Pen Review: Cross Townsend

I bought this Cross Townsend quite a while ago, probably in ’99, on one of those trips to the pen store where discipline and good sense went for a walk around the mall while I was in the pen store. I don’t know what I was thinking, as I already owned both a Parker Doufold and a Pelikan M800, but there it is. I must have been thinking I wanted a more formal pen for business situations, that was a little more common than the Parker or Pelikan.

The pen is long. It’s about a centimeter longer than a Lamy Safari, and perhaps 2cm longer than my Pelikan M200’s. It is also heavy, at 44g vs. 16g for the Safari and 14g for the M200. Even the Pelikan M800 is only 29g. Writing with the cap posted qualifies as a forearm workout. I suspect many people associate weight with quality. I know I did for a time. But for real writing comfort I find a lighter instrument is much nicer.

The design is Cross, kind of like a Pillsbury Doughboy version of the Century. The reveal is large at 2.5cm. If you’re looking for something that’s going to really show in a pocket, this is the pen for you. They got the finish right – this one is in green pin stripe, and the finish is rich and flawless. The threads and overall construction are solid, and the pen is well made.

It has a 14k gold nib, which writes very much like most of the steel nib pens I have. The grip is a bit narrow, but comfortable and the pen can be held close to the paper, which I like. The ink system is cartridge/converter, with the same twist-piston converter I see on most pens.

20120217-110223.jpgThe cap is a friction fit, but it’s a tight fit, and while it stays on very securely it is hard to pull off. Unlike the Lamy 2000 which has a nice, crisp, positive feel, the Cross is more like shoving a rubber stopper in a bottle, and removing the cap as the same unpredictable feeling as removing a cork from a bottle of champagne. I find myself flinching when I take the cap off, which is the biggest reason I hate this pen. I do not want to use a pen that punishes me for using it.

Overall Cross Townsend is a competent pen, if unremarkable in the way it writes. It’s a pen for people looking more for pocket jewelry and conference room bling than writing performance, and it delivers that along with a very sturdy feel.

Freewriting to free up ideas

In my last post I mentioned freewriting. I bought the book Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content (AF link) a while back, and since it’s provided some value for me I’ll describe my experience.

The book is about the practice of freewrting. Put in simplest terms, Freewriting is sitting down and for a prescribed time limit writing about a particular subject without stopping. The purpose is to get our internal editor to shut off by forcing too much material through for it to keep up. There are a lot of interesting variations described in the book, and it’s worth a read.

My experience with freewriting is that it’s a lot like networking. A lot of work, not easy to do, feels very uncomfortable, and the results come in unexpected ways.

For example, I would write for 15 minutes solid on, say, post ideas for this blog. The first 5 minutes would be the usual areas of interest, and then there would be 10 minutes of stuff like “I don’t know what on earth I’m going to write about other than I can’t stop writing and I don’t have anything to write and this really sucks…” I would get done, be frustrated and more convinced than ever I’m doomed, close the book, get up and immediately think of 3 ideas.

Other times it’s a dry hole, but I don’t always go as long as the author recommends.

One place where the technique is absolute gold is for those writing tasks that just defy normal approaches. For example, summaries of things, or items like profile descriptions on social media sites, or other tasks where anything is better than nothing, but nothing comes to mind when it needs to be done. The technique forces writing, and that gets enough of the job done to move forward. Because it is a time based exercise, the idea of spending X minutes on something seems so doable.

I’m working my way through the book Brag!: The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn without Blowing It (also an AF link) and one of the exercises is to answer 12 questions, and then use the resulting material to create ‘bragalogs’ which can then be used to tactfully promote myself. Freewriting has been a great way to answer such gems as “What new things have you learned in the last 12 moths, and how have you applied them toward your career?” In fact, in this case freewriting not only produced usable stuff at the time, but also kicked more stuff loose later. This book is also recommended, although I haven’t yet finished it and put it into practice.

If you’re someone who often needs new ideas, or to get over the hump of drafting copy, give freewriting a try!

Typing for output. Handwriting for recall

I discovered something during my last attempt to computerize my to-do lists: When I write something by hand, I’m more likely to remember it, and remember more about it, than if I’d typed it. When I moved to the iPad and Omnifocus for GTD, I immediately felt disconnected from my work. I didn’t feel like I was seeing the whole picture, and that there were loose ends that weren’t being taken care of.

While some of it had to do with the way the software works, and the cracks that items can fall into with some combinations of settings, I determined that a lot of it had to do with the view of the reminder not matching my memory of the note when I made it. This created a feeling that the reminder wasn’t quite right.

When I write a note, I remember what else was on the page, the ink color, etc. When I see the reminder later it looks familiar because it looks like it did when I wrote it. In Omnifocus, what’s on the screen when you write a task item is totally different than the many ways you might look at it later. The rest of the cues aren’t there so it seems like a counterfeit. This created a bit of dissonance.

I might have gotten used to this in time, but a few missed items is all it takes to ruin a day (or a week, or a month) so I went back to paper.

This would be a good place to note that the folks at Omni were more than happy to give me a refund, per their guarantee on their site – you have 30 days to try the app or your money back. Since it was $40, that was nice.

Typing is better for writing

Handwriting works better for things like notes and reminders, but for production it’s different. I type faster than I write, like most people. When I know what I want to say (mostly) and need to get it down on paper, typing is the way to go. I’ve drafted a few blog posts in pen and pencil, and it’s ok, but it’s faster for me to do it on the computer. I think I’m also convinced that freewriting is also better done on the computer, because it’s both faster and easier to read. Freewriting encourages speed, which tends to kill some neatness 😉 I need do some more to be sure.

