Just like a carpenter, a writer needs a toolbox.
Even someone as successful and prolific as Stephen King recognizes the need. He talks about it in On Writing. Throughout my writing career, I’ve usually just thought of tools as reference books, but they’re more than that.
Different types of writers will have different things in their toolbox just as a framing carpenter and a finishing carpenter will have some different tools. These days, many writing tools can be electronic.
Let’s look at some tools I think every writer should have.
This is a must-have whether it be hard-copy or electronic, but make sure it is a good one. I find it more convenient to have a printed Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary close at hand when I’m writing since I often write offline. Online dictionaries include Merriam-Webster and the Cambridge Free Dictionaries. (I avoid online dictionaries because they have diversions, such as word quizzes, that I find hard to avoid.) These also offer a thesaurus and even audio pronunciation. Microsoft Word has a “lookup” function which is pretty good, too.
Dictionaries make sure you understand what a word means so you use it correctly, and they help with spelling. (Spellcheck can only take you so far.) Dictionaries help make sure you are using a word as the correct part of speech. Is it an adverb or an adjective? They also provide proper forms for irregular verbs. (To me, “I seen” is like someone running their nails across a chalkboard!)
A thesaurus can save the character of your work because it helps you find just the right word to express what you want to say. Again, there are hard copy and electronic versions available. Roget’s Thesaurus is the most popular.
But beware! You can get yourself into a lot of trouble if you don’t understand the connotation – the “flavor” – of a word. Words like house, home, and abode mean the same thing, but evoke different emotions. Someone reading a heartwarming story will react badly when she reads, “Fifi had finally made it back to her abode.” It’s like a sour note.
Usage and Style Manuals
English usage manuals solve those pesky grammar and punctuation questions. They explain when to use “who” and “whom” or if you should use a comma or a semicolon. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White is the leading reference for American English.
Another word of caution – English is an ever-evolving language and sticking strictly to “proper” English can get you into trouble. (“To whom are you speaking?” vs. “Who are you speaking to?”) Sometimes common use overrides the “rules.”
Style manuals – AP, MLA, Chicago, or APA – are used for different types of writing. Each is designed to keep the writing style and format consistent. Inconsistent mechanics slow down readers we want to keep focused on meaning.
Even if you do most of your writing longhand, you’re going to need to type it in order to submit it. The age of electronic communication pretty much dictates that content be in an electronic format, too.
There are lots of software out there; some specialize in specific outcomes like Windows Live Writer for blogs. Microsoft Word is one of the most widely popular general use programs. It provides functions to accommodate specific formats such as PDF, web, and blogs. Check to make sure things like hyperlinks still work after you convert content.
For those on a tight budget, Apache Open Office provides a free, downloadable software suite that includes a good word-processing offering.
These are my must-haves for any writer, but there are tools that are nice to have to make a writer’s life easier:
· Templates, useful for formatting writing done repeatedly.
· Subject-specific reference materials, such as funding lists for grant writers.
· A writing group or writing buddy. (I’m not fond of listing people as tools, but it’s always nice to have at least one other set of eyes to look over your writing.)
I’ve outlined some writing tools I think are important, but I’m sure there are lots more. Let me know what tools you use to make your writing life easier!