If you are looking at the millions of awesome pens out there in the world and wondering, "How the heck to I choose a good one?", then look no further!
In this comprehensive guide, I'm going to talk about everything pen-related: writing style, ink, construction, the paper you normally use, the reasons for buying, and even some of the ecological aspects of pen shopping.
At the end, I also have a list of some of the best pens that have been tested out if you need some recommendations for your pen selection.
Let's jump in!
We'll start with...
Writing style is just an easy way of saying how the pen delivers ink to the writing surface. There are quite a few styles out there.
Just like Step Up taught me: a good ballerina can adapt to any dance style.
The ballpoint pen is the hip-hop ballerina of pens. It's the most versatile and works for pretty much any writing surface.
Basically, ballpoints have a small ball rolls at the tip of the pen which spreads oil-based ink when pressure is applied.
They tend to be less expensive, easily accessible, and ready to go at any moment... Like those little packages of orange peanut butter crackers.
Fountain Pens, on the other hand, are the Cinderella of the pen world. Magnificent to look at, functional, but maybe not always the most practical (Who in their right mind runs away from true love with only one high heel on?).
Fountain pens use a feed to bring liquid ink down to the tip of the pen (what's called the nib). They are flexible and adapt to the handwriting of the user, and they make your signature look awesome.
Their only downfall (for some users) is they require a level of upkeep and maintenance.
Some users love that feeling of being involved in the maintenance of their pen. But, if not attended to, the water-based ink will dry up like those guys that took the cursed jars in the Mummy.
Fortunately, with little cleaning and ink refilling, a fountain pen is right back to work.
While they feel fancy and delicate, the best fountain pen can stand up to a lot of daily use like any other pen. So don't let the glass shoes fool you: they deliver.
I came in like a Rooooolller Ballllll.
-a completely real and not at all altered quote from Miley Cyrus*
Rollerballs (sometimes calling rolling ball or select tip pens) are the best of both worlds between a ballpoint and a fountain pen.
They have the same small ball mechanism of the ballpoint with the liquid based ink of a fountain pen so you get a smooth writing experience without the upkeep.
*Not a real quote from the Miley Cyrus hit tune Wrecking Ball
Gel pens are technically, basically, mostly just rollerballs.
The term is often used interchangeably in luxury pens. They have the same writing mechanism as a rollerball.
What makes gel pens different? Well, gel ink.
We'll revisit this bit when we talk about inks, but the differences are important to mention here.
Gel pens have ink that is gel/water-based, and that makes it just the slightest bit sticky, so it adheres to pretty much any surface. Unlike water-based inks, gel ink doesn't need to sink as deep into the surface to catch and come out clear.
That said, a lot of rollerball pens have the same ink as gel pens too. At that point, gel pens and rollerball pens are different in name only.
Felt Tip Pen
A felt tip pen can mean anything from an archival pen to the Crayola scented markers.
Porous fibers are pressed together to form the writing tip. The fibers soak up the ink and voila! writing. Markers, highlighters, even the fantastic Micron Pens are all prime examples of Felt Tip Pens.
Get out your clay tablets and your Palm Pilots everybody! The stylus is back.
Now focused on all our fancy tablets, stylus pens are ideal for writing on computer screens and the like.
Unless you are buying one with your tablet, it is much more common to see styluses as an added on feature to a ballpoint pen.
On a final note about the basic pen types, check out this incredible pen type chart by Kyrsten Ledger breaking down the different types of pens and their uses. Top notch stuff.
What kind of ink works best for you
Selecting the right pen for you can often depend on the type of ink inside the pen.
How quickly it dries, if it smears, what color it is—all this comes down to the ink style.
Up until the early 20th century, all writing ink was some formula comprised of at least water and a coloring agent.
While effective for the times, water based ink historically had some problems.
- It took longer to dry which lead to smearing.
- It would dry out in the pen over time if not properly maintained.
- It was water soluble (so if your page got wet, there goes your writing).
- And lastly, it couldn't handle pressure (only a big problem when flying became a thing).
Modern science and technology has done a lot to make water based ink a more usable and enjoyable medium, resolving a good bit of these issues. So what are the pros and cons of using water-based ink in your pens?
- smooth, flowing ink writing lines
- limited skipping
- doesn't clog inside the pen
- comes in the largest variety of colors
- ink dries slower
- water soluble
- will dry out inside the pen if the pen is left uncapped for a long period of time
- can freeze in colder climates
Luckily, all of the cons happen in extenuating circumstances; they're not built-in problems with the ink itself.
Oil-based ink is the most common form of ink used in the modern world because...
It's in the type of ink found in ballpoint pens!
Fun fact! Oil-based ink was invented by mimicking the type of ink used to print newspapers.
