Paper Review: "642 Things to Write About"
"I love my fountain pens so much, but I wish I had more things to write!" "What do you guys write with your fountain pens?" "I wish I had an excuse to use my new ink." I hear these types of comments frequently among the fountain pen community, and the subject of today's review aims to provide a reason to use the pens and ink we all enjoy so much.
Design & Construction
"642 Things to Write About" is a book of writing prompts. The book provides a set of topics (642 of them, in fact) on which you can expound your thoughts and ideas. The book was compiled by the San Francisco Writers' Grotto and surprisingly was put together in "a single 24-hour period, with no advance notice," as set forth in the foreword. It's intended to get your creative juices flowing with a collection of "witty, outrageous, and thought-provoking writing prompts," and in my opinion it does just that.
Apart from the cover page and foreword, the entirety of the book is dedicated to the writing prompts. Pages in this book take on one of the four following layouts:
- Single Prompt: A single subject is presented at the top of the page, and the remainder of the page is allotted for the response, for which 25 ruled lines are provided.
- Double Prompt: Two prompts share the page. These prompts are usually unrelated, but sometimes they may share a topic or offer different twists on a similar topic. 11 lines are provided for each response.
- Triple Prompt: The page is split into three different prompts. Again, they are usually unrelated, but in some instances they may have overlapping subject matter. 7 lines are provided for each response.
- "Drawing" Prompts: The page is split into four quadrants. A short phrase appears at the top of each quadrant. The phrase is usually not a complete sentence and is often ambiguous enough to be open to a variety of interpretations. Blank space is provided below; no ruling is provided for the response. Ostensibly, the user is expected to draw or doodle a response, but you can always just write instead if you are not artistically inclined.
The cover of the book is designed to resemble notebook paper in a muted hue of yellow with blue ruling. The title of the book appears at the top, with "642" written to appear as if hand-drawn in orange. Apart from the authoring organization listed at the bottom, the only other item that's presented on the cover is a sketch of a fountain pen that's featured in the lower right corner, a small touch that I'm unsurprisingly happy to see make an appearance. The inside covers resemble the design you'd find on a typical composition notebook in a striking mix of blue and white. Overall the design of the book is inoffensive, but the various nods to school supplies are perhaps a bit more youthful than I'd prefer.
I don't have any specific information about the nature of the book's binding, but I can say that it performs exceptionally well. It lays flat regardless of whether you're at the beginning, middle, or end of the book. There's virtually no gutter, and the book stays open to the current page under its own weight without issue. Moreover, the binding is sturdy enough to withstand the gentle abuse I've given it over the course of many months.
At 9 inches tall by 7.8 inches wide, the book is on the larger side but I still find it to be portable enough to toss into most bags or to tote around on its own. With its 304 pages it's about an inch thick, which lends an air of heft and substance to the book that I quite enjoy. With that said, I do wish the pages were numbered. I frequently find myself wanting to review one of my past responses or to bookmark a prompt to complete in the future, but there's no way to do that without, well, a physical bookmark.
Let's cut to the chase, though. If you're buying this book, it's for one reason: the writing prompts. For the most part, the prompts are fun and interesting. They span a variety of subjects and themes. Some ask you to talk about past life experiences. Others are more philosophical and ask you to express your feelings or beliefs on hypothetical topics or situations. Several prompts are purely fanciful and ask you to imagine people, scenarios, or circumstances that you'd probably never encounter in real life. In some cases the prompts are genuinely thought-provoking and ask you to reduce to words ideas you've probably only thought about, like your fears, your ambitions, or your feelings about other people in your life.
One minor flaw is that some of the prompts are drafted in such a way that they may not be entirely relatable. For example, some topics specifically refer to a "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" which may not make sense for every writer. Others involve pets or people that you may or may not have in your life. For instance, I've never been close to any of my grandparents, so several prompts relating to them were quite lost on me. In some instances you can easily modify the prompt to make it more applicable to you, but that isn't the case for all prompts.
Another issue I have is that the prompts aren't always tailored to the space that's provided for the response. One prompt, for example, asks the writer to squeeze "four paragraphs" worth of writing into 11 lines. Another asks you to provide a list of synonyms for a word, but provides far too much space to do so, even if you have the world's most comprehensive thesaurus on hand. I don't want to make this issue sound graver than it is; for the most part the allotted space for the response is appropriately sized for the prompt.
