How I Started Using Pen and Paper in My Research Work

For years, I hardly used pen or paper for anything in my work or personal life. Like many people, my workflow had involved doing everything on my electronic devices, including writing, note-taking, to-do lists, etc. But recently, I’ve found pen and paper useful in my research work. And I’ve also enjoyed exploring and using various pens and paper products!

My problem in multitasking

Before starting to use pens and paper recently, I noticed that when writing, there was some time I was wasting from multitasking on a computer or tablet. Specifically, there’s time lost in switching from window to window on a computer (or app to app on a tablet) – especially if dealing with more than two software applications or documents at a time, and you’re trying to switch between all of them.

One example is when I’m using content from several of my Word documents simultaneously in developing a PowerPoint presentation. Another example is when I am drawing from content in journal article pdf files for use in a Word document, such as creating an outline for a new paper based on prior journal article text. Also, I find this an issue when reviewing several statistical output files to describe and discuss the statistical results in a Word file.

Switching between multiple documents is not often elegant; it is nicer to have all the documents right in front of you, at a glance. You could use multiple devices (such as a computer on your left, and an iPad on your right); or multiple monitors. But most often, I am on the go, working from wherever I can find a chair and desk (typically a cafe), and have only a computer or tablet with me.

Relatedly, I found that I would waste time when constructing a PowerPoint presentation on my computer. This is because I would be simultaneously creating both the content and design for the presentation on my computer. This would result in me staring at the computer screen, and not being productive in getting the presentation created. Instead, I now save time by doing these tasks sequentially – by first designing how I want the presentation to look (on paper), then creating the content second (on paper), and finally plugging the content and design into PowerPoint.

My pen and paper solution

My solution is simple and obvious. The use of pen and paper is an old, trustworthy solution that I’ve recently rediscovered for these problems. I draw/write with pen and paper, while my computer or tablet screen is right in front of me. This setup lets me simultaneously manipulate both my writing on paper, and the screen in front of me. Sure, there is some time lost from having to type my written paper notes onto the screen; but I find that if you’re fast at typing, transcribing these notes goes super quick. (Pro tip: take a picture of your paper notes using your smartphone and upload them to a cloud storage account such as Dropbox, in case you lose them before transcribing).

I find that most people take pen and paper for granted, and usually just grab whatever cheap pen and paper they find lying around. Choosing the proper pen and paper has aesthetic, ergonomic, and productivity advantages.

So what types of pen and paper am I currently using for various academic and research tasks? (See bottom of this page for a note about the products and websites mentioned here).

Note-taking pens

When I am taking notes to generate content for Word or PowerPoint documents, I prefer a smooth writing pen. I prefer a pen that writes so smoothly that you don’t need to apply any pressure to the paper in order to force out the ink. Ballpoint pens are notorious for not having a smooth ink flow, with few exceptions (such as the Pilot Acroball and Uniball Jetstream), and is why many people feel that their hand gets cramped after writing a lot with a ballpoint pen. Therefore, I use several alternatives.

Gel ink pens. Gel ink pens write much more smoothly than ballpoint pens. I prefer using a fine-tipped gel ink pen (about 0.4 to 0.6mm), so that my writing doesn’t bleed, blot or get too messy. Of the many gel pens I have tried, I prefer the Uniball Signo DX (aka UM-151). I also like the Pilot Juice, and Pilot G2 (which is widely available in American office supply stores). However, despite the high quality of these pens for writing, their plastic pen barrels have a cheap look and feel to them. So I use the refills in high quality, machined pen barrels (I really like the modern, metal look!). I use Big Idea Design’s Ti Arto pen (featured at the left in the picture below), which accommodates the Signo DX, Juice, G2, and about 200 other refill types, using an innovative refill mechanism. I also use the Takumi pen (featured at the right in the picture below) which accommodates the Signo DX, Juice, G2, and about 50 other refills. Other machined pen barrels are available as well; I’m looking forward to trying the Flint and Steel pen when it’s released.


Fine-tipped markers. Plastic, fine-tipped marker pens also write very smoothly, without effort. I sometimes use the Copic Multiliner SP (featured below) and the disposable Sakura Pigma Micron for note taking, both of which I prefer in a 0.5mm tip. Unlike ballpoint and gel-ink pens, however, I would not recommend taking these markers on air travel, unless brand-new and sealed in a ziploc bag, because they could leak.