It's thicker and sludgier which prevents it from drying out quickly inside the pen, but also means it doesn't smear on the page.
- quick drying time
- can write on almost any surface
- does not leak in pressurized environment
- takes much longer to dry out if uncapped
- can handle colder climates since oil has a lower freezing point
- requires more writing pressure
- skips more
- leaves harder to clean stains if leaks
- limited colors
Are you right-handed or left-handed? This will have a major impact on how you write.
Right handed writing is the most common so all pen styles are easily functional for all the righties out there.
To all the Southpaws out there: apologies for the inconveniences! We see you; we feel your pain.
Left handed writers have much more to consider before purchasing a pen. Ink drying times can be tantamount to their writing experience since their hand follows behind the pen while writing.
Because of this, ballpoints and oil-based ink pens tend to be the most user friendly pens for lefties since they dry almost as soon as they come in contact with the paper.
If you are a lefty interested in using a liquid-based ink pen, there are definitely options out there with special fast drying inks.
You can also change up how you hold your pen so you hand either rests above or below the writing line. This method will take some getting used to, but ensures the safety of your palm from getting covered in ink stains.
Pen Barrel (aka How the Pen Should Feel in Your Hand)
You could have a writing style you love in a pen you paid a good chunk of change for with nice ink flow... and hate the experience of writing with it.
It might just not feel good in your hand.
This is all because of the design of the pen itself.
Here are a few things to consider to help make sure when you are holding the pen it feels comfortable, easy to use, and doesn't give you a raging hand cramp after 3 minutes of writing.
Thick vs Thin
Barrel size of your pen is the largest factor in hand-crampage avoidance.
For example, if you have the hands of a professional arm wrestler, you are probably not going to enjoy writing with a slimmer barrel.
Think of Jeff Dabe's trying to hold something the width of a Pixy Stix
On the other side of things, it would be challenging for a child to write with a Cross Edge.
Think about your hand size, finger length, and dexterity.
Thin Barrel Pens: 15-25mm in diameter
Great for more slender fingers, smaller hands, and people who use their fingers for precision tasks
Medium Barrel Pens: 25-32mm in diameter
The Goldilocks size of pens, this is a great average size if you aren’t sure what to try or you are buying for someone else
Thick Barrel Pens: 33mm+ in diameter
Ideal for the larger handed or who like to grip things loosely.
Weight & Balance
How heavy do you like your pen to be?
For some, the lighter, the better.
For others, they feel like the pen will go flying out of their hands like Vader is using the Force on their pen.
Weight factors into balance and how the weight is distributed across the cap and barrel.
Some people like a lot of weight towards the front or back of the hand, and that makes comfortable writing for them.
But an even balance of weight from front to back is arguably the best for most writers.
When getting a feel for the weight of your pen, try it with the cap posted (placed on the end of the barrel) and unposted.
Do you like the feel of the extra length and weight or does it bog down the pen in your hand?
The final major factor for how a pen feels in your hand is the grip.
The grip can be differentiated from the barrel by material or shape.
Some pens like the Stick Bic, do not distinguish the grip at all while others make the grip rubber or a softer material for comfort.
In luxury pens, you probably will not find rubber grips, but the shape of the grip is often tailored to the design. The grip might taper to be smaller, flair out towards the tip for a natural hand hold, or might even be triangular or square.
There's a whole host of pens to choose with a million different grips, so don't feel overwhelmed; feel free to try different ones out and find the best one for you!
What is your budget?
Your budget is a huge determining factor in your shopping.
If you are looking for your favorite cheap, disposable pen (something under $10), it’s always good to give the classics a try (Uniball Roller, Pilot G-2, or a Zebra F-301).
If you are looking for something more along the luxury side of pens anything $20 and beyond, check out our other articles on the subject for ideas on what to find in your budget:
How much do you use a pen?
You've got to consider how much use you're going to get out of the pen.
Is the pen just for looks? (by the way, it's COMPLETELY okay to buy a luxury pen for looks)
Do you use your pen for hours at a time or for small notes throughout the day?
If you are sitting down to write a letter, something formal, or are trying to get the most out of your signature, try a fountain pen or a rollerball at least.
For journaling, I'm a big fan of a rollerball, felt-tip, or gel ink pen since I am not worried too much about drying time, and I want my handwriting to look real nice with no hand cramps along the way.
Doing a cross word puzzle? Go fine tip gel pen, ideally fine enough that there is still room in the box if you make a mistake and have to write over your letter.
Writing periodically throughout the day (all my teachers out there grading papers!)? I'd go ballpoint so you never have to worry about getting your ink flowing.
Most high quality pens can handle a lot of use, so don't be worried about spending a lot on a pen that will only work for like a week. That won't happen.
But some pens are constructed out of—and finished with—materials like gold which can tarnish; that'll just require some cleaning, but it might mean you just use that pen for special occasions.
