The Pen Test: The Joy in Academic Writing

//The Pen Test: The Joy in Academic Writing

The Pen Test: The Joy in Academic Writing


If as Miguel de Cervantes suggests, ‘The pen is the tongue of the mind’, the role this humble implement plays in articulating internal thoughts through the medium of letterforms cannot be understated.  If what we say and how we say it impacts our chance of success (Gilbert, 2018), surely the same assertion can be levied at the written form.  In writing, our ability to communicate private interpretations through an instrument typically held between our thumb and index finger essentially becomes a reflection of ourselves on paper.  The artistry underpinning this process is one I often struggle to convey in my own practice.

My approach to writing stems from my love of words.  However, such personal sentiments do not transfer easily to the rational discourses underpinning academic writing.  In my current role working with and learning from international students within an art and design context in higher education, I oscillate between the competing expectations of course tutors and their students regarding the written form. Tutors require evidence of reflective writing that contains a critical interpretation of the student’s own work.  Students, however, are under pressure to achieve a language grade to progress through the university, and they often measure success by their ability to navigate formulaic writing tasks that essentially remove the critical voice.  Ironically, their success with this writing genre frustrates their progress in others.

I was reminded of the ongoing tensions writing produces in students of all ages and backgrounds when I attended Carol Allen’s session at the recent Practical Pedagogies conference in Cologne.  Entitled Reluctant Writers, she offered a carousel of activities to boost teachers’ confidence in their ability to engage students adverse to holding a pen to communicate their thoughts.  While her suggestions were not always applicable to my current practice, others did touch upon my previous work in state education, where I met with many young people overwhelmed by the demands of writing.

To alleviate such demands, Allen’s Pen Test is a simple yet effective activity to encourage young writers to consider the role aesthetics, colour, texture and the flow of ink all play in the writing process. Her Pen Test situates writing within an artistic practice that alerts young writers versed in the mechanics of writing to the delight of finding a pen that suits their shade of personality or mood.  For many, it is a stage of personalisation that has been long omitted from the schooled version of writing.

Most art and design students are extremely comfortable working with an array of implements that lead to a breadth of visual outcomes, ranging from doodles to paintings to architectural drawings.  However, the pen as a writing tool within an academic context connotes rigor and rational argument that leaves limited room for creative exploration.  Yet libraries and galleries contain intimate conversations with writers and artists alike who have spent a lifetime in pursuit of the optimum toolkit to perfect their craft.  Carol Allen’s session prompted me to consider how the inclusion of such narratives can help posit the pen as a creative tool, especially in a learning environment measured by the doctrines of scientific reasoning.

In The Thousand Appliances: Virginia Woolf and the Tools of Visual Literacy, Stein (1994) reminds us that Woolf viewed the handwriting process as a purely physical experience, dependent upon the writer’s ability to grasp and manipulate a writing tool appropriately. For Woolf, the colour of the pen, its sound as it moved across the paper, its feel in her hand as it translated thoughts into words, all served as sensory stimuli. Writing with a steel pen, she was forced to pause to dip the nib into ink, introducing regular reflective moments into her writing process.  Indeed, in terms of my own teaching practice, Woolf’s work has highlighted some interesting points.  For example, as today’s writing platforms demand immediacy supported by the constant churn of content, is it possible to re-purpose Woolf’s reflective pauses for the Instragram generation? Investigations of other writers also prompts possible adaptations for my own practice.

Samuel Beckett’s pen inscribed writings are accompanied by doodles, which were a central component of his writing process as he waited for inspiration.  According to Masters (2014) Beckett used doodles to keep the pen moving.  His practice prompts my own reflections of how to encourage students to experiment with greater use of visual imagery within spaces clearly signposted for academic writing.  Given that music was also embedded in Beckett’s life and informed the development of his plays (Doran, 2014), can my input around features of academic writing make greater use of classical and Romantic composers in an attempt to create tonal texts?

Given the role the pen played in Seamus Heaney’s work, it is apt to end with reference to his poem, Digging. Given his long history with the land, Heaney references both his father and grandfather and the tools they both used to work and maintain a strong rural tradition. However, in Digging Heaney indicates that he will not be using the spade to follow in their footsteps.  Rather, he has chosen the pen as his preferred tool to help him dig his own way into life:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

As I prepare for the last four weeks of the autumn term that will conclude with the first stage of progress testing, do I have room to include my own Pen Test? Is there time to ask students to find a suitable pen that will allow them, like Heaney, to leave their mark on the world? While writing this short post, I have also been reading emails from students concerned about their ability to pass the forthcoming exam and frustrated by their limitations in academic writing.   Their emails tend to circle around one central theme: how will my classes help them to pass?  For me The Pen Test is clearly an optimum starting point.  For them, it would clearly be a waste of time.


Doran, S. (1994) Why Music Struck a Chord with Beckett. The Guardian. Available at: Accessed on: 8th November 2018
Gilbert, I. (1998) The Working Class: Poverty Education and Alternative Voices. Carmarthen: Independent Thinking Press
Hammond, A. & Tinney, M. (2017) The Secret Life of the Pencil: Great Creatives and Their Pencils.  London: Laurence King Publishing
Masters, T. (2014) Samuel Beckett Manuscript and Doodles go on Display.  BBC Entertainment and Arts. Available at: Accessed on 9th November 2018
Sassoon, R. (2014) The Power of Letterforms. London: Unicorn Press Ltd.
Stein, J. M. (1994) The Thousand Appliances: Virginia Woolf and the Tools of Visual Literacy.  LSU Historical Dissertations and Theses. 5906. Available at: Accessed on 9th November 2018

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