At birthdays and holidays, how great is it when friends or family try to find just the right gift to honor the recipient’s interests? Since writers often work alone, it is especially touching when family try to affirm their work with what seem to be “writing” gifts.
But, wow. Looking at the feathered pens and pewter bookmarks and dolled up journals in the “gifts for writers” display at a bookstore the other day, I couldn’t help feeling protective of the well-intended money lost on such things. While, at the same time, a real list of “gifts writers could really use” began playing in my head.
This feeling was furthered Tuesday when editor Jane Friedman tweeted: ”Advice, please: How do you deal w/family who buys you stuff, even though you lead a minimalist life & hate accumulating things?”
In this economy, no one wants to see their loved ones wasting money. For every writer in your life, there are actual things they would love to have or maybe even need for their writing. Writers care deeply when you seek to honor how important their writing is. But, family and friends: your writer would love for you to not be tricked into that $25 pewter bookmark that could only dent pages and make books weigh a ton.
The list below highlights writing-related gifts that writers would genuinely appreciate, with guidelines for any shopper to make the best use of their money.
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Resist those cutesy kiosks by the bookstore cashier — we don’t all write with feathered pens in angel-covered journals.
1) Journal — or no? Over the years, I’ve been given some really thoughtful journals from friends, which have gone to good use. But know your writer. In the age of laptops and smart phones, it is common for writers to rarely use pen or paper. Tricks for guessing if your writer would like a journal: if your writer never carries a bag bigger than their cell phone and car keys, then they are unlikely to carry a journal with them for writing out in the world. If they make all notes and keep their calendar electronically, they are unlikely to use a handwritten journal. However, if they do use a journal, ask or notice the type they tend to prefer. Some writers really do like a luxurious leather one or artfully decorative one — while others prefer the stark usefulness of a Moleskin or even old school composition notebooks. If you can’t ask, use the accessories they wear or carry as measure of how elaborate or plain their tastes are. Cost (& where to buy): $1-2 for composition books (try Target); $5-15 for Moleskin or other midrange journals (try your local bookseller or office supply store); or $30-45 for leather (finer stationers or booksellers).
2) Quill or… cheap ballpoint? I once wrote with only fountain pens and was thrilled to be given an expensive one. Then I had a few too many leaks. Same advice about journals goes for pens: some writers love paper and ink; others are nearly all digital. In most cases, a writer has use for pens, but not all will appreciate an expensive pen, so know your writer. Personally, I always appreciate when my sons put pens in my stocking that write well but are only midrange in price. Pilot V-Ball or Pentel’s gel are decent. If you live with your writer, try to see which type of pen they prefer.
Other “jotting” alternatives to journals:
2) Diver down! Is your writer a shower thinker? Surprise them with a humorous — but genuinely clever — solution to help them remember their showertime brilliance, and avoid that dripping dash to write things down on paper.
- Underwater writing slates, originally designed for scuba diving, are a great solution to hang in the shower for recording ideas. They come in standard (5 x 6″) or instructor (8 x 10″) sizes, and I’ve heard writers appreciating either. The smaller size is convenient and unobtrusive, but with room for short thoughts only. The larger size allows room for an entire paragraph or for several thoughts to accumulate without needing to be transferred right away. Both types have rings or hooks for hanging. If space is not an issue, I’d go for the larger one. Cost & where to buy: $6-14; try a local dive or sporting shop, or search “underwater dive slate” online. Here are links to 2 options from vendors via Amazon: smaller slate or larger slate.
- Aquanotes: like the dive slate, this is a notepad for wet writing, specifically designed for the shower. Deciding between this or a slate, consider: as a wipe-off format, the slate is permanently available, although with the inconvenience that notes need to be transferred. The notepad offers the convenience of tear-off sheets, although this makes it a disposable solution, needing to be repurchased again in the future. Cost & where to buy: $9, offered by Your Shop via Amazon at this link.
