gifts they might actually want

The Best Gifts for Writers, According to Writers (From John Waters to Jeremy O. Harris)

Photo: Courtesy HBO

Writers aren’t as easy to shop for as you may think. Yes, you can always buy them a book, but what if they already have it? Pens are a nice thought too, but as we’ve learned, folks can be very particular about a tool they might be holding all day. And a bookmark might seem like a cute idea, but is it something so small that it might come across as an afterthought? To ensure your name makes the dedication in the writer in your life’s next book, or play, or script, we asked more than a dozen writers about the types of gifts they would love to receive as well as the gifts they deem worthy to hand out to their own writer friends. Below, their many suggestions, along with a handful of other writer-approved gifts we’ve written about over the years.

Gifts for planning and organizing

If, like writer Alice Gregory, the writer in your life has trouble organizing thoughts and files and is dangerously close to turning into the Red String Meme Guy, she says a bulletin board might be the gift for them. Gregory told us she bought one for herself in an attempt to “corral a bunch of paperwork,” and has been using it ever since. Her recommendation is this stylish option, which she says has a rare “non-aluminum frame” and a white linen surface, making it a bit more special and giftable than your average bulletin board. Gregory adds: “It would look very impressive wrapped in paper with a bow.”

For a more affordable twist on the same theme, Gregory also recommends this whiteboard, which she purchased for extra planning space after filling up her bulletin board. It’s magnetic, so you can still pin pages or other bits of inspiration to it, and the erasable writing surface may come in handy for someone whose ideas are constantly changing.

A couple of writers we talked to suggested a nice notebook as an affordable and thoughtful way to show your affection. Tayari Jones, the author of An American Marriage, told us she loves the dot-grid layout of the Confidant notebook from Baron Fig (the maker of our favorite pen) because, to her, it is a happy medium between an oppressive lined page and an wide-open blank one. “I feel like lines are too controlling and the blank page doesn’t give me enough structure, so a dot grid feels like that nice in-between space,” she says. Jones also likes how the notebooks are hand-sewn, which she says makes them feel artisanal even though they are inexpensive enough to get dirty. When we tested 100 notebooks here at the Strategist, this one landed in the top half (at number 36), with our editor Alexis Swerdloff noting that “the pre-online, print-only Strategist named this the best notebook back in 2015.”

For a slightly less expensive notebook, New York Magazine writer Hunter Harris swears by this Rollbahn spiral notebook, which took eighth place in our test of 100 notebooks and is also a favorite of writer Jia Tolentino, who previously told us it’s very important to her process. Harris, who notes that she “was writing in this baby before” Tolentino told us about it, says she has “approximately two dozen tucked away on shelves and in drawers between my home and my desk,” and carries one every single day. Adding to its giftable appeal is praise from a third writer, Strategist contributor Hannah Morril, who told us back in 2016 about how she loves this for several reasons, including its durable outer cover, non-bleed paper, lie-flat binder, and plastic sleeves in the back for receipts and other ephemera.

A writer with a greater vision might feel constricted by the smaller notebooks listed above. Hernan Diaz, the author of In the Distance, received this F4 sketchbook from Muji last year from a fellow writer, and he told us that “the large format has had a great effect on my writing.”

Giving paperclips may not sound sexy, but Gregory assures that these Italian paperclips will be a small delight for any writer with files all over the place. She told us she likes them as much for their European provenance as she does for their functionality. “Their strange triangular shape actually holds together a thicker stack of paper than normal paperclips,” Gregory told us, adding that they come in an “elegant silver box” that reminds her of a Bialetti stovetop espresso maker.

Whether recording interviews for research or background noise for inspiration, Harris says every writer needs a recorder and that this one is “slim, easy to pocket, and hasn’t failed me yet.” In fact, when the Strategist asked other New York editors what recorders they use, the Sony ICDUX was mentioned by more than one. Harris says this would still be a great gift even if your recipient already has a recorder, because every writer “needs a backup voice recorder, a spare in case the backup isn’t charged, and a super backup in case she’s lent her spare to a friend.”

If your writer does long-term reporting far from an outlet, a cassette recorder is a tried-and-tested, lower-tech tool that comes with zero anxiety about where to plug it in. Author Tom O’Neill told us this cassette recorder didn’t let him down once over the 20-year period he spent reporting Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. “I brought two to mine and [famed Manson prosecutor] Vincent Bugliosi’s final contentious meeting, as did Bugliosi,” he told us. “It became a little comical because every time he went off-the-record, which was frequent, we’d have to turn them all off and back on again.”

If you’re going with a cassette recorder and really want to impress your writer, you might also want to give them some cassettes. This pack of tapes has over 300 five-star reviews on Amazon.

Gifts to help with writing

If you want to give a gift that your writer will actually use as they polish off their text, many of the writers we talked to recommended things that can help while putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. Bob Dylan may have famously used a rhyming dictionary, but according to filmmaker, artist, and author John Waters, the best such tool you can give (in his opinion) is a slang thesaurus. “I use this one constantly,” Waters told us. “From ‘sneezing in the cabbage’ to ‘having lunch downtown,’’ the expressions are sublimely obscene and refreshingly hideous.”

