To the Point: What’s the Point?

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Stylus MagazineThis article is a revised version of one that first appeared in the February/March 2006 issue of Stylus magazine.

Who needs a fountain pen, anyway? Seriously, if you want to impress others, or match your dress or shirt or suit, or whatever your reason for wanting more than a BiC Stic, what’s wrong with a rollerball? Most of the good pen companies make rollerballs that look just like their fountain pens, so why bother with the hassle and the extra cost of a fountain pen?

It turns out that there are some very good reasons for using a fountain pen.

I’ll start with the obvious one: a fountain pen — or at least a pen with a split nib — can do what no other kind of pen can do. Fountain pens, because they naturally deposit varying amounts of ink and are able to create strokes of differing widths depending on the speed and direction of your strokes, lend a human “character” to your writing. They’re simply more personal than ballpoints, rollerballs, or gel pens. In this impersonal Age of the Computer, that’s a good thing.

Writer using fountain pen

If you attended public school in the U.S.A. after about 1970, it’s likely that you learned to write using a ballpoint pen. You might be interested in the results of a study that the National Education Association, the largest U.S. teachers’ union, conducted. The study found that ballpoint pens are a significant cause of poor handwriting.

Yes, you read that right. Ballpoints make you write poorly. How can this be? Consider that when your hand and forearm are at rest on a table, your fingers are usually loosely curled, with the thumb and forefinger the most extended. Add a pen to this picture, and you’ll get something like the first photo here.

This, with the fingers generally relaxed and not squeezing the pen to death, is the position that penmanship experts teach; it’s the position that I was taught when I learned the Palmer Method in the 1950s. If you do it right, the pen is simply resting, cradled in your hand, and its nib glides over the paper with virtually no downward force. And you don’t wiggle your fingers; the pen, your hand, and your forearm are a solid bar of iron, figuratively speaking. The motion comes from your elbow and shoulder. My teacher used to prowl the room while we were doing exercises, and she would occasionally reach over a student’s shoulder and snatch the pen out of the student’s hand. If it didn’t come out with little or no resistance, the student’s grip was too tight.

How is this different from the position most people use when holding a ballpoint-type pen, as shown in the second photo? First, with a ballpoint or any of its descendants, even the almost-effortless gel pen, you need to press firmly enough to cause friction. Without that essential friction, the ball won’t roll and the ink won’t flow. Rollerballs require less force than ordinary ballpoints, and gel pens require even less, but they all require you to push on them to some extent. And to do this, you have to grasp the pen more tightly. We’ve all seen people who write with the last joint of the forefinger pressed inward and a few white knuckles showing. This is tiring and stressful, which is not good for you; and it’s also not good for your penmanship because when you’re stressed your fine motor control is reduced — and along with it your ability to make the pen go where you want it to go. It’s all very subtle, but it’s also very real. Over time it builds up into a delightful case of writer’s cramp. People who handle a fountain pen correctly don’t get writer’s cramp.

Writer using fountain pen

There is one other subtle thing about a ballpoint, and that’s the fact that the ball in a ballpoint is crimped into the end of the refill. There’s a rim around the ball to keep it from falling out, and that rim makes you stand the pen up at a higher angle above the paper unless you like feeling the skritch and scrape of rough metal on paper. The combination of the firmer grip and the higher angle is disastrous for handwriting quality. Sure, there are people who can rise above it and write beautifully with ballpoints, but it’s an extra expenditure of effort that shouldn’t be necessary.

The most impressive reason for using a fountain pen, and perhaps the least expected, is a growing movement in the medical community to prescribe the use of fountain pens for patients who suffer from arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), or repetitive stress injuries (RSI) of various sorts from nerve damage to tendonitis. All of these medical conditions make it uncomfortable — or even painful — to squeeze or push on things like pens. But with a fountain pen you need do neither, and this is what turned my wife (who has a touch of arthritis in her hands) from a scoffer into a fountain pen user.

At the outset, I listed a couple of reasons for using something better than a BiC Stic. It turns out that a fountain pen is better than a ballpoint for satisfying those reasons. You can impress others with better penmanship, you can match your outfit even better with any of several hundred different ink colors to choose from, and you can feel better and be healthier while you do it. So what’s your excuse for not using a fountain pen?


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