Perhaps that’s not entirely true, however I’ve been a pen and stationery enthusiast long enough to not only have a fair idea of what suits my writing style and taste best, but to also know exactly where to deploy pens which may not quite fit that ideal window on my usability spectrum.
The slimline fountain pen of the 70’s and 80’s being one example, however there are quite a few others which sit squarely outside my typical usability criteria mentioned below. I remarked recently to a good (pen)friend that much of the “pen discussion” which occurs in our correspondence would make great blog posts, so here I am putting that theory into practice. You see, accompanying a recent letter, I also returned a few pens generously passed on to me by said friend, in the knowledge they would be forwarded on and re-homed to a user perhaps more suited to them.
On a brief side note, I have written about this gentleman before, and truth be told he is one of the most helpful, generous, knowledgeable, and selfless people I’ve had the good fortune of getting to know as a result of writing this blog.
Back to matters at hand, and as it turns out, most of those pens were slimline (read, very slim and narrow) fountain pens which were in their heyday in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Whilst they may not be what I’d reach for to write a thousand words, they were certainly far from unusable, and a few have certainly remained in my collection, to be enjoyed and put to good use. As I wrote in my correspondence, I’ve found there are not too many pens I cannot use in some form or another.
A Usability Window
Don’t get me wrong. We are not talking “unusable” pens with faults or defects that render them, well… non-functional and unable to be used at all. No, here I’m simply referring to those pens which at first glance, hold, or use, give us the: ”well… ah… yeah… not sure how this is going to go for any significant writing…” type of feeling. I suppose it’s the fine line between less-suitable and unsuitable. One of the joys in talking about this stuff is when writing those previous two sentences, I know with 100% certainty that anyone reading this knows exactly what I’m talking about with no further explanation necessary.
I’m sure we all have pens that if we were to sit down and write a few thousand words in longhand, would be the first pulled from the pen pot or case and we’d be eagerly scribing away. Others not so much, where even the thought of making it to the bottom of an A5 page begin those muscle fibre fasciculations which precede writers cramp. It may be size, weight, balance, or many other factors alone or in combination telling us that even beginning with a full cartridge of optimism simply won’t cut it.
For me? Well its usually related to:
- length: too long or too short (I’m generally not a cap poster, so aside from your pocket pens designed to be the appropriate size upon posting – a la the Kaweco Sport which I love – posting generally makes them feel too long to me). Your smaller pens such as the Pilot Prera and Pelikan 205 I can get away with, however prefer something a little larger if the writing task is looking similarly sizeable.
- body thickness or diameter: no doubt we all have a sweet spot here. Slimline fountain pens of the 70’s being a little outside mine. That being said, personally I find this to be a wide, wide spectrum
- taper: I find this an interesting one. Thin and straight – not so great. The same thin diameter at the grip which has come down in a taper – much better. My usual preferred thickness but in a gun-barrel straight body? Sometimes not as good. As I said, I find this an interesting one…
- finish: I typically find metal barrels a little on the slippery and hard to manage side. That said, the humidity of a Brisbane summer generally affords a bit of tackiness in that regard.
- weight: often not a deal breaker on its own, given you are of course also thinking this is inextricably linked to balance (as is posting the cap more often than not). A mid to lower centre of gravity if you don’t mind. Combined with the above point — a weighty metal pen can present a challenge.
- appearance: yeah, I said it… looks. Not in the way you might think though. I’m talking about the output on the page. Those times when the pen doesn’t feel right but your writing just looks fantastic. I’ve typically had most of these experiences with pens I’d have considered a little on the thin side. To be honest it’s often quite a “wow – this goes well” type of moment. Yet, and perfectly illustrative of the point to this post, “wow” is soon replaced with “oh, starting to struggle here — that’s getting a bit messy…” if any sustained writing needs doing beyond maybe a few minutes.
