There comes a time when picking up a pack of cheap pens no longer satisfies our desire for an exemplary writing experience.
Even in the age of taking notes on tablets and rarely needing to sign anything beyond a screen, we all still need pens. And why shouldn’t you have the very best pens for writing by hand? Handwriting can be a pleasure when you have the right tool for the job.
(Plus, writing by hand actually makes your notes more effective and helps you remember more of what you write down.)
Choosing the best pen sometimes happens by accident. This is usually the case when we discover there is a world beyond cheap, disposable pens or those with our dentist’s name monogrammed across the barrel. We come across a rollerball that glides effortlessly across the page. We borrow someone’s felt-tip and marvel at the inky beauty of its performance.
So how can you find the best pens for you without trying every single one?
The best pens for writing by hand cover a wide variety of types, and what works well for you always varies by person; however, your selection can be narrowed down to find the perfect one for you by a few specific differentiators.
How you hold your pen matters
How you hold your pen will determine almost immediately what pens will and will not offer a pleasurable writing experience.
For those that are heavy-handed, holding the pen traditionally but angling the pen nearly perpendicular to the paper, a super fine-line felt tip pen will expire quickly and provide a scratchy, jagged drag.
For those that are delicate with their pens, flourishing their letters with an angled barrel and gentle pressure, a ballpoint pen may barely make a mark on your paper.
If you hold your pen in a nonstandard way, like between your pointer and middle fingers while resting your hand on the paper, a rollerball pen may leave you with an inky mess.
And, of course, if you are a lefty, you know that ink, smudge, and drip are your worst enemies!
Pay attention to your handwriting over the next few days. Notice if your hand becomes sore after writing or if you have ink smudges on your hand or sleeves.
What do you write most often by hand?
Taking notes in a lecture setting, writing poetry on your back porch, and writing thank you letters to guests at your bridal shower are three very different writing occasions, each benefiting from different pen choices.
The best pens for writing in each of these will still vary according to your handwriting, but take into account your priorities for the result of your writing:
- Legibility – How legible do you need the end result to be? Consider your audience and how easily you’d like what you’re writing to be reread in the future. If legibility isn’t a top priority, consider simplifying with a pen that flows quickly and doesn’t smear ink.
- Style – How important is style and flair in your handwriting? For some (myself included), stylish handwriting is top priority always, so choosing a pen that fits your visual style will be more important than convenience or cost.
- Environment – How much time and space do you have to capture what needs writing? If you’re in a lecture hall cramming as many notes as you possibly can, you’ll want a pen that flows quickly and easily, preventing your hand from tiring early. If you’re hand-addressing envelopes on a lazy Sunday morning, you might opt for something less functional but more beautiful.
As you pay attention to your handwriting over the next few days, take note of your most frequent handwriting environments and functions.
How often are you taking notes that no one needs to read? Would you like it if your journal were more stylish and legible? Keep these questions in mind and consider how you’d like your handwriting to evolve along your pen journey.
What kind(s) of paper do you write on?
When you’re searching for the best pen, matching that pen to the kind of paper you regularly use is an important consideration. I typically carry my journal with me everywhere, so when I’m browsing the pen section at my local art store – because you can typically test at an art store and buy singles, rather than packs – I can test a pen’s performance right in my journal.
This is a list of the most common paper mediums and their complimentary pens:
- Notebook Paper: Thin, bright blue-white, matte surface, sometimes in a notebook but sometimes as a single sheet. Ballpoint, gel.
- Legal Pad: Thin, but not quite as thin as notebook paper, a bit of a sheen to the paper’s surface, typically yellow or white with red lines, usually still attached to its pad. Ballpoint, rollerball.
- Letter (Printer) Paper: Thicker than the former two, bright white, similar sheen to the legal pad, typically standing alone or inside of a binder. Ballpoint, fine line/plastic nib, fountain pen.
- Journal or Notebook paper: These vary widely, but will fall into a few noticeable categories:
- Thin paper, ink may bleed through. Ballpoint, rollerball, or gel.
- Thicker paper, may be more of an off-white, but have a sheen to the surface. Fountain pen, plastic nib, rollerball.
- Stationery Cards – Thick cardstock, typically white or just off-white, smaller writing area, absorbs ink well. Fountain pen, fine line, plastic nib, felt tip, marker.
Paper size, thickness, bleed, surface texture, color, and what’s under the paper (like more pages in a notebook, or a tabletop) will impact how a pen performs.
We want to avoid blurring, spotting, smearing, smudging, spreading, bleeding, and wiping the ink delivered by our pen. Sometimes that’s unavoidable, but knowing your paper and your handwriting will diminish these issues considerably!
A brief primer on how different pens deliver ink
Pens rely on air, ink (in a reservoir within the pen), and the pressure of your stroke to deliver ink to your paper. However, each pen does it differently.
Ballpoint: A small ball bearing in the tip of the pen rolls across the paper as you write, delivering oil-based ink from the cartridge, drying very quickly. These are the pens that, when they aren’t working, you scribble hard at the top of your paper in order to feed ink into the ball-bearing. Because the ball bearing delivers a lighter stream of ink than a fountain or gel pen, you may see more pressure-indent marks and a less prominent written result on your page.
