Tools of the Trade

Tools 2.jpg
Old school.

You don’t need much to write, but you do need something, and perhaps the most obvious tools at your disposal might not be the best. Examine your options.


In this article we’ll look at:

  • Old school or digital?

  • Writing software

  • The writer’s notebook

  • Getting into the note-taking routine

Old school or digital?

Some writers, particularly poets, enjoy pen and paper and some novels are still written in longhand (the novelist Harlan Coben writes his first drafts on a notepad) but most writers who produce words in bulk use a computer. Today the computer is almost indispensable, not just for writing but as a research tool and a means of communicating with fellow writers, agents, publishers and producers and the like. Life can be very difficult without one. Technology is particularly useful for scriptwriters who can now automatically format their work using specialist software that leaves them free to concentrate on the words.

There is of course the third way — the typewriter, a machine that still has adherents. Authors who use a typewriter include Frederick Forsyth, Cormac McCarthy and Will Self. Some do it as matter of habit, others because it forces them to organise their thoughts before committing them to paper.

Despite the ubiquitousness of the computer you could still conceivably avoid modern technology altogether and send a hand-written manuscript to a printer with a manual letter-press. If this idea appeals check out an outfit like the Briar Press.

Writing software

If you’re new to writing software you might be confused by the terms ‘word processor’ and ‘text editor’. Word processing software (which from now on we’ll refer to as writing software) helps you compose a letter or write a manuscript, while text editors are typically used to compile computer languages such as HTML, though they can be used to write anything if you’ve a mind to.

The most successful writing software package is Microsoft Word, though its main strength is as a corporate workhorse serving the needs of office workers around the world. Although Word is widely used, the creative writer is unlikely to need many of the tabulating, graphics and mailing tools that Word contains and might be better off looking for something more tailored to their needs. You should be aware that some publishers accept manuscripts only in Word format (in the same way that many movie companies accept scripts only in Final Draft) but most writing software can export text in Word format so this requirement is not necessarily an obstacle to using something else.

Many writing software packages are free, for example Bean for Macintosh and Oracle’s OpenOffice productivity suite for both Macintosh and PC, but beyond these all-purpose writing applications there are other simpler packages aimed specifically at the creative writer. Some are deliberately cut-down to provide a distraction-free writing environment (for example iA Writer for Macintosh and iPad) while others include formatting options for scripts and outlining functions (see Getting started for more on outlining). One such is Celtx a free package (with a paid upgrade) for Mac and iPad that has templates for movie, theatre and audio scripts as well as novels, comics and story-boarding.

One creative writing application I’d personally recommend is Scrivener available for Mac, PC, and (unofficially) Linux. Scrivener is an extremely versatile package that’s ideal for planning and writing large creative projects. It has a number of outlining features (such as a virtual corkboard) and numerous formatting options including templates for screenplays, stageplays (in both US and UK formats) and radio productions. It can also export ebooks in ePub and Kindle formats.

The writer's notebook

Idea are like fleas: they bite you, grab your attention, then ping — they vanish. To stop your ideas escaping, trap them in a notebook. It’s tempting to think that if an idea is any good you’re bound to remember it, but what about all the things you make an effort to remember (facts, dates, names) and forget anyway. If you forget the important stuff what chance does a stray thought have?

Any stationary outlet will sell you attractive notebooks in endless variety, but if a traditional jotter doesn’t appeal, there are plenty of electronic alternatives. Even the cheapest mobile phone will usually have a note-taking function and there are dozens of sophisticated note-taking apps for smartphones. The most important thing is to make an effort to write down the notes in the first place, then keep at it. You don’t even have to write down pesky words if you don’t want to. Pretty much any smartphone will have a dictation app on it.

The more effort you put into note taking, the more useful it becomes. Anything you jot down might be handy someday. How and why you don’t know yet, but today’s scribbles might spark off a brilliant idea next week. The chapter Coming up with ideas emphasises the importance of thorough research to generate ideas, and keeping a notebook turns your whole life into a research project.

Getting into the note-taking routine

Many people are keen on note-taking at first, but then the novelty wears off and they lose interest. If you start off by writing reams and reams about every little thing you come across, the chances are you’ll soon get bored and give up. To avoid this kind of burn-out deliberately rein yourself in. When you first start using your notebook limit yourself to ten words on each entry — you don’t need to write much, just enough to jump-start your memory.


If you start to find note-taking a chore, set yourself a daily target for entries. Each day should expose you to at least one noteworthy event or discovery. Setting yourself a minimum of one entry per day at a maximum of ten words per entry should be enough to establish a routine you can build on.

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