By Andy Smiley
Since high school, I have written all my notes with a pen.
Originally, it was a way to prepare for AP exams, which are—or were, before COVID when they were taken in-person—required to be written in blue or black ink, an unfamiliar and unwelcome surprise for most high schoolers used to writing with the easily-erasable graphite. With no fewer than nine AP classes under my belt in high school, I think that the difficulty of learning to write in pen was worth it, especially now that it’s more commonplace in college. But, like the struggle of choosing the proper type of pencil which wouldn’t break, sharpen incorrectly, or erase weirdly, the struggle of choosing a pen can define the note-taking experience.
Most cheaper pens are ballpoint. They require much less metal, for one thing, with a plastic nib except for a small ball. They’re also easier to write with at first, and disposable: they write from any angle, don’t need ink refills, and are tossed in the trash when they’re spent. There’s something about the way that a smooth ballpoint pen glides across the page, as well, that encourages you to write and keep writing.
I was, for a long time, a ballpoint purist. My brother had gotten a fountain pen for himself, but I dismissed it. It was at worst pretentious, at best unnecessary. That all changed when I found a plastic fountain pen, abandoned, on the sidewalk, and absorbed it into my own collection, figuring you could never have too many.
Writing with the fountain pen for the first time was elegant and wonderful. The ink cartridge had recently been replaced, and the nib, superfine, was perfect for my scratchy writing style. From then on, I’ve only used fountain pens, despite my lack of knowledge about them (which led to a few unfortunate surprises the first time I ran out of ink, tried to use one on a plane, or any other scenario when it became impossible to write with).
The fountain pen, though nothing can quite match the silky feeling of a nice ballpoint, is overall a better writing experience. The pen itself is heavier and sits better in your hand. The nib, over time, will be ground away ever so slightly to accommodate the way that you, personally, put pressure on it. My current fountain pen has a piston cartridge inside, so when I run out of ink, I don’t put more plastic into landfills; instead, I take it apart, dip the tip in an inkwell, and suck up another few weeks of supply.
It is true that fountain pens use up more ink. A disposable ballpoint pen worth of ink will probably last you anywhere from weeks to months longer than a single cartridge of ink in a fountain pen. But a fountain pen itself, since it’s refillable, can last you the rest of your life if well-taken care of, and your everyday Bic just isn’t going to give you that kind of loyalty.
Overall, a fountain pen will give you more bang for your buck, it will conform to your writing style, and it will last as long as you have ink to put back in it. A ballpoint pen might feel nice, but you’ll likely break it or throw it away within the year. Invest in a good fountain pen; it’s worth it.
Edited by Emelyn Ehrlich