On pen varieties


in Writing

For some time, I have been wondering about the difference between ballpoint and rollerball pens. They do, after all, seem quite similar in construction. Each uses a ball bearing (often made of tungsten carbide) as a mechanism to moderate the flow of ink from reservoir to paper.

As it turns out, the difference lies less with the mechanism than with the ink. Anyone who has ever accidentally broken open a Bic ballpoint pen knows that the ink inside is thick and goopy. This partly explains why ballpoint pens can be hesitant to start writing after a long period of non-use. Rollerball pens, by contrast, use a thinner, water-based ink. It is more vulnerable to smudging that ballpoint ink, but less likely to leave a spot where you begin writing. They also feel smoother to use, though not as much so as fountain pens, since you are still exerting the effort to make the ball turn, despite friction.

Generally, I use a four-colour Bic pen to take notes and mark up things that I am reading. I have developed a system over the years that lets me find specific things and kinds of things in books and articles I have read much more quickly than by skimming unmarked versions. The flexibility of the four colours makes up for how the pen is somewhat thick and inelegant in the appearance of the text it produces. For letters, I use a fountain pen, in hope of making them more legible to my much frustrated correspondents (I never really learned how to print, much less handwrite, in a clear manner. It is generally legible enough, but certainly not elegant.) When writing to myself, or trying to make my writing look as good as it can, I generally use my better Cross ballpoint pen, or a rollerball.

What do other people use, and why?

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott Davy August 12, 2006 at 5:24 pm

Pilot G2 Gel pen for everyday use. It’s a retractable rolling ball design but with gel ink which perhaps falls in between the two types mentioned above. This results in a very smooth almost fountain like feel while writing. The 0.7mm version is a bit too thick so I generally opt for the 0.5 though more difficult to find.
Special occasions call for my Sigma (http://www.sigmapens.co.uk/) chiselpoint fountain pen. Pity I do not have many special occasions for writing. But it would be great for a treaty signing :)


R.K. August 12, 2006 at 6:29 pm

Chisel-point thick black Jiffy-brand marker, all the way. I like the squeaking sounds, the smell, and the ability to pretend that I am Eminem, signing ballcaps.

sasha August 13, 2006 at 7:41 pm

Pilot Hi-Techpoint V5 Extra Fine. The ink flows smoothly, which helps when spped is needed, a la in class note taking, but also doesn’t clog or spot, so you can write much more slowly and elegantly if desired. Also, comes in a great range of colours. And this result is after a LOT of testing – I’ve always been a pen snob.

Milan August 13, 2006 at 7:50 pm


I do like the feel of those Pilot pens, though they always tended to bleed through paper when I used them. Perhaps the Extra Fine variant would remove that problem.

Meghan August 17, 2006 at 8:02 pm

I also use the Pilot pens – they are one of the very few writing instruments which do not smudge my left handed script. They do bleed through paper a bit, but for letters I use somewhat thicker paper, and I don’t find it a problem. For taking notes, I don’t really care much if the writing is slightly visible on the other side of the page.

Milan August 17, 2006 at 11:09 pm


There is always a need for special consideration for the sinister…

Stu August 29, 2006 at 10:16 pm

I find a nice heavy ballpoint best for my writing. I need something to offer resistance and hold me back – similar to playing a real piano versus an electronic keyboard.

The balance of a pen is by far my most important criterion – otherwise how would I spin it? :)

Jerry October 1, 2006 at 5:55 am

I prefer an italic 1.1 mm Lamy Safari fountain pen for nice writing and note-taking, but carry a Fisher Space Pen. The FSP definitely doesn’t add anything to my handwriting (except the occasional glop of thixotropic ink) but it’s always there and always works, summer or winter, rain or shine.

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