John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Friday, June 5, 2009

Antique writing equipment

This is a “Who cares?” post on a gloomy, wet weekday, so you might be well advised to skip it.

Despite all the writing with Microsoft Word on the computer — blog posts, job applications, e-mail, the manuscript of my long-gestating book on editing — the computer has not entirely effaced previous technology. I should show my children my Bud’s Research Paper Typing Guide.

It is a laminated second sheet to put behind a blank sheet in a typewriter. What shows through on the blank sheet are a black border indicating the top, bottom, and side margins; a vertical dotted line indicating the center of the page, and a set of numbers, 1-51, on the left to help calculate how much space to allow for footnotes. It bears many indentations from a Remington manual typewriter.

And it is about as useful as a shaker of sand to blot ink on the page.

The Remington is long gone, and there is a Brother electronic typewriter on a shelf that I haven’t used in years.

I have a Waterman fountain pen, fine nib, that I use for personal correspondence. Before I was laicized by The Sun, I used it to sign formal documents, such as performance reviews and pardons.

Pilot’s liquid-gel pens, both blue and black, have become a favorite, especially the 05 fine points, which are close to ideal for my cramped, precise handwriting. For paper grading: red for condemnation and green for advice.

I own a couple of Cross ballpoints, but their ink tends to blot irritatingly and get on my hands.

For making notes in books, Paper Mate Sharpwriter, Dixon SenseMatic, and Pentel mechanical pencils, which can be found all over the house, are handy.

While I make notes and sketchy outlines by hand, I almost never draft anything except by keyboard. Lowell Denton told me when I first worked at The Flemingsburg Gazette in the summer of 1968, “John Early, you’ve got to learn to write on the typewriter, because you’re never going to have the time to write it out by hand and then type it.”

I told you that this was a “Who cares?” post. If you’re still reading, you’ve only yourself to blame.

But if you’re keen to waste more time, you can comment on your own tastes in writing equipment.


  1. I prefer the Sharpie Pen, fine point, in blue ink. I write checks with it, edit pages (I'm really not a fan of red, but Sharpie only has blue and black anyway). It is a very rich color of blue, so it shows up well when I mark up pages.

  2. When not pounding my laptop keyboard (still using the two-finger Columbus System), I lean toward free pens like the new collection I picked up at a grow-your-business exposition this week. First Mariner Bank's pen has a good feel, despite the company's stock price, but Chesapeake Region Safety Council has a smoother ink flow. (For thise unfamiliar with the Columbus System, it involves discovering a key, then landing on it.)

  3. I was born in 1970 and have always been into computers. Though I learned to type in school on manual typewriters, I always use the computer for writing.

    However, when self-editing a piece of significant length (500 words or more, roughly), I always do at least one printout that a) gives me a different perspective on the piece and b) gives me a way to make quick notes.

  4. Nice of you to warn us at the top not to read. Reminds me of Will Englund, who said that when he was on the copy desk, he always tried to put a dull headline on a dull story, as a service to the reader.

  5. One of my all-time favorite birthdays was the one that produced Pudge Fisk's home run and my own portable electric typewriter. Finally bade farewell to the typewriter before the last interstate move, but the home run is with us always Amen.

  6. When I know what I want to express, I can type it much more quickly on the computer than I can by writing longhand. But if I'm still shaping my ideas, I use pen and paper to capture thoughts, edits, reconsiderations, whatever. Each task its tool.

  7. When I handwrite, I use a blue Paper Mate medium Pro Fit ballpoint. Works well and is cheap enough to lose or give away without regret.

    But I've always done most of my writing with a typewriter or computer because it's faster and less fatiguing. In hindsight, touch-typing is the most important thing I learned in high school.

  8. For a long time I resisted using computers(long story, mostly boring except the part where during my very first try at using a computer I somehow managed to reverse the screens for the entire cyber-system of a state university). But then I went back to graduate school in the late 80's, became a teaching assistant, and was informed that I was required to be able to use computers. A kind departmental secretary took me under her wing, and once I got past my cyberphobia, I was hooked.

    The easy touch of a keyboard allows me to think onto the page; I can compose at the keyboard almost faster than I can write. I took one year of typing in high school, and it's still one of the most important courses I ever took.

    For outlines, notes, etc. I still love the feel of pencil on paper. Cheap bic mechanical pencils do the long as there's an eraser attached.

  9. uni-ball Signo micro 207 fine point, in black, blue and, of course, red. Used it since college, and by far my favorite pen.

    And my electric typewriter is no longer even in sight. Probably tucked away in the closet somewhere. But I never used it for anything of importance; it was $5 or so at a garage sale, and it was for fun.

  10. As a computer professional, I spend much of my time typing on a keyboard, but when I am roving the building, I need something more compact. I love my Zebra M-301 Mechanical Pencil with 0.5 mm lead, which nestles comfortably in the rings of my Ampad Gold Fibre 5 by 7 Personal Notebook.

