Why do you read pen reviews? Is it a form of entertainment, enjoying the words and pictures? A learning exercise on your journey to better understand the world of fountain pens? Is it a way to keep up with new pen releases that you might not have seen, and might want to put on your wishlist? Or do you research a potential purchase and binge all the reviews about just that one pen? Maybe it’s a mix of all of these.
The reason I ask is that reading a review, hell, reading anything, is an active process. You’re interacting with the reviewer, their beliefs and actions, and you need to be aware of that interaction if you’re to get what you want from the review — and in some cases if you’re to protect yourself and your wallet.
There are some questions I like to ask myself, and that I think you should ask yourself, when you’re reading a review.
First, why am I reading about this pen in particular? If it’s just for fun, go forth with a smile on your face. But if you’re seriously considering buying it, now is the time to think about what you actually want to get from this review. Is there a particular feature you’re worried about? Are you looking to see if it stacks up to the competition? Are you trying to check the size or how a particular colour option looks in real life? Don’t just let the reviewer sweep you along with their narrative — get your checklist out and take charge.
Second, can I trust this review? This breaks down into lots of parts, and it’s not a black and white answer…
Does this reviewer know what they’re talking about? Some reviewers are just plain inexperienced. They’ve only used half a dozen pens, none more than $50, and now they’re reviewing their first gold nib that they’re super excited about receiving. That’s great as an editorial, a “my story” kind of article, and I always enjoy reading about people adventuring into pens. But they probably won’t be able to put that pen in the context of the wider pen landscape. Take their recommendations with a pinch of salt, particularly if they talk about relative terms like weight, nib wetness, smoothness, etc. You need a jaded old hand to show you the way.
Is this reviewer generous or a nitpicker? I am a hard reviewer. I call out every little flaw because if I was a reader using this to prep for a purchase, I wouldn’t want any nasty surprises in areas that matter to me. I know that misleads some readers: they come away, for example from my ASC Studio review, feeling like I trashed the pen:
But actually, I like the Studio! I think it’s good value. I also said it was comfortable, had lots of features (eg ink window), a good piston, pretty nib, and wrote wonderfully wet and smooth. Look at the review as a whole and see how positive it is in general, particularly if you know the reviewer is always thorough.
Is this reviewer ethical? Some writers just don’t care. They may never even have handled the pen, writing some quick coverage for a business or luxury publication based on a press pack. The use of stock photos and heavy use of company background and product specs is a dead giveaway.
Where did the review sample come from? See if the reviewer states how they got hold of the pen: did they buy it, did they get it for free, were they loaned it? I’m talking here, obviously, about bias, but bias comes in many forms, not just “a company sent it to the reviewer for free in return for positive coverage”. Personally, I feel that I’m most biased towards the pens that I bought with my own money — I am strongly encouraged by my brain to believe that I invested that money wisely. Whereas pens that I’m sent for free I feel a distance from — it’s business, this is my job, I’m the coroner and this corpse is on my slab.
Either way, you should expect a degree of transparency as good practice. And a quick note on loaners: whether they’ve been loaned by a company or the reviewer’s friend, there are risks here too. A used pen from a friend may be better or worse than you’d get new at retail, it may have been worked on by a nibmeister when under previous ownership, it may not be current spec, the cap threads may be worn smooth. A used pen from a brand or retailer may have been abused by a previous reviewer. And I know that when I’m reviewing a pen that’s on loan to me, I am always more careful, like a reviewer of a supercar afraid to drive fast. I am still as thorough as I can be, but I won’t dismantle the pen, work on its nib, try crazy inks or carry it with me everywhere.
Is this a ‘first impressions’ review or a ‘long-term’ review? There are pros and cons to both. A long-term review can bring up issues around wear and tear, reliability, and long-term comfort. But they’re no use if you’re looking for a review of a pen that was just released. When I’m sent a pen to review I normally write with it extensively for a couple of weeks before I publish, longer for the more unusual pens, and sometimes less if my convictions jump out at me. I feel very confident discussing aesthetics, comfort, practicality, writing experience, but I know that with just a few weeks of ownership I can’t credibly discuss durability. So I don’t claim to.
Lastly on the issue of trust, ask yourself: do I agree with this guy? We all have biases and preferences, and yours may not be compatible with mine. I like medium-to-large, heavy pens with wet nibs. I never post my caps. I never clip my pens to anything. I am biased towards in-house nibs and a little biased towards pistons. I only use Tomoe River paper.
I can’t help but have those preferences pervade my views on a pen. If you disagree with my preferences, you’ll probably disagree with my recommendations — but you may still get something from what I write. Just go at it fully informed.
But even if the reviewer is an idiot, he’s a shill for ‘big pen’, he likes exactly the opposite pens from you and he wrote the review after 15 minutes of hands-on time, you can still get something from any post. Look to the photos. In today’s online-buying world, photos are often your only way of getting detailed information about the pen. What feed does it use? Do those threads look sharp? Will the clip fit over denim? You can answer those questions from photos alone, and ignore the words.
Last, I want to raise the issue of price, in two senses.
On one hand, every reviewer comes at a pen based on an understanding of how much that pen costs, consequently how much pen they expect to get for their money, and what other pens compete with that product. If, three years after a review, that product has been discontinued and its price slashed in half? The value proposition changes. And it cuts both ways: lots of pens jump in price each year until they’re operating at a very different level and a three year old review suddenly looks indulgent.
On the other hand, every reviewer also comes with a different acclimatization to different price points. If a reviewer is used to reviewing pens at the £100 mark and reviews their first £600 Montblanc, they’ll naturally see it as an insanely expensive pen, and perhaps have inflated expectations that the pen simply doesn’t meet.
Conversely, I’m used to reviewing pens around the £500 mark, and all prices from £30 to £150 all merge into the category of “affordable” or “impulse”; I’m often a little disappointed by these pens deep down because they’re compromises to hit a price point and tend to feel ‘cheaper’ than the pens in my own collection. I’ve discussed this at length before, and it’s something I am really cautious about when I’m reviewing a pen at the lower end of the market (from my perspective). I remind myself of the price point and when looking for competitors to compare against, I’m very cautious about how big a difference even £20 can be to most buyers.
To wrap up: you shouldn’t need a ‘user guide’ to read a review. It’s the reviewer’s job to hold your hand and tell you what you need to know about a pen, as honestly, fairly and helpfully as they can. But you can help yourself get more value from the reviews out there by approaching them critically. Some reviews (and some reviewers) are misleading; others are just imperfect or have an unavoidable angle. Good luck, and have fun!