Modern Desk Essentials: Make a Correspondence Kit

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Recently I found myself writing a letter to a friend who resolved to be a better letter-writer this year. It’s been almost a year since I myself started my letter-writing project (the first anniversary is in March), and while I’ve written more letters over these past eleven months than I have in the rest of my years combined, I know I too have room for improvement. However, I’ve also developed a system that helps hugely in the turnover rate of my correspondence. This how-to post serves not only as advice for pen-friends looking to streamline their postal process, but as a reminder to myself of the reasons why this blog even exists!

1. Find a Container

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Get yourself a box or a special, durable folder in which to stash your correspondence gear. Portability is a top priority here, but if your container is also attractive and unique you’ll use it more often. I have an A4-sized cardboard document folio for this purpose, emblazoned with a map of Germany, which not only serves as a quick reference tool but is also a good conversation starter! My friend Maria gave it to me and I think they are fairly common in Germany, sold as Sammelboxen or Heftboxen. These cardboard boxes also work well as a lap-desk if you take your kit to go.

Here is a German-language site where you can order all different kinds of cool Heftboxen, including the one pictured above!  I like this one with black and white flowers, this map of Europe, and the map of the world. But I’d add the Rolling Stones one to my collection in a heartbeat.

Assemble the Essentials

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Then assemble a collection of everything you need to write AND SEND a letter:

  • Beautiful stationery.
    • It doesn’t have to be the high-quality stuff you keep in your top desk drawer, and in fact I’d recommend keeping your boxed set of Crane’s paper in the desk, especially if you plan on making this a portable correspondence kit! Your correspondence kit should contain, rather, all-purpose stationery that can hold up to a little shuffling around in your Heftbox. Notecards, postcards, or a colorful stationery set from Papyrus or — better yet — an independent seller on Etsy will do very well.
  • A favorite pen.
    • If you’re not the type to carry around a fountain pen wherever you go, at least put one in your correspondence kit. A Kaweco Classic Sport with a fine nib is inexpensive, small, takes international cartridges, and makes writing a fine and special experience that will inspire you to write more.
  • A pretty address book.
    • I use a Roterfaden address book: it’s size A6 so it has plenty of room for collecting all the addresses I will ever need to use.
  • A book of cool stamps.
    • Your local post office should have some variety. I like ordering online because there are so many more to choose from! American customers, go to the USPS website. A word of caution: Buying stamps can become a bad habit.

An anecdote: just as I was writing this, my supervisor sighed and muttered to herself, “No stamp.
“Do you need a stamp?” I asked her across our desks, trying to conceal my eagerness and failing pretty badly.
She said yes, starting to laugh at herself. She told me she’d gotten this important letter all ready to send off but had completely forgotten a stamp at home.
“I have stamps!” I offered. “What kind would you like?”
“Oh, just a plain first-class forever stamp.”
“Yes, but what kind?” I prompted. “I have Year of the Ram, Batman, Jimi Hendrix, famous choreographers, Harry Potter, Civil War battles, birds, flowers, 2013 and 2014 Christmas, and Hudson River School stamps….” I didn’t even mention the international and alternate denominations. “Plain” is not a word that exists in my stationery vocabulary.

I keep extra fun things in my letter kit, especially stickers — check out those Karas Kustoms decals and the puffy fox stickers! I have a transparent file to hold my stamps and stickers, and an accordion file (not pictured) for note- and post-cards, plus any interesting flyers or paper ephemera my penpals might like. Also: nifty canceled stamps from far-off friends. These are fun to decorate envelopes with.

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How To Use

When you get a letter, if you can’t answer it immediately, put it somewhere you can’t forget about it. I’ll often put mine on my laptop or at my place at the breakfast table, where I take care of most of my correspondence.

As soon as you get a chance, sit down at a table or a desk with the letter and your kit and answer it. Try to do it all in one go. Don’t worry about your letter not being long enough; sometimes you just have time for a couple of pages. Anyway, when was the last time you got a letter and were disappointed because it wasn’t eight pages long?

Seal, address, and stamp it immediately and go stick it in the mail. If you’re like me, the process gets hung up at this stage, so be extra vigilant here.

Et voila! You’ve become a prompt penpal!