    For a while I used a PDA with a detachable full-size keyboard to take notes at meetings (and to impress the other geeks, of course). These days a small notebook computer is not much bigger, and has many more functions.

    Transferring written notes to computer is a good exercise in memory and organization. What is that little squiggle supposed to be? The step between A and C seemed so obvious at the time I didn't write it down -- what was it?

  11. The first time I used a rudimentary text editor to rearrange a couple of paragraphs I thought I'd died and gone to revision heaven. I sling words for a living and spend my days squinting at a monitor. However, like Derrick, I always print out a draft for final edits and my pens of choice are Pilot EasyTouch Fine, Pilot G2 .5, and Uniball Signo .38, all in blue.

  12. Handwriting:

    When ink is required--and only when it is required--a Pilot Dr. Grip gel pen. All other times, a Pilot Dr. Grip 5mm mechanical pencil. (Dr. Grip = those big fat ones, for arthritic hands.)

    I still have my grandfather's old Remington manual typewriter. (I doubt one could even find ribbons for it anymore and I can't for the life of me remember how to set the margin stops.) I write most everything on the computer anymore. No paper drafts.

    Word would be greatly improved by the addition of a little bell that would ding each time it starts a new line.

  13. As a reporter in the 1970s, I quickly conveted to mechanical pencils for taking notes, since they work in the rain. Still use them out of habit, a Cross .5 mm among others.
    It's a 1930s Esterbrook fountain pen for writing checks at home; a Pilot Precise Rolling Ball when I'm out.
    For $5, I picked up a 1920s Underwood typewriter with a ledger-size carriage, which I use to address envelopes. (I always screw up running envelopes through my printer, and why waste toner?)
    I was at my best as a typist on a Selectric II, pumping out several stories a day of OCR copy on the best keyboard ever made.
    And I just found an old Berol non-repro blue felt tip that I used to edit with. It's dried out though.

  14. A yellow number 2 pencil for notes to self. Mechanical ones are nice, but I'm always running out of lead unexpectedly.

    5mm fine tips for more permanent notes. Any ink ballpoint for crosswords - markers bleed through the paper.

    Most of my writing is on the laptop, though, or the workstation at work.

  15. My favorite editing pen is a Levenger demonstration rollerball with a broad tip. It even writes on heat-sensitive proofer paper with a smooth line.
    For everyday writing my tastes change regularly, and right now my favorite is a MontBlanc Genreation rollerball. Especially nice for writing checks. I also carry a Cross pen/pencil set.
    For pencils, I like the old-fashioned Ticonderoga, No. 2 lead you-have-to-sharpen-them-in-a-pencil-sharpener pencils.
    For computing, definitely my Macbook.

  16. Uni-ball Micro FTW!

  17. Whatever it is must be fairly ironclad, because I write with a very heavy hand and break implements easily. Forget pencils. For everyday jotting and hand writing, Pilot PB-S fine stick in purple (hard to find; I think I bought up the last few remaining). For editing between lines and in margins of hard-copy first drafts, Pilot Precise roller V extra fine in red, which I've used since its product debut. For subsequent drafts, purple or pink same to distinguish versions. Also taking a shine to Uniball Vision fine in many colors, waterproof and fade-proof. Starting to move over to Pilot G2, the only gel pen I've ever been able to get to write anything at all. Tried and true: my grandmother's 1920's Royal typewriter on which I leared to type, and on which takes the strength of an ox to operate; and a nifty 1949 Smith-Corona Skyriter [their spelling of the product name, not mine], which is barely heavier than my laptop, works during power failures and is great for filling out long school forms and addressing envelopes. I had a happy moment when my kids tried it out, and decided to conquer it and do homework on it. They were stumped by manual exclamation points, the absence of an Enter key, clunky shifting, the missing number one, margins and tabs, and so forth. The teachers were both shocked and amused to receive typewritten work on onionskin paper.

  18. I still have two Parker sterling silver cased fountain pens (and a similar cartridge pencil) that I used with turquoise ink. Back when Xerox copiers used green light my writing would disappear. These days I use the sample pens that companies send me in hopes I will buy a few hundred more. That and my cheap keyboard. I used to have one of the original IBM PC keyboards that was designed to mimic the feel of the Selectric typewriter, but my daughter "borrowed" it for her computer and lost it in one of her many moves.

    Retired in Elkridge (who does not have a URL)

  19. Love to see there are a couple of Uni-ball Micro fans. The best for everyday use and I think it's under appreciated. I too use red to correct copy-Pilot VBall xtra fine these days. (Great suggestion using a green color to comment!) Lamy Safari fountain for almost every day use. I have lots of pencils but can't seem to find uses for them. Recently bougth a couple of vintage Parker 51s that are absolutely beautiful.