testing testing

The 100 Best Pens, As Tested by Strategist Editors

Gels, ballpoints, rollerballs, felt-tips, and fountain pens — we tried them all.

A small sampling of all the pens we tested. Photo: Jed Egan and Lyne Lucien
A small sampling of all the pens we tested. Photo: Jed Egan and Lyne Lucien

At its most basic, a pen has to do just one thing, but there are so many reasons to choose one over another. Does it glide along the page, or does it drag? Does the ink flow in a smooth line, or is it unpredictable? Does the pen feel good or would note-taking cramp your hand? And how does it look? With so many varieties out there, from plastic ballpoints sold by the dozen to thousand-dollar fountain pens hunted down by collectors, we became determined to find the very best pens for everyday use.

We consulted a panel of experts, picked through personal favorites, and mined our own pen coverage to determine the top contenders. Then we called in and tested dozens upon dozens of gels, rollerballs, felt-tips, ballpoints, and fountain pens, and put them to the test. The resulting list is a ranking of the top 100 pens, according to Strategist editors and writers. One note: A lot of what makes one pen better than another is completely subjective. Some of us prefer a finer line and some of us a thicker one (even within the Strategist’s ranks, there is dissent). One person’s beautiful pen might be no more than inoffensive to another. The finer the point, the scratchier it’s likely to be. And if you disagree (or have a favorite we missed), share it in the comments — we just might test it when we update this list in the future.

Candidates

Before we started testing pens, we did a wide sweep to determine which ones would make the list. We trawled through our own archive, looking for pens favored by highly opinionated people like André Aciman and Curtis Sittenfeld, pens from around the world, writers’ and illustrators’ favorite pens, and even the best-reviewed pens on Amazon. Then we branched out and consulted pen bloggers like Ed Jelley, Jessica Chung of Pretty Prints & Paper, and Ana Reinert of The Well-Appointed Desk; pen shop proprietors like Brian Goluet of The Goulet Pen Company, Elaine Ku of JetPens, and David Cole of Pen Heaven; and even ballpoint-pen artists Rafael Augusto and Nathan Lorenzana, who use the humble tool to create intricate works of art — often on Instagram.

Criteria

Among our team we have those who prefer thin-lined pens, others who like thick, marker-y ones, and even one fountain pen fanatic, but while our individual preferences vary, we’ve aimed to standardize our judgments by evaluating each pen on a scale of 1 (poor) through 5 (excellent):

Smoothness: How easily does the pen glide across the page? Does the tip feel scratchy or catch on the paper? How smoothly does the ink flow?

Smudging: Does the ink smudge on the paper or on your hand when writing? To what degree?

Bleed-through: Does the ink bleed through to the other side of the page?

Feel: How does the pen feel in your hand? Is it comfortable to hold? Is it heavy or light?

Looks: Is it a beautiful writing instrument? Are there design elements that make the pen stand out?

Our doodles on the Muji Plantation Paper notebooks. Photo: Lyne Lucien/Jed Egan

Methodology

Once we narrowed our list down to the very best, most highly recommended pens, we divided them up among the Strategist’s team of writers and editors (there are 11 of us) to be rated according to our five criteria. To standardize the writing surface, we asked each tester to use the pens on the same Muji notebook and averaged each pen’s scores across the five categories. If two or more pens ended up with the same average score, we broke the tie by looking at each pen’s smoothness rating, as we collectively found this factor to be the most important one. Still — we were left with some pens that had the same average score and the same smoothness rating, so we broke the tie by recruiting left-handed volunteers (we’re all righties) from the New York office to break the tie, as lefties are more susceptible to smudging.

Finally, two pens earned perfect scores in testing, so to find our number-one pen, we put the two to a vote among our team, plus one of our volunteer lefties. Winning out 9-3, our number one pick is — we’re confident — a crowd-pleasing pen. For devotees of a specific style, we’ve also noted which pens earned top marks within its type; we’ve listed them as “Best in Category” and you may hit Ctrl-F, in case you’re specifically interested in our favorite felt-tip, ballpoint, rollerball, gel, or fountain pen. Click here to jump to the top 80, top 60, top 40, or top 20, too.

