On Point Retention and Durability.


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.)

NaNoWriMo First Days Pencil Update.

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So far, I have been using each pencil until it is blunt and then I switch to something different. Like many readers, I suspect that I am subconsciously in search of The Ideal Pencil. I have had good experiences thus far with my pencils. This is not surprising, since the NaNoWriMo pencils I put into my box weren’t exactly chosen at random.

To name a few: I used a Chinese Dixon Ticonderoga right after using a General’s Cedar Pointe Friday — felt like butter! That Cedar Pointe put down nearly 1,000 words before it even hinted at needing a sharpening, though. Also, I’ve noticed pencils that have surprised me with their smoothness on the semi-cheap paper of a Carolina Pad composition book: Staedtler Noris (HB) and Musgrave My Pal. A Ticonderoga kids’ pencil was a nice break when my arm started to cramp, though the point retention was not very good — also for the round PaperMate Earth Write “Premium” (the black one). I have also been impressed by the smoothness, if not the darkness. of General’s Draughting pencil.

This gives me good testing grounds for some upcoming reviews of the Noris, Draughting and Earth Write.

As of Sunday evening, day three, I am at 5,874 words, even with a busy weekend. I hope I can keep this up. Hemingway’s advice — to never stop at a stopping point, always stopping when there is more to come, so that one can pick up the next day — has been working so far. Probably also a steady stream of coffee and Irish breakfast tea.

NaNoWriMo 2013.

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Comrades might have noticed from the right-hand “badge” that I am planning to participate in this year’s National Novel Writing Month. I should be saving up on rest or ideas. But, being the kind of person who keeps a pencil blog for all of this time, I have been — literally — gearing up. I will not embarrass myself with my stash for this year, not all of it. But here are a few nice items.

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These are a dozen Mount Tom notebooks from Bob Slate in Cambridge that my family gave me in August for my birthday. They are worth their own post. But if you’ve spent time studying or writing in Boston, you might already have some.

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Pictured: A dozen each of General’s Cedar Point and Layout and Ticonderoga Beginners*.

Honestly, with a toddler at home and an infant, I’m not sure where I am going to find time to do this. But find it I will. Hopefully. I suppose there’s not much difference between 3 1/2 and 5 hours of sleep, right? One must abide by my Rule of Twelve: The number of pints (!) of coffee and hours of sleep one experiences must add up to twelve. It works. I think.

Wanna be Writer Buddies on NaNoWriMo’s website? Look for me: jfgphd.

Also, check out some old posts, from my last attempt in 2010 on paper and on pencils. That year, I wasn’t used to the whole Never Sleeping thing yet. I’m old hand now. I wouldn’t know what to do with six hours of sleep if I saw it.

*[I like Big Pencils, and I cannot lie….er…..]

NaNoWriMo 1/2 way check-in.


It’s that time of the NaNoWriMo cycle: half-way!  That means that we’re all either:

1) Bored.
2) Quit.
3) Stressed.
4) Happy.
5) Blocked.
6) Cramped.
7) Other.

I missed a few days this weekend due to just being plain tired. My daughter turned seven months old yesterday(!).  While babies are cute and plain joy, they’re not advantageous for your sleep. Plus, well, my hand hurts!  Writing this by hand has been both refreshing and painful.  It’s been refreshing because I can type several times faster than I can write by hand, no matter what kind of pencil I use.  Slowing down helps me stay in control and not let everything go too much on autopilot.  I’m a little over 18,000 words as of last night, which is a little behind.  One of my writing buddies and blog pals (Gary!) is kicking my butt!

How are other folks faring? I thought I’d do a post about pencils (which ones I’ve been enjoying the most, etc.) and all that, but that might have to wait for later in the week, so that I can do some catching up. If you wanna be writing “buddies” on NaNo, search for me under jfgphd (so many consonants)!

Write on!

NaNoWriMo 2010 Gear: Paper.


While the question of which pencils to use for Nation Novel Writing Month is certainly an important one for pencil fans who are embarking on the one-month writing challenge.  But, perhaps almost as important, is the question of what to write on.

There are myriad notebook blogs, on which Comrades can find information about notebooks’ construction, which ones can handle fountain pen ink, etc. What we try to provide with our growing number of paper reviews are pencil-specific reviews. We have a growing stack (er, box) of review samples we are testing for ghosting, point retention, etc.  But, I thought it might be helpful to suggest a few great notebooks in which to write (or in which to take notes for) Comrades’ NaNoWriMo work — and, of course, invite others to share pointers.

1) Field Notes.  I was hoping my “Raven’s Wing” editions would show up this week, but it is not so.  Field Notes are stylish, durable and very pocketable.  I might not want to draft much longhand in these (they’re small and not full of much paper), but for on-the-go notetaking, it’s hard to beat a Field Notes book.

2) Rhodia products.  There are tiny stapled notebooks (like smaller Field Notes) for your pocket, the beautiful “Webbie” journals for long drafts and all manner of pads to suite your pocket or desktop.  The smartphone pocket of my T2 bag usually has a Rhodia pad in it, in some kind of Luddite gesture.

3) EcoJot Workbooks.  I was hoping we’d be able to publish a review of these from some samples Mark sent us in time for November, but it’s not to be.  The review is coming, but you’ll have to take my word for it that they are like Moleskine Cahiers.  Only greener.  With attractive covers.  And better paper.