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Fountain pens. Fountain pens are especially ergonomic writing instruments, because their ink flows so well (without effort) that people whose hands would otherwise cramp from writing especially like them. I tend to use fountain pens that have a fine nib, because I get less messiness and blotting with a finer nib; but I do sometimes enjoy writing with a medium nib too. (Note: a Japanese “fine” nib is thinner than a non-Japanese “fine” nib). Some fountain pens can only be used with ink cartridges, while others can only use bottled ink (I like the Pilot Iroshizuku and Pelikan Edelstein inks), and still others can use either. For those curious about fountain pens, a good, inexpensive starter pen is the $5 Platinum Preppy, which writes surprisingly well (especially for the price), and the only downside is its cheap, plastic barrel casing. Another good starter pen is the $20-$30 Lamy Safari. Note that a fountain pen should never be carried on a plane, unless it is completely empty of ink, because of the likelihood of leaking. Also, fountain pens should be treated carefully, and written with delicately; otherwise, the nib’s tines can bend.

My current fountain pen collection includes (featured from left to right in the picture below) a Kaweco AL Sport, Parker SonnetSheaffer 300, Jinhao X750Lamy LX, and TWSBI 580AL. I like modern, metal fountain pens, but also some vintage looking pens too. The TWSBI is probably my favorite to write with so far.

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Other (more expensive) fountain pens on my wishlist are the Pilot Custom 912, Pilot Vanishing Point, Sailor Reglus, Platinum 3776, and Pelikan M205.

Drawing diagrams with pens

I often draw diagrams of conceptual/theoretical models, sketching them out on paper in planning a research study. For such a task, I don’t like using a fine-tipped pen, because I prefer sketching with wide, thick lines. And I don’t want to use a fountain pen for this task (even one with a wider nib), because typically I don’t draw diagrams with a gentle hand. So I use these types of pens for drawing diagrams:

Rollerball pens. Rollerball pens (aka liquid ink pens) tend to write even more smoothly than gel ink pens; however, they can be a little messy/blotty. But for drawing diagrams, they’re perfect for me. I like the writing feel and design of my Retro 51 Tornado (pictured below), Cross Slim Gel Click pen, and Zebra R-301.

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Brush pens. Brush pens have flexible brush ends, which gives the user a wide amount of line variation (think of the flexibility of a paint brush, where you can paint thin or thick lines, depending on how you hold the brush against the paper). Brush pens are popular among artists for this reason. But I find that they also work nicely for smooth drawing of diagrams. I enjoy sketching with my disposable Kuretake Fudegokochi. I recently received the similar (but metal barreled) Kuretake No. 13 brush pen (pictured below), though it has a much softer brush end. For a review of brush pens, read The Well-Appointed Desk’s three-part Brush Pen series.

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Everyday carry pens

I use the above mentioned pens when I’m at home writing, and when I go out to get work done. In addition, when heading out the door, I almost always carry the Fisher Space Pen (a ballpoint pen, pictured below) in my pocket. It’s a perfect Every Day Carry (EDC) pen for a few reasons. First, the pen is very small, so it easily fits in your pocket. Second, it uses the pressurized Fisher Space Pen refill, which can write on nearly all surfaces, in wet conditions, any temperature, and even upside down. It is a ballpoint pen, so ink flow isn’t as smooth as other pens discussed above. However, this pen is not meant to be used for writing quality; it’s meant for utility. I recently received BigIDesign’s XTS Titanium Pocket Pen, which uses a Pilot G2 Mini refill, and therefore better writing quality; this may become my new EDC pen.

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For paper, I usually keep a pocket Field Notes notebook or pocket Moleskine journal with me, as part of my EDC.

However, because I use fountain pens, rollerballs, and brush pens, which are messy and can bleed on (and through the back of) paper, I use special paper that holds up to these pens. Specifically, I use paper that is more glossy than regular printer paper. I use Rhodia notebooks, which are known for holding up to such pens. I’ve also started using a Midori Traveler’s Notebook (pictured below).



So, now you know what kinds of pens and paper I’m currently using for research work. I’d be curious to hear what you’re using.


Jon Elhai



I have learned a great deal about pens and paper from the following sources that I’d like to credit:


*Note. I mentioned (and linked to) a number of products, commercial websites, and blogs in this blog post. I do not earn any revenue from these websites/companies. Most of my links are to the Jetpens website. I would be hesitant to buy an expensive pen from websites such as Amazon or eBay that allow (unvetted) third party sellers to sell on their site; Amazon and eBay are known for having knock-off pens sold on their sites. For expensive pens, I would instead trust websites that purchase directly from the pen manufacturers, such as Jetpens, Anderson Pens, Goulet Pens, iPenstore, Paradise Pen, and Pen Chalet, to name a few.


  1. enjoyed your post Jon. i too flick between laptop, ipad and handwriting and prefer to write by hand first. i recently read Cal Newports book Deepwork which went a long way to supporting this approach as a means of doing better quality work.

    at this stage pens is whatever i can find but i think i will put more thought into it next time. I use Moleskin journals for my thoughts and have a variety for different projects, jobs and ideas.


  2. Ashley. That book looks right up my alley. Thanks! I have used moleskine journals too. The pocket ones. I like them, as I do Fieldnotes.


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