100. Pilot Fineliner

Type: Felt-tip

Smoothness: 1 | Smudging: 3 | Bleed-through: 3 | Feel: 3 | Looks: 2

It’s easy to understand the appeal of the Fineliner, which has a straightforwardness that I wanted to like. It came recommended from a few of our experts, but I found that the Fineliner produced a good amount of smudging, some bleed-through, and some dragging. It isn’t great for the average note-taker, but die-hard marker pen fans may find something to love about the retro attractiveness of this one. — Dominique Pariso, Strategist intern

Total score: 2.4

99. Pentel Arts Slicci 0.25 mm. Extra Fine

Type: Gel

Smoothness: 1 | Smudging: 5 | Bleed-through: 3 | Feel: 2 | Looks: 3

I have to admit, I found little to like about this pen. The line it creates is skinny and light, and writing with it feels (and sounds) scratchy. For a gel pen, it created a lot of resistance between the tip and the paper. The ridges on the body look like they’re meant to serve some ergonomic purpose, but since they’re carved into the plastic, they dig painfully into your fingers. In its favor, there’s no smudging and no bleed-through, though it does create raised scratch marks on the other side of the page, which make for a rough writing surface if you’re using both sides of the piece of paper. — Karen Iorio Adelson, writer

Total Score: 2.8

98. Uni-ball Jetstream

Type: Ballpoint

Smoothness: 4 | Smudging: 3 | Bleed-through: 3 | Feel: 3.5 | Looks: 1

Like the BIC Atlantis (see #64), the Uni-ball Jetstream was built for comfort rather than looks. It’s a thick pen, which might mean fewer hand cramps for those who experience them, but it does have the feel of a pen you’d find in the lobby of a used car dealership. Or — and the name is likely creating some subliminal messaging — it may call to mind a commercial airplane. Big and not glamorous. As far as ballpoints go, this one writes well and leaves smooth, clear marks. A thin layer of silicone sheathes the body to give your fingers a hint of padding. — Margaret Rhodes, senior editor

Total score: 2.9

97. Pilot Metropolitan

Type: Fountain

Smoothness: 1.5 | Smudging: 3 | Bleed-through: 4 | Feel: 3 | Looks: 3.5

This is a budget fountain pen and it writes like one. The ink spreads and spiders, and the line is not clean. The nib feels scratchy across the paper and drags too much. A positive note is that the ink output is consistent (no skipping), but, again, it bleeds. Another good quality is that it does dry pretty quickly and doesn’t smudge as much as other fountain pens. As for looks, it’s got a metallic body in a rosy gold and is rounded and tapered on each end. It has a good heft and feels nice in the hand, but the subpar inking makes it a less than desirable choice. — Lauren Ro, writer

Total Score: 3

96. Pentel R.S.V.P. RT

Type: Ballpoint

Smoothness: 3 | Smudging: 5 | Bleed-through: 4 | Feel: 2 | Looks: 1

The padded grip and overall light weight make this pen comfortable to use for extended periods of time, but I had to dock a few points because after a while, it really feels like you’re dragging the pen across the page. And while the clear body of the pen makes it slightly more interesting to look at than similar retractable pens at this price point, there isn’t anything particularly special that makes it stand out. — D.P.

Total Score: 3

95. Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph

Type: Fountain

Smoothness: 2 | Smudging: 2 | Bleed-through: 4.5 | Feel: 3 | Looks: 4

As the name indicates, this is a technical pen for artists — not surprising, since it’s used by cartoonist Roz Chast. Its needle-fine point feels like an actual needle: it’s that fine. And the nib contracts when pressed to the paper, which is the mechanism by which the ink is drawn from the well, which you manually fill and refill. The lines are thin, and you could probably control the output of the ink depending on the amount of pressure you use while writing. As for smoothness, again, it’s like writing on a pad of paper with a needle, but the ink output is consistent. It’s a fun pen because of all of its components, and it looks delightfully vintage. Lightweight and mainly made of plastic, it comes in a plastic case with a cool graphic font. For our purposes, it’s definitely a pen not for every day, but it could be a great gift for an artist or architect who values technicality. — L.R.

