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Theory Intro

 1   Strokes

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1 Phrasing Intro & Contents list

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I have written these brief reviews in order to emphasise the needs of the shorthand writer as I see them, and to consider possible pitfalls. Knowing what you actually need and, equally importantly, what to avoid, should be settled before spending your money.

My firm view is that fountain pens are best for shorthand and an encouragement towards good penmanship. A well-made quality pen works out cheaper than a lifetime of indifferent throwaway pens and my trusty Senator and Geha shorthand pens are not showing the slightest signs of needing to be replaced, even after very many years of good reliable service. Noodler's Flex Pens fill that gap now, with affordable price and excellent quality.

Mechanical pencils are abundant, but if you prefer a wooden pencil you will find that art shops generally have a much wider choice than the average stationers. The pencils below were easily and cheaply obtained. No doubt many similar items exist under other brand names, and there are always more expensive designer versions available for those situations where good looks are part of your business persona.

I would always want to ascertain whether the higher price of either pen or pencil was getting me extra quality as well, and not just a flashy exterior. I hope that your shorthand skills will be shining more brightly (and memorably) than any glittery pen.

Associated websites for some of them are on the Links page.

On this page:

The Common Denominator
PENS:
Noodler's Nib Creaper Flex Pen
Noodler's Ahab Flex Pen
Goulet Nibs
Noodler's Nib Creaper Piston-fill Rollerball Pen

Pelikan Steno shorthand fountain pen
Berol Handwriting pen
MECHANICAL PENCILS

Faber-Castell Grip-Matic auto advance

Pilot Super Grip with sliding sleeve
Pentel Techniclick side-click
Uni Shalaku S side-click
Zebra Cadoozles
OTHER:
Pencil grips

KUM Long Point Sharpener
Stop the world!

The Common Denominator

If you could line up all the very fastest shorthand writers from past to present, along with their pens and pads, no doubt there would be a great variation in the type, shape and brand of their favoured writing equipment. The pens and notepads would be all different. The people would be all shapes, sizes, nationalities and temperaments. Their education, health and family situations would vary from deprived to privileged. How did they all attain high speed without using the same magic pen, 21st century ink delivery technology, the latest gold-trimmed mechanical pencil, nano-diamonds in their graphite leads, or tape recorder/MP3/Ipod practice passages? Here's my educated guess:

  • Desire and determination to succeed

  • Confidence in their own abilities

  • Doing the work necessary to achieve their goal not mindlessly, but targeted to produce maximum results for the effort expended

  • Practising consistently and persistently

  • Refusing distractions, resisting time-wasting and ignoring nay-sayers

  • Using the best materials available to them

Noodler's Nib Creaper Flex Pen

This is an inexpensive piston-filled pen with a flexible and adjustable nib, aimed at pen enthusiasts and calligraphers. It is lightweight, slim, and forms thick and thin lines with great ease. I consider it a vastly superior shorthand pen compared to the discontinued Pelikan Steno reviewed below, although writers who dislike flex nibs may prefer the stiffer Steno.

The budget price does not mean low quality. The appearance is perfectly acceptable, smart and pleasing. Fountain pen enthusiasts/collectors may be tempted to make comparisons with their expensive glossy pens but performance is the top priority with shorthand.

Noodler's Flex Pen, blue, body and cap

Noodler's Flex Pen, blue, nib  Noodler's Flex Pen, red, ink window

  • Body: piston-filled, with ink chamber windows. Some reviewers have mentioned a smell given off by the resin of the barrel my pens had no smell whatsoever when I opened the boxes after their long trip from USA to UK, nor when they were filled with ink. After two weeks, I changed to a different ink colour (Waterman Black), and noticed a faint vinegar-like smell at the nib end. It seems that particular combination has brought out an odour but only noticeable when close-up, not whilst writing. I do not consider it a problem.

  • Cap: screw on. The tip screws off if you wish to remove the clip.