Rollerball: Similar to a ballpoint pen, rollerball pens dispense ink by means of a ball bearing, but the ink is water-based or gel-based, leading to a richer pigment but slower drying time. Depending on the porosity of your paper, the viscosity of rollerball ink can spread as it enters your paper, making for thicker lines and letters.
Fountain: As you write, air flows upward through a small channel in the tip of the pen which causes the ink to flow out in a continuous stream. Thicker, more porous papers with a more matted surface texture will accept this ink well and dry quickly, whereas thinner or glossier papers may let the ink spread across its surface, creating a bit of a mess.
Fine Line (Plastic Nib/Felt Tip): Most fine line pens use water-based ink, and some even offer archival ink (which has the longevity to guarantee ink lasting on legal documents) and an tip and wick ink delivery system. The pressed fibers of the tip allows for the wick to soak up as much ink in one go and put it out on paper before it evaporates, at the same time preventing the air from entering the reservoir for as long as possible. It is advised to keep a cap on on the felt tip pens because the ink will dry-up if it experiences too much air time.
Gel: Gel pens use ink that is suspended in a water-based gel. Because the ink is thick and opaque, it shows up more clearly on dark or slick surfaces. Gel pens are often available in a variety of colors and appearances (see: glitter), but do not dry quickly on most surfaces, so can be subject to smearing.
How to choose the best pen for writing by hand
Even though this is the Ink+Volt blog, rest assured that I’m not biased when it comes to sourcing the best pens. While we do carry a stellar assortment of pens, a few on the following list are not sold by Ink + Volt, but are nonetheless worth your consideration.
Best: Caran d’Ache 849
An investment, but a worthy one. Fans love the Caran d’Ache 849 for its longevity (hundreds of pages) and for its extremely smooth, low-impact ink flow. The pen body is made from aluminum and painted with a thick lacquer, making for a sleek, chic appearance wherever you carry it.
Runner Up: Schneider Slider Rave Retractable
The grip alone on this pen’s barrel are enough to make it a top contender. Comfortable to write with with a smooth, richer-than-most ballpoint ink flow. Even though these have a plastic body, they don’t feel like an everyday “cheap” pen – they have a weighted balance to them that is easy on the stroke, even for heavy-handed writers.
My aunt, who is a high school French teacher, could barely contain her enthusiasm when she put a Schneider Slider Edge XB in red to her graded papers. She claims she’ll never use another red pen!
Before I embarked on this ‘best pens’ culmination, I wasn’t aware that I’d ever used a rollerball. The Pentel Hybrid Technica delivers ink like a fine tip or nib pen with the convenience and comfort of a rollerball, complete with a solid rubber grip. This pen offers the most style and flair of any rollerball I’ve ever tried, and it responds to a very light touch (good for any heavy-handed writers trying to give their hands a break!).
Runner Up: Pilot Precise V5
This was the first “nice” pen I ever used. It was the gateway to elegant ink dispersion and a smooth glide while scribbling never-ending notes in high school history class. The Pilot Precise V5 that helped my illegible scratch become slightly more decipherable, merely through line precision and ink clarity. If you’re a messy scribe or a quick writer, the Pilot Precise V5 is a great entry-level daily-use pen that’ll last for hundreds of pages.
Best: Pilot Metropolitan
Smooth, rich ink with a luscious delivery mark this pen, making for an elevated writing experience. The tip is forgiving and a bit thick, so finer-line writers may want to hold this pen lightly. The ink is refillable and fairly inexpensive, making this pen an accessible luxury that’s better for the environment.
Runner Up: Kaweco AL Sport
Kaweco’s pens are unique in that you can choose the fineness of your tip before purchasing and that when they are closed, they’re half the size of a typical pen. I typically write with a fine tip, making for thin lines and a smooth flow on lightly matted paper (glossier surfaces may experience smearing).
This pen is as daily-carry as a wallet, phone, and chapstick. Though this pen doesn’t love a heavy-handed writer, it performs tirelessly for well over a hundred pages. Letters are crisp, lines are smooth, and as long as you keep the cap on, you shouldn’t experience leakage or smudging.
Runner Up: Pentel Stylo
Forgiving, beautiful, rich, and variable – the Pentel Stylo has a flexible tip for fine lines and broad strokes. Because of the flexible tip, heavy-handed writers and lefties can feel confident the delivered ink will sink into the paper quickly and dry in time to keep from smearing.
For a thinner line and doodle-friendly pen, my co-worker swears by the Le Pen, an instrument with a near cult following whose .3 mm tip makes for the crispest lines I’ve ever seen!
Best: Pilot FriXion Erasable
Skepticism abounds when it comes to erasable pens, because how could one actually work? Testing the Pilot FriXion pen in the Ink+Volt Planner and on the thinner, shinier paper inside the Leuttchurm 1917 Bullet Journal, I was shocked to find that there was barely an indent of the erased text left-behind. The pen itself is quite comfortable, and the only downfall is that placing the cap on the back of the pen while it is open covers the eraser.
The UniBall Signo 151 and 153, which come in a variety of colors, including metallics and white, can write on innumerable surfaces, leaving a luxuriously rich and glossy ink in their wake. Especially ideal for cardstock and thicker, more porous papers. These pens also last a really long time considering that they are gel pens, but can become messy or blurry if your pen angle is inconsistent.
Armed with knowledge of writing priorities and personal style, it’s up to you to choose the best pens for writing every little word you have to say. What’s your favorite pen?