Writer's desk

A modern guide to pen, paper and writing

Writing in pencil — April 13, 2020

Writing in pencil

The pencil can be mightier than the pen

Writing tools exist in a hierarchy of prestige. Their place in executive offices, at high-profile public signings and as gifts that mark the stages of life make the fountain pen king. Below it come ballpoint and rollerballs, gel pens and biros. The pencil, humble and basic, looks down only on crayons – if those can even be called writing tools. The pencil is the first writing tool we use and the first abandoned. We graduate from tracing specimen letters and rubbing out our first wobbly attempts in trails of graphite early. Our scrawls, early efforts at cursive, are replaced by more masterful strokes drawn in ink. We go from the grey of our first pencils to the blue ink of the schoolroom before we are urged to match the seriousness of the adult world in sombre black. This progression has us leave behind an evocative and tactile tool. As I took up pencils again, as I started to write for pleasure, I have fallen in love.

My pencil case and desk drawers are full of three pencils. Yes, there are the strays, those branded pencils you forget where you picked them up, but I write with ones I have sought out and bought. The Ticonderoga is my workman. Its name recalls the woods of a newly settled America, a wild Thoreau-like landscape. It is familiar. Its yellow and green livery is more remembered from school off the television than any real-life experience though. It is for teasing out an idea, a thought, capturing it quickly before it disappears. It is a composer of first drafts. Robust and quotidian, it leaves behind a line more grey than black. The pressure needed to make your mark is not inconsequential; it feels like there is some work going into your writing. Essays and jottings are constructed rather than flow which matches my experience of writing out an idea more fully. It admits mistakes. Not full rewrites of final edits, but its crowning eraser, the only lasting innovation in the four century history of the modern pencil, does let you catch those better word or better phrases that pop into your head the instant you see an inadequate cousin on the page. The Ticonderoga implies that things are not yet done.

Things progress. Drafts are rewritten. Your text begins to come together. To help marshal ideas and expression I turn to my Tombow Mono 100s. It is a smoother writer than the Ticonderoga. It keeps its point longer and writes in a more authoritative black. Its purpose is picked out in gold on black. It is for ‘hi-precision DRAFTING’. It is serious. It tidies and straightens, evens out and tunes up.

Humans create personalities. Our tools and appliances each have their own quirks. We imbue them with character. How we found them, where we found them, their branding, context and our own experience inform this character. There is some shamanesque magic in tools. Maybe it is how it focuses the mind on different things, maybe it is just an overactive imagination, but I can’t help but feel it. It is why I enjoy using pencils, using different ones.

The final one I keep close at hand is the world’s most famous pencil. For people who see a pencil or pen just as what they are, who have the good sense not to create personalities or mythologies for what is merely graphite encased in wood, that may sound strange. But the Blackwing 602 is celebrated around the world. Authors and writers praise it. For good reason too. The 602 sings across the page. The gruff grit and grumble a pencil makes as you drag it along the page is tuned and smoothed by the 602. When you’re ready, after the thinking and rethinking, after the edits and drafts, the 602 is there. It flows. It adds flourish. It is eccentric. Its cuboid eraser is weird. Its boasting of ‘twice the speed, half the pressure’ is arrogant. Yet, with its wax and graphite mix, it can carry it off.

Pencils are humble but powerful. It is your path into the whole written world. Writing gives our thoughts an existence outside of ourselves. The connection between pencil and paper is closer than that with pens. It has a friction, a noise, a rough and bumpy physicality that is not matched with silky ink. Pencils mark our progress. They get dull; our minds need sharpening. Roald Dahl used to start each writing day with six freshly sharpened Ticonderogas. When they were worn and their points were dull and thick, the work must have been done. I still like to write with pens. But there is a permanence to ink that I am not ready for when I am journaling or setting out on a piece. A pencil, its smells and sound, its reflection of the work put in, its allowance for mistakes, is the perfect tool. A pencil gives its life for your writing. It gives it life.

