It’s no secret that writers can be quite particular about their writing tools. Some might call it an obsession or fetish, but the pens, pencils, notebooks, and other implements that authors have used to create their most famous works endlessly fascinates us. After reading an ode to the beloved Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 pencil, adored for its smooth, firm graphite, we had to find out more about the tools of the literary elite. Take notes, and save your pennies to purchase these writing instruments for yourself.
Vladimir Nabokov preferred the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 for outlining his novels on index cards.
Hemingway balanced his writing between a simple pencil and typewriter:
“When you start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none. So you might as well use a typewriter because it is that much easier and you enjoy it that much more. After you learn to write your whole object is to convey everything, every sensation, sight, feeling, place and emotion to the reader. To do this you have to work over what you write. If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to. First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it. That is .333 which is a damned good average for a hitter. It also keeps it fluid longer so you can better it easier.”
We also learn about his writing preferences in his Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast:
“The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of cafe cremes, the smell of early morning sweeping out and mopping and luck were all you needed.”
Photo credit: Fred DeWitt, Courtesy of the Orange County Regional History Center
Jack Kerouac favored pocket notebooks and old school composition journals, which you can see stacked in the background of this photo. He used them to jot down literary notes, but as a young man, he kept the notebooks to track fantasy sports stats — games he invented and played alone.
Of course Neil Gaiman uses a fountain pen. We’re not complaining. The author had this to say in a 2012 interview:
“It started in 1994 when I wrote the novel Stardust — in my head I wanted it to be written in the same way as it would have been in the 1920s, so I bought a big notepad and Waterman pen.
It was the first time I’d used a fountain pen since I was about 13. I found myself enjoying writing more slowly and liked the way I had to think through sentences differently. I discovered I loved the fact that handwriting forces you to do a second draft, rather than just tidying up and deleting bits on a computer. I also discovered I enjoy the tactile buzz of the ritual involved in filling the pens with ink.”
He goes on to reveal that he owns about 60 fountain pens and enjoys writing his novels with two different types. He also signs books with them. “I like changing ink color each day. It shows me at a glance how many pages I wrote,” he once noted. Brands Gaiman has mentioned he uses: TWSBI Diamond 540, Visconti, Pilot Custom 823 Amber, Delta Fluida, Lepine Indigo Classic.
Photo credit: Georges Brassai
Simone de Beauvoir
Some of the fountain pens Simone de Beauvoir has been photographed using: Sheaffer Snorkel Triumph, Sheaffer’s Snorkel, and an Esterbrook.
Stephen King once described his Waterman fountain pen as “the world’s finest word processor.” He started writing longhand when sitting at a computer became too painful (post car accident). He found the act of using a fountain pen forced him to slow down and think about each word. King discusses this method in the above 10-minute interview from 2001, which was recorded during his press rounds for Dreamcatcher.
Twain favored custom, leather-bound, tabbed notebooks, which he designed. He tore the tabs off each completed page in order to easily find the next blank one. His pen of choice was the Conklin Crescent Filler, especially since it was incapable of rolling off his desk. In the 1890s, Twain’s rheumatism made writing longhand painful. He experimented with using his left hand, but eventually began dictating his stories.
It’s said that Dylan Thomas used the popular Parker 51 fountain pen, which was touted for its fast-drying ink.
John Steinbeck was a pencil addict. The author started his writing sessions with 24 pencils. He adored the famous Blackwing pencil, but he also favored the Mongol 480. It’s said that he used 300 pencils to write East of Eden and 60 for The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row.
One of the notebooks Austen used was a quarto stationer’s notebook bound with “quarter tanned sheep over boards sided with marble paper. The edges of the leaves [were] plain cut and sprinkled red.” The English novelist composed her novels with a quill pen and iron gall ink. Here’s the quaint ink recipe:
“Take 4 ozs of blue gauls [gallic acid, made from oak apples], 2 ozs of green copperas [iron sulphate], 1 1/2 ozs of gum arabic. Break the gauls. The gum and copperas must be beaten in a mortar and put into a pint of strong stale beer; with a pint of small beer. Put in a little refin’d sugar. It must stand in the chimney corner fourteen days and be shaken two or three times a day.”
“No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand… Then I type a third draft on yellow paper, a very special certain kind of yellow paper. No, I don’t get out of bed to do this. I balance the machine on my knees. Sure, it works fine; I can manage about a hundred words a minute.”
Charles Dickens used standard black ink (now faded brown) until the 1840s, when he switched to blue ink. He often used blue paper.
Henry David Thoreau
Born to a pencil maker, Thoreau worked in the family pencil factory as a young man. He invented the early American pencil by binding the soft graphite with clay, which helped strengthen the lead and prevent smearing. Thoreau always carried a pencil with his notebook.
Since 1963, Cormac McCarthy composed his work on an Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter, which was recently sold at an auction for $254,500. After typing over five million words and more than a dozen works on it, the writer’s friend, John Miller, bought him an $11 replacement.
J. K. Rowling
She’s a billionaire author now, but when Harry Potter scribe J. K. Rowling drafted her famous series about the boy wizard, she used good old-fashioned loose-leaf paper and pen.
Arthur Conan Doyle
The Sherlock Holmes author wrote several of his works with a Parker Duofold pen.
The mystery novelist preferred typing on a Remington Home Portable Number 2 machine.
In Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, we learn that Sylvia Plath used a Shaeffer pen.
The Emperor’s Children author cannot work without a quality fountain pen and her Clairefontaine notebook (one per novel).
The young adult writer keeps it simple: paper and a pencil. “Whatever it is that happens between the brain and the pencil in my hand, that’s really important to my process,” she stated in a video interview. Blume sometimes drafts her stories with a computer, but believes her best work happens after printing the drafts out and editing them with a pencil.