To Put a Fine Point on It
Which pens are best?
A related and far more dignified test was to determine how easily different caps came off by going through the day with all my pens thrown at the bottom of my bag. For one week I subjected the bag to its usual abuse and each night shook out its contents to see which caps had left their pens to leak and/or dry up.
The clips on pretty much all of the pen models made by Papermate (the Clear Point,Write Bros.,andWidemateamong them)tend not to be very strong; they were regularly among the first to lose their grip. Sanford Uniball clips also quickly got bent out of shape. The Sakura Gelly Roll, Uniball Gel Grip,andPentel Hybrid Gel Roller have caps that are so tiny that they 1) don't grip well, 2) are practically begging to be lost, and 3) make it work to single-handedly uncap the pens they belong to. Meanwhile,at the bottom of my bag, the caps of the Papermate Comfortmate and thePilot Precise V5,which you may remember from Test No. 1 as the critics' darling (how quickly the mighty fall!), were among the first casualties.
There was something almost poignant about the reluctance of the Pentel Energel,Staedtler Liquid Point 415, and the scrappy Bic Round Stic to relinquish their grips on my pocket. (I get a little choked up just thinking about it now.) As for the bag test, most of the caps (except for the two mentioned above) stayed on despite my best efforts (tossing the bag into the air, kicking it, and shaking it, as OutKast would say, like a Polaroid picture)to encourage them to do otherwise. Of course the best bet for those worried about losing their caps is a retractable pen—all ballpoints but the very cheapest models are retractable and quite a few gels—among them the Pilot G-2,theUniball Signo,and the Zebra Sarasa—are, too.
Test No. 3: How useful is it for underlining in a book?
I selected from my shelves three books that I was supposed to have read in college. I underlined numerous passages and occasionally recreated a late night study session by holding the point of the pen in one spot on the page, as though I'd nodded off to sleep. I hadn't anticipated just how transgressive it would feel to be underlining without actually reading, nor how exhilarated I'd feel doing it to Derrida's Of Grammatology.
The amount a pen will bleed depends, to an extent that surprised me, on the type of paper being written on. Rollerballs, almost all of which had been well-behaved on regular printer paper, bled like crazy through the pulpier pages of inexpensive books. Gel pens—with the exception of the Pentel Energel and thePilot G-2, which virtually drooled through my copy of Tristram Shandy—bled far less. On the other hand, all gel pens smudged pretty badly on the glossier paper found in many textbooks. Ballpoints are practically immune to bleeding and smudging, but they require more pressure than rollerballs or gels to draw their ink out, which means that they are prone to creating Braille-like raised lines on pulpier pages.
All things considered, I'd recommend a ballpoint that can be wielded with a light touch, likethe Uniball Jetstream.
Test No. 4: How well does it write against a vertical surface?
I held a piece of paper against a wall and wrote until either the pen or I refused to go on, whichever came first.
As a group, the ballpoints performed the worst because they rely on gravity to pull their ink out. The Pilot BP-S and Bic Round Stichad particularly poor showings, eking out less than 10 words each before shutting down.
Special kudos goes to the Papermate Comfortmateand Pilot Easy Touch—the only ballpoints to outlast me. Rollerballs are pretty dependable, but their lines come out thinner than when the pens are held normally. Gels (with the exception of the Zebra Sarasa Bold,which gave up the ghost after only a few lines)are best for this task; if you have a yen to write your novel longhand and against a vertical surface, do it with the Pilot P-700.
YiLing Chen-Josephson is a writer living in New York.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Photograph on Slate's home page by Corbis.