CU Water Cooler

The Six Pen Approach

Jimmy MarksComment

Being obsessive about your materials isn't the same as being obsessive about your results.

If you open up my briefcase on any given day, you'll find six different writing implements that are crucial to my workflow. I'm serious. I do a lot of my work via computer, but there's still a lot of room for analog methods of creativity. I like to keep my writing and drawing muscles strong so that I don't get too reliant on my trusty MacBook.


Now, not all of these are "pens," per se, but each makes a mark on a piece of paper and I don't want to have to go back and forth between the words "marker," "brush," "pencil," and "pen," so just be cool, okay?

My "Big Six" (in order from left to right):

  • An Expo Dry Erase Fine-Tip Marker, aka "The Plotter"
  • A Col-Erase Non-Photo Blue Pencil, aka "The Practice-Makes-Perfect"
  • A Pentel Japanese Brush Marker, aka "Mysterioso!"
  • A Paper-Mate Flair, Medium Tip, aka "The Utility Man"
  • A Pilot Varsity Disposable Fountain Pen, aka "Mr. Fancy-Pants"
  • A Sharpie Permanent Marker, Fine Point, with a More/Real Brushed Steel Stylus Cap, aka "Techno-Bear"

It seems insane, I know, but each of these pens does something different and each one has a unique effect on me. I don't use one to do what the others do and I don't try to lean on one or another too heavily.

Here's how each pen makes a difference in my working life.

1) An Expo Dry Erase Fine-Tip Marker, aka "The Plotter"

The Plotter is a very handy tool, indeed, when combined with my Noteboard Portable Dry-Erase board. This thing is crazy: you can unfold it to create a quick whiteboard for meetings, planning sessions or writers' workshops. The Plotter is my go-to for hashing out ideas, flow charts and brainstorming precipitate.

The reason I love having this thing around: good ideas and good conversation can happen anywhere. If I need to see "the big picture," having a big writing medium and a big, bold, black line to draw it out make a huge difference. I want to get into app development for myself (and for work, to some degree) and plotting is a big part of that.

2) A Col-Erase Non-Photo Blue Pencil, aka "The Practice-Makes-Perfect"


The PMP (that's short for "Practice-Makes-Perfect") is SUCH a fun tool. Non-photo blue pencils have been used by artists and editors for years to draw cartoon characters and make copy edits, respectively. The pencil lines don't show up when photocopied or scanned, so turning your paper drawings into clean-lined, ready-for-vector images is a snap. It also helps in the sketching and development of complex forms without smudging up your paper like a graphite pencil does.

I love the PMP. I bought a case of them to have around and I use them all the time. I love drawing but I hate pencil lead because of how it smears. With the PMP, I can work through my lines and my figures over and over again without worry. When it's ready for ink, I ink the drawing using India Ink or my "Utility Man" (see number four) and scan it into my computer for coloring.

3) A Pentel Japanese Brush Marker, aka "Mysterioso!"

Mysterioso! was a pen a Twitter friend of mine recommended. Instead of having a felt tip or hard ball point, the pen has a brush tip that you use...well, like a brush. This pen I use exclusively for art, thought I have thought about using it to design my own hand-made font for my various design programs.

It's a tad expensive, but the results are gorgeous. It makes nice, thick, bold, dark lines. It glides across the paper. The output is pressure-related: if you handle the pen lightly, you'll get a light, thin line; if you press down hard, you'll get thick, bold lines. It's great for inking those drawings I made with the PMP, mentioned above, and adding those bold, beautiful, Jack Kirby-style lines I love so much.

4) A Paper-Mate Flair, Medium Tip, aka "The Utility Man"

If someone backed a dump truck up to my office and buried me in a mountain of these pens, I'd a lot of pain, probably. But I'd be happy.

This pen is SO good at everything. It's a good drawing pen. It's good for writing. It's got a nice, clean, even line. It writes on glossy and matte papers, or anything else, really. It has a cap that covers the tip with a satisfying "snap."

I carry one of these pens around and I have roughly 40 of them hidden around my office. I never want to share them. They're all mine.

5) A Pilot Varsity Disposable Fountain Pen, aka "Mr. Fancy-Pants"


I came across these pens after I read the book Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg (on the recommendation of Merlin and Dan on the Back to Work podcast). This book is incredible. It helped me get into a new habit of writing and writing well. One of the biggest notes I took from the book: get a pen that helps you write quickly and authoritatively. This is that pen.

You can buy a real, honest-to-goodness fountain pen if you want, but I find their ink to be weak and unimpressive. If you haven't discovered the common bond of almost every one of these pens yet, it's a clean, black line. I'll get to why in a minute, but back to the Mr. Fancy-Pants pen. This thing is pretty affordable and I buy them in packs of twenty. I use one every month or so and I save all the empty ones. They're a thing of beauty.

