When I first started writing, it was just me, a ninety-nine cent pen, and a cheap spiral-bound notebook. Using those tools, I wrote dozens of poems, stories, and journal entries.
These days, I’m surrounded by far more sophisticated writing tools: fancy pens and journals, a computer with writing software, a library of writing resources, and the internet.
My writing has come a long way since I was a thirteen-year-old curled up on the floor with a pen, a notebook, and my imagination. Certainly, experience and studying did a lot to help me write better, but did these newfangled tools also improve my writing?
Yes and no.
I think a few writing tools do help us write better, but for the most part, tools make writing easier or more comfortable. They don’t improve our writing, but they do improve our writing process.
For a closer look at the tools that are available to us, and their benefits, I’d like to present a few excerpts from my book, 10 Core Practices for Better Writing. These excerpts are from “Chapter 8: Tools and Resources.”
“It’s best to have your tools with you.” – Stephen King
Where would we writers be without our tools and resources? From cheap pens and notebooks to expensive word-processing software, from thick reference books to online databases packed with facts and information, our tools and resources are both bane and boon. Love them or hate them, one thing is certain: if you’re a writer, you need them.
When we are striving to improve our writing, the act of writing and all the skills that go into craftsmanship are just one piece of the puzzle. We need a place to write, tools to write with, writing references to consult, and research material to cite.
Every writer will develop personal preferences—a favorite writing spot, preferred writing instruments, and a host of trusty resources. These things might not directly improve your writing, but they will make your experience and your process more enjoyable and more efficient.
When you are fully equipped with the writing tools and resources you need to get your job done, you’ll do your job better.
Your Writing Tools
Writers’ tools may seem obvious: a pen, notebook, computer, and writing software like Scrivener and Microsoft Word are the basics.
But technology has opened up a wider range of tools that we can use, and not all of them are designed just for writing.
Lots of modern products cater to personal preferences. You might prefer a thick pen with a sturdy grip and steady ink flow, or maybe you’d rather work with disposable pens so you don’t have to worry about losing them. Maybe an expensive notebook with archival-quality paper forces you to put more thought into your writing, or perhaps you’re more comfortable with a cheap notebook so you don’t have to worry about making mistakes or messing up an expensive blank book.
Your preferences might be based on your budget or your personal taste. As with most things we do as writers, you have to find which writing tools work best for you.
Here are some basic tools that most writers use:
- Pens: Choices include ball-point pens, fountain pens, pencils, highlighters, and markers. I like to keep a few red pens around for editing.
- Notebooks: Blank books, journals, and notebooks come in various sizes and with a range of quality in the paper. You can also get hardcover or softcover, spiral or perfect bound, blank pages or lined pages.
- Office supplies: You might need supplies to help you organize your writing notes and materials: binders, file folders, labels, tab dividers, staplers or paper clips, and binder clips (for securing large manuscripts) are just a few examples of office supplies that might come in handy.
- Hardware: The typewriter gave way to the computer. Now we also use tablets, smart phones, and e-readers.
- Software: Microsoft Word is the industry standard, but Scrivener is the writing software preferred by most of today’s authors. Other popular software includes Pages (by Apple), text programs (like TextEdit or Notepad) and online, cloud-based software such as Google Drive (formerly Google Docs).
- Apps: There’s a huge range of apps for writers, including dictionaries, thesauri, encyclopedias, e-books, voice-to-text, and recording apps, plus apps for ideas and inspiration. One of my favorite apps is Scapple, a brainstorming app created by Literature and Latte, makers of Scrivener.
Whatever tools you use, if you’re writing electronically (and you probably are, otherwise you will eventually), make sure you have a backup system in place. An external hard drive is ideal for backups and there are online backup systems you can purchase as well. Ideally, you’ll store backups off-site (keep a backup at a friend’s house or store it online).
Be judicious when shopping for your tools. One great way to preview various writing tools is to shop online. You can read reviews by other customers and get a sense of the product’s features and flaws. It’s also easier to do price comparisons online.
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself about collecting tools. Some people will use their lack of the proper tools as an excuse not to write (I can’t afford this expensive software right now, so I can’t start my novel). All you need to get started is a pen and notebook. You probably already have access to a computer. Remember that, ultimately, writing is about getting the words down. The tools we collect just make the process easier or more comfortable.
What are some of your favorite writing tools? Do the tools you use improve your writing or make your writing process easier? Do they help you write better?
Similar to Kris, I think the ability to make good notes at any time is essential. We’ve all felt the dread that accompanies losing a brilliant idea, and the fear that we won’t get it back. I often use my smartphone app, Evernote to do this. It’s a powerful note-making tool that syncs between your phone and computer. This way, when I come back to write at my computer later, my notes are already compiled for me and I don’t have to transfer them.
Thanks for the tips, Melissa!
I’m already in the habit of using notebooks for random ideas, but I do have Evernote and I think that a smartphone app like that holds a lot of potential for writers. Thanks for adding that idea to this list, Tim.
I have several writing apps on my phone. I’m never without it, so wherever I am I can make notes and email them to myself. I also have five different apps for reading books. Reading is one of the best writing tools I can think of. I never go anywhere without on (or ten).
Yes, apps are becoming pretty standard for writers, especially when we’re on the go. You can also use a voice-recording app, which allows you to write while you’re driving, walking, or exercising. Pretty awesome!
I like using mechanical pencils or gel ink pens best. Writing in a nice spiral does make me feel more creative. Used to, I just wrote on loose notebook paper. I don’t mind my laptop, but somedays it just feels better for copying onto than actually writing on.
I love spiral notebooks. I use hard-bound journals too, but something about a spiral notebook seems to bring out my creativity. Maybe it’s just in my head!