 Extras

The advanced letter writing kit also contains:

Handmade envelopes
A writing mat
Washi tape
Rubber stamps and multicolored stamp pads
Small scissors
Glue
Crayons, colored pencils, or markers
Custom address labels and/or address stamp
Letter Writers Alliance membership card ($5 for lifetime membership!)
Guide to postage prices (ask or leave a note for your post person)
A guide to correspondence etiquette (take it with a grain of salt or leave it)
Familiarity with a few topical/epistolary novels, e.g. The Sorrows of Young Werther, Love in the Time of Cholera, or Ella Minnow Pea (just kidding — but it’s good to have a couple of relevant passages memorized that you can whip out and impress your penpals with!)

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I also keep a record of incoming and outgoing mail. To get the Penventory look: order one $10 set of Field Notes’ “Ambition” edition. Use the olive-green ledger to record each piece of mail that passes through your fingers. Like so:

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At a single glance I can see if there are any letters that need replying to and I also have a physical record of my productivity! And the subject helps me keep track of dozens of conversations (because who can remember what they cooked for dinner last night, let alone whether they’ve told a penpal XYZ?).

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The most important element of your correspondence kit: creativity! Feel free to “think outside the envelope” when it comes to writing letters. Avoid the dreaded “How are you? I’m fine” opener. Wax lyrical on your favorite breakfast item. Write an ode to your cat. Compose an entire letter without once using the letter “E.” Make up fanfiction about your grade school music teacher who was, you were pretty sure, an undercover international spy.

And get personal. Handwritten letters are intimate. They’re a little piece of your soul, gift-wrapped for another human being. Think deep thoughts and ask hard questions. Let your letters expand you and your correspondee to encompass worlds of words.

Tomoe River Paper Master Post

Tomoe River paper is my favorite fountain pen paper — at 52gsm it is feather-light, thin as onion skin, yet still impervious to feathering and bleeding, and it performs beautifully with many different kinds of ink. It is silky-smooth but not glassy and it is perfect for writing long letters, testing ink, writing lists, practicing calligraphy, and journalling upon. Yet owing to the difficulty in obtaining the raw material of the paper itself — which is sold exclusively by the Tomoegawa company in Japan — finding this wonder-paper in the perfect format can be difficult if not downright impossible.

Thus I have assembled this master list of Tomoe River paper resources as well as identified some specific stationery needs in the hopes that someone out there will finally create a cloth-cover A5 thread-bound journal with white TR paper printed with an unobtrusive 5- or 6mm dot grid! (Ahem.)

Disclaimers: I do not make any claims to comprehensiveness, but if you know of a format I haven’t listed, please let me know and I’ll add it. I do not list prices here, as they can fluctuate too frequently to keep track of; however, availability also fluctuates, links break, etc. Also, I haven’t personally used every product on this list (…yet), but I have tried to provide links to reviews when I can.

LETTER SHEETS

Tomoe River Paper Sample (x3 sheets, available at NanamiPaper and JetPens in white and cream)
Never tried Tomoe River paper before? Add a sample on to your next JetPens order and see what the fuss is about.
For a limited time, you can also get a sample for free from JustWrite with any order!

Top-bound “correspondence size” pad with glue binding
A5 White
(from PaperForFountainPens and NanamiPaper)
A5 Cream (from PaperForFountainPens and NanamiPaper)
Approximately A5-sized sheets, perfect for writing letters. I ordered mine from Paper For Fountain Pens and they arrived speedily and with a lovely hand-written note. No envelopes as of yet made out of Tomoe River paper, but NanamiPaper has envelopes that are the perfect size and a close match to the cream shade. Review here forthcoming!
A4 7mm Lined (from OwlStationers)
Same as above, but 8.5”x11”.

Loose Leaf Sheets in White
A5
(from JustWrite)
A4 (from JustWrite, JetPens, JetPens in CREAM)
A4, 7mm Lined (from OwlStationers)
In case you’d rather not bother with glue binding.

JOURNALS

The Seven Seas “Writer” (at the Nanami Paper Co)
Soft-back, 480 pages, 7mm lines, lay-flat, thread bound, super flexible, standard size so it can be used as a refill for lots of refillable journals. I sing its praises in a review here.

