Writing Right

Kevin Hamer
Jul 28 · 8 min read
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For 2019, I decided I was going to try out carrying and using a bullet journal to help keep myself a bit better organized, as well as to track more thank what gets tracked in the ticket system at work.

I’ve used a couple brands of notebooks for years, as I learned some time late in college I put a lot more effort into writing good notes if I was in a good notebook than something cheap.

So, I decided it was time to figure out the best pen and notebook for me to carry around everywhere.

For better or worse, I discovered The PenAddict and community around pen and paper, and before you know it…

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Left to Right: Eccolo, Palomino ForestChoice, Rhodia, Midori, Kokuyo, Northbooks, Field Notes, Moleskine, Wanderings.

I bought a ton of notebooks, even more pens, and set about figuring out what I liked, and started testing them all out.

I focused on sizes I thought that I could carry everywhere, without a bag, and use easily anywhere I was. While there’s other systems for keeping track of work projects, I wanted to track my own things better.

As far as pens, I’d guess it’s gotten somewhat out of hand and yet I still feel like I’m only just scratching the surface. My focus has been primarily on gel and rollerball pens, and personally, I seem to enjoy right around 0.7mm tip widths, which is pretty average. I’m left handed, but it wasn’t until this year that I really realized that I’ve become an underwriter (closest to #5). My pen grip is hard and I tend to hold pens closer to 30° from the paper than the recommended 45°–55°. It works, but it’s not particularly normal.

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Regular old printer paper.

I tested with plain old printer paper as a baseline.

  • Pentel EnerGel (0.7mm): Solid gel pen that dries faster than average. Also bled through the paper less than average. Still, was easy to fill in the box.
  • Pilot G2 (0.7mm): One of the most common gel pens. Noticeably thicker line widths than the equivalent energel. Also less consistent flow; look at the G, the 2, or the difference between the two strokes in the letter ‘t’. A little bleed, but nothing to write home about.
  • Uniball Signo DX (0.38mm): Having used one now, I get why people love the Signo DX refill. It’s remarkably smooth compared to the other 0.38mm tip width pens, doesn’t bleed and comes in a good range of colors. That said, at least the moment I prefer thicker lines when writing notes. Still, I get why Brian Conti and Brad Dowdy chose this refill for their pen.
  • The Pilot G-TEC-C3 (0.3mm): Would have impressed me more but I got it the same time as the Signo DX and the DX is better at everything. It also bled through the paper more than the G2, which I didn’t expect.
  • Uniball Vision and Uniball Vision Elite: The fifth line is mislabeled; that’s the regular Uniball Vision, whereas the real elite is at the bottom. They both write very easily, especially the elite, but they also both bleed and feather a lot on printer paper. The regular Uniball Vision almost looks like I was using a marker.
  • Uniball Signo 307 (0.7mm): solid, comparable with the Pentel Energel. A tad more bleed in this example, but not enough to suggest it’d always do that.
  • Pilot Precise V5 RT (0.5mm): another rollerball like the vision, except the line width, bleed and feathering are comparable to the 0.7mm EnerGel and Signo.
  • Parker Gel Refill (0.7mm): slightly more bleed than the average gel, and also thicker line widths. I kinda wish they had a 0.5mm version to try out, but I think I’ll have to look at OHTO’s refills instead.
  • Parker Ballpoint: Not my thing, but a good benchmark showing how ballpoint ink doesn’t bleed or feather at all.
  • Stabilo Pen 68: a felt tip pen (nearly a marker) that bleeds a lot. Definitely meant more for drawing than writing.
  • Frixion Ball Slim (0.38mm): Frixion ink still impresses me every time I use it. No bleed, clean lines, and erases better than any other pens or pencils I’ve used.
  • Pigma Micron 05 (0.45mm): A felt tip that does bleed a little but doesn’t feather. Also, the .45mm tip width seems to make thicker lines than the 0.7mm gels.
  • Stabilo Point 88: Another felt tip. I like this color, but I find the hexagon barrels kinda uncomfortable and it bleeds worse than the Pigma Micron despite being a light on the page.
  • Staedtler Triplus Fineliner: these triangular barrels are comfortable enough, but still awfully skinny. Bleed is on par with the Pigma Micron, but line width is thinner.
  • Pilot Varsity Steel Nib: the cheap fountain pen I had. On regular printer paper, the Varsity feathers and bleeds, but about on par with the Vision Elite an less than the Pen 68 or regular Vision. The nib definitely scratches around the paper a bit, but it’s not intolerable.

