I have participated in National Novel Writing Month five times, and this year, I “won” for the third time. What was unique to me this year — aside from writing something I like enough to edit in January — is that I wrote the entire thing in pencil. I suspect that which pencils I used this year could be a fun post to write, but today I want to write about something I learned a lot about last month: point retention.
I’m not sure that I have ever read a detailed discussion about what we mean by that in the Pencil World, but I think it is safe to say that one usually means is how sharp a pencil stays when one writes/draws with it, i.e., how much of the point is left.
But after writing 50,000+ words in 30 days all in pencil, I have found that it is more nuanced than that.
I suggest that a more useful or practical way to think about point retention is to think about Writing Retention* and that the issue is point durability, not sharpness.
This year, I used a few soft Japanese pencils, such as the Blackwing 344 and 56, both of which have the same core as the 602. It is dark but not super soft, and the retention was the best among the Blackwing line until the release of Volume 24 in spring 2016. I was considerably more concerned with smoothness and writing speed than I was with pencils that would stay sharp as I attempted to draft a bad novel on paper in a month. The paper in the Yoobi composition books I used was pretty smooth and proved to be quite excellent for the project. Graphite would glide but not smear all over the place like it can on Rhodia paper.
At the beginning of one writing session, abuzz and awash in coffee, I tried out a 2016 Dixon Ticonderoga, Chinese-made, picked by hand at Staples. While I could get four pages (of about 250-300 words each) out of a Blackwing 602 equivalent core, I was barely able to write two pages before I had to sharpener the Ticonderoga. What is more, the pencil was nearly as sharp as it was when I started writing with it. The auto-stop crank sharpener I was using nearly refused to engage the cutters on the pencil.
The Blackwing, on the other hand, had grown quite dull. Still, I was able to find a useful writing surface because of the amount of graphite the pencil could lay down. Things got more complicated when I figured out that the Blackwing 344 was able to write as long as the slightly harder Blackwing 24, perhaps even a little longer. Certainly, the smoothness of the paper could have given the 344 (and 56) an artificial edge because it sheared off a little less graphite than a toothy paper might. But the darkness was unaffected, and the 24 would have the same advantage also. Maybe a slightly toothier paper would give the edge to the 24 and make the 344/56 go dull very quickly.
Using the new Blackwing Volume 530 (which has the same Extra Firm core as the 24), I have found that it dulls as quickly on Field Notes paper as the 344 I was using last week. However, it smears less and ghosts less. And of course the different “feel” could be a draw for some people, as it was for me today when I used one for a dozen pages.
I think that how long a pencil is useful before requiring a sharpening is a balance of darkness and what we generally call point retention. I propose that a dark pencil often has more writing durability than a harder one, since it can still perform with a duller point. Certainly, there are other considerations — smear resistance, smoothness, etc.
But I suggest a change in our Pencil Lexicon to Point Durability, i.e., how long a point is useful for making marks on paper, not how long it remains sharp. A sharp light pencil often fails to mark paper while a half-blunt darker pencil still trudges on. This is making me look at my darker/softer pencils in a whole new light and is helping me to understand why I still love the Blackwing (which I call the MMX for the year it was introduced) original so much.
* (Or Drawing Retention — but I write more than I draw; so I will stick the the former.)