4) Whitelines.  We’ll have a review of these interesting notebooks in the near future, but I think they bear mention for marathon writing.  The idea is that the pages are light grey, with white lines, since dark lines on white paper are harsh for the eyes.  It might sound strange, but these are very nice books, and the paper is intriguing.

5) Something FANCY.  A big MoleskinePaper Blanks.  Something handmade from Etsy.  I have a beautiful journal that my sister-in-law sent me for a birthday a few years ago made from an old library book and big rings that I am considering using, or a giant EcoJot journal.

I thought about listing books I would personally avoid, but I think that’s unnecessarily negative.  And, you know, one writer’s graphite mess is another’s silvery-grey paradise.

What are other Comrades planning to write in/on?

EasyRiter writing gear.


With National Novel Writing Month fast approaching, some Comrades might be flirting with the idea of writing a novel longhand —  or, at least, parts.  We’re planning on featuring some equipment to make this easier on Comrades’ hands and spirits.

First up is some very interesting gear from Idea Sun in the UK.  John sent us an Easyriter pencil, sharpener and pen, gratis, for review.  First, the pencil.

Vitals:
Material: Extruded plastic, with wood pulp.
Shape: Triangular, concave/flat sides.
Finish: None.
Ferrule: None.
Eraser: None.
Core: Polymer/graphite composite. Available in #2/HB.
Markings: “EASYRITER…IDEASUN.COM”.
Origin: UK.
Availability: From IdeaSun.Com and brick and mortar retailers.


This is a very striking pencil.  As  you can see, it is very plain and very oddly-shaped.  What you cannot see is that it is also somewhat flexible.  This is due to the fact that the lead and barrel are both extruded plastic.  This marks a first for Pencil Revolution, where we usually seem stuck-up enough to only discuss wooden pencils (and usually only cedar at that).  But that doesn’t mean that there is no place for plastic.  The “wood” in the Easyriter is made of recycled wood, mixed with polymer.  At first glance, it looked like a large, weird golf pencil.  It’s nothing fancy to look at.

But that’s not the point of the Easyriter.  Rather, its shape mimics the grasp of a three-fingered pencil hold.  We’ve seen this general concept applied to different triangular pencils.  But the Easyriter takes it a step further.  The three sides are not equally-shaped.  One is flat (the part that meets your middle finger), while the other two are concave.  Because of this innovation, increased pressured merely squooshes your fingers into one other, not into the pencil.  This wide pencil is, honestly, incredibly comfortable for writing.  The woodpulp/polymer barrel provides a nice grip, and the pencil is also extremely lightweight.  And, while I’m not generally a fan of plastic pencils, this pencil would be ridiculously expensive to make out of wood, since each one would have to be shaped either by hand or by special machinery.  The wood pulp content does make you forget, and it’s got a nice texture.  The lead is surprisingly dark for a polymer pencil, and it’s nice and smooth.  I’d rate the darkness in general as pretty middle for an HB (Dixon-dark), and that says a lot with an extruded core.  I usually have to hammer those things to make a mark at all.  If you have to press too hard to make a mark, this pencil would defeat its own purpose.  But.  You don’t, and it doesn’t.  The lead is probably the best extruded cored pencil I’ve ever used.

I really like the included sharpener.  It’s a large-diameter sharpener, but with only one hole!  [Here it is next to one of my favorite sharpeners, a KUM brass wedge.]  John at IdeaSun tells us that it’s a stock item from India but they they are thinking of using their own specs in the future.  This is the only single-holed, large diameter sharpener I’ve ever used, and I hope that, if they do re-spec it, they keep this general design.

Technical Information (For Sharpener):
Type: Blade.
Material: Magnesium-alloy.
Shavings Receptacle: None.
Point Type: Medium (for wide-body pencils).
Markings: None.
Place of Manufacture: India.
Availability: From IdeaSun.Com.


Frankly, it’s a great sharpener, and I think the Dixon Tri-Conderoga would have been better with this than with the cheap-looking (though nicely-performing) plastic sharpener with which they come.  Sharpening is not as easy as with a round pencil, as is the case with most triangular pencils.  In fact, my first sharpening with the included sharpener was a little awkward because the angles of the factory sharpening were different that what this cool little sharpener was making.  After the first sharpening, however, it was smooth-going.  Triangular pencils produce really interesting shavings (see here for a great photo by Comrade Mark).  This pencil makes extremely cool-looking little shavings.  And, once you get the point in line with the included sharpener, they are long and smooth, just like sharpening a cedar pencil in a good wedge sharpener.  You certainly have to take care because of the severe angles.  But I am usually a careful sharpener anyway.

There’s also an Easyriter pen, if you just have to use dirty old ink (!). Actually, it’s got a nice weight and feel and is at least as comfortable as the pencil is to write with. My father was visiting my daughter and I for lunch (dill potato soup!) the day that the package came, and I think he was coveting the pen (he cannot use pencil at work).  It’s a black ballpoint pen with the same shape as the pencil.

If you’re thinking of doing some loooonnnngggg writing next month for National Novel Writing Month, you might seriously enjoy the Easyriter pencil (and pen).  If nothing else, it’s just a really cool, really comfortable pencil.  I can picture these in different colors, with capped ends being very attractive.  A ferrule might be nearly impossible (without being very expensive), but different colors (black!) with a dipped end and no factory sharpening, and this pencil could be quite beautiful.  As it stands now, it’s, again, COMFORTABLE, and that’s the point.