 pen variety. The next increment is the all-in-one store, like Target or WalMart, where I see a wider selection, usually a whole aisle offering everything up to the $7 range. The dedicated office supply stores like Office Max or Office Depot offer about as much in their pen aisle as the all-in-one stores, with the exception that they usually have the higher priced fancy pens up front under some glass. The highest priced pen I saw in my local Office Depot was a Cross 10-Karat Gold Ballpoint on sale for $40.99.
My purpose here isn't to describe in encyclopedic form the characteristics and traits of the different pen technologies, I know you can go to Wikipedia and type "Pen" for that. What I'll do in this section is suggest from my experience what types of pens will serve different types of users without giving them less than they want or more than they need out of their pens. For the no-frills writer who has minimal needs other than flowing ink, a ballpoint will probably do for you. You can get a pack of stick ballpoints or a retractable tip one so you don't have to worry about losing the little plastic cap. If you want your writing to stand out a little more with thicker, darker lines, rollerball (sometimes called rolling ball) pens accomplish this better in my opinion. These are sold with varying line thicknesses and ink colors. You'll most likely notice another class of pens in the stores called gel pens, but for all practical purposes I'd tend to include these technology-wise with the rollerballs. The main difference is that these gel pens often have a custom ink which may be glittery or have a metallic hue to it. Fountain pens are frequently used when form is at least as important, if not more so, than function. If you wanted to do some calligraphy or finish a letter with a very fine signature, a fountain pen would probably serve you much better than a ballpoint or rollerball.
I measure the quality of a pen by how good the writing looks (the line quality, not the penmanship) and how long it lasts. Ballpoints, especially the very cheap Stic kind, can have the problem of seemingly "going dry" very quickly, sometimes within the very first day of use. This is usually caused by the existence of an air bubble in the ink tube in the pen's shaft. I've been in the unfortunate situation before where I needed to use a pen to sign something and all I had was such a cheap Stic pen and what I had to do was open it up, pull the ink tube out of the ballpoint tip, and blow into the other side until the air bubble was purged. This is slightly messy, and a big strike against cheap ballpoints. I haven't had the same type of problem with retractable ballpoint pens with metal ink tubes. Lines are thin (less than 0.5mm) and as far as endurance goes, through the field testing I did for this article (using a Paper Mate Write Bros. pen) I was able to write a little over three pages of dense notes on standard 8.5" x 11" paper before having to scribble and finagle to get the ink to flow.
To be fair when discussing the quality of rollerball pens, it's time I mention my pen of choice. I use the Pilot Precise V7 Rolling Ball pen with fine 0.5mm tip. I've used other rollerball pens in the past, mainly because I prefer the thicker line and smoother flow compared to ballpoints, but one area which I must admit is lacking in rollerballs is their increased probability of leaking. This has to do with the ink being less viscous than that of ballpoints. As much as I like my rollerball, I wouldn't put it in my shirt pocket without a pocket protector (and since I don't have a pocket protector, I usually just leave my pen on the table). Also because of the lower ink viscosity, though you probably won't experience nearly as much dry spells as with ballpoints, rollerballs tend to deplete their ink supply a little faster. All in all, I got almost five pages of writing out of a single new Pilot V7 to give another example.
Fountain pens draw their ink either from a cartridge or well separate from the pen body. If you've only used ballpoints or rollerballs in the past, you might find the feel of writing with a fountain pen less smooth initially, and if you're left handed, you might have serious difficulty writing with a fountain pen at all. This is because instead of transferring the ink to the page via a rolling ball, you're literally dragging the nib, or tip, of the pen across the page. As far as longevity goes, some fountain pens have been around for a hundred years!
Hopefully these tips will help you find the pen that's "write" for you. Happy writing!
For More Great Pen Related Information:
- In through the outfield: Design classics - the Bic Crystal ballpoint pen
Neil Infield of The British Library's Business and Intellectual Property Centre blogs on business, entrepreneurship and innovation.