Writing Life

Tools of the Trade: One Editor’s Solution

As part of my day job, I have to edit a lot of other people’s writing. Doing that in a concise, clear, constructive way requires using standard editing marks, writing clearly and of course, using the right tools.

I switched from red to green years ago as my primary editing color choice, largely because green comes across less intimidating than red. It’s not fun to see one’s writing all marked up, but is worse when it looks like someone used your paper underneath a fresh chicken getting ready for dinner!


My choice of tools has varied based on what’s readily at hand, but I recently decided to narrow in on THE pen or pencil to use consistently going forward. This approach would solve several long-term issues: dealing with a variety of paper, wanting a thin enough stroke to allow notating between lines, and of course, the right colors of green and red. And yes, I still use red at times for emphasis or commenting while making most edits in green.

My critical-six criteria for the right tools include 1) thin lines, 2) functionally easy to work with, 3) affordable (I go through a lot of these), 4) who-cares-attitude if I lose one or leave it behind in a conference room, 5) comfortable in the hand while using, and 6) good red and green color. The holy grail would be something that you don’t really realize you’re holding after a while that just becomes and extension of one’s hand.

The search process narrowed things down to one fountain pen model and two gel pen models. I favor fountain pens because I love using them and over time, the economy of using bottled ink is a plus.

editing pens

Fountain Pens

While I have a variety of nice fountain pens, none are ones I’d be okay with losing (criteria #4). I settled on trying the Pilot Platinum Preppy fountain pen in extra-fine which sell for under $5. They are cartridge pens, but is convertible to eye dropper pens to take bottled ink with a small 0-ring and a little silicone grease on the threads.

In practice, I liked using these best of all three, but they fail my #2 ease of use criteria on two counts: uncapped the nibs dry up too fast and it’s common to pause and think before noting again and constant cap on/off isn’t practical, and my attempts at eye dropper conversion didn’t work too well so didn’t trust they wouldn’t leak. Several days of oddly stained green or red fingers was proof enough. Sure, I could skip the eye dropper part (or fiddle with it to make it work) and just use cartridges, but that doesn’t alleviate the nib drying out issue. Plus, Preppys take a proprietary cartridge and I wasn’t crazy about the red/green colors available. Additionally, fountain pen ink is a bit sensitive to paper types and in some cases the extra fine nib laid down more like a medium. Strike one!

Gel Pens

I’d read about the famous Signo UM-151 gel pens as being the choice for gels. On my trip last summer to San Fransisco, Andy Welfle of the Erasable Podcast and did a stationery crawl that included mostly Japanese stationery stores where I finally found some UM-151s. Unfortunately, I grabbed mostly .28s but did manage one .38 in dark blue. With that I was able to test and decide, for me, that the .38 was the perfect line weight. The .28s, while extra-extra-fine, were a bit scratchy on some paper types. Moreover, gel pens in general are pretty happy with any kind of paper, inexpensive, and aren’t a leak risk!

Fast forward to JetPens.com and an order of several red and green .38s in both the UM-155 (capless, ballpoint-click type system) and the UM-151 (with cap).

I liked the UM-155’s convenient retractable point/no cap, but it’s a little thicker barrel and a little fussier with more moving parts, which in a cheap gel pen feel…well…cheap while using. Strike two!

For me, I’ve chosen the UM-151 to go forward with. It’s only negative is I have to work the cap on and off, but the point doesn’t dry out. So unlike the Preppy fountain pen, I only have to on/off the cap at the start/finish of an edit session (a minor inconvenience).

The UM-151 is a solid, sleek minimalistic design with a dimpled rubber grip and is now my editor’s tool of choice. I’m a bit sad I couldn’t resolve using a fountain pen, but happy with the UM-151 .38 as my editing tool of choice. What’s your favorite tool for marking/notating? Let us know in the comments!

Now…where’s that 40-page report due next week that needs a little Christmas-colors makeover? Papa’s got some fresh UM-151s…

6 thoughts on “Tools of the Trade: One Editor’s Solution”

  1. Sixteen hours a week grading English papers (If you want them to write, you have to read what they write and guide them on the paper) led me to inexpensive fountain pens (yes, Preppies – O ring + silicon grease for eyedropper conversions) and Noodler’s ink in a variety of colors – Rattler Red, Forest Green, and Habanero being favorites. In the beginning, after going through a box of standard red pens in a short amount of time, I couldn’t justify throwing all those small tubes of plastic – deliverers of a few drops of ink, really – into the landfill, especially considering I’m in it for the long haul with 27 years and counting. I am considering switching to indelible pencil, but the amount of time I have to stop to sharpen will be the deal breaker.


    1. I really wanted the Preppys to work, but both failed at eyedroppering (is that word?). I may try again at some point, but other issue was nibs kept drying out in my editing workflow, so even if I get them to not leak, there’s that issue.


    1. Amen brother. It’s been plaguing me for years and years. Not sure why I never tried a solid test like this, but at least (for me) I’m there!


    1. I hadn’t tried that one, but overall for all of these I hate the waste. That is the prime draw to fountain pen, and may try again with the eyedropper approach. Lamy nibs are not fine enough (although I’ve thought about working a Lamy nib past EF to needlepoint to get there, but not sure how that would ultimately work!).


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