And this leads us now to talk about...
The construction material is what the body of the pen and the internal workings are made up of versus the finish of the pen.
Construction materials will have a huge impact on how long your pen lasts and its weight/feel.
Cheaper pens will rarely have a distinction between the internal construction materials and the finish. What you see is pretty much what you get.
More expensive pens are going to invest quite a bit in the internal workings and materials (especially since, at a certain price point, they start to come with warranties).
Construction materials are predominantly made up of plastic or metal.
Some are made of wood or solid gold, but this means the inner workings are likely from various metals or plastics.
The quality of the plastic or metal is going to change exponentially based on price.
Pen Finish (aka The Look of the Pen)
Welcome to a mad, mad, mad, mad world. Really, what can’t be a pen finish nowadays. To list a few pen finishes:
- gold of a variety of karats
- wood of a variety of varnishes
- chrome of a variety of chromieness
- lacquer of any color your heart desires
- titanium (please note buying a titanium pen automatically comes with the hit song by David Guetta featuring Sia being stuck in your head for approx. 18.3 hours)*
The look of the pen is going to come entirely down to preference. Find something you think is real sharp and go for it.
(Also! Don’t forget about appointments aka accents. This is what the clip, banding, tip, all that kind of stuff looks like.)
*Don't believe me? Just listen to it once.
Novelty pens are here to either be bought in bulk cheap and passed out at the teller of your bank or to be something crazy and fun (shoutout to those awesome wood animal pens they had at the zoo gift shop).
Promotional pens are novelty pens bought in bulk that are used for advertising. They usually have a company name or logo printed or engraved on them.
The fun ones will come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. They might light up or turn into a laser point. They are meant to be a gimmick more than anything (but I love a good gimmicky pen; down with snobbery!).
Who are you buying a pen for?
This is one of those questions that's really going to direct your shopping efforts.
There's two general categories for who you might buying for: yourself or someone else.
Buying a pen for yourself
Buying a pen for yourself is the simplest category.
You only need to focus on what you want, and that means just following a lot of what we've said here already and matching it up with things you intuitively feel you want.
Do you want a fountain pen?
Do you want it engraved?
What construction material and finish do you want it to have?
Just go through my checklist and check the availability of the company from which you wish to buy your fancy-schmancy new pen.
Buying a pen as a gift
Here's the real kicker.
Trying to buy the best pen for someone else can feel really daunting at first, but I'll break it down really easy.
(Our checklist also includes a section on buying for someone else, so everything I'm about to say can be found there, but let's talk a bit more in-depth about it.)
Here's 4 questions to ask yourself when buying for someone else:
- What is their relationship to you?
- What is the occasion for buying?
- What's the purpose of getting them a pen?
- What will they do with the pen?
First, and this is obvious, you need to consider the person you're buying for. what is their relationship to you? Are they a family member? A friend? A romantic partner? A fellow professional?
Different relations may dictate how much you spend on a pen (don't break the bank when buying for a coworker or a boss). Dad might like a black lacquer ballpoint pen with gold accompaniments, but a friend might be completely happy with a fully chrome rollerball.
You can usually intuit a good pen by referencing what you know of their personality.
Are they hardworking? Are they into high fashion? Are they serial note writers?
This is all helpful to consider when buying for someone else.
Second, consider the occasion for buying. Is it a holiday? A birthday? A graduation? A promotion? Or is it a completely gratuitous gift?
Gratuitous gifts are the best! It's like saying, "No reason, I just want to celebrate you without occasion!" I'm a big encourager of this kind of gift-giving behavior.
But definitely get the best pen that fits the occasion. A promotion means you should get them something that looks professional. A birthday might mean you get them something either symbolic, useful, or both!
Just take a second to think about the day!
Third, why are you getting them a pen specifically? Gift pens are great for all occasions; they're super flexible as far as conveying your intended meaning to your recipient by way of a useful and luxurious object.
But you should also consider why your recipient needs a gift in the first place.
There are two reasons for this:
1.) you want to make sure that a pen is going to say without words what you want it to say (It's got to have enough meaning to really hit home),
And 2.) if you can figure out why they need a pen, you can write a really meaningful gift note to go along with it, like "To write your list and check it twice" (in this case, the gift recipient is none other than Santa Clause) or "For when someone asks you for an autograph" (for someone special in your life whose totally fame-bound).
Finally, what will your recipient do with the pen? Is this a useful tool for them? Or is it more of a symbolic gift?
If it's a useful gift, then trying to get the highest quality writing tool for a lower price point is totally acceptable. Again, don't break the bank.
If it's a symbolic gift, you might want to aim for more glitz and glam. Go for gold; gold never fails.
These are the questions I ask myself when I'm buying a pen for someone else.