Total Score: 3.1

94. Staedtler Pigment Liner

Type: Felt-tip

Smoothness: 1 | Smudging: 5 | Bleed-through: 5 | Feel: 3 | Looks: 2

Super draggy, with uneven pigment. It skips constantly, especially if you’re trying to write quickly. There’s a ton of resistance, and the nib of the pen is so thin that it keeps on dragging and pulling. It feels unpleasant, especially because it seems like the only way to get an even stream of ink is to write slowly, with your pen held straight up. I truly do not know what writer would use this pen for long periods of note-taking, but it came recommended from Alexander Chee, who uses it to sign books, which may indicate a better purpose (occasional, deliberate name-signing). No smudging or bleed-through, but that’s because the writing is so light. I like the matte finish and how the cap fits snugly on the back of the pen. It’s a totally average-looking pen. I’m mostly docking points because it’s fully covered in text, which makes it look really busy. — Maxine Builder, writer

Total Score: 3.2

93. Staedtler Lumocolor Permanent

Type: Felt-tip

Smoothness: 2 | Smudging: 5 | Bleed-through: 1 | Feel: 4 | Looks: 4

This Staedtler permanent marker pen intermittently sticks to the page and makes handwriting look staccato rather than smooth. For the amount it bleeds I was surprised to find that this pen doesn’t smudge at all. I did find that this guy bled through two sheets of notebook paper, though — a deal-breaker for me. The matte-finish plastic casing is pleasant to hold and the pen fits well in my hand. But it is too light for my taste and has a strong chemical smell (which I like but some people might not). This is a cool-looking pen with its ribbed cap, flat clip, and an orange “S” on the end. It looks very “professional draftsman” which would make me feel cool. — Liza Corsillo, writer/editor

Total Score: 3.2

92. Pilot G2 Ultra Fine

Type: Gel

Smoothness: 2 | Smudging: 5 | Bleed-through: 5 | Feel: 2 | Looks: 2

This pen produces alarmingly thin lines. So thin that my handwriting was rendered even more unreadable than it typically is. I also found it slightly difficult to write with — it took genuine effort to make sure I got every letter I wanted to on the paper. It is just not a smooth writing experience; there is just too little ink being administered. (The 0.7 mm. version of the G2 fared much better, though; see #31.) On the flip side, because the ink comes out so sparingly, there is quite literally no bleed-through or smudging. — Katy Schneider, associate editor

Total Score: 3.2

91. Zebra Jimnie

Type: Rollerball

Smoothness: 3.5 | Smudging: 1.9 | Bleed-through: 4.5 | Feel: 4.2 | Looks: 2

For a rollerball with gel ink, this pen isn’t entirely smooth. I discovered that it makes you work a little harder to get it across the page. Even though there isn’t any bleed-through to the other side of the page, there’s a significant amount of smudging, even whenbi the ink has had a few seconds to dry. It’s not an especially great-looking pen either, but if your hand tends to cramp or fatigue while writing, you may appreciate the soft, silicone grip. — K.I.A.

Total Score: 3.22

90. BIC Round Stic Xtra Precision

Type: Ballpoint

Smoothness: 4 | Smudging: 5 | Bleed-through: 5 | Feel: 1 | Looks: 1

This pen is so familiar to me — it’s the same cheapo BIC you see attached to medical-form clipboards, at the bodega counter when you sign receipts, and what you stock up on in high school when you don’t care about quality. In fact, writer Curtis Sittenfeld buys them on the theory that her family members won’t be tempted to steal such an unexciting pen. Revisiting it wasn’t fun for me: despite the pen’s small size and light weight, it’s not especially comfortable to grip for long periods of time and my wrist felt sore while jotting out my lines for this (I ended up writing out the same passage from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando for all the pens, as a control group for this test — fittingly, it’s about pens). The pen does get good marks for being reliably smudge-proof, smooth, and for not bearing down to the next page, but ultimately it looks like a cheap pen and feels like one. — Lori Keong, writer

Total Score: 3.2

89. Pentel Tradio

Type: Fountain

Smoothness: 3 | Smudging: 2 | Bleed-through: 4 | Feel: 4 | Looks: 3.75

Writing with the Tradio can be very hit-or-miss. If you’ve given the ink some time to settle, and you’ve got it at the correct angle and you’re writing in a flowy, cursive script, it can feel pretty smooth. However, if you’re quickly jotting down some notes in a less fastidious style, it instead scratches against the page and can alternatively leave pooling ink blots of bare, skipping lines. So if the Tradio works with your handwriting style, it could prove to be a keeper. Veep actor Timothy Simons has had his for more than five years, for instance. The ink smudges very easily, but fortunately it doesn’t have much bleed-through. It’s a wide-bodied plastic pen that’s lightweight and comfortable to hold. — K.I.A.

