Lead on, Macduff.

[Today’s post comes from guest writer Lara Connock who lives and writes in South Africa. Many thanks to Lara for this wonderful essay about the virtues of journaling in pencil!]

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good notebook must be in want of a pen. Then, having secured the pen (by which I mean a fountain pen) he or she will want ink. And so begins the eternal – some might say infernal – quest for the perfect combination of paper, pen and ink. I have spent the majority of my writing life on such a quest and have left in my wake a brace of abandoned pens, innumerable bottles of ink and teetering piles of nearly-new notebooks in which the quick brown fox features over and over again.

“Are you ever going to write anything real?” my exasperated husband said one day. “I hate seeing you wasting your time and talent like this.”

“Then don’t look!” I snapped back. “This is important!”

Although I hated to admit it, my husband had a point. My focus had always been on the form, so I’d never really got down to the function; you know, actually writing stuff (apart from that wretched fox/dog scenario). See, I’m a perfectionist with OCD, hence the search for the aforementioned combination that would ensure that my notebook would be uniform, consistent and, well, perfect. I tried to explain this to my husband but he wasn’t having any of it. “If you really wanted to write, you’d write, and it wouldn’t matter what your notebook looked like. Imagine if Shakespeare had messed around the way you do!” Naturally I ignored this.

A couple of days later I was testing a new pen, ink and paper (again). The nib was an extra-fine, the ink the driest I could get, and the paper easily ten times more absorbent than Kleenex. There was ink everywhere – on the paper, the desk, the wall, the cat, my fingers, my clothes. And. I. Was. Done. I could not, would not, waste another moment more on such an utterly pointless exercise. The pen went into the pen coffin with all the others, ditto the ink, and the notebook went into the bin.

They say that sometimes, when one gives up hope, one feels so much better. It’s true. Having crossed that particular Rubicon, I really did feel a sense of relief – but it was short-lived. You see, I still wanted to write. I just had to find something to write with. My husband’s groan of despair could be heard three provinces away. “Just use a damn ballpoint!” was his suggestion, which, though kindly meant, was patently ridiculous.

Honesty compels me to admit that I actually quailed at the thought of having to try out all those gel pens, liquid ink pens (isn’t all ink liquid?), rollerballs and fineliners. When did writing instruments get so complicated? One’s writing life in days of yore must have been so much simpler when all one had to write with was a bit of graphite and a raggedy old piece of vellum or whatever. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure the Bard himself would have tossed his goose quill in the quill coffin, along with his iron gall ink and all its attendant issues, the moment he found out that he’d have far less hassle writing those plays of his with a stick of graphite wrapped in string. “Out, damned quill! Is this a piece of graphite which I see before me, the sharp end toward me? Come, let me clutch thee.”

And there was the solution to all my problems. So simple. (My husband’s sigh of relief was deafening.) I bought a cheap notebook and an equally cheap pencil. Indeed, a pencil. Which, come to think of it, wasn’t actually that cheap. If I was going to be writing with a pencil, it had to be a good one. The art store offered two choices: locally produced pencils or imported German ones. It was the proverbial no-brainer, my thinking being that since this particular German company had been producing pencils since 1662, they had more than likely perfected their craft by now.

Pencils have, um, revolutionised my writing and journaling. They have taken away all the pain and left only the pleasure. I did get a bit sidetracked in the beginning by the myriad grades of hardness and darkness; my own fifty shades of grey, you might say. I settled on F-grade pencils, the baby-bear’s-porridge grade: not too soft, not too light, just right. (FYI: an F pencil is a #2.5 in the US.)

Pencils are what an old friend of mine would call “willing writers”. I know that when I put that beautifully sharpened point to paper (any paper!) it will write the first time. No skipping or hard starts because the ink isn’t flowing; no feathering or bleeding or ghosting either. I won’t be able to change my mind halfway through a journal entry about the colour of the ink or the feel of the nib or the tooth of the paper. And when the pencil has been worn down to the ferrule – having given up its life purely for my writing pleasure (cue violins) – there will be a quiver of its clones to choose from. They will all write in exactly the same way as their predecessor did, thereby ensuring that the pages of my notebook remain beautifully uniform and thus appealing to the twin gods of Perfectionism and OCD. (And did I mention the thrill of being able to erase mistakes?)