- Bath Crayons. What the heck — go for the laugh. This idea comes courtesy of the year my husband was taking organic chemistry and stole our son’s bathtub crayons to scribble chemical formulas all over the tile wall while showering before a major exam. The crayons are intended for toddlers’ bath time artwork, but work equally well for scribbling that brilliant bit of dialogue. They wash off. They are cheap, easy to replace and easily stored. Best yet, they’ll provoke a laugh as your oh-so-serious writer gives you an odd look while unwrapping. Cost & where to buy: Crayola are $5; Alex is another brand. Try independent toy/children’s shops, Toys R Us, Target, some grocery stores, or here is a link to find them via Amazon.
3) Writing while driving. One of the funniest “you are a writer if…” pictures I ever saw was of a writer’s arm after having scribbled a scene up and down their forearm out of desperation while driving. Others confess the desperate grab for a receipt or napkin or anything else in reach to write on. Yes, we are a dangerous driving mess. Here are a couple options to capture those genius insights that happen behind the wheel:
- Dragon Dictation smart phone app. Love this one. You download the app onto your phone. When an idea hits you, click the app, then it records whatever ideas you dictate. When done, it processes your words to text which it will then email to you. It jumbles some words, but is enough to get the idea down while leaving your hands free for safe driving. It’s saved me many times. Cost & where to buy: The app is FREE, downloaded via itunes or other app stores (within the phone).
- Evernote smart phone app. Popular with many writers, this allows a writer to type their ideas (pull over, please — not as readily used as Dragonware). Cost & where to buy: sample app is free; available via the smart phone app stores (within the phone); for complete app, gift an itunes gift card or purchase and email the app.
- Car accessories. Try an auto supply store, office supply store or the auto supply aisle at Target, for various note-taking accessories available for business people who spend hours on the road. Options include dashmounted notepads or Post-It holders, or pen and pad options for the console.
The real basics — paper, ink & other office supplies:
4) Paper. Most of the time, your writer will be submitting their work electronically, so there is not the constant need for printing and mailing stories that there used to be — but paper is still a mainstay. Rather than fancy journals, a ream of printer/copier paper is a nonglamorous but useful gift for writers on limited resources. (Read: your wife will not find it romantic, but your grad student nephew might appreciate it.) Hint: this gift will be less appreciated by people who are able to print for free in an office. Consider combining with ink, below. Cost & where to buy: $4-7 for a 500-count ream; try any office supply store, or even Target or your grocery store.
5) Ink. For writers who have to pay for their own printing, those ink cartridges are a constant and invisible expense. Cost & where to buy: single cartridges are $10-20 for black, and $10-20 for each of the colors, in an ink printer (laser cartridges are more expensive, but less common in home printers). Know the proper model for their ink cartridges, or give an office supply, Target or Costco gift card.
6) Other practical office supplies:
- Standard stapler.For a young writer starting out or a writer who used supplies from their office before working from home, a good stapler is a basic. Hint in choosing between a cute stapler or a sturdy one: writers’ stories can be 20 pages or more, and a sturdy, office-grade stapler by Swingline or Bostitch is less likely to break or jam. Cost & where to buy: $5-20; buy at office supply stores or general stores like Target. For finding a good price: stores like Office Depot or Staples tend to have one stapler “on special.”
- Heavy duty or automatic stapler. If your writer is submitting print copies of manuscripts, theses or grant applications, only a heavy duty stapler can clamp those documents more than 25 pages. I loved my automatic heavy duty stapler (up to 80 sheets), but had to borrow the manual one from my office for longer documents. Hint — knowing your writer: this will be very appreciated by a writer printing long documents, and meaningless to a writer who works only via computer. Be sure to include a box of staples. Cost & where to buy: non-electronic ranges from $25-60; electronic ranges from $50-80. Try office supply stores, and aim for weekly sales. Here is link to a good manual stapler by Swingline currently at a great discount price via Amazon.
- Staples. If buying a stapler, include a box of staples — and be sure they are the correct size for the stapler. Cost: $2-4, depending on type; buy where staplers are sold.
- Post It notes or flags. If your writer is working on revising a print copy of their work, various PI notes or colored flags are great for tracking revision comments — and just expensive enough to be an appreciated stocking stuffer.