6) A Sharpie Permanent Marker, Fine Point, with a More/Real Brushed Steel Stylus Cap, aka "Techno-Bear"

The Techno-Bear is part-technology, part-bear. Why a bear? Because you don't screw around with a bear. You run or you fight, there's no in-between.

When you whip out a Sharpie marker, you plan on marking something permanently, boldly. You want to write on a piece of sheet metal or a big cardboard box. You're about to scrawl the word "Trash" on something you need thrown away. No wimpy ball-point scratching, just a big, black mark that says "TRASH." There's no contesting that.

I bought the More/Real cap because I sometimes use an iPad or other electronic device to do artwork and I love using a pen instead of my finger. The More/Real cap is machined to fit a Sharpie marker, which they give you when you buy one. The goal of the Techno-Bear, whether in digital or real media, is always clear: get the job done.

So, what's the point of all this?

By now, you're scratching your head. "Did this have something to do with credit unions?" you ask yourself. Not yet, it doesn't. But I'm getting there.

I have all my goofy pens with all their goofy names for a reason. I carry them around for a singular purpose: turn the idea I have in my head into a real thing.

For many years now, I've heard credit-unioneers (did we ever come up with a better name than that?) say "we've been thinking about creating an onboarding campaign," or "we're thinking about a new website design." I can commiserate. I like thinking about things, too. But my thoughts are just thoughts. They're only "real" once they're on the paper. Remember that episode of Mad Men where Kinsey loses the good idea he thought he had? "The faintest ink is better than the strongest memory," he says in a moment of reflection. After many years of scatterbrained ideas I never bothered to write down, I now get the full gravity of that statement.

Say you have a newsletter you have to write. You can sit and stare at a blank screen or a clean sheet of paper for hours, but you're not "working" until you start writing. You can ponder over your OLB interface or your mobile app all day, but if you never draw the first wireframe or write out a wish-list of what you want to accomplish, you're doing nothing. Nada. Bupkis.

I love these writing tools because the ink inside of them will turn an idea I had into something I can use to entertain, educate and instruct people. That's the endgame for me. That's what matters most - not the tools, but what they help me do.

Before I read Writing Down the Bones, I considered myself "a writer." After I read it, I realized that writers are people know, actually write things. I learned to write in ten minute blocks, then in twenty minute blocks, then thirty minutes. I didn't edit as I went, I didn't whine about it not being good. I moved my hand, filled the page, turned the page, and kept going until I heard the timer go off on my phone.

Before I started using my non-photo blue pencil, I threw away dozens of pieces of paper that I had "ruined" in the penciling phase. After I got a grip on what I wanted to draw and used the pencil to create the forms I wanted, I used my other pens to make clean, ready-to-scan artwork. I didn't have to know what I wanted when I started, I just had to start.

The materials are all helpful, but the results matter more. If you have an email marketing engine that you only use to blast subscribers with messages, you're not getting the full effect. As I mentioned in a recent Financial Brand article, less is more when it comes to your lists. Smaller lists that address specific needs see better open rates and click-through rates. "Blasts" don't accomplish as much. So how do you focus on the needs of a certain set of subscribers? You do the legwork. You look at the information you already have available to you. You tailor the message to fit one particular person and you get their business by being there when others weren't.

When it comes to marketing to members, "snap solutions" just don't exist. It takes time and dedication and, yeah, a little hard work. But thinking "gee, a smarter marketing list would be nice" is the same as thinking "gee, a roast beef sandwich would be great". Roast beef sandwiches don't just appear whenever you wish for them. You buy one, you go make one, or you starve. Perfected marketing ideas don't fall into your lap. You set the criteria, you filter the data, or you just keep blasting.

To some degree, my six pens are a form of self-soothing. If I wanted to just carry around a single piece of charcoal or a number two pencil, I could probably still get my ideas down on paper. But I like having variety in how and what I write, draw and design. I like being able to move at different speeds. And I never mistake owning a pen for doing work. Buy all the golf clubs you want, if you don't go out and swing them, you'll never be Tiger Woods.

Practice your craft. Use the tools you have at your disposal to make things easier. Throw away your bad ideas or the bits that don't work. Keep the stuff that does.

You can get a good look at my six pens and my workflow if you come to the CU Water Cooler Symposium this year in Austin, Texas. It promises to be a great time in one of the weirdest, wildest cities in the Lone Star State. If you haven't purchased tickets already, now's your chance to save $100 with the earlybird ticket special! Simply visit the Symposium page and get yours before June 30, 2014.


Jimmy Marks is the Creative Media Director with DigitalMailer. He's a guy that creates websites, web pages, email campaigns, graphics, video, audio, copywriting—anything. You name it, he's into it.