  • Feed: friction fit (not screwed in), removable

  • Nib: steel, with long split to enable full flexing, removable

  • Weight: body empty 7.26g, body with full ink 8.04g, cap 3.63g

Noodler's Flex Pens, red blue, against ruler

Noodler's Flex Pen, nib and feed removed  Noodler's Flex Pen, nib and feed separated

The nib and feed can be easily removed from the barrel for adjustment and cleaning, there are no fiddly damageable mechanisms to worry about purposely kept simple by Noodler's for those who like to adjust their pens. You just grip the nib and feed, twisting slightly while pulling out. This allows endless adjustment for ink flow and degree of flex, easy cleaning and also, if desired, you could fill the barrel directly by dipping in the bottle or with a dropper or syringe. See Goulet Pens' website link below for how to make the easy adjustments.

As the flexing nib is laying down a wider line, a split line ("railroading") can occur if you are writing large outlines with a heavy hand. A calligrapher would slow down to prevent this, but for writing shorthand, the solution is to write smaller outlines, and train your hand to write lightly, something that needs a firm will when dictation speed gets ahead of your comfort zone. This is not difficult as the nib produces an extremely thin line very easily and only slight extra pressure is needed for the thicks. In any case, large sprawling outlines and excess pressure will hamper your speed, whatever writing implement you use.

Noodler's Flex Pen tines closed  Noodler's Flex Pen tines open  Noodler's Flex Pen nib showing long slit
You do not need to flex it this much for shorthand writing. The nib with daylight showing through the long slit.

Noodler's Konrad Flex pen is midway in size between this Flex and the Ahab Flex pen, and is equally suitable for writing Pitman's Shorthand. It is filled in the same way as the smaller flex, but has an end cap that has to be removed before the twist plunger can be operated. I find these pens have a very free ink flow, and the line is not so fine as the smaller Flex. They hold a large amount of ink.


Writing shorthand with the Noodler's Flex Pen

Noodler's Ahab Flex Pen

Noodler's Ahab Flex Pen (clear) and normal size Noodler's Flex Pen (blue)
Top: clear Ahab flex pen containing blue ink. Below: normal Noodler's flex pen

This is much larger than the normal flex pen, and the piston is plunger, not screw. There are no fiddly mechanisms, the whole pen can be taken apart for adjusting the nib and cleaning. The housing in which the nib and feed sit has two very slight ridges inside, showing where the nib base should be aligned, so you don't want to be forcing the nib in at a random position.

There is no ink window, so only the clear, or tinted clear, ones will let you know how much ink remains. Having filled the pen normally from the bottle, you can get extra ink into the reservoir by holding the pen nib upwards and expelling some of the air slowly and carefully by pushing up the plunger slightly, then dip the nib in the bottle again and pull the plunger out. You can use this method on any piston-filled pen.

The main body is separate from the ink reservoir/plunger and so can be eye-dropper filled if you remove the reservoir/plunger, instructions for this come with the pen.

I generally prefer a slim pen, but was very surprised at how comfortable I was writing with this, you get a good comfortable grip and without any excessive weight from its size. This would suit someone who finds that gripping a slim pen produces cramped fingers.

The pen is named after the character Captain Ahab in the book "Moby Dick" and the clip is made to resemble a whale seen from above. This whale-sized pen is more a homage to those gentle giants than to the captain.

Noodler's Ahab flex pen ink reservoir and plunger  Noodler's Ahab flex pen whale-shaped clip
Satisfyingly large ink capacity Whale-shaped pocket clip

Noodler's Ink Bernanke Blue, random smile in bottle cap  http://noodlersink.com
Bernanke Blue (also from Goulet Pens) a quick-drying ink. It appears to be more quickly sucked into the paper than normal inks, so less smudging. Rate of dry is dependent on paper surface, and would probably perform best with a non-flex nib where less ink is being laid down. On first opening, I found this smile in the cap, it is obviously as delighted with the Noodler's pens as I am!

I have found it better to store the pens either flat or with nib downwards to ensure the ink starts each time. It was noticeable that higher quality ink produced better flow.