I as well, am attached to several different tools of the trade. I will always rely on my spiral note books, filed with notes, character names, and everything else I think of along the way that I believe will help get the novel finished. I wrote my first published work’s rough draft, completely with paper and pencil. Now after working it through on the computer, I well see how modern technology has made the whole process quicker and easier. I also use writing software. The yWriter download (developed by Simon Haynes of Australia, author of the Spacejock series) has been invaluable at keeping things in order. I do believe though that all of the most modern tools in the world cannot create a great work, if the capability to tell a great story in the correct manner are not in the abilities of the author.
I have to say that one thing about writing longhand, which is a huge drag, is that eventually, we need to transfer our work to the computer. That alone is a good argument for doing as much work as possible in any of these wonderful writing programs that are now available. You’re right — all the tools in the world will not lead to a manuscript or a masterpiece. That has to come from within.
I do the same thing. A writer can’t have enough pens and notebooks!
I don’t like writing in computer at all.Writing with a pencil in notebook is a lot nicer.But this article rocks!!!
Thanks, Diya. Most writers say they like to use pens over pencils. I have to admit that as I get older, I lean more and more toward the computer — if for no other reason than using it means I don’t have to type up my work later 😉
I have started using Google Docs. I actually eliminated Microsoft words from my computer and cleared up a ton of room. Now I do all my editing in the cloud. While Google doesn’t met my search needs as much anymore, some of their apps are still very useful. I like being able to move between computers freely and not being attached to my desktop or laptop to access my work.
Dropbox is also good for this if people want a product to sync their work across devices.
I love the idea of using Google Docs but I’m not that comfortable with the cloud yet, and it lacks certain features that I need when I’m doing client work, so unfortunately, I can’t delete Word just yet. Also, I occasionally encounter problems with the internet and need to be able to access and open my documents without an internet connection. I think in the coming years, I’ll move more toward the cloud, but I’d like to see a viable replacement for Word that doesn’t require an internet connection. Google definitely provides some wonderful tools for writers, webmasters, and everyone else!
Beautiful and interesting post Melissa! I always tend to do most of my writing free hand and then type it up.
That’s how I write poetry, too. There’s definitely something about writing longhand that feels more creative.
It’s interesting to think about the tools I use daily. I write fiction on my computer, for the most part, but I use googledocs for everything, but I also have a journal (moleskin) that I write in daily using my Tul pens from Office Max. Nothing works right if I don’t have the right pens or journal. Either way, tools are no excuse for not writing! Thanks for the post!
Whenever I start thinking about the tools I use for writing, I end up assessing them to figure out if I could use fewer tools or better tools, and that often leads to developing a more efficient system. While sometimes it’s frustrating when we don’t have the tools we want, it’s definitely not an excuse to avoid writing. Thanks for commenting!
While I do understand where you are going, I am surprised you didn’t refer to anything to clear the mind as well. It is the ultimate tool, and spending time sharpening it will only magnify the ability to use these physical tools far better.
As far as your question, I know I do a back of the envelope sketch, send it through my Excel spreadsheet to know where the story breaks down for each point, determine the archetypes in modern terms with some books that I have, and then write.
Not really into the apps too much, other than to monitor my progress and make things happen.
Matthew – I think you make a good point and one that people often overlook. I do, though, personally also need some tools which range from index cards for early plotting through to Scrivener and some spreadsheets.
I get what you’re saying, but I wouldn’t consider the mind a tool in the technical sense that this post addresses. This post is about the physical tools that we use for writing. The book this post is excerpted from includes a chapter on creativity and inspiration, and that’s where keeping the mind sharp and healthy is addressed. It is definitely important!
Though I like to compose on the keyboard just for speed, I do my pre-write and journal writing on paper with a Papermate Profle pen. Can’t leave off the paper. 🙂 When I first got serious about it, I got a few doo-dads to write on or with. Now, I tell beginning writers to use what they have and don’t spend the money until they a) know what they want/need and b) know they will stick with it. Thanks, Melissa!
In recent years, I’ve moved more to the computer and my journals and notebooks don’t see as much action as they once did. However, I cannot give them up entirely. I absolutely must brainstorm, outline, and make notes in a paper notebook. I also use index cards for characters and chapters or scenes, and although I have software that will do the same thing, I found that I need to hold the cards and shuffle them around, jot notes, and doodles on them. I believe that the tactile nature of working with paper stimulates creativity, but that’s just a theory. I don’t know if anyone has ever proven it. Great comment, Robyn!
I quite agree with you that having the right tools to help a lot, but let me say that sofware doesn’t provide with talent. One has it or has it not. But on these days, many have turned to be writers because of computers. I only use mine if I’ve to submit something, but I always do a handwrtten draft where takes my fancy -in bed, in the park or in a coffee-shop. I really enjoy reading your site. Thanks to provide with such useful tool.
Thanks for your comment, Vicky. I think talent is overrated. I do agree that technology and the internet has made a bunch of people think they can suddenly be writers. Some of them can. Others simply do not have the proper skills. I should note that I’m talking about copywriting here, where people are charging other people for writing services, but they don’t have adequate skills for the job. I’ve seen a lot of that over the years. However, I do think writing can be learned. Talent helps, but it is not nearly as essential as hard work and determination.
*What are some of your favorite writing tools? Do the tools you use improve your writing or make your writing process easier?*
I use an online app timer that is designed to nudge you and to keep you writing. As long as you keep typing all is well… but the moment you stop typing a beep sounds, nudging you back into action.
It has been really useful in helping me plow through any writers block and to stop me from taking unnecessary breaks mid-writing.
That sounds like a great app!