Back to handwriting for ideas

On the other hand, if I’m playing with concepts, brainstorming, or trying to work out a problem then a pen or pencil works better than typing. I don’t know why, but for whatever reason I tend to treat what I’ve typed as being more permanent than what I’ve handwritten. I’m more likely to cross out items and rewrite, or ask rhetorical questions when writing than typing.

Which works better for you?

From Pencil Back To Ballpoint, From iPad Back To Paper?

I like my iPad, and I use it a lot, but it’s remarkable how many ripples it’s caused in how I do things, my habits, and even my sense of comfort.

It’s taken me until this week to feel once again like I’m tuned in to my work, but I’m still not as connected as I was before using paper. In my earlier post on using the iPad for getting things done, I thought I might be back to paper in a month. It’s been just short of that, and I’m still using it, but more and more I’ve been toying with going back to the paper system.

I’ve been writing a lot less in my journal. This I put off to much of the formerly writing time being taken up with reading. The iPad makes a lot of content much easier to consume, and between Zite and Feeddler there’s more than enough to read. So I spend more time reading about what other people are thinking and doing and less time on my own thinking and doing. I think this has made me a bit restless with an unspecific feeling that I’m not doing or being enough. Drive is good, but restlessness is not.

Looking over the last pages of my journal I see a lot more blue ballpoint than pencil. That would be a medium blue Fisher cartridge in a Caran d’Ache 849 pen – a very functional combination. It wasn’t a conscious move. I didn’t wake up one morning and decide pencil was out and pen was in, but looking back I notice that when I started carrying the iPad instead of paper files, I also went to a smaller bag – specifically my small Timbuk2 Messenger Bag – and my awesome Nomadic pencil case just didn’t fit as easily.  Wood pencils don’t carry very well outside of a case, or without a cap, and it’s better to carry a few to keep sharpening down. So without the Nomadic, there’s no pencils.

Another observation is that I’ve pretty much stopped drawing since I stopped using pencils. This one is harder to explain, because I’ve drawn in ballpoint in the past. Is the lack of pencil the cause of the lack of drawing, or is the lack of interest in drawing causing the lack of interest in carrying pencils? Not sure, but it’s not doing my learn-to-draw goal much good.

Maybe today I’ll switch back and see how it goes.


Do you have a philosophy of life?

Mr. Kaufman posted his revised list of books for his personal MBA, and among them I saw the title A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (AF Link). It caught my eye. I mean, who doesn’t want to live a good life?

So I’ve been reading it and it’s been mostly good choice. It is about the philosophy of the stoics, and adopting their philosophy of life.

Do you have a philosophy of life?

Like nearly all self-help books, this one follows the familiar pattern of explaining the benefits of the book’s teachings before getting into them. In the beginning among the various other reasons to adopt the philosophy of the stoics, he writes about the potential to be on one’s deathbed and feel as though they’ve lived live poorly because of a lack of a philosophy of life.

I have to admit that I’d never, not once, ever feared that I would get to my deathbed and be upset that I’d lived my live wrong because of a lack of philosophy. If I had trashed the relationship with one of my children, maybe. Regrets about missed opportunities? Sure. But just because of a missing philosophy? Nope. I still don’t. On that particular item the book has lost me.

But otherwise it’s got some interesting advice, and it most respects I think it’s a sensible way to live. I understand why it’s on Josh’s list, and while it may not be the ultimate guide to the philosophy of the stoics, it’s accessible.

So what about you? Do you have a philosophy of life?

Do Notebooks Need Breaking In? Yes.

So I was reading this post from Hudson Valley Skettches, and Jamie talks about breaking in a Stillman and Birn Alpha artbook by bending the covers backwards until they touched. I tweeted the post, and also ended up on the phone with Michael Kallman of Stillman and Birn, and he reminded me of something: We used to do this to books all the time.

Remember when most of the books we bought or used in school were hardbound? It was common to see someone open the book and immediately bend the covers backwards to get it to lay open. I remember doing this a lot, and I’m not exactly sure when I stopped.

It must have been about the time that everything started to be perfect bound. You bend a perfect bound book backwards and you’ll likely as not end up with two books.

But a properly made book, where the signatures are sewn and sewn together, can take it and it actually makes the book more pleasant to  use. As Michael mentioned, the book breaks in during normal use, which explains why old journals lay flatter than new ones. I’ve gone through my Stillmand and Birn books, as well as the Leuchtturm book I’m using, and it’s made all of them nicer to use.

So if you’re using a sewn book and it’s not laying quite flat enough to suit you, try breaking it in.

iPad: the anti blogging machine

As I mentioned in the one other blog post I’ve written since getting my iPad, I got an iPad to blog more often.

For many years was lucky to get a post a month. It was more like a post every 6 months during the time I started having children. I late 2011 I decided it was time to step it up, and was able to do 3 posts a week.

Then I bought an iPad to make it easier to use lunch time and other empty moments to do some writing. After all, being lighter than a laptop and nearly as easy to type on it should be a great solution, right?


My last full week of blog posts was the first week of January, about the time I made a new logo for the site and tweaked the theme a little. I got the IPad on the 9th.

Now, it’s not a lack of ideas – quite the opposite. Between replacing paper with an app for GtD and other areas where old notebooks are threatened by new apps and the various new apps to play with there’s lots to write about. The problem is that the iPad was designed for content consumption, and mustering the discipline to write in this environment is like trying to diet in an office filled with home baking enthusiasts and microwave popcorn addicts.

A paper notebook doesn’t show posts from Facebook, or tempt me to do research. It just begs for writing because that’s pretty much all it’s good for.