- Portable memory stick. These are the thumb-sized, mini memory drives for moving documents from one computer to another. Cost & where to buy: $5-15, available nearly everywhere, including office supply stores, Target and even grocery stores. For fun, they now range in silly designs, including animals, toy cars and more.
Our real “office” is usually our computer:
7) “You had me at 4 GB.” If your writer is your significant other or someone else you’re likely to lavish, then know the main gear most writers live for are a laptop, wireless internet access (at home: a router; away: portable hotspot), and a printer . As a girl who’s gone 3 months with a favorite laptop out of commission, let me tell you how easy it is to romance a writer with efficient computer processing. Cost & where to buy: my #1 suggestion for buying laptops or printers is Costco. They have great prices for laptop packages and they double the manufacturer’s warranty with Costco Concierge service, which is the best tech support I’ve used. For routers or wireless service, go with your cable/phone service provider.
8) Software or updates. The key software for writers is a wordprocessing software and a backup or security software. For PC users, most use Microsoft Office-based Word; for a new computer, that would be helpful. But here are some more novel suggestions:
- Scrivener software. If your writer is working on book-length fiction or nonfiction, Scrivener is a software that helps them organize the complexity of multi-scene, multi-chapter works. Originally designed for Macs, a PC version came available in 2011 — so that it has been a “new discovery” for many writers in the past year. I was a fast convert. Days off during the holidays are a great time to get to learn and play with all the software’s functions. Cost & where to buy: $40; the software is purchased directly from the vendor at this link Literature and Latte; if you are unsure if your writer will like it, you can download a trial first.
- Quicken. We don’t go into writing poetry because we’re awesome at accounting. But writers accrue lots of expenses that can be tax write-offs. The day a fiction writer earns their first publication check, they should be able to see how much they’d spent in submission fees or research to get that piece written and published. Writers who are freelancing need help managing not only expenses, but client accounts and invoicing and self-employment taxes. Especially if you have a recent graduate or job-changer getting started as a freelancer, this is a great way to say you believe in the business they are starting. Cost & where to buy: Quicken Home & Business retails $110 (click the link for discounted price via Amazon); can be purchased as a download from various online sites including the manufacturer’s site, or at a range of stores including Best Buy, Costco or Target. or click that link to see discounted price on Amazon. In addition to the Amazon link, Quicken is discounted through many sellers.
- PhotoShop or PaintShop Pro. Truth: many writers are photographers, bloggers or researchers, and a good photo software comes in handy. I prefer Corel’s PaintShop. Cost & where to buy: PaintShop Pro is $79 (on sale now for $59) via Corel’s website; or current sale price $41 via Amazon.
9) Upgraded battery. No matter what laptop stats brag, those batteries don’t keep a charge long when the computer is processing large documents with demanding software. It takes an upgraded battery to get beyond an hour or 2. Hint: you must know your writer’s computer model and DO seek a brand-name battery vs. a cheap one. I was slipped a mickey once, and it does not latch properly and performed inconsistently. Cost & where to buy: $90-150; try local electronic stores and battery retailers; or accessories sold on the laptop manufacturer’s website. Be cautious of fly-by-night discount websites.
10) I love you enough to guard your manuscript. Have you ever heard the echoing scream of a writer whose computer crashed while containing the only existing copy of what was certain to be the greatest novel ever written? Then you understand. Give the gift of a reliable back up.
- Carbonite or Norton 360. Carbonite is an online backup service, provided for an annual fee. If you’d rather give security in a wrappable box, try buying Norton 360 (includes all around security), which includes a minimal amount of memory in online backup, and the option to upgrade for a comparable annual fee. Cost & where to buy: Carbonite is $59/year; free trial or download of Carbonite at this link . Buy Norton 360 for $33-60 (depending on sale prices) at office supply stores, Costco, or discounted at Amazon here; option to buy additional backup space when setting up account online.
