NaNoWriMo 2010 Gear: Pencils.

With Nation Novel Writing Month beginning Monday and the recent attention that writing by hand has received, I thought we might offer a few short primers on good long-term, long-distance, long-hand writing gear for the intrepid souls embarking on writing a novel (or other 50,000 word text) in a month. This is especially true for the undaunted few who might draft their work by hand. Certainly, this is no easy task. I’m going to give it a shot with a half-time job and a 6-month old at home.  If you want to write, however, it’s worth it.  I “won” in the only year I tried (2007), and it was great to figure out that I could, literally, write — and something other than a philosophy dissertation.  It’s a great exercise if you aspire to be a writer at all or even just want to see what  you can do.

I’d also like to encourage folks to sign up for our Facebook group, where we might, perhaps, be able to serve as valuable moral support for one another.

What does a great NaNoWriMo pencil look like?

For me, I consider these aspects:

1) Darkness. Someone (probably you) is going to have to type this thing up before November 30th if you want to be an official “winner.” I don’t have the eyesight or the patience to do this from a 4H pencil.  Even if you’re only using paper and pencil for notes, being able to, you know, see what you wrote is a good thing.
2) Point retention. Certainly, sharpening a pencil is one of life’s great pleasures, and all that. But, let’s face it, there’s a crazy deadline. You don’t want to have to sharpen your pencil after every single page.
3) Smoothness. I have hand injuries from a bad bike crash in 2009, and I have to consider that I don’t want to mash graphite onto the paper to get words to appear.  This is doubly true for fiction writing.
4) Comfort. A sharp hexagonal pencil or extreme triangular pencil might work for some, but not others.  I like rounded hex pencils or round pencils myself.
5) Cost/availability/stock-pile. I’m not going to start on a huge project with a carefully chosen pencil if I only have one or two of them.

While we heartily invite Comrades to add to the conversation with comments about what you’re going to write with, not write with, what you recommend, etc., this is my own short list of contenders:

1) California Republic Palomino (HB). It’s no secret that this is one of my favorite pencils. The darkness and point retention is a good balance, while smoothness is excellent. The shape and thick lacquer make it comfortable to hold, and they’re not prohibitively expensive.  I meant to order a dozen new blue non-erasered ones in time, but I lost track of time.
2) General’s Semi-Hex (HB). The shape is smooth and comfortable, and they’re only $4 a dozen. (On the other hand, they can be hard to find.) Darkness and smoothness are, as I might repeat when we review them soon, what you wish your Dixon would give you. Point retention is acceptable.
3) Mirado Black Warrior (HB). I have to admit that the new (Mexican-made) stock is better. The lead is darker, and I like the matte finish (though I think the last few USA runs had that also). If this pencil had its current lead back in 2005-6, it might have been my favorite pencil in the world — or in the top three.
4) Palomino Blackwing (?). While point retention is not the best, the smoothness and darkness are unmatched in a writing pencil (at least any I have ever used).  This pencil is just a joy to write with; that’s all there is to it for me.
5) Dixon Ticonderoga “Black” (HB). I have a few left with the matte paint, from when they were made in the USA. These have a finish that resembles the new Blackwing. The newer, glossier Mexican models are nice, too, and you can get them at Walmart (etc.).  Everything good (and bad) about the yellow Dixon applies to this pencil, but it’s more attractive and has a better eraser.
6) Field Notes Pencil (HB). I mentioned it being a little gritty. But the point retention, shape, lack of paint, darkness and price make it a great pencil. I don’t mind a little grit. And, dang, I like this pencil.
7) Faber-Castell 9000 (4B). While I find the 9000 disappointingly hard at most grades, the 4B is great for dark notes and actually holds its point very well. The shape is a little sharp, and the wood (non-cedar) is a little too light.  And, come to think of it, it’s expensive.  But I think it’s worth mentioning a non-HB pencil, in case Comrades loves a certain pencil but want something similar and darker for NaNoWriMo.
8) Whateverthehellpencilihavearound. Sometimes, the best pencil is the one right in front of you.

What sorts of pencils are other Comrades using for notes, for composing, etc.?

17 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo 2010 Gear: Pencils.”

