How Do You Pick The Best Pen?

by TonyB on December 18, 2013

Recently, some of the most-respected voices in the online pen community were asked by The Wirecutter to choose what they consider the best pen.

(It’s a very comprehensive piece and quite worth reading, if you haven’t already.)

Brad, from The Pen Addict; Brian, from OfficeSupplyGeek; Elizabeth, from No Pen Intended; and Azizah, from Gourmet Pens, all reached the same conclusion: that the Uniball Jetstream is the best pen.

Uniball Jetstream I have to agree that the Jetstream is a great pen, one of the smoothest-writing ballpoints I’ve ever used. However, the Jetstream has never even cracked my own personal top 5, so I was quite curious about where I and these four highly experienced and discerning pen peeps had diverged. Wirecutter had asked them to evaluate a set of pens based on the following:

  • Smoothness of writing
  • Uniformity of line
  • Fineness of point
  • Flow
  • Skipping
  • Comfort
  • Pressure required
  • Feathering
  • Bleeding
  • Drying time
  • Reliability
  • Design

Looking at the criteria made it clear where the difference of opinion arose.

I simply judge pens differently, in a way that’s not as technical, less left-brained, more right-brained. I’ve mentioned before that I view pens not so much as instruments as conduits. My opinion of a pen is based on how seamlessly it serves me as that conduit.

My first priority is how well and comfortably a pen fits my hand. It needs to be solid and sturdy – no loose or rattling parts – but with enough give in the barrel so that it doesn’t feel like I’m grasping a brick. A rubber grip is a must, a gel grip even better.

ink linesThe pen has to move as smoothly as possible across the page, so smoothly that the pen seems barely present, offering no impediment between my brain and the words that appear on the page. Friction interrupts those thoughts and focuses attention on the pen. For me, that’s a no-no.

The ink has to be bold and dark. Vibrant ink helps bring words to life, light ink helps put them to sleep.

And finally, the pen has to be durable enough to take a fair amount of abuse. It’s going to be chewed on, banged against the desk, dropped, jostled in pockets between coins and keys. It doesn’t have to be bulletproof, but it does have to last more than a week before cracking.

Issues like uniformity of line, feathering, drying time, etc, don’t really bother me, unless they are extraordinarily bad. Fineness of point is actually a negative to me, as I generally feel much more friction writing with a fine-point pen as opposed to something like a 1.0 mm.

(Of the Jetstream line, the Premier actually comes closest to my set of standards.)

My own personal perfect pen would have the body of a Bic XXL, the smooth writing of the Pentel EnerGel, and the solid construction of a Zebra F-701.

BIC_XXL

But the thing is, we all have our own standards for choosing a pen. For those who do a lot of writing, the choice of a pen, it turns out, is a powerfully personal thing. Just check out this gel pen head-to-head over at Rands in Repose, where he explains in depth how he judges pens and why.

Pete at Dept. 4 also examines the claim of “best” and disagrees about the Jetstream, based on his own particular pen criteria.

Calvin-WritingOne thing that occurs to me is that our pen preferences depend to a great degree on what we actually do with our pens and why.

For example, I write by hand mostly because that’s how I do my best thinking. What matters most to me is the ideas that come out of the process, not so much what actually ends up on the page. Given that, of course I’m not inclined to worry about feathering and the like.

But someone who keeps a set of journals as mementos for the future will probably care a great deal about how the writing looks. As would a business person who uses a pen mainly for signing documents or sending handwritten notes to partners. Or a technical drafter, who would need a very precise pen.

And, of course, there are artists, each with his or her own set of techniques and requirements.

So the conclusion that I’ve come to is that there is no such thing as THE best pen, even in a general sense.

There are too many variables, too many reasons why one person might choose one pen over another. Pens are like shoes that way. We can all agree that certain brands are better at certain things – style, comfort, durability – but you can’t know which ones are best for you until you try them on your own feet.

Now how about you? How do you choose a pen? Feel free to share in the comments.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Peter Denison December 18, 2013 at 8:46 AM

That’s exactly right. It’s probably not what is the best pen but how you choose the right one for you. Interestingly, I’ve also always been fond of the EnerGel too. I guess it’s also when asked to choose just one – which one would it be?

2 John the Monkey December 18, 2013 at 10:59 AM

It sounds as though they should omit the definite article – I can’t imagine a “Best Pen” for which the criteria is uniformity of line. To me, that’s dullness, lifelessness – line variation is what brings a sketch, or handwriting to life. “Fineness of Point” is a weird one too – certainly important on finicky paper, or in the small spaces of a pocket planner, but no fun with a nice ink, or when writing expressively, at all.

3 James December 19, 2013 at 2:19 AM

I find the Jetstream is actually too smooth for my liking, especially in the larger point sizes. I like a smooth writing pen but with the Jetstream there is virtually no drag at all and I find that my handwriting begins to get sloppy. One actually has to make an effort to control the pen. I actually prefer the Pilot Acroball, which while quite smooth, still offers a bit of feedback or bite as some would say.

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