New World: The Tools of Writing

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Originally I was going to have two essays for this part, one about the materials we write on, and the other about the tools we use to write with. Then I realized that splitting them up doesn’t really make sense, because those two things go hand in hand — no pun intended!

Let’s take Sumerian cuneiform as an example. In some parts of the world, e.g. China, we can’t be sure whether the very earliest writing is represented in the archaeological record, because if it was done on something like strips of bamboo, it’s nearly (though not quite!) impossible for that to have survived the intervening millennia. But cuneiform literally means “wedge-shaped,” and it’s named for the distinctive marks created by pressing the end of a square-tipped stylus into clay. You can write cuneiform with another tool on another medium — carve it into stone, draw it with a pencil on paper — but we can be pretty sure it was developed on clay, because the medium and the tool shaped the result.

Thanks to the difficulty of archaeological preservation, a huge percentage of our early writing examples are from durable materials like stone, metal, or clay (especially fired clay). How difficult stone is to carve depends on the stone in question; something like gypsum is easy, while something like jade is a good deal harder in both senses of the word. It also depends on what kind of carving you’re talking about. If all you’re doing is making rough, shallow scratches, that’s one thing, but etching more deeply and in a more refined manner takes more skill and better tools. creating bas-relief is more difficult still. And yet the Egyptians regularly did it for their inscriptions — at least until economic troubles or the desire to make it harder for later generations to chisel your name off things meant they switched to sunk relief or incision instead.

Clay, on the other hand, lends itself best to other methods. You can model it for relief, or just carve into it like very soft stone, but it’s often easier to either stamp a shape into it or use something like a cylinder seal to create a raised image. Similar things are true of metal, where stamping or casting for either a raised or lowered shape may be easier than engraving. Or you can etch the desired characters, though that’s more often been used for general decoration than for writing. Less permanently, Romans, Greeks, and medieval Europeans carved into wax tablets as an erasable writing surface.

Inorganics aren’t the only materials you can treat this way, though. Much of our evidence for early Chinese writing comes from oracle bones: turtle plastrons, ox scapulae, and other bones carved with questions, then cracked with a hot tool to reveal the answer. Bones rarely got used for organized record-keeping and long-term storage, but they still worked as a writing medium sometimes. The same is true of things like shells, and you can carve into wood as well — though how effective that is depends on the grain of the wood and the shape of your writing system, simple straight lines being easier to achieve than small curving details. People have even written on silk and other fabrics.

In the long run, though, paper and things akin to it have carried the day — in part because they’re easier to carry. Whether it’s papyrus (made from the pith of a water reed), parchment and vellum (made from animal skins), paper (cellulose from wood, rags, or grasses), birch bark, amate (made from fig or other bark), palm leaves, or bamboo, such materials are lightweight, thin, and easily made to a relatively standard shape. Sure, they don’t last as long — they decay, get eaten by pests, or go up in flames — but cheap and portable beats expensive and unwieldy, at least if you’re talking about ordinary records and correspondence.

As for the tool you write with, it depends on the effect you’re creating. Carving requires a stylus or chisel and hammer; stamping requires a punch; casting requires a mold. But the easiest is to mark the surface of your medium with ink or paint, via a pen or a brush. Which one you use will have an effect on the specific aesthetics of your writing. European calligraphic styles are the specific product of quills, whose broad-cut tips lend themselves to particular types of strokes, while East Asian calligraphy is the specific product of brushes, which create different strokes.

Pens have involved more innovation than you might think, starting with the split nib (which assists the flow of ink through capillary action). Reed or bamboo pens were an early, cheap option, but are very stiff and don’t last long. Quill pens are more durable, and allow the shaft of the feather to act as a tiny reservoir, so that the scribe doesn’t have to dip the pen in ink as often. Both types can be resharpened with a knife — the origin of the penknife!. Metal nibs made from copper, bronze, or steel didn’t become common until the nineteenth century, with improved manufacturing technology. Fountain pens added a more sizable closed reservoir, and then nowadays we have ballpoint pens, felt-tip pens, and more. Brushes vary in the materials used for the handle or the bristles and different proportions for different scales of writing. There used to be a tradition of using the hair from a baby’s first haircut to make a brush for him to use during the imperial examinations!

One thing I find especially interesting is the creativity that goes into making writing tools portable. Until the invention of things like the fountain pen, writing required a fair bit of paraphernalia, not all of which traveled well. European scribes carried ingenious inkhorns and writing sets with bottles and pens and knives all together; Japanese scribes had yatate. The earliest ones contained an ink stick, a water dropper, a stone on which to mix the ink, and a knife to cut the paper, along with the brush, but later ones used ink-saturated cotton or mugwort for greater convenience. They were made from a variety of materials and in a variety of styles, and some of them doubled as weapons or even hairpins! I would pay cash money to read a story wherein the bookish heroine pulls her writing kit out of her hair, or uses it to defend herself from an attacker.

Speaking of books . . . next week we’ll discuss what we write on, not in the materials sense, but in the sense of the shape those materials take!

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New World: The Tools of Writing — 7 Comments

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  2. There’s a writing system (I forget which one, I lost that book in the flood; I think it was South or Southeast Asian) where all the graphemes are in curving shapes because it was originally written on the leaves of a particular tree, and straight lines would have caused the leaves to split, rendering them useless.

    The last last time I visited my mom, she took me to a neighborhood museum that had a ton of examples of Korean calligraphy/texts on silk. We’re talking a very small town that casually had example texts that were in some cases over 500 years old, some perhaps older.

    • Could it have been Hanuno’o? That one’s always stuck with me since I saw it in Writing systems of the world…I think what stuck with me was the line about how, by the time a person has finished learning to read and write, the leaves they were writing on at the start of their learning how to read&write, had decomposed.

      And that sounds like a neat museum to visit.

  3. I think bones mostly get used for counting (five sheep, eight days, ten men, etc)…aside from shells, anyway. I suppose it makes sense – easy to just jot down a scratch or a dash…though that wouldn’t inhibit something like Ogham or Kufic script, imho.

    >herein the bookish heroine pulls her writing kit out of her hair, or uses it to defend herself from an attacker.
    I have this mental image now of a Python-esque skit wherein someone is being mugged, and then they pull a writing desk out from their hair, and slap the mugger with it. (then maybe pin the mugger down)

      • Glad to help.

        Also, I’ve since found another example of it: In the Netflix series The new legends of Monkey, the Monkey King takes a pen out from his topknot* and the pen transforms into a staff of varying lengths – and back again when he wants to write or put it back.
        * = it looks like one, and the only other word that comes to my mind, sadly, is “a bun.”