Consistency being a big thing for me, I like the fact that a 500-year-old piece of graphite (quaintly known as plumbago in those days) will write almost as well as a Koh-I-Noor or a Blackwing produced in 2019. (But I’m basing that assumption on the online community’s reviews of them, not yet having had the opportunity to test drive them myself.)


The world is a vastly different place now than it was when farmers in Britain’s Lake District, circa 1560, used the recently-discovered, new-fangled plumbago to mark their sheep. Fast forward five centuries and there are legions of six-year-olds clutching jumbo-sized, triangular-shaped pencils and learning to write their names for the first time.

Pencils have survived world wars, industrial and technological revolutions, feasts, famines, droughts and disasters, and are still here. Of course, in our digital world, Millennials, Generation Z’s and converts from Generation X might rather take notes on their smartphones or tablets, but that doesn’t mean that pencils have become obsolete. Far from it. People apparently love the vintage, the antique, the old fashioned things of bygone eras. (I suspect we may have Downton Abbey to thank for that.) Vinyl records have made made a comeback along with manual typewriters, fountain pens and – in certain homes – afternoon high tea.

Pencils have never really gone out, and in the last decade or so they have enjoyed – and are still enjoying – an increase in popularity. The difference now is that people are buying, collecting and using pencils because they want to, not because they have to.

No pencil article would be worth its weight in graphite if there was no mention made of those literary greats who loved pencils – Hemingway, Steinbeck and Thoreau, and, before them, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci. I’m not going to repeat everything that has already been written about John Steinbeck’s passion for Blackwings because any pencil lover who doesn’t know about it must be living on a remote, nameless island or in an underground bunker previously occupied by hobbits.

Today, more than 20 billion pencils are produced worldwide every year. Currently there are upwards of 40 blogs devoted to pencils, my host’s included. Online stores are doing roaring trades, as is the now famous pencil store in New York owned and run by Caroline Weaver. (One day, when I don’t have to pay 14 South African Rand for one US dollar, I’ll make my pilgrimage. Until then, I’ll just skulk around the place online.)

Don’t get me wrong. Just because I’m a new convert to pencils does not mean I’ve fallen out of love with fountain pens. This isn’t a rebel song about their many vagaries or a protest march against the cost and elitism of fountain pen friendly paper. And don’t think I don’t see you glowering at me from the sidelines, you Pilots and Sailors and TWSBIs, and your besties, Clairefontaine, Rhodia and Tomoe. You all still have your place; it just isn’t in any of my notebooks. I tried so hard to love and bond with you, I really did, but I just don’t feel it. Now I’ve lost my heart to the product of an old German family, the House of Faber-Castell, and I’m committed for life.

Even so, it isn’t happily-ever-after just yet. I still have to find the ultimate pencil sharper and the apogee of erasers, along with pencil caps, pencil extenders and a pencil case to carry it all. So, lead on, Macduff.

Pencil for Long-Term Writing, Part 3: Paper.


(Continued from 2010 and also Part 1: Pencils.)

We have established that pencil is the perfect medium for preserving your writing for the future. We recently examined what to look for in a pencil for journaling and/or long-term writing and some examples thereof. Today we will look at paper for keeping your pencil writing safe.

There are several details on which to reflect when selecting a notebook or journal if you plan to fill it with pencil, and this is even more true when one wants to preserve the writing forever.