What kind of paper do you write on?
Unless you're trying to optimize your writing experience to the absolute maximum, worrying about paper too much is just going to cause undue stress.
With a few exceptions, pretty much any pen can write on most paper surfaces.
The most notable exception is with any paper that has a glossier finish. For these, I recommend you go with a ballpoint. Ballpoints work great on glossy surfaces, and any surface for that matter.
However, aside from glossy paper, it's really just a question of optimization.
So, here's just two general points to consider about paper for an optimized writing experience:
You can get a varying range of paper color.
The color will vary for either aesthetic or material purposes.
The standard color is either white or off-white, but of course you can find a TON of different, fun colors to keep as your usual writing base.
You might also consider which ink color you use and think about which paper color would look best with it.
Black and red inks pop on pretty much any white or off-white page, but blue and browns look best on pure white.
Ink bleed happens when the ink from a pen seeps into the page and spreads, making the lines kind of hazy and gloopy.
This happens for two reasons which are interlinked:
- The ink is probably water-based or something else that is slow-drying because it doesn't dry before it sinks into the page. Water-based inks look best on paper precisely because they sink into the page, but if it seeps too much it becomes blotchy.
- The paper is too soft.
Between soft paper and slow-drying, ink bleed is bound to happen.
Try to get paper that's especially crafted for the ink style that you tend to use; you can avoid ink bleed that way.
What are your priorities in a pen?
Now that we have talked about all the different features to consider when looking for a pen, the last major thought comes down to priorities.
What do you care the most about?
Are you looking for a pen that writes smoothly, but you could care less how it looks?
Are you walking into business meetings with clients who are going to notice a beautifully lacquered pen?
Think about how you are going to be using your pen and if you need it to be an extension of how you present yourself.
A great cheap plastic ballpoint and a luxurious gold-inlaid fountain pen can both be the right choice for you depending on your situation.
Customizing your pen
Here are some thoughts on personalizing your pen:
There are a ton of different ways this can be done. If you are looking for a specific color or finish, companies like AT Cross will happily accommodate by customizing one of the pens in their catalogue for a fee.
A cheaper and easier way to customize is through imprinting or engraving.
Imprinting will print the image directly onto the surface or the pen.
Engraving will carve into the finish which will be more permanent.
Many companies will include engraving as a free or affordable addition with the purchase of a pen.
You can even get logos or signatures engraved into your pen if you want to get real fancy!
Pens and the Environment: The Ecological Aspects of Shopping for a Pen
The last thing I want to talk about before we get to some actual recommendations for the best pen for you is the environmental impact of pens.
It's best to be eco-conscious when you're looking to buy new pens, and there's simple ways to do that.
First, see if any pen companies you like have anything to say about the environmental impact of their pens.
A lot of this has to do with waste in construction materials and the purpose of the pen (whether it's a one-and-done, throwaway pen or not).
Fountain pens are probably the best overall for the environment because there's less waste in their construction.
Plus, you can get bottled ink for fountain pens, so you're not buying plastic cartridge after plastic cartridge and adding to landfills unnecessarily.
Be sure to do your ecological research on your pens before you buy!
5 Recommendations for the Perfect Pen
For a high quality ballpoint, I’m obsessed with Waterman. If you are looking for something slim like the Hemisphere, the ink flow is shockingly smooth and consistent for a ballpoint.
They are also shockingly durable for such a high-end brand.
The Squire may be the rollerball to end all rollerballs. The reviewers are raving about this one.
If anyone has an extra lying around, send it my way.
Best Fountain Pen:
When it comes to fountain pens, I tend to go Lamy every time.
The Lamy Safari is just about the best entry level fountain pen out there.
For something fancier, the Lamy 2000 looks great and writes better.
Best Gel Pen:
The Parker Jotter Gel Ink Pens are the ones for me. I love them.
And its all-metal construction is a blessing when it tumbles around at the bottom of my bag or gets chucked across the room by my overzealous toddler.
They also have it available as a ballpoint (which ranked 7 out of top overall 100 pens by the Strategist).
Best Felt Tip Pen:
In all honesty when it comes to felt tip pens, I am pretty sold out on the Sakura Pigma Micron Pens. I bought the colored variety pack to have people sign the guest book at my wedding so I would have an excuse to have them around after the fact.
Pen buying doesn't have to be overwhelming! Even though I brought up a lot of things to consider when buying a pen, at the end of the day the best pen is the one you love and love to share.
Pick your writing style, decide how much you want to use the pen, and go out there and find a pen that makes you say "why hello there...you look like a real grand ol' time".
Don't forget to use our checklist is you need a little extra help in your search and if you have any questions or thoughts, let me know in the comments below!
You can also think about getting your pen personalized!
Tell us about your favorite pen in the comments!