These pens are a pleasure to use for shorthand, longhand and drawing. I give them top marks for shorthand performance and recommend them without reservation. I have settled to using the Konrad and Ahab for producing outlines for web and blog items, as the greater amount of ink scans more clearly. I use the smaller flex pen for attempts at faster shorthand the slim barrel enables my fingers to move more freely and the finer nib encourages smaller outlines and more compact writing, all of which contribute to speed and counteract the natural tendency to let the shorthand sprawl. 

Goulet Pen Company, USA provides excellent, speedy and friendly service. They have helpful demonstration videos on their Ink Nouveau/Tips & Tricks website:

Noodler's Nib Creaper Piston-fill Rollerball Pen

This is a budget pen that is essentially a piston-fill fountain pen with a rollerball tip instead of nib. It takes normal fountain pen ink, enabling you to use all your favourite colours and keep the same pen indefinitely. Its description of "refillable" means that you fill it from your fountain pen ink bottle. Normal rollerballs described as "refillable" just mean that you can buy refill cartridges for them.


Top pen empty, bottom pen full ink (Imperial Purple)

The pen fills exactly the same a fountain pen, just twist the plunger down, dip the tip and feed section in the ink bottle, twist the plunger back up again and clean up around the feed. The clear body lets you see the ink colour and quantity remaining.

  • Body: clear with screw-on cover over the plunger top. This is a short length pen and some writers may prefer to keep the cap posted.

  • Cap: clear, screw-on. The tip with Noodler's logo screws off if you wish to remove the clip.

  • Feed: screw-in, removable

  • Tip: removable from the feed - just pulls out

  • Weight: body empty 6.52g, body full ink 7.94g, cap 4.1g

 

No thicks/thins are possible, but this pen might suit Gregg or Teeline writers I scribbled as fast as I could but the line never ran dry. You can begin the day with full ink supply in your favourite speed-inspiring colour(s), and every shorthand writer needs to know at all times how much ink is left in a pen. Once you fill the pen, you need to be using it regularly, as the tip will dry out if unused for too long, and, as with any fountain pen ink, it would not last long if left cooking on a sunny windowsill.

Some technical pens that I have used in the past had a tiny compartment in the cap with a piece of absorbent material that you could wet, to provide moisture to prevent the needle tip and its fine filament drying out (necessary because the pen used drawing ink that cannot be rewetted). Although you will be using normal fountain pen ink in the Nib Creaper rollerball, if you felt drying out was an issue in your environment, maybe you could try putting something moist in the space at the very end of the cap, as below, provided it did not touch the tip.

Noodler's Nib Creaper Rollerball, moist tip 

A clear small endcap screws over the plunger top to provide a completely smooth barrel. If you post the cap over it and then unscrew the cap, the main cap comes off with this little endcap inside it a good way to ensure the endcap does not get lost or dropped during the refill process.

 

The feed section that holds the tip unscrews from the barrel for easy cleaning or replacement of the tip. The pen is not claimed to be robust if dropped, so care is needed not to throw it around. Packs of replacement tips are available cheaply, if you should damage the tip or let the ink dry hard. I bought the above from The Goulet Pen Company, USA.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------

Pelikan Steno shorthand fountain pen

This review refers to the modern new one, and not older versions of the same name that are sometimes available second-hand. Please note that this pen has been discontinued by Pelikan, but I leave the review here in case you can obtain it from existing stock (I bought mine in 2010 before discontinuation). The arrival of the Noodler's Flex Pen has rather put this one in the shade, in terms of flexibility of nib.

The Pelikan Steno is an inexpensive cartridge pen especially made for shorthand. It writes reasonable Pitman's Shorthand with a fine line, but the nib is firm rather than springy and will really suit those who do not want a lot of flex. For Pitman's Shorthand, the best approach with this pen is to make the thin lines really light, rather than press down extra hard to get solid thicks. However, it is very smooth and pleasant to write with for all purposes and a very welcome change from the heavy bulky thick-lined cheap pens that abound.

