Why Using Pencils To Write May Be More Eye-Opening Than You Think

Person holding a sharp wooden pencil

As much as I recommend avoiding the romanticism of the writer’s life, I do find myself fascinated by famous authors’ creative processes.

And what better way of fuelling this fascination than by gawking over their tools of creation?

To be honest, the only reason why I have a LAMY 2000 sitting in my drawer is because Neil Gaiman uses one to draft his stories. I’ve also written on Vim to emulate George Martin’s preference for Wordstar.

But now that I’ve decided to stop blindly going down the path of tool-collecting, I’ve found myself gravitating towards simpler and cheaper options.

Learning about pencils—or more specifically, John Steinbeck’s fascination of them—quickly turned into an exploration of Hemingway, Atwood, and Nabokov’s preferences for it.

And like a kid being peer-pressured into his first drag of a cigarette, I found myself wanting to write with pencils so I too could be cool like the authors I looked up to.

The quirk that caught my attention

John Steinbeck’s creative process was thus: sharpen 24 pencils and stick them point up in a container. Start writing. Once a pencil is worked to a dull point—generally after four to five sentences—it would be stored point down in a separate container.

After all 24 pencils are blunt, they’ll be sharpened once more before the process is repeated.

Now, I wouldn’t say that I followed Steinbeck’s footsteps and ordered four boxes of Blackwing pencils, but I did try out a few lead grades to see which I liked best.

And while those of you in the United States may be used to the #2 (HB) pencil, I found myself actually disliking the light lines, and so I’ve defaulted to 4B, and I have to say that I’ve been hooked ever since.

Jackets hanging off a door hanger

Hooked just like these jackets. Photo: Suad Kamardeen

So why write with a pencil?

Like many of you, I could count the number of times I used a pencil since primary school. But now that I’ve spent some time with it, I can see how it fits into my writing life, and because of that, I’ve decided to regal you with the benefits of using pencils.

They’re cheap

I’ve been using pencils almost exclusively for a couple months now, including for morning pages and journalling, and I have to say, at about MYR 1.50 (USD 0.30) per pop, they’re pretty much the most affordable writing tool out there.

This is especially true if you factor in mechanical pencil refills, which cost only MYR 5 (USD 1.20) for a pack of 40 lead refills. You know what’s cool about cheap writing tools? You get to focus on the writing.

They write anywhere

I never knew that writing upside down was a problem until I got into fountain pens. Then I realised that ballpoint pens faced the same problem. It’s not like I routinely write while in the cobra pose, but I sometimes use tilted easels, and that’s enough of an angle to cause skips with my fountain pens. With pencils though? I’m fine as long as the tip touches the paper.

They’re archival

I have to admit that I haven’t really put this to the test, but I do have journals from 20 years back that still have my pencil scrawls as dark as the day I had written them. Sure, they can be erased, but it won’t be me doing said erasing. Oh, and graphite is waterproof too.

They last forever

I mean, a pencil gets shorter as you use it, yes, but if you leave it stored in a cupboard for decades, it’ll still work just as it would today. The same goes with a mechanical pencil. Try that with a fountain pen filled with ink. Heck, try that with any pen, gel or ballpoint.

An old bearded man working at an anvil

Your pencil would probably last as long as this anvil, provided you don’t use it. Photo: Nicolas Hoizey

Unexpected lessons from writing with pencils

Look, a tool’s a tool, and a pen should do the same job as a pencil when it comes to writing, right?

Weirdly enough, I’ve found a different cadence when writing with pencils, almost more mindful of the skritch-skritch on paper and the way my letters look once the point turns into a chisel.

Thanks to graphite, I’ve also discovered a few unexpected lessons in general. And you all know how much I enjoy connecting the mundane with faux-enlightenment.

So here are a few things pencils have taught me about life.

Everything is temporary

Nothing reminds you of that fact better than a wooden pencil. Not only does it get shorter as you use it, but the balance changes too, and you’ll find that the same pencil will seem like a totally different one even throughout the day.

Couple that with the fact that graphite is erasable and you’ll realise just how temporary life is. It makes you appreciate the moment more, because right here, right now, is what really matters.

Who knows what’ll happen tomorrow? Your life will have shortened, just like the pencil, and your efforts will be recorded down somewhere, but one day they’ll disappear, just like you.

So get to writing, while you’re still filled with life, because tomorrow could be a very different day.

You can always fix yourself

I’m pretty light-handed, so I don’t break lead all that much, but there have been times when my cheap sharpener would chip the tip just enough so that it’d break at certain angles, and I’ll end up with two points, which feels like writing with a fruit fork.