  1. Also a big fan of CalCedar’s Golden Bear pencils in 2B. They’re cheap, I love the orange and blue. Good eraser. Nice dark lead.

  2. I’m planning to use the Field Notes pencil. I’ve got 6 of them, barely used except for the psych GRE, so I should have a good stockpile. But what to write in…

  3. One point aside from gear talk if I may, just in case anyone is on the fence about doing this by hand out of the fear of retyping: there is a Luddite Clause in the (unwritten?) NaNoWriMo bylaws. If you are hand-writing or using a typewriter, rather than retyping the whole thing, you may instead create a dummy document with the appropriate number of words (I use a Lorem Ipsum generator and then copy and paste however many times to get the number of words needed), and upload it for verification.

    How do you determine how many words you’ve written? Well, some people painstakingly count every word. I freely admit I’m far, far too lazy for that. Instead, I count words on a handful of pages and come up with an average-per-page, and then average in another random page here and there as I go along just in case my handwriting gets bigger or smaller as the month goes on, and to factor in pages with more dialog than narrative and vice versa. Then I estimate low–i.e. if I generally write 175 words a page, I might estimate 150 or 160–and count pages instead of words. I number the pages in my notebooks, so that part’s easy.

    This got long. I’ll blame it on gearing up for November wordiness.

  4. With only a couple days to decide, I’m still on the fence. I do think though that if I do the writing, I’ll do it manually. I just don’t know if I’ll have it in me to grind through that many words in a month.

    For pencil, I would like to imagine I have a few primary candidates, but really there’s only one pencil I can imagine myself using for such a project, and unfortunately it’s not even a woodcased pencil (well not exactly).

    1. Mitsubishi Pure Malt Premium 2mm with Uni or Uni Artis leads. I hate to admit it to the romantic part of me that prefers more primitive woodcased pencils, but this thing is the best graphite-based writing implement I have. Beautiful, comfortable, convenient to sharpen, easy to carry. Staedtler 925-25-20 would also be a candidate for its grip section, but I lost mine in a taxi (hope that guy or his family can appreciate a fine writing implement), so the Mitsubishi so far stands pretty much uncontested.

    2. HB or F (Japanese) woodcased pencil. I don’t want to blindly follow the popular choices (among Japanese pencil fans at least), but the Mitsubishi Hi-Uni and Tombow Mono 100 are lovely pencils, with my preference edging toward the latter. I’ve got a bunch that are nearly as good (Mitsubishi 9800 and Uni-Star, Palomino, Romeo No.3, Staedtler Mars Lumograph, etc.), and a few that are on the same level (like the Pentel CDT Item 17), but I’d still personally give the nod to the Hi-Uni or Mono 100.

    3. Soft woodcased pencil. I don’t think I’d do much writing with an extreme softy, but perhaps some work could be done with my darker pencils. I prefer the Mitsubishi Uni Penmanship 4B to my other soft pencils, though the Palomino Blackwing, while not quite as good as the Mitsubishi, is growing on me now that I’ve made a few modifications to it. However, neither is really suited to long-form writing, and beyond occasional use (notes and occasional emphasis), I wouldn’t want to rely on them. If darkness and smoothness were my only criteria, a good pen would embarrass both of these fine pencils.

    4. Mechanical pencil. The romantic/nostalgic side of me finds fine mechanical pencils to be somewhat antithetical to writing a novel in longhand, even if they are some of the most practical writing tools ever created. Perhaps it’s the modernized tech-oriented marketing associated with the better mechanical pencil leads (Pentel Ain, Pilot Neox Eno, Uni NanoDia, etc.).

  5. My favourite woodcased pencils are the Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100 and the Pentel Black Polymer 999, both in B. The first is easily available and the latter stockpiled in my home :-) My #1 mechanical pencil is the Pentel GraphGear 500 (PG525, Japanese version with black barrel), filled with either Pentel Ain 2B oder Pilot Eno NeoX 2B lead.

