Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Pen or Pencil?

Do you prefer writing with a pen or with a pencil?  Do you use a pen in certain situations and a pencil in others?  Do you have a preference at all?

For most purposes, I prefer a pen.  For writing or sketching in my journal or even just jotting down a quick note to myself, a pen is the tool of choice.  Pencils do, of course, have their place - for crossword puzzles, for solving math problems, for taking notes in class.  While pens have the glamour of permanence, pencils offer writers the ability to erase and make corrections.

Owning few non-mechanical pencils myself, I went searching through my mother's pencil cup and came up with a handful of stubs, many of which had clearly seen better days.

Oddly, I have never seen her using one of these pencils, since she nearly always uses a ballpoint pen.  I suspect she found them at the place where she works and brought them home, in hopes that they might someday prove useful.  I love looking at these old pencils, wondering about their past owners.  They have a certain personality and romance about them that my own shiny new pens sadly lack.


  1. As a mathematician, I do sometimes prefer to use a pencil rather than a pen to work through my thoughts, but this is usually more about tactility than erasability. Mistakes I will cross out, whether working with pen or pencil. But the smooth scratchiness of lead on paper I find enjoyable and often conducive to the kind of contemplative thought mathematics requires.

    Love your blogs, both sheaves and leaves.

  2. It seems that these stubs have a rightful place in Palimpsest's Post a Stub!

    Myself I have no special preference for pen or pencil. I would happily use both. Palimpsest seems to be focusing on pencils but it's not my fault. It's the stories that guide me. I love pens equally and I happily use my Lamy Safari, a Pilot V Pen, a Palomino pencil, a Faber Castell PITT Indian ink pen and recently a Zebra mechanical pencil. I even use dip pens occasionally. I would love to get my hands on a Sailor pen too but... funds are limited.

  3. Like Phil, I must admit to a certain fondness for the sound of a pencil scratching on paper. It brings back good memories of math and physics classes as well as frustrating memories working on one difficult problem, erasing and re-writing and erasing again.

    Like Palimpsest, I love the stories that these ordinary, everyday items may hold. I suspect that the pencil stubs posted here could probably tell many stories.

  4. My preference is a fountain pen.

  5. This question bugs me even though it shouldn't.

    When I was a kid, I used pencils and sharpened them either with the sharpener in class, or with a pocket knife (back then, pocket knives in school were no big deal).

    When I was a teenager, I went to cheapo mechanical pencils, because they worked and I didn't have to sharpen all the time to keep writing. Easy to carry and no mess.

    In college, I switched to pens--mainly Pilot G-2s and rollers. They were more useful to carry around because I had to sign a lot more documents.

    Started studying Chinese, and the broader-tipped pens made a big mess out of characters. I couldn't find good pens for fine, crisp lines, so I went back to mechanical pencils (0.5mm). In East Asia, I was able to find suitable superfine pens (favorite at the time: Signo DX 0.28mm), but stuck with pencils anyway for erasability.

    A year or so after I finished studying, I looked back at my old notebooks. Most of my old notes had been smeared away from the pages rubbing against each other. Almost half of my notes had become an unreadable gray fog on the page. Switched entirely to pens after that.

    A year or two ago though, I tried to rekindle my relationship with pencils--wooden pencils in particular. It speaks to my old survivalist sensibilities. Like with some of my other old habits, such as shaving with a straight razor and buying loose-leaf tea, it's a return to functional simplicity. There's a certain appeal to the purity of a pencil. Break or cut it in half, and you have two pencils.

    However, the darkness of even the best writing pencils never approaches that of a black pen, and a pen requires no sharpening. There are some brilliant pens that write very fine lines quite smoothly in a variety of colors. Once the ink is dry, it won't smear on the page the way graphite can over time.

    One of my notebooks is mostly filled with high-end Japanese pencils, and another is filled with various fine-tipped pens (almost all gel pens). As much as I want to prefer pencil in some ways, the results with pen are almost always more attractive, and certainly easier to read, as I tend to use more than one color.

    Also, I generally sharpen with a knife when out of reach of a good rotary sharpener, but that can make a small mess I'd like to avoid in public places, and these days a lot of people are very sensitive to the sight of a pocket knife or even a cheap utility blade. Pocket sharpeners are generally rubbish for a quality point, are not especially reliable, and are annoying to carry around.

    So yeah...the nostalgic and survivalist parts of me really want to go with wooden pencils, but the rest of me prefers the convenience and results of good pens, especially on decent paper. It's such a silly thing to fret over, but I'm entitled to a quirk here or there like everyone else.

  6. Wow, thanks for that lengthy response, Robert! Interestingly, I went from wooden pencils to mechanical pencils to pens as I went through school as well. I understand your issues around pens vs. pencils; although I am attracted by the romance and nostalgia of wooden pencils, the cleanliness and purer colour of a pen line appeals to me far more. Again, graphite can smear or rub away over time, which is one reason why I prefer to use pens in my journal. Fine-tipped gel pens are very often my pen of choice as well, due to their brilliant colour and smooth writing.

  7. Sorry for the long post. I didn't expect it to get so long :)

    One thing higher-quality pencils have is reliability. Pen failure isn't that frequent with quality pens, but it's a real nuisance when it does happen. It can dry up on you and skip or stop writing, or it flow a little too freely and pool up on the page. Mechanical pencils get irritating when the lead breaks in the pencil and you constantly click out too-short stubs that won't extend far enough to write with.

    I keep 2-3 Signo DXs in my "man purse" when I go to work, along with 3-4 Sliccis and a 0.5mm Jetstream, and then a 2mm leadholder and a really nice wooden pencil. All have their place, but the pencils are sadly my least used, and the wooden pencil in particular (my tiny SharPits 2mm lead pointer is ultra convenient and makes a very good acute point, so the leadholder gets more use).

  8. Those pencils are only just starting to have their day!
    I use pencil for the diary, pen for signatures and of course coloured pencils in many forms for artitic pursuits.Bliss!


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