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.