Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Fast note taking

Writing with a pen and on a piece of paper is an ability learned at a young age, even though nowadays I think most kids know how to type on a phone before they learn to write by hand.

I do enjoy the speed with which I type, the legibility remains constant even if I type faster, and not to mention the autocorrect feature, which is truly amazing. But writing with a pen is very satisfying. Choosing beautiful writing instruments, is another perk of writing by hand. I am not saying that there are no nice keyboards, custom-made or prebuilt, because there are a lot of them, but that is a subject for another time.

If you have a bit of proficiency using a computer, you will be able to write a lot faster compared to a pen. For starters, you just have to press a key for the computer to register the letter and second you can use all your fingers to press keys really fast, while when you write with a pen you have to create each letter one after the other. There is a caveat though, if for example you are taking notes, and they are graphs or drawings / sketches involved you will probably be able to make them faster the old-fashioned way (or you can use a tablet and a stylus and a keyboard for the plain text)

The most common question among typists is, how fast can you type?  There are dedicated sites where you can practice typing, and also you can compete. 

Starting from this idea, I am curious to know: How fast can I write?. And not only this, but also how will the writing instrument influence the speed with which I am writing by hand.

For this test I took a small text sample as I didn't want to get hand cramps and RSI from all the writing needed. I started with typing to have a reference, as I imagine it will be a lot faster than writing by hand. First time typing, I got 71 words per minute, a total of 14 seconds to type the sentence.

Then I started testing writing instruments. For the test I chose a: fountain pen, pencil, ball point, ink roller, gel pen. I want to see if some writing instruments are slower than others. For example, ball points usually feel slow. I feel each time that they are "sticky", I definitely feel slowed down by the majority of ball points. But that is just a feeling, I wanted to quantify the feeling in seconds. Will a smooth fountain pen be faster?

First thing I noticed is the big difference when I compare typing to writing. If typing the text took me 14 seconds, the writing took me double the time. For a longer text, the difference will be notable.

On the first run, the fountain pen was the slowest but, it was the first time writing the text by hand. So obviously, practice makes perfect. I wrote the text several times with each of the instruments alternating them, and the best results and the worst were very close together.

After a little practice with the text, you can see the differences started to shrink, to just a couple of seconds between the fastest time and the worst time.

To reduce the influence of the order in which I use the pens and pencils and to reduce the impact of mistakes or brain freezes, I wrote the text 3 times and measured the total time needed to complete. Also, to keep the sample size down I did this with 2 different pens

So the fountain pens represented by Faber Castell Loom F nib and Jinhao 51A F nib. Three runs took me 1 min 27:48 seconds using the Faber Castell Loom while the Jinhao 51A took me 1 min 29:71 sec


After completing the runs with all the writing instruments, I came back to the Faber Castell Loom and managed a much better time of 1 min 22.94 seconds

This tells me that more testing and practice is needed to reach maximum efficiency writing the sentence down, but for the purpose of the test I think this is good enough. I will take in consideration the last run of the Faber Castell Loom as the reference for the fountain pen.

The second head-to-head testing included 2 popular ball points. To be honest, I expected the ballpoints to be the worst in this test. They feel slow, and offer a dragging / sticky sensation when writing. But they felt much better than I imagined, and the times were very, very good and consistent. 1 min 22 seconds for both the Bic Round Stick M and the Parker Urban Premium. I am not saying that Parker Urban is a very popular ball point, but rather that Parker refills are very popular and used by a lot of people.


Next were the rollers (ink/gel pens). For this category I chose a Staedtler cool roller with red ink and a generic gel pen Forster. Both were admirable in the speed event, and also they offered very nice feedback, especially the Staedtler cool roller. The Staedtler completed the writing sample in 1 min 15:45 sec while the Forster needed 1 min 18:97 seconds.


The last category included 2 mechanical pencils, a Rotring 500 0,7 mm and a Kuru Toga 0,7 mm. Both pencils offered very nice feedback with a great smooth writing. The Rotring completed the run in 1 min 20:79 seconds, while the Kuru Toga needed 1 min 22:38 seconds.

Even though the times between all the writing instruments were very close, they still offered some surprises to me. I expected the pencils and fountain pens to battle for the first place, but instead the ink roller was the fastest in this small sample pool.
From the bunch, I expected the ball point to be the worst performer, feel wise and speed wise. The parker refills are great, smooth and with good flow, but then again so was the Bic Round Stic M which performed admirably for such an inexpensive pen.

The winners of the speed test are, (individual results)

Staedtler roller cool                      1 min 15 sec  (1st place)    - 25 sec/sentence
Forster gel pen                              1 min 18 sec (2nd place)    - 26 sec/sentence
Rotring 500 mechanical pencil     1 min 20 sec  (3rd place)    - 26.7 sec/sentence


The winners of the speed test are, (team results)

Rollers                                            1 min 16.5 sec (1st place)  - 25.5 sec/sentence
Pencils                                            1 min 21.6 sec (2nd place) - 27.2 sec/sentence
Ball Point Pens                               1 min 22.5 sec (3rd place) - 27.5 sec/sentence
Fountain pen                                   1 min 22.9 sec (4th place) - 27.6 sec/sentence

I took the best time of the fountain pen 1:22:9 because after a few more runs I managed to get under 1:20 sec with both fountain pens managing a 1:13 time with the Faber Castell and a 1:18 sec with Jinhao, without sacrificing much legibility. I didn't take these times in the consideration, as I think I offered more practice to the fountain pen compared to the rest of the pens and pencils.


The instrument used doesn't offer a significant speed benefit (except the computer), but all the instruments offer very different writing experiences. Which one you chose is up to you.

Practice and what you regularly use for writing will influence the speed of your writing more than anything else.

If you need to write fast, like note-taking during a class, use a pen, pencil or fountain pen that offers good feedback. Too smooth, and you will lose a lot of legibility, too rough, and it will not be pleasant to use. The Goldilocks is a combination between the paper and pen used, but I find mechanical pencils too be quite good at offering the best of both. Their performance is offered by the lead, which is not specific to the pencil you use. In contrast, the fountain pen's nib will influence the writing experience much more than the ink that is in it.

And if you need to write really fast and keep legibility just use a computer, it is going to be twice as fast as the more traditional way of writing, at least. Of course this is valid for general writing, because if you need to add graphs, drawings, mathematical equations the traditional way of taking notes will probably outpace the computer and keyboard.

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