- Portable back up drive. (Also called an external hard drive.) A professional grade external hard drive copies the computer’s contents to a separate drive. Cost & where to buy: drives are available at office supply stores like Staples, for as little as $20-120. Price range corresponds to storage capacity.
11) Surge protector. That scream you heard from the writer whose computer crashed could have been at our house, where 2 computers died within weeks of each other after summer power spikes. Plugging equipment into surge protectors guards against such damage. Cost & where to buy: minimal protection is available for $20-30; higher quality provides greater “clamping” of spikes. Try office supply stores, or the electronics section at Target, where average Joes demand them for protecting tvs and video equipment.
Writers are readers – and no writer can afford all the reading they want to buy!
12) Literary magazines. If your writer writes short stories or poetry, their main targets for publication are literary magazines. Your writer needs to read what is being published to know what is out there, and those magazines need subscribers to stay alive. It is a great place to spend your money. Cost & where to buy: single issues are $5-20; subscriptions are $10-60/year. Eeshh… but which publication? There are hundreds out there, so here are some hints:
- Single issues. Single issues of literary magazines can be bought on the shelves of many independent and chain booksellers, and gifted the same as you would a book. While there are hundreds of litmags out there, it is unusual to see more than half a dozen on the shelf, which narrows your confusion. How to select: a safe bet are the glossier, famed mags like Granta, The Paris Review, The New Yorker or Tin House. Literary writers may appreciate more the lesser-known regional publications, which vary by store. Flip through a magazine, maybe skim a few pieces, or select a publication that has more of the kind of writing (fiction or poetry) that your writer writes. Cost & where to buy: $5-20 per issue. Buying options: 1) Try your local independent bookseller (find one using indiebound.org). If your local bookstore is Barnes & Noble, they carry several. 2) Or, see links in “subscription” below — single issues can be ordered directly from the magazines. or 3) Order through the website New Pages, which sells sample issues of many literary magazines.
- Subscriptions. The most cost effective and convenient option for you (and best for the publication) is to order a subscription. This is a luxury most poetry or short story writers would appreciate all year long. Hints for picking a magazine: 1) Ask your writer what magazines they submit to or which ones they would want to be published in. Those are your prime targets. 2) If you can’t ask, then check bookshelves to see publications they’ve bought before. 3) Or just pick a good one. Cost & where to buy: most are $10-20/year, some are up to $60/year. Find the magazine online and order through the website. Here are a few suggestions: internationally respected publications that anyone might appreciate: Granta, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Tin House and The New Yorker. As a fiction writer, a few of my favorites: The Southern Review, Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review and Fiction. Right now, most are offering holiday promotions or “gift one, get one” offers.
13) Subscript to Poets & Writers. Over the years, this one publication has impressed me more than any other with the concrete professional advice it offers writers, including everything from submission practices to success stories to calendars and lists of submission deadlines. Cost & where to buy: order through this link to the site for $14.95/year (or $24.95 for 2 years); or, purchase a single copy at a bricks and mortar bookstore, and order using a subscription card.
14) Never enough books. If you have a book that was your favorite read, it can be a meaningful gift. But sometimes what a writer wants most is permission to buy a title that has been on their reading list, so a book store gift card is like gold.
- Gift cards. Where to buy: To get gift cards from independent booksellers, try indiebound.org (can purchase via the website or find an independent near you) or try Powells in Seattle. If no indie is available, Barnes & Noble is good for gift cards, as they have bricks & mortar stores near most shoppers.
- Find the book they want. Hints to shopping, sneaky as an elf: social media makes it very easy to know the books your writer wants to read. If they blog, see if they posted a recent “must reads” list. Otherwise, see if they have a “to read” list on Goodreads or wish list via an online bookseller (Amazon has one here).
Writing away from home:
15) Cafe gift card. Some writers actually do most of their writing in a cafe, and “rent” for that chair is paid in purchased scones and lattes. If this is true for your writer, a gift card to their cafe would show you get it.
