Stick to the point

Happy Pencil Day! In honour of this important occasion, we’ve put together our top five reasons why pencils are infinitely better than pens. 

First, a little bit of pencil history.  

Colour photo of a yellow pencil next to a grey scribble on a piece of paper

We call them lead pencils, but in fact they’re made of graphite. When graphite was first discovered it was mistaken for a type of lead, and the name stuck. Because graphite is soft it leaves a mark on the page, which makes it a perfect writing tool. But it needs to be wrapped in something, or it would leave grey powder all over your hands. The first graphite pencils were wrapped in string; the modern wooden stick has been around for about 400 years.

Many great writers have preferred the pencil. Toni Morrison, Vladimir Nabokov, Susan Sontag, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Truman Capote all knew that pencils were best. Henry David Thoreau revolutionised pencil design before heading into the woods to write Walden

Pencils come in many shades of grey or black and are graded to describe how soft they are. Softer pencils will leave a darker mark. Our favourite for editing is the 2B – hard enough to leave a nice clear line, but softer and darker than the scratchy HB. Before digital technology, book editors used blue pencils when they were working on page proofs, as the blue markings wouldn’t be picked up by the camera when the pages were eventually photographed for the printer.

At this point, we were going to tell you a story about a broken pencil … but it was pointless. Instead, we’ll get to our serious point.

Pencils are far superior to pens, and here are five reasons why.

1. A pencil will never let you down.

A pencil won’t smudge or leak in your bag. It won’t dry out or be affected by heat or cold. A pencil won’t run out of ink in the middle of an important meeting. 

2. Pencils are better for the environment.

They’re made of wood, not plastic. These days the wood nearly always comes from sustainable tree farms, or even from recycled paper. One tree can be turned into 2,500 pencils. And when you finish using your pencil, there’s usually little or nothing left to throw away.

3. When you write with a pencil, you can change your mind.

Now this one is maybe the most important.

Whether you’re solving a crossword puzzle, editing a book, or writing a love letter, if you have a change of heart you can rub out your misstep and nobody will ever know. With a pen, you can cross out your first words and write something else – but your reader will see how indecisive you are.

Nobody wants to receive an indecisive love letter.

Knowing that we can rub out our mistakes makes us bolder. We can take more risks when we write with a pencil, because we know that we can easily change it later. The Pakistani writer Mariam Tareen puts it best in her wonderful essay “In Praise of Pencils”: “When we write with a pencil, we are learning as we go along.”

(By the way – before rubber erasers were invented, people used rolled-up balls of bread to rub out their mistakes. This is a useful trick to keep in mind in case you get stuck without an eraser but happen to have a sandwich.)

4. Pencils break easily.

If you have one pencil and you need more, you can snap it into two or three pieces and sharpen the ends. You can share your pencil with the people around you. Have you ever tried doing this with a pen? Pencils encourage community spirit. Whereas pens – well, people are always stealing pens from one another.

5. Pencils can go anywhere, and they can go the distance.

They can write upside down, or under water, or in zero gravity. The first astronauts took pencils with them into space because pens couldn’t write without gravity. (NASA did eventually invent a space pen, as famously featured in Seinfeld.)

The average pencil can draw a line almost 60 kilometres long, or from my desk in Fisher Library to Blaxland, at the base of the Blue Mountains. The average ballpoint pen can draw a line about 900 metres long. It would get me to the Broadway Shopping Centre food court.

Pencils are an amazing technology.

We’ve all heard the expression “The pen is mightier than the sword.” This may be true, but the pencil is mightiest.

Put down your swords. Put down your leaky pens. And embrace the incredible pencil.  

Read more about pencils:

Black and white hand-drawn illustration of three rows of pencils, of various sizes and shapes.

Mariam Tareen, “In praise of the pencil”, “The history of the pencil”

Dean Christopher, “Twenty things you didn’t know about pencils” 

Michele Filgate, Writers and their favorite tools

The Paris Review on pencils



Words by Denise O’Dea. Images via Pixabay.