Binding
Spiral bindings  can allow pages to rub against other other, creating smearing and thereby affecting the legibility of your writing for the future. Write Notepads & Co. solves this with an enormous rubber band. Generally, if I am going to carry a notebook around for more than a week, I prefer something with an elastic closure like this or like a Moleskine. A staple-bound Field  Notes book lasts only a week; so there’s little time to smear. The Write Notepads pocket books are tightly-bound with the PUR spine, and they do not rub much either. Also, consider that an notebook crammed into  your pocket will not move very much against other paper, that the fabric of your pocket (and your butt/leg/etc.) will likely keep the pages together anyway. For bouncing around in a bag, I never use a book that can open a even a little on its own, allowing the pages to mingle. Graphite is not to be trusted in the open like that!

Tooth
I avoid papers with too little or too much tooth. For instance, anything with more tooth than (and sometimes even including) a Scout Books pocket notebook will collect more graphite from the point of the pencil than the marks which one seeks to preserve. This results in dust and smearing and a generally untidy notebook. This is fine sometimes; pencil is not always tidy. But for writing which we seek to protect, smearing can render words, lines — even pages — illegible. Even worse is paper which is too smooth. The writing never even has much of a chance to stay put. The paper on Rhodia pads, for instance, is a lovely and smooth surface on which to skate a piece of graphite. However, I would not trust words meant for future generations to such glassy paper.

Ruling
An overly-tight graph or narrow lines can cause one’s writing to bunch up, resulting in less crisp lines. Something around the line-spacing of a Moleskine and 1/4 inch is my own preference, though I often just forgo any guide whatsoever too. Try to go line-free with pencil and the intention that your writing with last forever. Be bold!

Archival Quality of the Paper
These days, most major-branded books (Moleskine, Field Notes, etc.) are bound with acid-free paper. Since graphite does not react with paper anyway, this is, I assume, slightly less of a issue than when using ink. However, brittle and yellow paper can cause an issue for any writing medium.

Balance
As in pencils, the key is balance. I like a paper with a medium tooth, light (or no) lines, and a binding that will not allow the paper to rub against itself. As with pencils, this is harder to explain than it is to give examples of.

Write Notepads & Co. – This is probably my favorite notebook paper right now. The 70# stock takes graphite wonderfully, and the minor stiffness of the paper combines with the PUR binding to hold the pages still. The texture is nearly perfect, and they use a nice 1/4 inch line-spacing which is a great balance of efficiency and comfort. Plus they are made in my hometown, and Chris is a friend IRL. But I still claim not to be biased. Their books really are that good.

Moleskine – I swear that Moleskine has been quietly (because loudly would be admitting the paper was inferior before?) improving their paper. The texture is lovely for your less soft pencils, and the elastic keeps everything in place. If you hit Target at the right time of year, you can steal one for a few bucks from the clearance section. I like to remember that a Moleskine in 2002 led me to being lucky enough to co-host a really fun podcast.

Paperblanks – I have not used one of these in a while, but the paper is very stiff for nice pencil lines. Some of the covers get a little…LOOK AT ME for my taste, but the subtly-designed ones work well. Ghosting/graphite transfer is very low on this paper, even without a blotter.

Baron Fig – In speaking with Joey and Adam, I learned that this paper was designed, in part, for pencil, and it shows. The texture is lovely, and the themes and special editions they produce appeal to me greatly.

Field Notes – The newer 60#T version of the Finch Paper Opaque Smooth is lovely for pencil. I’m not sure why it works so much better than the 50# version, which I find to border on too smooth. These do fall open and allow pages to rub together in a bag. I generally get only a week of pocket carry out of them, however; so I do not experience this issue.

What are some papers/books Comrades like to use for long-term writing and/or journaling in pencil?

Pencil for Long-Term Writing, Part 2: Pencils.


According to this blog’s stats, the post from 2010 about long-term writing and pencils is one of the most visited posts on this site. While we are behind in answering mail, we recently, we heard from Don, who asked

“I am wondering if you have any suggestions as to what kind of pencil lead to use for a high quality, long lasting journal?”

I think this is something to explore further, since some pencils (and some papers) perform better than others at keeping your writing safe for the future. Today, let us take a look at what makes a pencil effective for long-term writing, since (as we all know) Pencil is Forever. We’ll cover paper and accessories in two subsequent posts.