That’s life for you though. Sometimes you break, and sometimes you grow duller from work. But you’re always a couple of turns away from returning to your old self, sharp and useful as before.

And that’s what we need to remember when life gets us down sometimes, that we can always get back in shape.

Do your job and do it well

The pencil doesn’t call any attention to itself. In fact, it’s so modest that we’ve probably forgotten all about it since our teachers introduced pens to us.

But what we take for granted is that the pencil does its job fantastically well. It’s dependable, and it writes even on wood, glass, concrete, or steel.

You know what that’s taught me? That you don’t need to be a remarkable person to do great work. As renowned chef Marco Pierre White likes to say: “Keep it simple. Perfection is lots of little things done well.”

Life is not a zero-sum game

This is more personal than anything. Pencils have taught me that I don’t need to abandon ink just because I’ve recently found joy in graphite, nor do I need to be a pencil zealot.

I like to think of myself as a minimalist, so the tools in my life need to cover as many bases as they can. That was my life with fountain pens, and boy did I write everything with the pens, even if the situation didn’t call for it like, say, filling in immigration cards where the ink’s easily wiped off.

I’ve since learned that it’s okay to have phases, and that I don’t need to Marie Kondo my other hobbies just because I don’t have enough time for all of them.

And while it’s great having less clutter in my life, it’s also awesome to be reminded that I have diverse interests and a rich life.

Man with backpack in the forest with a choice of two paths

Sometimes it doesn’t need to be one or the other, ya know? Photo: Caleb Jones

In the end, it’s all about you

Here’s a TL;DR for you: Pencils really change the way I write, but sometimes, I feel it’s all just in my head.

Because in the end, it doesn’t matter whether your fingers are resting on a keyboard or curled around a pencil because it’s you who will be doing the writing. And as we’ve learned from one of the points above, the you today might be totally different from the you tomorrow, everything being temporary and all.

Your preferences for words will change, and so too will your constitution against the blank page. You’ll approach the same story with a different lens, or you won’t feel like approaching it at all.

Steinbeck wrote: “For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good ones but never the perfect one. And all the time it was not the pencils but me.”

Even though he meant that in the context of pencils, it applies so well to writing in general. Because our magic lies not in the instruments we use, but in our very selves. And maybe it takes exploring all these different tools to learn that.


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116 thoughts on “Why Using Pencils To Write May Be More Eye-Opening Than You Think

  1. This is a good post Stuart. I still use pencil and pen from time to time in my writings. You don’t always have a keyboard handy or voice recorder handy. I consider that pencil to be part of my writer’s arsenal. Blessings and Peace.

    • Thanks for the kind support! It’s nice to have a variety of tools on standby, and nothing beats the pencil for plain ol’ reliability, and I say this as someone who adores all types of stationery. Love your comment!

  2. What a surprising topic. I love it! My husband is an animator and pencils are everywhere. I like the ability to erase. It makes things feel like more of a process, rather than done in one attempt. I use pencils a lot when writing or drawing in little blank books. This article helped me think about why that is. So thank you!

    • I have to admit that while pencils give me the ability to erase, I end up just striking through mistakes like I would with a pen, lol. Thanks so much for sharing a slice of your life here. It’s great to know of your other creative pursuits besides your amazing photography :D

  3. It’s funny how “Marie Kondo” has become a verb. Agree about phases and keeping your hobbyist tools even if you’re setting them aside for awhile. Lovely ode to the pencil. Thanks for sharing.

    • Haha yeah. I totally didn’t realise I was verb-ing her name until you brought it up, and now I too realise how interesting that it’s become a verb.

      Thanks so much for your lovely support!

    • It’s pretty interesting, come to think of it. How one person can affect the decisions of so many after him. I bet we’re not the only ones who tried pencils after reading hit story. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  4. Pingback: Why Using Pencils To Write May Be More Eye-Opening Than You Think—Reblog from Stuart Danker—Your Friendly Malaysian Writer – Faye E. Arcand

  5. Darn, so I didn’t need my fountain pen to write. Hope my mother in law doesn’t realize or she’ll ask my pen back ☺️. Great entry my friend, you always make me think.

    • Lol to be fair, the paper determines which tool I pick as well. Sometimes it sucks using a fountain pen on less-optimal paper. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Love your comments.

    • This made me laugh—I’ve been using mechanical pencils and composition books to write the rough drafts of my novels. I still use pen to brainstorm and map my plot lines but pencil seems to do the trick for actually writing. At least that’s the case for this particular project.

      Weird because I draft the blog posts in pen and I take notes in pen. But, I also don’t fall asleep writing blog posts some nights while I do fall asleep working on the novels. From a practicality standpoint, pencil makes more sense—I won’t wake up covered in ink in strange places.

