On Fountain Pens

Since late in 2016, I’ve been writing long form drafts, note-taking and planning almost exclusively with fountain pens. I returned to writing drafts in long hand (as a respite from keyboard-related carpal tunnel) in 2012.

I already knew that I remembered notes I wrote by hand better than those I keyboarded. I’m not new to handwriting, but I quickly discovered that writing with a fountain pen was much easier on my hands than using gel or ballpoint pens.

With conventional pens, you’re physically moving the pen across the paper, and exerting force to move the “ball” so that it coats itself with ink, and transfers it to the paper. Because the pen needs to be impelled with some deliberate force to move, writers grip the pen, creating tension in the hand and arm, which often leads to writers cramp or dystonia.

With a fountain pen, the nib (the pointed metal object at the business end of a fountain pen) spreads the ink; the ink is liquid and the pen is inclined to glide across the paper with little force being needed. Moreover, the fountain pen’s tendency, because the ink is liquid, is to join letters, requiring less effort from the writer. Ball point pens, on the other hand, use thicker ink, and require more effort.

Other reasons to consider using a fountain pen, if the ease of writing alone doesn’t tempt you, include the enormous variety of inks; there are hundreds of shades and a number of different kinds of ink (permanent, archive quality, waterproof,  . . . ). If you sometimes need to draw or sketch a diagram or chart, a fountain pen can be a marvelous tool for sketching as well as writing. And, like other analog tools, fountain pens are extremely portable; if you’re not comfortable with the idea of carrying a bottle of ink with you, you can find ink cartridges for almost any fountain pen.

If you’re new to fountain pen writing, a fine point nib or even extra fine (rather than medium or broad or italic or stub) is usually easier to use and still produce legible writing. If you want to use bottled ink (it’s economical, environmentally kind, and there’s an enormous range of color options and ink types), make sure that the pen comes with a converter (an expensive device to fill a fountain pen with ink from a bottle) or that you can purchase one for that specific pen.

There are a number of economical options for those interested in trying writing with a fountain pen before buying a more expensive keeper. There are low-end pens that are $3.00 to $5.00 dollars each, including disposable fountain pens like the Pilot Varsity. The Platinum Preppy fountain is an affordable (c. $3.00) alternative to a disposable pen; it uses Pilot cartridges, so it’s refillable. There are also a wide range of reasonable pens that are under $30.00, like the Lamy Vista, the Lamy Safari, the TWSBI ECO, or the Pilot Metropolitan. These are perfectly good pens and will last for years.

You’ll have better results  with fountain pens if you use slightly better than average paper; a Mead 5 Star notebook is tolerable, but heavier weight paper (c. 70 gsm or better) will work better and you don’t have to break the bank.

Moreover, you’re not limited by the offerings at Amazon; check out the options at JetPens.com or The Goulet Pen Company, both of which offer reasonable “starter pens” and notebooks or pads of paper suitable for fountain pens.

Handwriting and Retention

When I got my first laptop (a PowerBook 180) I thought it would be just the thing for taking notes in my graduate classes, particularly since I’ve always loathed my very obviously dyslexic cursive, and even my more legible (but slower) printing.

I soon realized that for all the ease of formatting my typed notes, I didn’t remember the contents of lectures nearly as well as when I took notes by hand. Moreover, when I began preparing for my Ph.D. qualifying exams, I discovered that it was more effective if, after I compiled my notes on the computer, I annotated them by hand.

There’s a lot of research that supports my personal anecdotal experience about handwriting encouraging retention.

Pam Mueller (Princeton) and Daniel Oppenheimer (UCLA) tested the retention of students taking notes by hand versus those using computers. The students using computers tended to transcribe, word-for-word, the content of the lectures. Even after researchers explicitly told laptop using students not to simply transcribe the lectures, they continued to transcribe word-for-word, and performed substantially poorer on tests than those taking notes by hand. According to Muller and Oppenheimer, “It may be that longhand note takers engage in more processing than laptop note takers, thus selecting more important information to include in their notes, which enables them to study this content more efficiently.” The most dramatic result in terms of the two groups of test-takers were in terms of questions that were conceptual; students using handwriting performed significantly better than those students using keyboards.1)See also: (Take Notes by Hand for Better Long-Term Comprehension – Association for Psychological Science
A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop
Handwriting vs typing: is the pen still mightier than the keyboard?
Attention, Students: Put Your Laptops Away

In terms of the neurological and physiological aspects of handwriting versus keyboarding, while keyboarding is substantially faster, allowing for word-for-word transcription, handwriting forces the writer to concentrate on the physical aspects of forming the letter while simultaneously visually paying attention to the tip of the pen. Writing by hand uses different parts of the brain, and more of them, than keyboarding does, which may have something to do why those writing demonstrate better retention than those who keyboard.

In an essay regarding the necessity for more research into the complex interactions between our brains, hands, and eyes in writing by hand, researchers Anne Mangen and Jean-Luc Velay note that

Our body, and in particular our hands, are inscribed in, and defining, the writing process in ways that have not been adequately dealt with in the research literature. The current radical shift in writing environments mandates an increased focus on the role of our hands in the writing process, and – even more importantly – how the movements and performance of the hand relate to what goes on in the brain.

Writing by hand changes our mechanics, and consequently, our memory. As we concentrate on forming the letters, we’re using parts of our brain that we don’t use when we keyboard, and that appears to assist both memory and recall. Researchers and Psychology professors Dung Bui, Joel Myerson, and Sandra Hale from Washington University discovered that students taking lecture notes via a computer keyboard demonstrated better immediate recall than students creating well-organized lecture notes by hand, but that about twenty four hours later students who keyboarded their notes performed worse on tests about the material than those who wrote their notes by hand. The researchers concluded that keyboard notetakers had poorer recall than those taking notes by hand because they were not actively summarizing and synthesizing key points, as much as they were engaged in transcription. According to them:2)See also: 3 Scientific Links Between Handwriting Your Notes and Memory

Taking organized notes presumably involves deeper and more thorough processing of the lecture information, whereas transcribing requires only a shallow encoding of the information.

Certainly for me, when I write notes by hand, I am in making it more mine; I am condensing it and emphasizing key concepts and connections between concepts, in ways that I am not when I merely transcribe. Consequently, the informtion is mine, and I can recall it more effectively. This same memory effect applies to other kinds of information beyond taking notes; when I write a date and time in a calendar, the appearance and shape of the characters remains in my memory as a visual impression in ways that adding an appointment in my online calendar does not.

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