    I use these pencils daily, and even if my handwriting resembles more printed letters that longhand I don’t see any problems with writing so many words. However, I lack the creativity which is probably the most important prerequisite for writing a novel ;-)

  6. I like the Cal Cedar line up going from Blackwing, Palomino, Golden Bear, Prospector, and Spangle. When they are all dull I’ll start over. I’m looking forward to trying out the Golden bear 2B. They make more grades of pencils then they list on their website. If you have never viewed the list of what is made I encourage you to check it out. Here is the link. lots of choices. I asked to purchase the Golden bear 2B, and they were happy to add them online. When my hand gets tired I think I’ll switch to the black Tri-conderoga. I love that shape. So my text will probably go from dark to light. It might make for an interesting visual appearance.

  7. I choose the Palomino Blackwing, my favorite pencil for writing of all kinds, from lengthy sessions to note-taking. This is the greatest pencil in the world, in my opinion.

    And yet, yes…the lack of point retention on the PBW can be an issue in certain situations, like writing in the outdoors, when taking along my Carl Decade is less practical. For these scenarios, I like the Field Notes pencil. It has a great balance of darkness with point retention. I also like the round barrel of this pencil and the “woodiness” of it.

    The Mitsubishi “For Office Use” pencil is an excellent, true HB, for a lighter (but not TOO light), harder lead when needed. It is a fine-looking red lacquered pencil, less well known in this country than the other Mitsubishi pencils. It is probably the best office-school pencil I have ever tried. Although I named the Field Notes pencil as my choice for outdoor writing, every true Scout knows that lighter, harder lead lasts longer in a pocket notebook and is less liable to smear or blurr from contact with other pages; in addition, if you fall out of your canoe with your notebook, writing in lighter lead will survive water better and not be washed off the page.

    Poor Ticonderoga. It has seen better days. It is a shadow of its former self. And yet…I find it comforting that it is still so readily available in boxes of a dozen. Its yellow barrel and green-striped ferrule remind me so much of school days. I always keep some on hand. It still does the basic job of writing, not superbly but not horribly, either. Just beware of lead breaks now and then and occassional shoddy coats of paint. The Chinese production seems a bit better than the Mexican, but the Mexican-made ones are improving gradually. They’re cheap, too, so you do not have to be overly protective of them, as with more expensive and rare pencils.

    So: Palomino Blackwing, Field Notes, and Mitsubishi “For Office Use” are the three pencils you will always find in my pencil case, and Ticonderogas around the house…If you force me to choose a runner-up or honorable mention, I’ll say the Itoya Romeo No. 3–a rich, dark pencil, to which I was introduced by Sean Malone. But it is harder to obtain and very expensive when you factor in shipping from Japan.

  8. I am thinking of writing a novel in pencil but not for NaNoWriMo (I work full time, I have a wife and family and I do other things apart from blog on pencils). Most of the pencils mentioned above are too exotic, hard to find, or just valuable to use up on an ambitious project like a novel. A mechanical pencil would be good: the Uni Kuru Toga would make an excellent pencil for writing for long spells, and the leads seem to last for ages. However a woodcased pencil is really the thing for this. I prefer round-section pencils and my favourite would be a Faber-Castell 9008 Steno in either B or 2B (I have both) but because those are also quite hard to get hold of, my choice would be a good quality everyday pencil. Here in England that means either a Staedtler tradition or Noris, in HB. Both are great pencils, cheap, and readily available. I’ll probably use a pack of Noris pencils.

  9. I agree with many regarding the offerings from Palomino and Tombow. Another manufacturer that hasn’t been mentioned yet that are a great value is Musgrave. I like the Unigraph in the 2b the best, but also like their Unigraph and Hex in HB. The HB is actually darker than the 2B, but the 2B is smoother. (Avoid the B though, last time I tried it is was harder and lighter than the HB.)

  10. I have to admit a fondness for a hexagonal No. 2 Eagle with a standard golden yellow paint job and a reddish gum eraser. I just checked and the company has been around since 1856 and was purchased by Berol, my favorite art pencil maker.
    I can’t remember who made my favorite carpenter’s pencil. It’s red with black stripes down the narrowly beveled edges of the hexagonal.
    Sharpening is an art form and best accomplished with a small hand sharpener and a piece of extremely fine emery paper.
    Write on my friends!

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