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Why Great Authors Often Choose to Write With Pencils

Updated: Apr 12, 2023

The point of an emotional decision

Photo by Kat Stokes on Unsplash

"Sometimes just the pure luxury of long beautiful pencils charges me with energy and invention.” — Steinbeck

What Writing Implement Makes Your Mojo Flow?

All writers have a process, a routine, a way of getting their creative mojo flowing. Who knew that for so many great writers, their muse speaks best when they hold a pencil in their fingers?

Writers choose their instruments as carefully as musicians tune theirs. It matters what tool they choose to make their mark, and many factors affect the ultimate emotional decision: How it feels when held in their hands; what its mark looks like on paper; what it sounds like while scribbling; what color line most flatters their words.

Since my words flow best with a Tul, Medium-Point, Blue Gel Pen, and because I assumed that most modern writers use some form of ink pen, I was surprised to learn that many people — including some of the great writers of our country — prefer the old-fashioned, wooden pencil.

A Preference for Pencils

Notable writers spanning the ages have mentioned their preference for pencils, including William Faulkner, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Richard Wilbur, John Steinbeck, Henry David Thoreau, Vladimir Nabokov, David Mamet, Walton Muyumba, and Mary Norris.

In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway notes the importance of pencils to his writing routine. (He also notes that writers need luck!) Hemingway wrote with pencils, notebooks, and a typewriter, not a pen and ink.

“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.”

Hemingway would also note that he could judge his output by how many pencils he dulled.

“Wearing down seven number-two pencils is a good day’s work.”

Writers Cite the Ease and Economy of Pencil Use:

Pencils don’t bleed, burst, run dry, or freeze like ink pens do. Henry David Thoreau used them in all weather, always handy in his pocket to make notes in his journals. (No surprise there, since his family owned a prominent pencil company.) Margaret Atwood sites pencil-carrying during travel as the number one and number two from her 10 Rules for Writers:

1. “Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the planes because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore, take two pencils.” 2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

Pencils are the economical staple of the working writer’s toolbox. Multiple great authors remark that all writers don’t need fancy equipment or lots of money to succeed. They just need pencils.

William Faulkner said,

“The writer doesn’t need economic freedom. All he needs is a pencil and some paper.” Toni Morrison, who claims she’s not too particular about her writing implements, declares, “I’m not picky, but my preference is for yellow legal pads and a nice number two pencil.”

Pencils For Prose-Writer, Playwright, and Poet, Alike

Writers of prose, plays, and poetry need pencils.

Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, was the opposite of Toni Morrison. Morrison claimed to have preferences for writing tools, but not to get hung up about them. What he wrote with mattered to Nabokov, famous for outlining his novels on index cards with a very specific pencil, the Blackwing 602:

“My schedule is flexible, but I am rather particular about my instruments: lined Bristol cards and well sharpened, not too hard, pencils capped with erasers.”

Pulitzer-Prize winning Playwright, David Mamet, declares that he has to see all the pencil marks in front of him:

“Pad and pencil. I want to see it, I want to see them all out in front of me, each one of the pencil adaptations, the pencil notations, and the pencil notations crossed out, and the pen on top of the pencil, and the pages … ”

Poet Richard Wilbur, winner of the Wallace Stevens Award, Poet Laureate, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and National Book Award, talked about the ability to forget your surroundings and your fear as long as you can write words on paper:

“There are all kinds of ways to forget how frightened and disoriented you are. But I think one of the best is to take pencil and paper — which is all you need, thank heavens, to be a poet and which makes it possible to practice poetry in a foxhole…

Apparently, Pencils Are Part of the Process

I get a rush of excitement each time I see a new notebook and have spent years buying filling them up with ideas and quotes and cool sentences. But for other writers, the thrill is in the pencil.

John Steinbeck was famous for his need for pencils to fuel his creativity. He used more than three hundred of them while writing East of Eden, and sixty of them writing Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row.

Steinbeck claimed that he felt creative just looking at new pencils, a possible new strategy to try when my mojo isn’t flowing.

“Sometimes just the pure luxury of long beautiful pencils charges me with energy and invention.”

Hemingway’s writing process favored using pencils because he felt that it made for better editing:

"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.”

New Adventures in Graphite

In light of my newfound knowledge that many great writers use pencils, I’m considering branching out, planning to see if graphite gets my groove going. I’m going to see if pencils make my points clearer. If an eraser will eliminate logic errors. If lead will lead me to write literature worthy of being read.

I’m definitely going to research the Eberhard-Faber Blackwings mentioned by famous writers, and I’ll scout out other notable pencils, experimenting with each new implement like an addict trying new drugs. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get an agent, be more productive, earn more money, get a publishing contract, become a bestselling author, and die a famous writer if I’d switch from pen to pencil. (It’s worth a try!)

Ultimately, though, I will write — no matter what. I will scrawl words in the sand. I will scratch words on the sidewalk with chalk. I will walk through every day of my life with a notebook and writing implement in hand, whether it’s a quill, a pen, a stylus, a finger, or a pencil. A writer has to write. In that regard, I’m like Margaret Atwood, who says,

“I’d write with lipstick if there were nothing else.”


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