Pelikan Steno shorthand pen complete

Pelikan Steno shorthand pen uncapped, showing converter
Pelikan Steno shorthand fountain pen. The narrow part between the central steel ring and the thread is an ink inspection window, see pic below.

Pelikan Steno shorthand pen steel nib top view  Pelikan Steno shorthand pen steel nib side view
  Pelikan Steno shorthand fountain pen, ink inspection window
The nib and split are both short, with the feed covering most of the nib, resulting in minimal flex. Ink inspection window pen held horizontally and the ink just beginning to flow back into the converter. Daylight shining through lets you know what you must do, and it's more obvious when the ink is coloured.

Ink Comes with one cartridge. Converter available to purchase separately for ink bottle filling (recommended, to ensure full ink every day). A converter also makes cleaning and flushing the pen much easier as you can force the water through in both directions.

Nib The steel chromed nib is very fine and has a low amount of flexibility, and is by no means springy. A comparison with soft expensive gold nibs would be unfair, and if you get into the good habit of writing the thin strokes really lightly, then you can achieve the difference in line thickness without too much pressure having to be exerted on the nib. It may be that the nib was intended to suit all forms of shorthand, and if so it rather "falls between two stools". An experienced Pitman's writer will easily cope with this, as they will know their outlines intimately and not rely so much on differentiation between thicks and thins, but a beginner may feel hampered by the lack of flex. Being a fine nib, smooth paper will give the best results and will also ensure your touch remains light and flowing.

Body Matt-black plastic with steel cap which closes with a click. Slim barrel and extremely lightweight, a very important consideration for shorthand writing. The matt surface of the barrel ensures it is easy to grip and not slippery. The appearance is smart and professional, and without the cap on you can also write unobtrusively without glinting, if necessary (e.g. practising in public). Centrally there is an ink inspection window to let you know if you are running out. It helps to tip the pen up to get a better idea of the ink left, by how quickly the air bubble comes to the window.

Weight Pen, converter, full ink, without cap = 8.73g. Cap = 7.98g. Having the cap on almost doubles the weight. This will seriously affect your speed, as well as the extra weight gaining a leverage effect due to its distance from the nib, working against the fine control that you need.

Pelikan Steno shorthand pen cap logo 
A pelican before catching his fish, or a very friendly dragon!

Berol Handwriting pen

This is a low-priced fountain pen. It is very lightweight and the nib quite springy but cannot produce the thicks and thins of Pitman's Shorthand, as it only gives a uniform 0.5 mm width line, but is perfectly good for all other uses. I am reviewing it here because it provides a good encouragement to use a fountain pen at minimal cost.

Berol Handwriting fountain pen
I heartily approve of the name and this well-behaved cheapie now writes with delicious Sheaffer Skrip red ink to match the barrel and replace the biro I have been using for notes corrections.

The plastic barrel has a matt surface near the nib to improve grip, a tiny window to show if the ink is low, and the cap closes with a click. The springy nib encourages keeping a light touch, so that you are not switching between hard and soft implements, as you go from shorthand to longhand writing using biro or gel pens encourages pressing the paper, a habit that easily damages fountain pen nibs. It is pleasant to write with and if kept for longhand, will save wear and tear on the more precious shorthand pen. This pen is a good way to avoid the rock-hard giant nibs that cheap pens often have, and can also serve as a "lender" so that your trusty shorthand pen is shielded from unintentional abuse by the unskilled!

Berol Handwriting fountain pen nib, grip area and ink window  Bero Handwriting fountain pen sample
It came with a black ink cartridge, which resulted in an annoyingly dry nib every time I took the cap off. I put in a standard size converter and changed to blue ink, and there was a huge difference in performance, and saved this pen from a one-way trip to the waste bin. It now writes wet and smooth every time and never again will I blame a pen for poor performance caused by inadequate ink supply from a cartridge. I had at first put a spare short cartridge inside the barrel, as pens often allow room for, but it stuck and I could only remove it with a bradawl ...