Conclusions

For regular paper, most gels are fine, but if you want to use both sides you should stick with a ballpoint or a very thin tip width like the Signo DX or Frixion Ball Slim. I’d avoid using the Uniball Vision on printer paper, and wouldn’t recommend using fountain or art pens on it either.

Picking Paper

Next up, paper. I tried roughly a dozen or so brands that offered A6 or notebook (3" x 5") notebooks. Here’s a few:

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Moleskine pocket.

Before this, I had used Moleskines for years, but so I needed to at least use them to get a benchmark, even if people accuse them of being overpriced and lower quality. They’re available everywhere — and had worked well enough.

Looking at the photos, it’s easy to see that what you write with matters a lot if you want to use the backs of pages. If you like the Signo DX or Sharpie Pen, you’re easily in the clear; if you like the Vision Elite or fountain pens, probably not.

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Northbooks A6 Pocket dots.

Juxtapose the last set of pictures with the paper from Northbooks. You could safely use just about any pen you’d like on Northbooks’ 60-lb paper, and at ~4$ a notebook, the price is basically the same as Moleskine’s.

Similarly — here’s Rhodia:

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Rhodia A7. Too small for me.

If you’re dealing with ghosting, there’s no reason to — just find better paper.

Beyond looking at the paper quality, I paid attention to the feel of the paper, how it held up to being carried around and the bindings.

Findings

  • Moleskine: so-so paper, great (sewn) binding, good covers.
  • Northbooks: great paper, so-so (stapled) binding, good covers, lots of tooth.
  • Rhodia: great paper, so-so (stapled) binding, cheap cover, very slick, almost too slick paper for normal pens — seems designed for fountain pens.
  • Field Notes: pretty great paper, so-so (stapled) binding, great covers. Plus, the quarterly editions deserve a mention on their own; that sets Field Notes alone by itself, and I’d probably got more into them if I didn’t find 3" x 5" a little cramped.
  • Midori: great paper, the best (mesh) binding, good covers. One of only two with a ribbon in this list too.
  • MUJI: great paper, great (sewn) binding, good covers, although the square corners got smushed badly.
  • Kokuyo Buncobon: pretty great paper, great (sewn?) binding, cheap cover, slick paper. Very flexible — felt too delicate to carry in a pocket, but it did have a ribbon.
  • Hobonichi (Tomoe River Paper): incredible paper — although its very light, like old school bible page light, great binding, great cover. The paper isn’t slick — but it’s also not very absorbent, so it can take longer for ink to dry on than most anything else in this list.
  • Eccolo: I really liked the larger flex cover eccolos, but in this size, it’s just bad — bad binding, bad paper, stiff and fragile cover.
  • Wanderings: so-so paper, sewn binding, cheap cover. Unremarkable.
  • I haven’t used a Palomino ForestChoice notebook as a daily notebook yet. The bindings are sewn and taped and look solid, and the paper feels somewhat toothy — probably because it’s aiming for use with pencils.

Notebook Conclusions

While I still hop around, the brand I’m the happiest with is probably Midori with MUJI as a close second. Midori’s lay flat binding is easily the best I’ve used (being left handed) and the aesthetic is superb. The grid has margins, markers (and a center dot) across the top and down the sides. They call them coverless (and sell separate covers) but honestly, the stock on the outside has a appealing minimal look, its embossed with the MD logo, and there’s even a second slightly heavier stock inside cover in the front and back.

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Midori MD. Maybe a hair more ghosting than Northbooks, but look at those margins.

Lastly, MUJI’s A6 notebooks are the perfect size for me to carry, the sewn (and taped) binding holds up better than anything else. The square corners look nice, but don’t hold up that well — but I was able to use this $13 corner punch to fix that.

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A current MUJI A6 — sorry it isn’t the original one I benchmarked, it’s in an office closed for Covid-19. Also, I don’t have all the same pens available to benchmark with; but I do have more fountain pens than I did a year ago. Go figure.

Beyond the corner punch, I also usually add my own ribbons; sometimes one, sometimes two. And for $12 for 5, these are great value. I’ve heard in a MUJI store, you can get them for $2 a piece — but I haven’t made it to one yet.

Looking back over the last year and a half, my 20–30 notebooks and probably 100–150 pens, I’m content. I was sharpening the axe — finding tools that work best for me. All in all, I may have spent $300 in office supplies, but I’ll probably personally use at least two thirds of the stash and can find people who will use most the rest. It’s worth finding the best tools for you — even if it’s just trying out different $1 pens or $2 notebooks.

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