16) Workshops, conferences or retreats. At the same time we’re sweating gift lists and holiday cards, many writers are already wrestling with whether they can afford to enroll in writers’ workshops and conferences in throughout the spring. Associated Writing Programs and Grub Street both hold fabulous long weekends that draw writers from throughout the country. Several other regional conferences last long weekends or full weeks in January. Other writers may be looking ahead to workshops at Iowa, Bread Loaf, Tin House or Sewanee in the summer. Know your writer: unless you have overheard them talking about this one, you’d need to ask your writer if they have such workshops in their goals for next year. Many workshops involve an application process, so you cannot just sign them up. Cost & where to buy: workshop fees and tuition can range from $150-1,500, depending on the program. You could sponsor tuition, or offer to pay for one option in the program (such as a private meeting with an agent, or manuscript review with an editor). Other costs include travel to the conference or housing.
17) Support that MFA candidate. If your writer is considering applying for an MFA program, you could sponsor the application fees. Entry into graduate programs is competitive, and it’s not unusual for writers to apply to 6-10 separate programs to get accepted. Cost & where to buy: application fees range $60-100; the student pays the fee directly to the school with their application. Another alternative: if your writer is already accepted, and attends a “low residence” program, then they have twice yearly expenses to travel to the school. Have accumulated frequent flyer miles? Consider sponsoring their next ticket to write.
Writers are researchers – do you know their current project?
18) Support their research. When I was writing Breathing Water, I learned Spanish, listened to Cuban music, cooked Cuban food and bought every coffee table book of Cuban photography I could find. I’ve done the same with Ireland and India. Here are ways you can support your writer’s current work-in-process, if it involves research:
- Cookbooks, travel guides or music. For researching a foreign culture, books rich in photography of the architecture and common people are great. Cookbooks are great for this, and offer the added bonus of cooking the meals that provide the smells of a culture. Illustrated travel guides or even maps are also useful. Cost & where to buy: Look in travel, cooking, culture or art sections, as well as discounted sections, where books are sometimes available for $5-7.
- Rosetta Stone, tapes or language classes. Are characters traveling through France? Is one character a soldier attempting the rudiments of Farsi? Do they have relatives from South America? Often, writers are trying to quickly learn the rudiments of a new language to write dialogue, or even just to describe the sounds of a location. Cost & where to buy: English conversion dictionaries are available in most bookstores ($7-20). In teh same section, book & CD sets are available beginning at $40. Rosetta Stone is available for $200 through its own site, or via Barnes & Noble or Amazon. A foreign language course at a community college ranges $90-200, plus book.
- Bang! Bang! Get your writer to ‘fess up: are they writing a thriller? The sweetest granny goes gritty when researching for the perfect murder weapon. Try Gun: A Visual History or The Illustrated Guide to Rifles. Or give real action by giving a day out at a shooting range.
- Travel for research. How much do you love that writer? I’m sure there are statistics out there somewhere to show just how many writers have a fantasy destination they would nearly die to travel to, in order to get perfect research for their work-in-progress. That might sound over-the-top — but selecting that destination might be a thoughtful gift if you’d planned traveling this year anyway or, say, had a proposal to plan.
If only you could wrap up writing hours – give the gift of time:
19) Actual time. Especially if writer has a separate job or children or family to care for, time is the greatest gift every writer needs to get work done. Surprisingly, there are ways to accomplish this:
- House cleaning. The best baby shower gift I ever got was a gift certificate to a local maid service. Key is to use a service that is licensed and insured (or loan your own maid, if you use one). You can prepay the service, bill it, or see if they offer gift certificates. Cost & where to buy: assume $80-140 for a single visit, although a gift certificate for any amount could be an option. Merry Maids is a national service. Check local listings for one in your area, or get a word of mouth referral.
- Child care. Personally, I’d rather the housekeeper — but a babysitter would be a tremendous gift to many writers. Cost & where to buy: DIY: one option is to babysit, yourself. Otherwise, pay the writer’s own sitter, or sponsor a day, weekend or week of camp ($20-50/day, or $50-300/week per child).
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What do you think is the perfect gift for a writer — or reader? Let me know what you think in the Comments below. I love to connect with my readers!