Saturday, 7 May 2016

#8: Fountain pen and ink

In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith arrives at his flat after work. He turns down the telescreen which both broadcasts propaganda and spies on him (it cannot be turned off completely), sits where he hopes Big Brother cannot see him, and takes out three treasures – a luxurious notebook, a bottle of ink, and a penholder (part of a fountain pen, to which the nib is fitted).

In this totalitarian world it is almost subversive to use something old and beautiful, but that is not what has prompted Winston to use the pen. Rather, he uses it ‘simply because of a feeling that the beautiful creamy paper deserved to be written on with a real nib instead of being scratched with an ink pencil.’

This passage sprang to mind as I was thinking this week about handwriting as opposed to typing. I usually prefer to take notes, make lists, write my diary of course, by hand. My first response to the need to work out an idea or note down the flash of one is to reach for a pen or pencil rather than my laptop. 

So what are some differences between handwriting and typing? As Winston Smith knows, writing with a fountain pen is tactile and sensual. There is some kind of ceremony to unscrewing the pen, taking out the cartridge and filling it, testing and replacing it. There some kind of awareness of… use of resources, being in a small way constrained by the materials you have. 

Whether using a fountain pen or biro, the personality or even the mood of the writer comes over a bit. I remember experimenting with different kinds of handwriting at school, choosing which I would adopt. Even now it’s not set.

Handwriting takes time to read or decipher, and to write. It’s not searchable electronically, not easily disseminated. So, like Winston Smith, I would link it with privacy and even secrecy. But it’s not so easily editable either – one can see the thought processes behind the writing more easily, what has been altered and what hasn’t.

But when hitting keys the same motion is needed for each letter – we don’t trace the formation of each. Speed – product rather than process – is prioritised. As someone who has been prone to typing-induced RSI, I know this to my cost. It also seems to me a typist is more at the mercy of an imposed technology and less in control of their output.

But of course type is clear, easily disseminated, easily searchable. I would never doubt its advantages when united with various technologies. Perhaps handwriting is more like sketching, typing more like photography.

Given my fondness for handwriting, I wonder how it affects one’s thought processes. Does it influence ways we think? It appears that it does. In 2014 psychology researchers at the University of California and Princeton University carried out three experiments with over 300 students. In one experiment, the students listened to a lecture, using their habitual notetaking method – either laptops or handwritten notes. The researchers found that students who had taken handwritten notes were more able to process its content and remember ideas from the lecture. Laptop users took more notes but were much less likely to use their own words. Recall of facts from the lecture were the same for both groups. In the abstract the researchers say: ‘laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.’

A discussion of the research in an Association for Psychological Science web forum is here, together with some interesting comments, including some pointing out that the important element is what you write down, rather than how you do it. I also have some queries about the research – I’m not sure why the students weren’t randomly assigned to the laptop or pen groups (students in the sample used their usual note-taking method), or how big each group was.

To finish with I would come back to the beauty of writing with ink – but this time looking at the ink bottle rather than the pen. This is the bottle for Waterman serenity blue ink (erasable). It has elegant lines – good enough for a perfume bottle – and this design means you can tip it on its side to easily refill the pen when there is not much ink left. Down with Big Brother!


  1. Muy interesante, Actually this topics bring a lot of new questions. Has our brain got used to writing to memorize? How did non-writing cultures pass their knowledge onto the new generations?

    1. Yes, thanks. I can't help thinking of how poetry started – rhyming words so that long stories could be remembered and retold more easily (when most people couldn't write or read).

      Also can't help thinking of how necessary reading is to us now, to remember things.