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Faber-Castell Grip-Matic Auto Advance mechanical pencil

Faber-Castell Grip-Matic auto advance mechanical pencil Faber-Castell Grip-Matic mechanical pencil Click thumbnail

This comes in 0.5 and 0.7mm lead sizes, and my one was supplied with "extra tough" B lead. The 5mm leads produced neater shorthand but a light touch is needed to prevent paper digging. I find that HB leads are adequate for thicks and thins. The protruding lead at the tip is too short to be able to break. The only thing I have noticed right away is that the lead advances better if the pencil is not held at a very shallow angle, as the lead sleeve needs the constant very slight pressing that happens during writing, in order to advance the lead. You can advance manually from the top end as well if necessary, but that means that the protruding lead may then be long enough to break, and it would not advance any more until it had worn down enough for the sleeve to again have contact with the paper. I did break off the tip on purpose and the pencil just kept on writing anyway.

The lead sleeve is retracted by pushing and holding the top end down gently (not fully) as for manual lead advance, and then pushing the sleeve in, either by finger or pressing on the work surface, and then finally letting go of the top end. Another slight push on the top end brings it jumping out again.

It is a self feeder but I found that the sleeve cannot deal with a short length remaining, both lead and sleeve end up retreating into the metal cone. The stub has to be removed and the next lead advanced manually, but then lead-end problems are common to mechanical pencils anyway.

Have a look at this very informative website which is dedicated to pencils, as well as a review of the Grip-Matic:

http://davesmechanicalpencils.blogspot.com/2007/11/faber-castell-grip-matic-1375.html

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Pilot Super Grip mechanical pencil with sliding sleeve

Pilot Super Grip and Pixie mechanical pencils with sliding sleeve  Pilot Super Grip mechanical pencil with sliding sleeve Click thumbnail

Transparent barrel, rubberised grip, top end clicker. This pencil has a sleeve over the lead that retreats into the pen. When the lead wears down to the sleeve, you can carry on writing, as the protective sleeve is slowly pushed back inside, although you cannot write at a shallow angle. When both lead and sleeve get down to the cone tip, then you have to click the first click pushes the sleeve back out, next click pushes the lead into the sleeve and a 3rd click advances the lead beyond the sleeve. This means that you can use the bare length of lead and also the length of lead inside the sleeve before you have to click for more. Without the sleeve you could not write with that length of lead without it breaking. You can therefore write 2 or 3 times as much before having to click. The lead and sleeve can both be retracted inside by pushing on them while holding the clicker down. The eraser is under a very small plastic cover which could easily get lost. The smaller Pixie version is ideal for the travelling shorthand kit, short and light without being too narrow for writing comfort. I can see no advantage in using the longer heavier version, unless you must have a black barrel.

Pentel Techniclick mechanical pencil

Pentel Techniclick G mechanical pencil with side button Click thumbnail
Transparent barrel, rubber grip, side button clicker with a smooth easy action. The button is unobtrusive and does not get in the way when writing. There is an eraser underneath the top clip. Although the barrel is transparent, it is shaped into facets so it is not so easy to count the spare leads inside. This has become my favourite of all the mechanical pencils because side-clicking is so much quicker and more convenient than end-clicking.

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Uni Shalaku S side-click pencil

Uni Shalaku S side click mechanical pencil closeup Uni Shalaku S side click mechanical pencil Click thumbnail
Transparent slightly fat barrel, 2 barrel-length windows, smooth rubber grip, side click button. The eraser is under a very small plastic cover which could easily get lost. The button action is not so smooth as the Pentel Techniclick above and could get in the way of fingers unless you position it exactly where you want it. I found the fatness in the gripping section to be not so comfortable as the narrower pencils. The button is near enough to the writing end to be clicked with the edge of the thumb, with no finger movement BUT still not something to be doing in a shorthand exam, this would be like stopping to click a camera when running from a lion!

I have seen a pen that uses the side-click mechanism merely for retracting, not for advancing, so the packaging needs to be read carefully.