When I think of  good Journaling Pencil, there are some considerations I like to, er, consider. In re-reading this list, it could also serve as a Guide to Selecting the Write (!) Pencil in general, in some ways, though the models on that list might be somewhat, or even very, different if that was my intention here.

Darkness
While a German 4H will lend itself to an extreme degree of smear-resistance, it will not make a suitably dark mark for most users’ readability. While a hard pencil’s marks might actually be there on the page, I’d prefer to read them with the naked eye. And as I quickly approach Middle Age, that naked eyesight is not getting better.

Point Durability
A pencil is more likely to continue to make crisp lines if the point is durable and keeps its sharpness without crumbling and making a mess on the paper. I seldom go for the softest option. I like a point that stays crisp and clean for journaling.

Smoothness
A smooth pencil requires less pressure to make a mark. It indents the paper less, and that is always a good thing if you are being careful about your writing — not to mention fighting hand fatigue.

Smear-Resistance
Hard pencils resist smearing, but they can indent the paper due to the pressure required to make marks with them. However, some soft and/or dark pencils resist smearing more than others. This is a sort of Grail to which a lot of individual pencil models seem to aspire, along with a blend of darkness and point retention (a term I do not like).

Ghosting/Graphite Transfer
Almost all pencils and almost all bound books I have used involve the transfer of graphite between pages to some degree — at least when writing on a page which has writing on the other side. I always use a sheet of smooth paper between pages in such instances. A custom-cut piece of an outdated map (a method I’ve used for years) will last through several notebooks, and paper from a Rhodia pad cut to size works very well, too. Please note that cleaning the “blotter” sheet periodically with an eraser will yield maximum results.

Balance
What I look for is a pencil that is a good balance of darkness, smear-resistance, and smoothness. This is difficult to quantify or even to qualify. So I will list some examples of pencils which I personally find to be useful for long-term writing.

Staedtler Wopex – While there are many Comrades who eschew this extruded piece of weaponry, none can deny that the damned thing just won’t smear. It is also difficult to erase (possibly marring a journal full of mistakes, but maybe we shouldn’t run from our mistakes). You cannot have it all. But you can have this fantastic pencil in more colors if you buy from European sellers on eBay.

Blackwing (Firm or Extra-Firm cores only) – For some reason, the Balanced core in the Pearl (and 725) seems to smear more than the others. It has become my least favorite core for journaling. The MMX is lovely, but you can kill a quarter of a pencil writing about a good camping trip. The Firm core in the 602 (and 211, 56, and 344) and the Extra Firm in the 24 and 530 are both smooth and do not smear readily on good paper, though I learn more toward the smoother side of the spectrum of acceptable papers for long-term pencil writing.

General’s Layout – This pencil is oddly smear-resistant, with a durable point, for a pencil which produces such black marks. The slightly wider, round body is a bonus for True Writing Comfort.

Camel “Natural” HB – There’s not much to not like about this pencil. It definitely makes a much lighter  line than most Japanese HB pencils I use, but the point durability and aesthetics are top-notch. And I don’t always want something so soft and/or dark.

Faber-Castell Castell (9000 in the B-4B range) – This pencil can run easily through the 4B range without becoming a blunted, smeary mess. The exact grade you might enjoy will depend on how much darkness you demand and what paper on which you are writing. Try a 4B on Moleskine or Field Notes paper (see the next post), and you will understand that of which I speak.

General’s Cedar Pointe HB – This is a great all-around pencil. When I first tried them circa 2005, the leads were too hard for journaling. But they have softened the formula since then, and this is one of the most balanced cores I can think of. This certainly extends to long-term writing.

Premium Japanese HB – I cannot decide between the Tombow Mono 100 or the Mitsubishi Hi-Uni. Both make smooth, dark marks that stay put.

I am sure that I am forgetting some, and I know I am leaning heavily on pencils I have used recently. What are some things Comrades consider and some favorite journaling pencils among us friends?