Why we write — April 8, 2020

Why we write

And why it should be slow

Photo by Mike Tinnion on Unsplash

Simple questions sometimes have simple answers. But it is rare. A child’s questioning can reveal complex gears at work beneath a seemingly simple surface. Simple questions often have many answers too. Answers vary not just based on who you ask, but when you ask someone and where.

The earliest writers lived in Sumer. They spoke a long-dead language. We can still hear their voices though. What they were saying, at first, was not particularly interesting. If asked why they wrote they would probably have said that writing is permanent. Across gaps of space and time, hundreds of miles, thousands of years, we can still read their land deeds and inventories. There’s are stories built of lists and legal contracts. They wrote to remember and be remembered.

Stories have always been with part of us. We can’t help telling them. We can’t help listening to them. They filled the air around the dusk lit campfires of our hunter-gatherer ancestors and they are with us still in the Netflix bathed sofas of 21st-century apartment blocks. We search for and fill our lives with stories.

Photo by Kevin Erdvig on Unsplash

It took a long time for storytellers to use the linguistic innovation of writing; to fasten breath in clay and ink. The oldest stories we can still read have all the hallmarks of a previous oral tradition. But we can only hear them now because of writing.

The answer the Sumerians might have given, the reason we can still hear the story of Gilgamesh, is the reason we write. We write because it is crystallised conversation, a lasting thought. But writing has also given us a mastery over our words and sentences. The rote phrases of Homer gave blind rhapsodes time to fill poems with their imagination, fitting their flourishes into metre and scheme. Writing allows us to edit. We can educate and train our sentences before we send them off into the world.

I write because it is easier to express myself in writing. The ‘likes’ and ‘umms’ of conversation are erased. There is no l’esprit d’escalier. I can snatch a fleeting thought and fix it still. I can poke and prod and mould it into a better version of itself. I take my time with my thoughts. I improve them. I turn them over, examine them, polish them and know my mind a little more fully.

Writing gives me time with my thoughts. I used to think this slow way of writing, with not a lot of published work, was a failure. I bought books, read articles, and watched tutorials that promised a better way. A faster way. But I could never write as quickly as they urged me to.

I have been able to build my life around words and sentences. I wanted to write more quickly because it would allow me to do more of what I loved. I have worked as an editor improving other people’s sentences. I have freelanced, writing copy and articles for blogs and businesses. I have written mass emails and marketing copy. In my spare time, I keep a journal, I have written private poetry and published my own articles on my blog and Medium. In all of these forms, I have rewritten, edited, polished and improved my initial thoughts. They have come out the better for it.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Online writing advice tells you to write every day, to publish every day. Build an audience and an income. I write every day. That is good advice. But I publish infrequently. Writing slowly allows you to know your thoughts better. It improves your thinking and your writing. Writing out my first few drafts in longhand with a pencil gives my sentences physicality. I can work them with my hands, slow and methodical, like a craftsman, an artisan, savouring the satisfaction of a well-made artefact. Writing becomes an act of defiance, against the world’s demands of always more, always faster and against my own stupidity.

There are many reasons to write. To inform, to educate, to entertain, to convince, to seduce. And we are all writers. Offices, universities, studies produce millions of sentences every day. Each email that pings into your inbox, each word on packaging and every advert tempting you to take your money out of your wallet has been placed there by a human hand. But we are not machines for pumping out word after dull word. There is a craft to writing that can’t be reproduced in the suffocating air of a sweatshop. Writing should revel in the telling, not just in what is told. It lets us build more beautiful sentences.

There are many reasons to write. Every person will have a different one. I write because it allows me to sound smarter than I am. It allows me to explore the lines of thought that crackle across the synapses of my brain, that fizz for an instant before they are gone. I can only do that by slowing down. I won’t ever be prolific. I won’t ever amass thousands of readers hanging on my every word. But I will develop my craft. That is something, however small, to prize.