Total Score: 3.35

88. Pelikan Fineliner 96

Type: Felt-tip

Smoothness: 4 | Smudging: 4 | Bleed-through: 2 | Feel: 3.5 | Looks: 3.4

Smooth and richly inky, the Pelikan Fineliner is a delight to write with. From fine-writing German brand Pelikan (some of their pricey fountain pens also came highly recommended), the Pelikan is an affordable introduction to the brand that would work for daily writing or even drawing and outlining. If you’re okay with a good amount of bleed-through, that is. While the writing quality shows the brand’s attention to functionality, aesthetically it’s not the most exciting pen. The cap doesn’t have a clip; instead it’s more like a seamless addition to the body, which does give it a bit of a streamlined look. — K.I.A.

Total Score: 3.38

87. Muji Gel-Ink Ball Point 0.5 mm.

Type: Gel

Smoothness: 1.5 | Smudging: 4 | Bleed-through: 5 | Feel: 3 | Looks: 3.5

While this Muji pen was recommended by several of my colleagues, I found the point to be too fine and the pen too scratchy for my taste. The thin, gel ink doesn’t bleed through at all and there isn’t much smudging, but those benefits don’t outweigh how uncomfortable it is to write with. If you’re a fan of the Japanese brand’s minimal aesthetic you’ll probably like the transparent plastic body, although there aren’t any design features that make it especially comfortable to hold compared to your standard cheap pen. — K.I.A.

Total Score: 3.4

86. Platinum 3776

Type: Fountain

Smoothness: 2.5 | Smudging: 3 | Bleed-through: 4 | Feel: 3 | Looks: 4

This fountain pen has a very thick nib and line. The ink-flow is smooth and consistent, but the nib catches a bit on the paper, and you can feel the flat metal move across the surface. In terms of feel, it sports a pretty robust body made of red translucent plastic, and it feels substantial in the hand without feeling too heavy. There are golden accents (nib, clip, band around the cap) that elevate the pen, but they don’t necessarily warrant the price tag. — L.R.

Total Score: 3.4

85. Pilot Hi-Tec-C

Type: Gel

Smoothness: 2.5 | Smudging: 4 | Bleed-through: 4.5 | Feel: 3 | Looks: 3

For those who prefer their points extra fine, this is the pen for you. Writing with it is like writing with a needlepoint — the smoothness isn’t really the selling point, but you can write as small and as neatly as you want. The ink-flow is on the consistent side, given the fineness of the point, although it feels scratchy across the page, which may or may not be a deal breaker for some. It’s got a clear plastic body with a cap, and you can see inside the pen, which has a ridged grip. It’s not the most comfortable pen in the world, but if you’re concerned about being as precise as possible with your lines, then that is a small price to pay. — L.R.

Total Score: 3.4

84. Pelikan M200

Type: Fountain

Smoothness: 3 | Smudging: 2.5 | Bleed-through: 4.5 | Feel: 3.5 | Looks: 3.5

A fountain pen in the $100-range, this one has a finer point than the other ones I tested, and the mechanism for filling it with ink was a bit more involved. It uses a vacuum system, but filling it — by twisting the back end of the pen in an inkwell to draw the ink up — was straightforward, and the pen was ready to use immediately afterward. The flow of the ink when writing is a little uneven, and the nib drags a bit on the page, but overall it feels nice to write with. It’s got a plastic body with pretty marbled accents and is lightweight as a result, and it would work for prolonged periods of writing with a bit of finessing. — L.R.

Total Score: 3.4

83. Pelikano School

Type: Fountain

Smoothness: 3 | Smudging: 3.5 | Bleed-through: 4.5 | Feel: 3.5 | Looks: 2.5

This pen is billed as a fountain pen for school, and its robust plastic structure and bright blue color make it ideal for a high school or college student looking to up their pen game. For a budget fountain pen, the ink output is consistent, and the nib feels decently smooth across the page, although there is slight catching. The smudging is better than on most fountain pens — which is perhaps what makes it particularly fit for use in school — and you can use it without feeling too precious about it. A rubber grip lends a level of comfort to this solid, everyday fountain pen. — L.R.

