Wednesday, March 22, 2017

My Search for the Best Writing Implements.

During the early 80s, as I returned to the University, my future was to some extent determined: I would need great writing instruments, and likely something that would work in the field.

For over 3 years, this was an everyday experiment, while taking lecture notes.  I also started recording lectures, and going over notes later.  The recording was a discouraging prospect, as I took sparse notes in a large notebook, and filled them in while reviewing the recordings.  It discouraged me that I needed to spend so much time reviewing each lecture, and since I took as many as 22 quarter credits per term, there were a lot of notes.

The upshot of the recording project was that I learned how poorly I understood the message of the lecturer.  Whatever the cause, I would completely miss the intended meaning.  For example, many lecturers would say terms like "on the other hand" or "however" in a low tone, almost whispered.  So the counterexamples being given would be misinterpreted by me as the core message!

I may have lost an opportunity, however: had I NOT recorded the lectures, perhaps I would have forced myself to become a better note taker.  I have been keeping notebooks ever since those years, and perhaps become a better listener and recorder, but I will never know whether my experiment impeded my acquisition of better note taking skills.   I will note that paid note-takers whose notes I also purchased did not have this problem:  their notes were typed up and available for pick up, by the next day.

My intentional  search for the best writing instrument was most fruitful.  One criteria was unbendable: I must be able to take notes that will be permanent and not damaged by water or weather.  So I needed to find a notebook as well.

A small number of writing instruments still stick in my mind, after these 30 some odd years.  But one habit I developed was especially useful over the years: carrying a compact, durable pen/pencil case in my pocket.  (Later on, my habit of using a belt pouch--- a"thunderbag" as they are called in Chuuk---served both as an extension of and  a convenient carrier for both the pencil box and the notebook.  After I had started using fountain pens, the pen case became central to a ritual of writing: unwrapping the pen from a small cotton rag, filling the pen (or sometimes changing cartridges), resupplying leads for the mechanical pencil.
And, for the record, Mead Composition Books can br cut to a smaller size that fits in the pouch, by a printer, for a dollar or two, using a guillotine cutter. 


Lead pencils are at the top of the list of water proof implements. They have been referred to as Billion Bit word processors (billion bits of wood!)

I came to love a certain mechanical pencil: a Staedtler drafting pencil that used fine leads, that advanced the lead automatically, or by shaking.  It worked quite well.  Keeping it in the case prolonged it's life.  I also experimented with 2mm lead holders. (I am currently using a Pentel Graph Gear mechanical pencil; it is comfortable, but does not use the automatic advance).  It is relatively affordable.

JetPens is a goto site for information about pens, notebooks (and the great Wise Walker bags).  In their "Guide to Mechanical Pencils" are listed several types:
  1. Push Button (top or side)
  2. Shaker
  3. Twist
  4. ! Bend or Body Knock.  ???
  5. Automatic
  6. Unmentioned: auto lead rotation
Even has only one Automatic pencil: a Pilot, at about 50.00.  This is completely out of reach to me.  Numerous shaker pencils are listed at prices from about 6.00.  None of them has the look of a technical pen.  Lead rotating pens are interesting.

Wirecutter's choice is the Uni-Ball Kuru Toga

Drawing pencils are much nicer to write with.  I use B9 soft pencils to apply graphite to the nut slots of my guitar, because the softer grades have the lowest clay content.  For everyday use, Dixon Ticonderoga have never been matched.  

Ball Point Pens

A field anthropologist had recommended regular ball point pens, as sufficiently waterproof.  I never experimented with them.  He referred to cheap bic pens.  This option would bear research, but in truth, I don't like writing with them, and for some purposes---taking notes in a laboratory---I would not use them. has the Pentel EnerGel pens.  I like writing with Gel pens, but I do not trust them for longevity.

Fountain Pens

India Ink was the ink of choice for taking waterproof notes.  Other waterproof inks were investigated, and I tried using a variety of inks with fountain pens.  I used  cartridges betimes; but a fillable pen made it possible to at least experiment with waterproof drawing inks, including India Ink, a carbon based ink.

I tried a variety of commodity fountain pens from office supply companies, and the University store.  One or two Parker Pens had fairly good qualities when used with India Ink.  They all clogged, but since I had incorporated a cloth in the pen case as a wrapper/cushion, I could use it also as a wiping cloth to dislodge caked ink from the nib.  This was constantly necessary, making it somewhat inconvenient for every day carry.

In August   1984, I matriculated to the University of Guam Marine Laboratory, where I worked for two and a half years.  During the summer I had been in Truk (the name then, it took on its new name in 1986, I believe).  This was the first test of my note taking system.  I had settled on black and white marbled composition books: they are sewn bound, and some of them are made with decent, if not great paper, and they are easily available and cheap.  India Ink was the standard, but I had not found the ideal pen.

After moving to Guam I discovered a pen that was, if not cheap, at least somewhat affordable at 30.00, and readily available on the island in Duty Free Shops: a low end Mont Blanc pen, a neat little pen with a cylindrical, slim barrel, usable with either cartridges or a really nice refillable insert.  From the beginning, this pen was the very best I have ever used.

What was so great about it?  It accommodated India Ink  almost without a hitch.  I could take notes for an entire 1 or 1.5 hour lecture without much fuss or bother.  It wrote cleanly, having a fine tip.  Even better, they lasted a very long time.  And they were easy to clean.  No pen has ever matched it, though since discovering it, I never tried any other.  Not only that, using standard laboratory labeling tape, they worked awesomely for making labels on reagent bottles  or on samples.  I could write labels on on rag paper to be kept in jars with preservatives or fixatives, though I have not had access to any of those samples for a long time, so I don't know whether these labels were stable in the long term.  Pencil is still probably the best for this.  (I also used pencil to write directly on specimens of Millepora spp, and mark the colonies in the field).

My need for a Fountain Pen has been somewhat mitigated since I am not living in the islands and taking field notes.  Fountain pens are rare in the garden variety office supply, and JetPens has several interesting types of low cost fountain pens.  In the Philippine Islands, I found fountain pens in National Book Store, that were quite cheap.  I still have one around, so maybe I will start it up again.

As an aside, on Saipan, one could buy fountain pen ink, but not a fountain pen, in National Bookstore!

Regrettably, Mont Blanc pens' prices have inflated dramatically to something like 200.00 for a "SlimLine" model, that may be similar to the ones I used in the 80s.  This is far too expensive.  Perhaps I can seek crowd funding...   Or perhaps, starting from one of the guides on I can find a more affordable option. 

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