The Paper For Fountain Pens Blank Book
White

Cream
Hardbound, unlined, 320 pages, pages approx. 5”x8”. Nice review over at the Pen Habit.

Design.Y Handcrafted Leather-bound Journals
Located in Sendai City, Japan, the folks at Design.Y have several luxury journals available for purchase with Tomoe River paper: Model 216, Model 288, Model 336, and LP Record

JustWrite + Olive and the Volcano Letterpress Journals
Approx. A6, Blank, 120 pages
Approx. A5, Blank, 120 Pages
Covers are black letterpressed cardstock. I’m planning on getting a pair of these as soon as they’re back in stock, because you can literally never have too much Tomoe River paper. The Pentorium did a great review of these!

OTHER

The Hobonichi Planner – 2015
I read a blog post on this planner when I started my fountain pen journey. Yet it wasn’t until December 2014 that I ordered a copy for myself. The Hobonichi Planner has almost a cult following in Japan and there are many “extras” available for it, from covers to bookmark charms. You can read my review of the planner here. If you’re concerned about the usability of a planner whose pages ghost so much, please see this post of mine for images of writing on both sides of TR paper.

Hobonichi Memo Books
Set of 3 memo notebooks with 3.7mm graph paper and perforated sheets designed to fit in the back pocket of the A6 Hobonichi planner. (Thanks to Chase for bringing this to my attention.)

Backpocket Journals
Curnow Book and Leather sells these Field-Notes-sized journals in a three-pack for $12.50. Link leads to the Facebook page. To order, message them with what you want and your shipping info.
Reviews at Fountain Pen Geeks and Modern Stationer.

OwlStationers Notebooks
Passport Size: set of three, approx 3.45” x 4.88”, 80 unlined cream pages
Travelers Size: set of two, 80 unlined cream pages, kraft paper cover
Pocket Notebook: set of three, 3.5”x5.5”, 80 unlined cream pages, kraft paper cover

Ramay Davinci Binder System
Personal/Bible Size
in black, brown, and wine leather
Pocket Size in black, brown, and wine leather
This binder system contains monthly and weekly calendars, lined pages, and checklists all printed on Tomoe River paper. Note that address pages are printed on Yupo synthetic paper so they are water- and stain-resistant (and probably incompatible with a lot of fountain pen inks). JetPens has a wide variety of refills available at prices from $2.90 to $4.60 per pack.

Stateside Co. Notebooks
Link to Kickstarter page. A totally customizable notebook with a cover made of French Paper Co. paper in lunch bag brown or dark grey, die-cut with the shape of whatever state (or country!) you choose. During the ordering process, you pick a color, a size, the state you want die-cut on the front, the kind of paper inside (blank, grid, dot-grid, or lined), and an inscription for the sleeve. A dream come true? Almost, were it not for the fact that apparently the backers’ rewards have been delayed due to a fire that destroyed all the TR paper. TRAGIC. Still, I’m definitely keeping an eye on these guys and I’ll update as soon as I hear more. (Thanks to the Modern Stationer for the tip.)

NEEDS

~ The biggest Tomoe River void to be filled is that of alternate rulings. Almost all available formats of the paper are blank, with the exception of a very few in a 7mm ruling. Many of us prefer a narrower line for our small handwriting – a 6mm or even 5.5mm would be amazing. (Imho, the only thing keeping the Seven Seas “Writer” from being the perfect journal is its wide rule.)

~ Similarly, TR paper in graph or dot-grid is apparently nonexistent. Personally, I’d leap tall buildings in a single bound and spend copious amounts of money on such a product. Currently you can find a few small pocket-notebooks on the Hobonichi website, if you must satisfy a craving for dot-grid TR paper!

~ More TR paper pocket notebooks! I adore my Field Notes, but anybody who makes a 6mm ruled, graph, or dot-grid TR pocket book is almost certainly going to unhorse good ol’ Field Notes from my NockCo Hightower. (Except the Colors editions. I am a die-hard subscriber.)

~ Different covers would be excellent. Currently, there are luxury leather bindings or the cheapest paper covers with very little in between. The Hobonichi planners, however, are insertable into a wide variety of beautiful covers made expressly for that purpose.

Thanks for reading. Let me know of any additions/corrections that need to be made!