Total Score: 3.4

82. Sakura Gelly Roll

Type: Gel

Smoothness: 4 | Smudging: 1 | Bleed-through: 3.5 | Feel: 4 | Looks: 4.5

Listen: as a child of the ’90s, Gelly Roll pens hold a special, nostalgic place in my heart. But as an adult human who frequently writes first drafts in my notebook, this is not the most practical pen. It is ultrasmudgy, both on the hand and on the paper, and just dispenses too much ink for practical writing. On the other hand, this is the perfect pen for doodling (if you don’t mind getting a little dirty). It’s super inky, which means you can fill in any bubble or shape in seconds, and the ink comes out shiny and dark and thick. It’s also the pen Cupcakes and Cashmere blogger Emily Schuman reaches for, in sparkly pink, when she wants to “add a little punch to [her] to-do list.” — K.S.

Total Score: 3.4

81. Zebra Sarasa Retractable

Type: Gel

Smoothness: 5 | Smudging: 5 | Bleed-through: 3 | Feel: 3 | Looks: 1

There is little resistance when writing and the rubber grip adds some comfort to the overall writing experience. However, I had to dock points for the clunky design and the amount of bleed-through. This one is just an average, run-of-the-mill retractable. — D.P.

Total Score: 3.4

80. Stabilo Fineliner

Type: Felt-tip

Smoothness: 3.3 | Smudging: 4.8 | Bleed-through: 4 | Feel: 3 | Looks: 2

The Stabilo Fineliner is a comfortably middle-of-the-road felt pen. Its hexagonal body feels just fine to hold and there’s very little smudging or bleed-through. However, it’s sticky on the page and I found that my not-so-neat handwriting was even harder to read than usual because of how the pen dragged across the paper. The line-thickness also varied without my changing the pressure with which I was writing. Will it work for a quick note or to-do list? Certainly. But it’s not a standout by any means. — K.I.A.

Total Score: 3.42

79. Traveler’s Company Brass Pen

Type: Ballpoint

Smoothness: 2.5 | Smudging: 4 | Bleed-through: 4.5 | Feel: 2 | Looks: 4.5

I really wanted to like this pen based on looks alone, but its performance is less than subpar. It’s a ballpoint pen with an extremely fine point; something I would normally like, but it feels like a very fine-point mechanical pencil — which is interesting considering the fact that the body of the pen looks like that of a wooden pencil. Still, the very fine point is great for neat, small writing, but not necessarily for everyday note-taking. I do like that the ink comes out uniformly with very little pressure. When capped, the pen appears to be rather short. It has a brass body that looks vintage in the best way — like a bullet, almost — but when you open the pen, you realize that the cap is longer than the pen itself. And holding onto the pen without the cap on the back makes it too short to use comfortably (it’s basically like holding a short golf pencil). Because of this imbalance in the proportion of the cap to the pen itself, the weight-balance feels off, too. With the cap attached to the back of the pen, it feels as if the pen could tip out of your hand; the pen (again, more like a tiny pencil) isn’t hefty enough to stay pointed downward in your hand. — L.R.

Total Score: 3.5

78. Uni-ball Signo RT

Type: Gel

Smoothness: 3.5 | Smudging: 4 | Bleed-through: 4 | Feel: 3 | Looks: 3

My first thought when I started out testing this one was, “Wow, this looks like chicken scratch.” This might be because the pen has a fine point of 0.38 mm., which lends itself better to detailed doodlings than to glorious strains of prose. Writing with this, I felt the slightest bit of drag, like the pen was scraping on the page, which is why I docked points for smoothness. It also feels plastic-y in the hand (with a slight amount of cushion, thanks to a thin finger grip), and there is the teeniest hint of smudging when you pass over fresh sections of writing or art. Overall, it’s a pretty average pen — it looks like the Pilot Gels, but doesn’t feel as cushy and operates like a thinner drawing pen — and an okay option for a doodler on a budget. — L.K.

Total Score: 3.5

77. Pilot Varsity

Type: Fountain

Smoothness: 4.5 | Smudging: 2.5 | Bleed-through: 3 | Feel: 4 | Looks: 3.5

This under-$2 disposable plastic fountain pen could easily be a gateway drug to the expensive world of fountain pen collecting because it’s so comfortable and downright fun to write with. There’s more room for error in angling and handwriting style compared to the pricier fountain pens, as the thick, black ink flows effortlessly across the page. Because the ink is thick, dark, and slow-to-dry, though, there is significant smudging and bleed-through — but better to discover you can’t stand that with this pen than with a $200 one. — K.I.A.

Total Score: 3.5