Something else I should note is that some of the prompts may not be suitable for younger writers. Some of the topics involve subject matter that are sexual in nature or may otherwise not be appropriate for adolescents, such as death or trauma. There aren't that many prompts that fall into this category, but the fact that there are any at all limits the ability to gift this book to younger writers. Fortunately, there's also a Young Writer's Edition of this book, which may be a more suitable option if you have this concern.
Some of my least favorite prompts involve hypothetical 'characters' that I struggle to invent. For example, one prompt reads: "A character discovers an object hidden many years ago in a family home." These types of prompts require a certain amount of creativity that I'm not sure I have. Writers with more imaginative minds are likely to find them more enjoyable than I, but personally I notice that the prompts I've skipped over often tend to be more whimsical ones like these. I do hope to complete them eventually, but they require more concerted focus and creativity that I just haven't been able to muster thus far.
I think the reason I tend not to enjoy prompts such as the above is because they don't align with what I'm trying to get out of this book. I look to "642 Things to Write About" more as a sort of personal journal than anything else. In fact, I think that's one of the best aspects of the book. I look forward to when I will have completed the book and will have something to share with others in my life who may seek to get to know me better. I feel that my friends and family could get a better sense of who I am by reading my whimsical responses, my accounts of past life experiences, and most importantly, my pathetic attempts at humor. I feel like this book would also serve well as a collaborative project. I can imagine couples or friends sharing the book and responding to those prompts that interest them, then reading the other responses to get to know more about their collaborators. It has the potential to be a fun and inventive way of sharing your personality in a manner that's more intimate than social media or other modern methods of communication.
I'll be frank: I was a bit skeptical that the paper in this book would hold up to fountain pen use, but I've been pleasantly surprised to see that it does! For the most part, I've not experienced any feathering, bleeding, or show-through with the paper in this book. The few times I have experienced show-through are when using broad nibs, especially if those nibs are inked with heavily saturated inks.
For example, I wrote one response using a Nemosine Singularity inked with Noodler's 54th Massachusetts, and the reverse side of the page was mostly unusable, so that was the end of that. Japanese broads generally perform well, though, especially when paired with inks that behave well. I had no issues using a Pilot Vanishing Point with a broad nib inked with Iroshizuku Fuyu-gaki.
The paper is rather absorbent and results in quick dry times. In fact, flipping through the portions of the book that I've completed, I see almost no instances of smearing. I'm a bit surprised at this observation, especially considering that I've never expended any conscious effort to allow inks to dry. I usually just complete a response, then immediately start flipping through the book looking for another prompt that interests me.
Despite the paper's absorbency, it nevertheless does still allow inks to shine. I still get good shading from inks that exhibit that property, and the vibrancy of the various inks I've tested in this book don't seem to be muted in any way. I haven't really used inks with an abundance of sheen in this book, but I suspect sheening properties would be somewhat reduced.
In summary I really am surprisingly happy with the quality of the paper in this book. I was expecting fountain pens to perform poorly in it or, at best, that performance would be barely acceptable. The fact that the paper is genuinely receptive to fountain pen use brings me a lot of joy, and the book has quickly become one of my favorite excuses to use my pens.
As of the time of this writing, "642 Things to Write About" sells for around $10 on Amazon. Without question, I definitely think the book justifies its asking price. It's provided me with hours and hours of entertainment, and I've not even completed half of it yet.
Certainly, it's possible to find free writing prompts online, and that option may be sufficient for some. For me, however, I do find value in having a set of prompts in a physical, browsable format that I can pick up at my leisure. Before getting this book, I did experiment with free online writing prompts, but found that it took significant time to hunt for prompts that interested me. Some sites have large collections of prompts, or issue new ones on a periodic basis, but I often find them to be either overly simplistic, lacking substance, or repetitive. That hasn't been the case with this book, and the amount of time it's saved me in searching for fresh prompts has been quite welcome.
Finally, in this hobby it's easy to fall into the habit of accumulating pens rather than putting them to use, and this book helps combat that tendency. If you've ever felt guilty about not making use of your pens, this book serves as a great outlet to alleviate that guilt while simultaneously providing an opportunity for creative expression. I've found writing in it to be quite cathartic, and that's something it's difficult to put a price tag on.
Final Thoughts & Score
- paper is surprisingly fountain pen friendly
- writing prompts are interesting, varied, and often quirky or thought-provoking
- provides an excellent opportunity to document your personality and possibly share with others
- drawing prompts may not be enjoyable if you lack artistic talent (but you can always just write in them)
- some topics may not be relatable
- certain prompts are not appropriate for younger writers
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