Pen vs. Keyboard Showdown

Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber examines text fetishization in both pen-and-paper and electronic modes. I understand both sides: I have irrationally strong preferences for certain pens/papers, and am also the type to tweak my LaTeX documents endlessly to get just the right formatting.
For creative writing, journaling, or blogging I usually find pen-and-paper too damn slow—I compose sentences in bursts and then have to wait for my hand to catch up, whereas the speed of typing is a little more comfortable. I also tend to revise-as-I-go which is much more amenable to writing on a computer.
Despite this, there’s an appeal to the hand-written journal as opposed to a text file somewhere, so I tend to do private journaling on paper despite the slowness. I tried doing this on the computer at one point but it wasn’t quite the same.
It’s the opposite when doing math, where typesetting is too slow. I’ve been known to work problems in LaTeX if I know the solution outline already and the solution needs to be typeset anyway, but otherwise I will reach for the nearest piece of scratch paper.
I know a lot of you are writers of at least one form or another; what are your preferences?

12 thoughts on “Pen vs. Keyboard Showdown

  1. Lemming

    Reminds me of one of my favorite little anecdotes. Of course, I’m sure I’m misquoting this, but the idea is approximately right.
    Mohi: “Why are there only pens around here? Doesn’t anyone use pencil? What if you make a mistake on your homework?”
    Travis: “I don’t make mistakes.”
    Tim: “I don’t correct them.”
    Wendell: “Homework?”
    But seriously, my preferred writing implement used to be a mechanical pencil. I’ve since switched to pen, but only because my hands are teh sukk, and I can get away with a little more visibility / hand strain that way.
    “What does a mathematician do when they’re constipated? They work it out with a pencil.”
    I still tend to do math on actual paper, or a whiteboard (hah, I took a derivative the other day!) If my hands are in a lot of pain, sometimes I find I can get by with using Maple or the like instead.
    I like my pencils mechanical, 0.5mm, loaded with enough rounds of medium-soft lead so that I’ll lose the pencil before I have to reload.
    I like my pens with black ink, ballpoint. I’m a sloppy writer, so I don’t like ones that are too prolific with the ink.
    I like my keyboards with a small to medium amount of resistance early on, then a quick fall. A bit of a click sound is important–not too loud, but enough to feel good about yourself when you’re click-clacking away like a bona-fide hacker badass. Don’t you dare put a split-key in front of me. A little bit of ascetic “customization” can be nice (you know what I mean if you’ve seen one of my last two keyboards).
    I like writing on graph paper, either white or yellow, with at least 5 squares to the inch and soft lines–that last part is the most important.

  2. Arcane Gazebo

    Ha ha, I remember that conversation. Seems to me the actual reason there were no pencils is that Mohi had already stolen them all over time.
    These days I only use a pencil for RPGs where I change numbers on character sheets; I’ve otherwise converted entirely to pens for the same reasons you cite: more visible and less strain on the hand.

  3. Jenny

    For writing, I much prefer typing for the edit as you go ease. But you’re right, journalizing in a text file is completely unfullfilling. Every time I start a pen-and-paper journal, I get frustrated with the slowness and scratch-outs. However, whenever I need to work something out I reach for a pen (black only!) and whatever is handy to write on (scraps of paper, napkins, backs of envelopes). I love being able to violently scratch out bad ideas and draw arrows connecting my random thoughts. I always lose my scraps of notes, but once I’ve worked out the idea, I go back to the computer anyway. Writing papers, I sometimes wish I could go back to my notes to remember what the reasoning behind something was. I heard there are some note taking programs that let you put everything on a continuous loop of “paper” and draw on different parts of the screen. Has anyone tried one?

  4. Jenny

    Why is it I only seem to feel the need to comment on threads involving pens? Must have writing on the brain due to damn thesis.

  5. Arcane Gazebo

    I’ve heard of these note-taking programs too, but never tried one. Lately I’ve been in the habit of carrying around 3×5 index cards for when I need to make random notes, as opposed to using the nearest napkin. This has worked better than I expected.

  6. Mason

    creative writing: I do this on the computer for the actual writing, but will write notes on anything nearby if I want to remember an idea until the next time a computer is available
    math: I work things out on pencil and paper unless it’s so horrendous that I need to use computer algebra; a bunch of my calculations actually require both in concert (humans are much better at inserting appropriate identities, and it’s really nice to use both methods to check each other); I will use a pen grudgingly if no pencils are nearby, but I greatly prefer pencils, and my preference by far is mechanical .7; I always end up breaking .5’s too often and .9’s are too thick; also, my writing is more readable in pencil than in pen, as erasing the things that are too messy is key [though it’s still messy even with these efforts…]
    For writing up exam solutions, I will only latex directly if I already know it and don’t need to actually work anything out. If I need to work it out, I’ll reach for the pencil and paper to do that.
    I don’t keep any journals.
    Also, I have some very specific preferences in latex (I like the spacing in align far more than that in eqnarray, for example).