      Also, when I make notes in the margins of books, I prefer pencil. I tend to makes LOTS of notes in the margins so it’s helpful to erase and rewrite if I end up needing more room.

      • Oh yeah, I’ve been a ‘book-marginer’ convert recently, and I take that as a sign of respect to the author, that I’m engaging with their material. I do this for non-fiction only though. And yes! Pencils are the best for this.

        Also, is it just me? Or do pencils produce a more reliable line than even fountain pens? The amount of pressure I need to use is the same too.

        I love that you use all types of writing tools. In the end, there’s no need for absolutes. Different tools for different purposes.

        Thanks so much for sharing your creative process! Always a sucker for that.

    • Oh yeah, and especially in your line of work, where bodily fluids may get in the way, a pencil would make for a good substitute. Maybe not for the formal paperwork though, lol. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Typically I would shy away from using pencils as I like things to be neat but this has made me want branch out and give it a go. I’m loving how you’re recent posts have gone from pens to pencils you offer really interesting perspectives on the writing itself which I might not have otherwise considered

    • Oh I’ll be the #1 person to tell you that I NEVER entertained the idea of pencils. And even then, wooden ones? Ugh.

      But then I tried it, thanks to reading about the greats like Steinbeck and Nabokov, and I’ve found that they ain’t that bad. In fact, quite the contrary, I now find them pleasant (except #2. Those make me feel like I’m writing with a dried-out pen).

      Thanks for your kind words! They’ve really made my day :)

  7. I tried it today, jury’s still out. I too do not like the lighter #2 line. I found myself focusing on the act of writing (though I often do anyway) but I felt a little freer to say what I wanted. The pencil lowered the bar a bit which was refreshing. Oddly enough I made few mistakes; usually I constantly make errors writing rapidly with a pen. I’ll keep trying to see if there are any effects on my work.

    • Ugh I hate the #2 too. Whatever writing instrument I use, I want a visible line with the least amount of effort (I hate needing to use more energy than I need, lol), so it’s 4B for me. The downside? The wooden version needs to be sharpened more, so mechanical pencils it is.

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Hetty! Would love to know what happens after you use a darker pencil.

  8. Strangely enough, I gravitate towards pencils/pens and paper when I’m in the mood for poetry. I wrote my first full-length novel in a book with a pen. It was convenient to whip out the book whenever I was on the train commute or had a moment or two. Only problem was transferring it onto computer – couldn’t read my own damn writing!

  9. I actually still write with pencils, and AGREED, the lighter lines are not good enough. I literally have a 4B on my desk. I have wrist issues and so can’t write for very long, but occasionally I’ll still draft scenes, or the start of manuscripts in pencil. It’s a combination of the trustworthiness of the pencil, the way the greats talk about it, and the nostalgia. A pencil feels like Old Magic.

    • 4B users unite! Though I have to admit, I’ve been trying the Mitsubishi Uni 9800 pencils, and those HB pencils are much darker than my Staedtler 2B ones. I guess the manufacturer really matters.

      And yeah, there’s just something so reassuring about a tool that’s built for one thing only. Old Magic indeed.

  10. My man, Stuart, great post – it really was. As a person who feels passionate with rollerball pens and cheap writing pads, this was something new and refreshing to give a thought to. I’ll try out my old pencils, tonight if I can.

    Kudos!

    • Lol I totally get that pen > pencil thing. And interestingly enough, I now use pencils more throughout my day, even though I’ll always make space for my pens as well. Let me know how it goes!

      • I will! And I forgot to mention how much I appreciated what you said near the end of your post. That minimalism is great, but at the end of the day it’s okay to hold onto stuff for all our various interests. It’s not really clutter because we may return to those hobbies at any time.😁

  11. I can still vividly remember all the times I’ve gone to the garage to sharpen my pencils, as we have a sharpener attached to a cupboard outside. I find that there’s some serenity in the process and getting a pencil to just the right sharpness. Really enjoyed reading all the lessons you’ve learned from writing with pencils. It really shows that if you’re open and think about it enough, you can learn something from practically anything. Thanks for the post!

    • Ahaha, yes, just like you learning from a burst pipe, I too see lessons in everything. Sometimes the bad things are the ones with the best lessons.

      You know what grinds my gears though? When I have to use subpar sharpeners and they DON’T get my pencils to the appropriate sharpness.

      Thanks so much for your wonderful thoughts!

  12. Haha! Great one as usual. Only you Mr Stu can put together so many wonderful insights surrounding so humble (yet powerful) a writing tool. I’m going to raid my son’s pencil case now!!