The shorthand writer needs to know the lead supply situation more than other users and transparent barrels give you a close-up of the secret life of pencil leads, and an idea of how many spares are in there. Seeing the second lead going down the feed-hole allows you to estimate how short the first lead has become, exceedingly useful information. It seems to be beneficial to keep several spare leads stored inside mechanical pencils, giving a greater chance that one of them will find the self-feed hole without having to jiggle it.

Zebra Cadoozles mechanical pencils

Zebra Cadoozles mechanical pencils  Zebra Cadoozles mechanical pencils, closeup of rubber end
These are shorter (13mm) than most others, are extremely light in weight and look exactly like hexagonal wooden pencils. The eraser is the clicker and also the means of keeping leads inside, so it would not do to wear it down too far (for shorthand you will of course never be using an eraser). The 0.7 mm HB leads are refillable and HB is soft enough for the thicks and thins.  The above was a pack of 5 fun colours, but according to the Zebra website the black and the yellow can be bought in one-colour packs. The white one seems to be less distracting to the eye while writing, being the same colour as the paper.

These pencils look to be ideal for your portable practising kit, as would be any other brands that are short and light. One very slight disadvantage is that an unsuspecting family member tidying up might sweep them away in a fit of purging the glut of uninteresting office or children's pencils.

Because they look like normal eraser-tipped wooden pencils, they might in error be given to a young child to play with, and the easily-removable eraser could present a choking hazard. This would be the responsibility of the owner, as the package is marked that they are unsuitable for children under 5 years of age.

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Pencil grips

Pencil grips, tube and ergonomic  Ergonomic pencil grip

If the pencil barrel is too thin, slippery or smooth for finger comfort, a pencil grip may be the answer. The blue one is spongy and slides on easily. The green ergonomic one is a smooth jelly-like substance and it takes some effort to get the pencil in, easier if the pencil is circular rather than hexagonal.

If you have difficulty holding a pencil, or even picking one up, then the jelly gripper may help. It is shaped for both left and right handers. With hand and finger problems, speed may not be your priority or even possible. Shorthand uses approximately 1/6th of the writing effort, because of the brevity of the outlines. Learning and using shorthand for home tasks instead of longhand will greatly reduce the amount of movement needed from your hands and fingers, and could possibly restore your creative writing to being a pleasure and not a pain. KUM below produce these and other types of grips for those who have difficulty, as well as stationery items for left handers.

KUM Long Point Sharpener

KUM long point sharpener, closed KUM long point sharpener, top open Results of ordinary sharpener & long point sharpener
This inspired sharpener provides for 2-part sharpening No.1 hole produces a very narrow cone without touching the lead, No.2 hole sharpens the lead only without touching the wood. Being able to sharpen the tip alone might be beneficial in class, as it can be done more quickly than launching into a full wood-cutting sharpen. The top opens for disposal of shavings, and inside the cavity is a slot containing two spare blades. Picture of pencils shows cheap sharpener at top versus long point sharpener. Ordinary sharpeners often break the lead because of the force needed to get the blade to bite the wood, the KUM one obviates that problem. The long point is much pleasanter to use and you get fractionally more lead showing, but also more possibility of tip breakage unless a light touch is maintained. Art students will also appreciate this, as drawing and colouring pencils have leads that are much softer and more easily broken.

KUM long point sharpener package

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STOP THE WORLD!

... while I change leads ... or cartridges ... or refill ink ... or click ... or grab a spare

Of huge importance to the shorthand writer is the interruption incurred when reaching the end of the lead or ink supply. This would be total disaster in an exam or other fast writing. It is only a problem if you do not know when it is going to happen and for exams it is essential to start with a cleaned out pen and full ink chamber, new cartridge or new full-length lead in place.

If you decide to use a mechanical pencil in an exam, you should test out how many lines you can write without any clicking. Class or exam dictations give no time for any clicking, either side or top end, or pencil changing. Office work might be different, as there will be pauses. As you get faster, student and exam dictations get longer in quantity of words that have to be written, so the little bit of lead showing is eventually going to be not enough to last. If you advance some extra out to "tide you over", you will not have the confidence to write fast while you wait for it to break.

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