Writing by Hand


Writing manuscripts by hand has several practical advantages — no need to carry a laptop around, no risk of batteries going dead — but the one I’m most fond of is this: writing by hand forces a built-in revision stage, since I never manage to type up my pages without improving and tightening the prose. While I have no plans to ditch my computer, I find myself resorting to longhand more and more during early drafts. I have always taken notes by hand (the tech-assisted alternatives still seem too clunky to me) but I haven’t written out drafts like this in years.

Pictures5To make the process practical for me required finding the right pen and the right paper. Sure, you can use anything that’s near to hand. For long sessions, though, it helps to find the tools that work best for you. The pen is a Pilot Custom 823 with a Fine nib. Japanese fine nibs are finer than European ones, and for my taste the finer the better. The advantage of writing with a fountain pen is that you don’t have to press down on the paper, which speeds up fatigue. You also get to choose from a myriad of ink colors. I’ve settled on Sailor Epinard, a nice dark green. The 823 holds a vast quantity of ink, which is nice when you’re writing a lot.

The paper I’m using is Japanese, too. It’s called Tomoe River, and among fountain pen users it is all the rage because of the way it handles ink. I like it because the paper is quite thin, almost like tracing paper, allowing me to place a ruled guide underneath. When you’re working, you have lines to keep your handwriting straight, but once the page is finished, the lines disappear.


For writing on the go, I use this A4 pad of Tomoe River paper inside a translucent pad holder.


I created the guide myself using Adobe InDesign, which allowed me to leave a lot of space between each line — manuscripts are traditionally double-spaced — and to create a wide margin on the left. This makes my pages easy to annotate. Notes go in the margin and edits fit between the lines.


Above: This is what the writing surface looks like with the custom guideline sheet underneath the paper.


Peel back the paper and you see the custom guideline sheet.


I carry the A4 Tomoe River pad inside a translucent pad holder which secures with an elastic strap, Moleskine-style. Manuscript pages can be tucked into the flap pocket facing the pad or carried in a separate translucent folder. This keeps everything together, nice and tidy, ready to hit the road at a moment’s notice. The Tomoe River pad, pad holder, and much more besides are available at Nanami Paper. If you prefer to write in bound books, journal-style, some nice Tomoe River journals are available at Paper for Fountain Pens.


The pad holder keeps work-in-progress nicely organized.

If you’re going to write by hand, it helps to choose the right paper. In addition to Tomoe River, I have a number of suggestions, which you’ll find here: “Choosing the Right Paper.”

29 responses

  1. John says:

    I imagine you already know this but Shelby Foote wrote with a dip pen. He said it made him take his time. Seems he said he would write 400-500 words a day. There is a three hour interview with him on C-Span if they archived it. Might be on YouTube. He talks about the pen, nibs, etc.

  2. jmarkbertrand jmarkbertrand says:

    I’ve used dip pens, but I don’t think I am tidy enough to make them work in this context. Might give it a try just to see the world through Foote’s eyes for a bit.

  3. Tony Reinke says:

    Fascinating! I like to write by hand as well. At the request of some friends I recently wrote a little vignette to share my journey to better understand why prolific writer C.S. Lewis detested the typewriter. Never satisfied by the explanations of his recent biographers, I kept pressing for answers and came to a rather surprising conclusion about how Lewis believed pens protected his rhythm of writing. Here’s what I discovered: http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/jack-s-typewriter

  4. Guilherme Q. says:

    “writing by hand forces a built-in revision stage, since I never manage to type up my pages without improving and tightening the prose”—Well, Hemingway said the same thing: “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.”

  5. Such a great post! One thing that frustrates me with handwriting is patience. I have such little patience for writing by hand when I can type so fast. This post is a needed encouragement.

    • jmarkbertrand jmarkbertrand says:

      One of the things that motivated me to use pen and paper not just for notes but for “serious” writing was too often experiencing the sudden urge to rush back to the keyboard so it could get the words down. I’ve been typing for nearly thirty years so it’s second nature by now. Picking cursive back up after years of block printing took some time, but I’m not THAT much slower writing by hand now. The real benefit in terms of slowness isn’t writing but having to type things up at the end, the forced layer of revision that means the draft you turn in is never the first draft. (We seem to read a lot of first drafts these days.)