  13. I love writing with pens on paper. I think when I was younger I would write with pencils. But you have some good points about it working for so much time. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Lauren – bournemouthgirl

  14. When I started reading this post I thought that you would be talking about each pencil you used during your life, compare pros and cons etc. I was really happy to find out that it wasn’t about that at all.
    I found the philosophical thoughts and the comparison between pencil and human, graphite writing and life truly inspired. My favorite phrase out of your post.
    “that graphite is erasable and you’ll realise just how temporary life is. It makes you appreciate the moment more, because right here, right now, is what really matters”.
    Thank you for this post! definitely enjoyed it :)

  15. You can also use a pencil as a weapon. ° ͜ʖ ͡ –
    On another note, in regards to pencils vs pens, I remember I had a friend who loved using pencils, and his reason was that with a pencil, you can erase your mistakes, but with a pen, everyone sees it. He even hated it when I used pens because he said he hated it when I messed up, and erasing is a lot easier than scribbling out. I hadn’t thought about it for almost two decades, but this post reminded me of that odd conversation.
    That said, I prefer the pen because it forces me to carefully choose what I write, and I have a heavy hand, so the pencil tips are always breaking. Drawing, writing, don’t matter. It always breaks and the pencil sharpener mauls my pencils, so I probably got jinxed at some point.

    • Lol, isn’t it interesting how random things can trigger our memories? Like just earlier, the sight of talcum powder reminded me of when my aunt used to visit, and she used to use that a lot, and I found myself thinking a lot about that era.

      While pencils are erasable, I just strike through the mistakes anyway, because nobody has time for erasers, lol.

      And I can totally relate to sharpeners killing your pencils. I myself am still looking for the perfect sharpener. Thankfully I have mechanical pencils as a stop gap for the time being.

      Anyway, thanks so much for stopping by!

  16. Very interesting, never thought I’d read a whole post about pencils but you put this together well! I love writing with pencils too but i write so hard that my middle finger has literally curved over the years and now its difficult for me to actually write my stories! So typing them may be a better option for me….good post!

    • Lol, I think school has done that to me too, then I found fountain pens, and I now write with almost zero pressure, even with pencils (which is why I need soft lead grades).

      Thanks so much for your kind words. You’ve really made my day :)

  17. Loved this and it inspired a new post for me in which I will be so happy to link back here to you. Yours was entertaining but so much more was said. Great subtext, great post. Good reading

  18. Pingback: Why Using Pencils To Write May Be More Eye-Opening Than You Think – A mind refresher!

  19. Pingback: Why Using Pencils To Write May Be More Eye-Opening Than You Think – Fire of Moods

      • Haha Maaf, Saya kurang teliti. Saya hanya terlalu menikmati tulisanmu hingga lupa cek kamu darimana.

        Kabar saya baik. Bagaimana kabarmu? Senang bertemu teman jiran di blog. Salam kenal. Ijin follow blog awak. 😊

  20. A pencil and a pen sit right under my monitor; the pencil is the one I’m always drawn to when I want to jot something down. For me, there’s something sensual about pencils that pens lack. Kind of like the difference between an old analog camera and a phone camera. You thought of some great life lessons to attach to pencils – very clever!
    I noticed your article on Vietnam Hill tribes – we were about to go to Vietnam (a trip that would have included time with a hill tribe) when COVID struck, so the whole trip was canceled. It looks like you had a terrific time. Maybe we’ll get there someday…
    Thanks for the follow!

    • Aww, shame that you couldn’t make it. I had terrible insomnia at the time, and weirdly enough, even though I had to share my room with a bunch of other people, I had my best sleep up there in the highlands (though the roosters crowed whenever they pleased, and not just in the morning). Wishing that you get there one day!

      Yes! As a pen guy, I’ve found that I’m gravitating more towards my pencils these days. There’s just a certain charm to them.

      Anyway, thanks for your amazing comment! I enjoyed reading it :)

      • Isn’t that interesting, about your sleep – maybe you exhausted yourself with impressions? I had the roosters all night long experience in the Jamaican countryside many years ago – it added more color to an already intense trip! ;-)
        You’re welcome. :)

  21. Pingback: Why Using Pencils To Write May Be More Eye-Opening Than You Think – MAD Production. Company.

  22. I love pencils too, to write with and for drawing. I did find the perfect pencil some years back. It was a B Mitsubishi general drawing pencil, the outside green. The lead was smooth, and never had those gritty bits that the pencils so often do. They eventually stopped making them I guess, and so the quest for the perfect pencil continues. Cheers, like this post. PS. I only ever use a scalpel knife to sharpen my pencils NEVER a pencil sharpener.