I’ve kept the above list devoid of the even more finicky aspects of nib type/size/grind or liquid ink vs ballpoint, with these really beyond what the post is about. And granted, the above are exceedingly obvious and far from groundbreaking to anyone reading this. In its simplest form we are merely talking about those ”oh this is too big/small/thick/thin/long/short/heavy/unbalanced/slippery/knurled/smooth moments that first flood your mind upon picking up and using whatever writing instrument it may be.
But of course, all is not lost…
It is here the crux of the argument lies. I’m sure none of us will put up with something we genuinely don’t like using, and with various online marketplaces or simply exchanging with others, there are plenty of ways to offload something of that nature. I guess what I’m referring to though is the genuine joy that exists in having a certain amount of variety available in our day to day tools. Also, it’s not hard to see most of us in this pen caper have some sort of “rotation” in use at any given time. The variety may therefore come weeks to months later, depending on just how many pen soldiers are in storage before they are called to active duty.
I wax and wane as far as numbers in the rotation are concerned (largely depending on when I decide to clean and refill), however I’ve also noticed a trend in having a secondary group — a “special teams” if you will. It’s in this group where the slimline fountain pen sits. Or the outrageously heavy pen. Or the pen that is too short. I think you get the idea.
This secondary group exists in parallel with the main group for two main reasons. One, they perform what I’d call “writing support” functions (more on this below) and two, they get a run in the main group when the urge to clean isn’t strong enough to reinforce the dwindling ranks of the “in-rotation” group. The funny thing is, it’s the latter of these two scenarios which frequently reminds me that many of the pens assigned a support role deserve a spot in the main rotation, and that is often a change I make moving forward.
So what of these writing support functions? We all have them I’m sure, and I present a second exceedingly obvious list for your reading pleasure:
- markup: perhaps the most common of them all. Editing your 2014 NaNoWriMo novel for example — a task that remains unfinished (errr… I mean tasks like that anyway, surely no-one is that slow… right?). Those office ”can I get your thoughts on this” type of queries — often printed, hand-written feedback applied and returned (or at the very least hand written for my own thoughts before applying tracked changes and returning a digital document)
- lists: not much to be said here. If I cannot use a certain type/style of pen for a few pages, I can generally use it for a dozen one or two word bullet points
- index: essentially the point immediately above
- headings: where you might prefer the analogue equivalent of H1, H2… etc
- contrasting text: colours, underline, highlight. Some of this blends into markup, yes, however I also often use different colours in the primary text of a notebook for ease of emphasis or finding something upon scanning through pages
- injection of joy: not the artistic type by any stretch, however at times I’ll add a little flourish such as the one in the image below if I’m so inclined (“flourish” considerably overstates what you see below, however that’s about as good as it gets — notwithstanding the numerous Bujo YouTube videos I watch at times…)
You’ll have your own lists with far more in them than mine, and I’ve likely forgotten a couple I use as well, however I just want to emphasise one thing: “strategic deployment” is by no means a synonym for “begrudging use”. If I really don’t like a writing instrument, then yes, it will see no use and will leave the collection. It’s just that with all the possible uses, this very rarely occurs, and that is something which gives me considerable satisfaction.
What has always worked for me is loading them up with atypical colours (if you write with all the colours of the rainbow then it won’t matter anyway) to utilise the benefits for markup and contrasting text; having them located at their assigned task (ie coupled with the notecards or notebook in which the list is made); ensuring horses for courses (no free flowing nibs with feather heavy inks in a pocket notebook or on cheap paper if I have too use it — long live the ballpoint!!! — that’s genuine praise, don’t get me started, I love them).
In wrapping things up after taking far too long to say that I rarely can’t find a good use for a pen, there really is nothing more satisfying than having an arsenal of pens, with a reasonable amount of variety, which all see their fair share of use. Use them and love them I say.
And a final word to the generous soul now back in possession of those pens — I’m sure they’ll bring as much joy to the next new home as they did to mine, and as always I am forever grateful to you. And that folks, is an expansion of my letter, as a blog post — unsurprisingly it works pretty well.