$28

No writer wants to be slowed down by a dull pencil, and Jones told us that this pencil sharpener gets her a “perfect sharp, crisp point” every time. She recommends giving it with a nice pencil to any writer who may have forgotten why he or she chose their career in the first place. “Pencils help me get in touch with the very young person I was when I started writing” she says. “It’s very important that I’m able to access the pleasure and joy of it.”

Vivid Pen Set
$13

Harris, who says she’s “obsessive” about handwriting, told us she’s been using these vivid gel pens from Mochi Things for more than four years. “I can make short, precise strokes,” she says, “and this pen glides over the page when I’m in the middle of a dark movie theater jotting notes like, ‘How have we as a society allowed Cats to flop?’ The Vivid Pens come in a range of colors, Harris notes, and have a point fine enough for everyday use, making them a colorful gift for any writer in your life.

For a fancier but still not precious pen, Luis Jaramillo, the author of The Doctor’s Wife, told us that he likes Pilot’s line of fountain pens. “I love pens, but since I lose them all the time, I can’t have fancy ones,” he told us. “Giving someone a box of pens is classy, especially a box of these.” This Pilot fountain pen also made our list of the 100 best pens, with Strategist senior writer Karen Iorio Adelson calling it a “gateway drug to the expensive world of fountain pen collecting.”

For a truly luxurious and long-lasting fountain pen, Diaz recommends this one that a friend gave him 20 years ago and he has used to write “every single line” since. Salman Rushdie also told us he uses this fountain pen, having inherited the tradition of writing with this very model from his father. Clearly, the pen is a gift that’s proved to stand the test of time.

Gifts for zhuzhing up a writer’s desk

If you want to give a gift that will delight your writer as they work, four of the writers we spoke to suggest things to improve their workspace. Gregory says this banker’s lamp will bring “dignity and jewel-like luster to even a peeling Ikea desk procured on Craigslist.” Just make sure that you buy a lamp with a real brass base, like this one, and not a plastic base painted gold by accident. “Been there, done that,” she warns.

Tripar Postcard Stand
$8

A few years back, author and Interview’s editor-at-large Christopher Bollen received a homemade postcard stand from a friend and says it is an “economical and special” gift that he can always display on his desk for good cheer. Bollen says he and his friends are “single-handedly keeping the postcard industry afloat,” adding that his bespoke stand currently features a postcard he received from author Zadie Smith. If you don’t have time to carve a postcard stand yourself, we think this sleek holder would make a handsome addition to any workspace.

Whether or not your writer drinks as part of their process, beautiful glassware is always an appreciated gift. Helen Macdonald, the author of H is for Hawk and the forthcoming Vesper Flights, says her go-to gifts for inspiring and uplifting other writers (beyond coffee) are old airline drinking glasses, which she says are “absurdly niche, ridiculously Generation X, and have nothing to do with writing at all.” Macdonald says that such glasses “conjure all the lives and dreams of all the unknowable passengers who drank from them,” adding, “I always keep one or two on my desk because looking at them and thinking about their history always helps me get into the right mindset to write.”

Inspiration gifts for writers

Jones keeps this motivational pennant right above her desk and says it keeps her focused on what’s really important: the text. “I have all the awards I’ve won for my writing behind me when I write, because I don’t need to look at those,” she told us. “The pennant’s message is the opposite of getting caught up in likes and retweets and outside awards.”

$80

Sometimes writers find themselves at a creative impasse (a.k.a. writer’s block). Paul Yoon, the author of Run Me to Earth, says a pair of running shoes is the best gift for a writer who struggles with writer’s block and that this is the pair he uses. Yoon told us that his wife initially gave him the shoes to help him quit smoking, but he says they’ve become critical to his writing life. “Running helps me think of the next step when I’m stuck, regain the confidence I often lose while working on a project, and reminds me that there is so much more out there, every day, than the borders of my laptop screen,” he explains.

Naturally, writers make some of the greatest letter writers, and telling their friends (a.k.a. you) about how they’re struggling can be one step toward a creative breakthrough. Hamilah Marcus, the author of the forthcoming book Horse Girls, told us that this Crane and Co. paper is more spacious than other stationery, encouraging her to write longer messages and giving her more room to think out loud.

Many writers, especially script writers, are stirred most by visual inspiration. For them, a streaming membership to a classic movie collection is sure to be appreciated, according to Marcus, who says a subscription to the Criterion collection, specifically, is “a great gift for a writer.” She says older films inspire her in a way contemporary films and television rarely do, because “their texture is so different from her daily life.”

Many of the writers we’ve spoken to over the years cited other authors’ work as something they can’t live without. And although giving a book can be risky, this Saul Bellow work is one that Salman Rushdie returns to over and over again for inspiration. “Bellow will go off on a riff on a subject, and it’ll be a page of brilliance on whatever’s got his goat at the moment,” Rushdie told us. “When I write, I try to pay attention to the quality of sentences, and picking up Humboldt is as good a way as any to do that.”

If your writer friend is titillated by provocative opinions, an interesting alternative to the perhaps-overdone gift of Orwell’s 1984 is this 1949 treatise by French playwright and activist Jean Genet. It comes recommended by Edmund White, the author of many books, including the upcoming A Saint From Texas, who says the text is from a suppressed radio broadcast in which Genet argues “against the public outcry over the existence of his cruel reform school, since only prison can turn children into poets,” according to White.