    • Your description reminds me of a Mitsubishi 9800 pencil, which I have on my desk right now, which is also green and has some of the best leads I’ve ever used.

      Hopefully you find your perfect pencil one day. I’ve heard that the Blackwings (Palomino) and other Mitsubishi models are awesome.

      And wow, using a knife to sharpen your pencils really does put you in the group of enthusiasts. I myself am a sharpener person, because time, lol.

      Thanks so much for your wonderful comment!

  23. I love pencils, however, pencils also mean paper and I have more notes and parts of stories in so many notepads, squirreled here and there, in places I can’t keep track of them. Sigh.

  24. Pingback: Pencils, bad days and getting over yourself - Barbara Strickland - Author & Blogger

  25. I taught primary school in a long ago life. Many children learn letters by discovering how letters feel – the shape of them. Pencils and chalk bring the tactile experience into their bodies through their fingers. We can help them learn to love to express themselves with or without a writing tool and maybe , just maybe, they will one day love the art of writing. Maybe even before they reach a double digit age.
    “ So get to writing, while you’re still filled with life, because tomorrow could be a very different day.” (Loved this!) Thanks!

    • Lovely story, and teachers are awesome people. Ooo I kinda miss the feeling of chalk, because it’s been ages since I’ve seen a blackboard. Triggers lots of memories though. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Doris!

  26. Liked this. For me somehow my cursive is better, and of course I can erase when my hand takes over as if it has a brain and writes the wrong word, it feel like that or when I write and end up with missing letters. Sometimes its like my writing changes as if it belong to someone else depending on what I use. I pen pal and that has help a great deal to improve my writing skills as well as blogging has.

    • That’s what I feel when I do morning pages too! Like I start out being myself, then as I go on, my hand gets a life of its own and it’s almost like it’s separate from my mind. Thanks so much for sharing your experience!

      • its called automatic writing with some cases, but not always. I enjoy Joyce Hifler’s books, they get my mind rolling and I can apply what I read to myself in a blog. I find it will also inspire other blogs withou her influence. In today’s world, man we need inspiration and food for thought so badly! It’s a crazy world. Art and writing have the same potential they always had to facilitate people’s hope. Whether you paint with word or paint on canvas you give a gift that doe heal! This is why I offer Shibui, and encourage people to learn the business end of art. I believe if wee do it very well, we will reach people. The format is now more than with books,even the art world is digital. A new world is here, now how to make it work for us.

  27. Great that you found your ideal tool, Stuart. Whatever works to get you started and keep you going is worth pursuing. I imagine pencils would be great when you’re out and about and are inspired. But i suspect that Steinbeck would have dumped his pencils in a heartbeat if he’d had access to a computer. As for Shakespeare, it’s amazing to think of how many quills he wore out, writing those amazing plays and sonnets. He used what was available to him but he would have loved an electronic tool.

    • What an amazing perspective to add to this! Steinbeck and Shakespeare aside, who knows what futuristic writing tool WE’RE missing out on? Maybe Elon Musk’s Neuralink goes into mass production, and things like thought-to-text become a thing. Or maybe we could do without typing entirely and just use gesture for entire phrases.

      But speaking of that, would Shakespeare have chosen to learn to type? Or would he have continued on with quills anyway?

      This is a great line of thought that I will be pondering over, so thanks for the wonderful comment, Mary!

  28. This is great content!
    I’ve always been thinking about how writing with a pencil (or pen) compares to typing.
    I believe physical pens or pencils encourage me to be more thoughtful before writing even if I have an eraser.

  29. You managed to make me think about aspects of pencil-use that I’d never considered, and I’ve made them my writing tool of choice for years! I have noticed that in some of my notebooks, the pencil marks seem to get fainter with time. But those are usually the ones on the edge of the page that come into contact with my fingers as I flip through trying to remember who did what in an earlier draft. 😅

    That’s an interesting technique from Steinbeck. It probably would help me go through pencils at a more even pace. My personal thing has been to write with one pencil at a time, wearing it down and sharpening it until the graphite barely pokes out of the metal portion holding the eraser on. I’m thinking of reconsidering that strategy, since writing feels kind of cramped at that point.

    • Oh yeah, while graphite is archival and waterproof, it’s not resistant to rubbing, and therein lies its weakness.

      So cool to learn about your writing process using pencils. I don’t believe I know anyone who’s used pencils to that point.

      And I totally relate with you on physical tools affecting your writing. Julia Cameron has also said this in her Morning Pages interview, that if you use paper smaller than A4, your thoughts tend to be ‘smaller’.

      Anyway, loved your comment. Thanks for stopping by!

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