  6. alan d gibble says:

    At over $200.00 for the pen, I think I’ll pass….you already have me hooked on expensive Bibles :)

  7. [...] you decide to write by hand, one of the pleasures of the process is using a fountain pen. Fountain pens write a more [...]

  8. Matt says:

    What are the dimensions of the margins for the custom guideline sheets?

    • jmarkbertrand jmarkbertrand says:

      Top and bottom margins are 1″, left is 2.25″, right is 0.75″. The page is output at US Letter size, so under an A4 sheet the bottom margin is closer to the left hand side.

      The rules are 0.5″ and there are 18 lines to write on (19 total, but I treat the top one as a margin line.

  9. John says:


    What $20-$50 fountain pen would you suggest? I have a Lamy with a good nib but the square shape makes it uncomfortable for lengthy writing. I also have a Parker Jotter fountain pen (cheap), a Parker Esprit, and a couple of other cheap fountain pens. I have a Cross Spire rollerball pen that is very nice but I haven’t found an affordable fountain pen that I love. Pilot varsity disposable pens write as well as some “affordable” fountain pens I’ve used. I appreciate your suggestion.

    • jmarkbertrand jmarkbertrand says:

      I like the Pilot 78g with a stub nib and the Nemosyne Singularity demonstrator with a 0.6 mm stub, both of which are sub-$20. The Noodler’s Konrad is all right in that price range. While I love the size of the Noodler’s Ahab, I’ve had nothing but trouble with mine.

      • Ed Dickinson says:


        I purchased the 1.1 mm stub italic nib for my four Ahabs from Goulet Pen Co. Works like a charm. Could make you fall in love with the Ahab again.

  10. [...] I’ve described writing by hand and offered a primer on paper recently, I thought some context might be in order. How do pen and [...]

  11. Steve McCoy says:

    Love this post. Because of it I just got a blank book from paperforfountainpens.com. Is there any way you could make your custom guideline sheets available as a pdf we can download? I know I can make one but I would like to start by having a copy of yours, if you would be willing.

    Thanks for the post.

  12. Jay Potter says:

    Mr. Bertrand:

    Thanks for the kind mention of PaperForFountainPens.com .

    I, myself, tend to use pen and paper for composing writing of any complexity—even if it is going to be typed in its final form. The quality of my thinking tends to be better than when I use a keyboard, and I also notice that my stress level is lower with pen and paper.

    To respond to Mr. McCoy’s inquiry, may I point out http://incompetech.com/graphpaper/lined/ ?
    It is a website that has a lined paper generator on it. You can select the line spacing and line thickness that you prefer. You’ll get a free pdf made to your specifications.

    Happy writing!

    p.s. May I also point out that http://www.PaperForFountainPens.com has loose sheets and pads as well as bound books?

    • jmarkbertrand jmarkbertrand says:

      Thanks, Jay. That’s a great resource, especially considering my guide is A4 sized and won’t work with the smaller bound book pages. I’m going to check it out!

  13. Steve McCoy says:

    Excellent. Thanks Jay.

    • jmarkbertrand jmarkbertrand says:

      To get the same effect as my guide, you’ll want the Cornell-lined notepaper template, which gives you the wide left and lower margins. In a bound book you’d want to reverse it on facing pages to get a balanced-looking spread.

  14. Yeah, you definitely got me into fountain pens right after Bibles.

    I use fountain pens for writing short stories and such. Primarily because I have to type it out later, where I make a revision almost every two lines.

    I’m also using Noodler’s Antietam. Does your hatred of red ink carry over into the fountain pen world as well? ;)

    • jmarkbertrand jmarkbertrand says:

      I don’t hate red ink, either for writing or for printing! I’m just not a fan of red letter editions of the Bible (or any other tampering, well meaning as it may be). I’ve used Noodler’s Nikita and Red-Black a lot, but my favorite at the moment is probably Mont Blanc Alfred Hitchcock, which is a nice blood red. I haven’t tried Antietam, though.

  15. [...] you decide to write by hand, one of the pleasures of the process is using a fountain pen. Fountain pens write a more [...]

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