  7. Wren

    My advisor and lab group have requested that I never again inflict my handwriting on them, that’s how stylized and illegible it is.
    When I do math, I do it out in ink (uni-ball vision micro stolen from lab, and then someone steals it from me) on nerd paper, then LaTeX it. Unless it’s REALLY easy math.
    I prefer writing papers (and someday I suppose my thesis) in LaTeX, but I had one collaborator who insisted on Word, vile man, vile program.
    When I take lab notes, I use the big brown-wrapper labbooks with graph paper inside. Again in ink. One disadvantage to this is that no one else can read my notes so I often have to transcribe. Is there even an attempt at a digital labbook?
    All talks are Keynote. If I am really stymied for layout in a slide or poster, I might sketch that out.
    I keep a handwritten journal, again, protected by my shit handwriting, but I have dozens of little text files with started ideas and notes?it doesn’t seem to be the media that keeps me from finishing those thoughts.

  8. Arcane Gazebo

    Oh man, I’ve also been forced by collaborators to use Word for technical documents. “Vile” is about right. I use Word for other purposes, but it’s completely unsuited for scientific writing.
    I haven’t heard about any digital lab books. The whole lab-notebook-in-ink thing has a mystique about it that suggests Good Experimental Technique, which a digital version might not carry even if it were functionally equivalent. Coincidentally, there was a bit on lab notebooks at 43 Folders today.

  9. Zifnab

    I’ll chime in with my preferences: I used to always use mechanical pencils, .5mm, for just about any homework, etc. Black pens for lab book writing and when I couldn’t find pencils,but I don’t really like them as much.
    I’ve recently switched to LaTex for homework sets, solution sets for courses i’m TA’ing, etc. If I didn’t have to have a reference card open to type normally in it, it’d be smoother but i’m still rough. If anyone has sample documents, i’d love to see examples, because right now there’s still an unfinished look with a lot of the stuff i’m writing.
    As far as journals go, I wouldn’t think of writing them on the computer, but i’ve also not written in one in a while.
    Finally, when it comes to diagrams, I absolutely have to do them via pencil. Only once i’ve got that down will stuff like xfig be able to make the same diagrams for LaTex, etc.

  10. Wren

    With regard to science in Word, I still don’t know how to a) insert equations or b) format figures so they don’t look like ass once off my computer. a) was resolved because I forced my collaborator to do it (and then he made a mistake in the thermodynamics) and b) I just gave up on.
    Never again.
    Yeah, lab books have that mystique, but if it’s notes I’ve taken at 3am after a 24 hour straight experiment, I can’t read them a day later…

  11. Mason

    In math, thankfully it’s really hard to find someone who doesn’t use latex. My advisor actually used WriteNow (circa 1991!) until I finally convinced him that more and more math and physics journals require latex. (One of my big achievements in grad school was getting a 70+ person who is not exactly into technology to learn latex.) Of course, then many of these journals reversed this trend and (re)started accepting Word because enough people complained or something.
    Some journals (like Nature) can still be annoying when it comes to what format they want. They actually prefer Word to LaTex [it’s biologists’ fault… :) ].
    One of the reasons I was able to get my advisor to switch was that he wanted me to edit the document directly on a computer, and there wasn’t anything left that could open WriteNow documents that came out after something like 1994. (I can’t believe he used that for 10 years…) With Word, I’d at least have been able to open the document.
    I learned LaTex in the process of my first SURF project, so I’ve used that for all my academic papers. (Joe, if you want any latex samples, I can give you .tex files from stuff I’ve submitted to journals, but some of them have .sty files that go with them and for those that don’t I typically just let the publishers deal with anything that looks rough as far as the typesetting is concerned (i.e, I’m not sure if what I have will actually help you unless you want to use some version of revtex or a couple other specific .sty formats).
    As for lead thickness, .5 is too thin. I break those too much because I tend to press down pretty hard.
    I use PowerPoint for most of my presentations (and force myself to limit how many equations I can use; give me anything where it’s easy to input equations and I tend to put way too many of them and screw up the talk that way, so I have to discipline myself somehow). If I want people to follow the steps in a derivation, then I’ll go back to the blackboard, but that’s for a group meeting type of “talk” rather than a seminar anyway.

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