Writer’s Insights: What’s in My Writer’s Tool Kit?
Depending on who you talk to (and how old they are), they might tell you we’re living in the information age. Or maybe the digital era. Or something to this effect. At any rate, what they mean is we’re currently living in an era super-powered by technology and technological advances. At risk of dating myself, I remember dial-up modems and VHS tapes and casettes. My parents remember “party-line” telephones and typewriters.
We’ve come a long, long way, is what I’m saying.
As a result, today’s writers are faced with a bold new world. We’ve retired our quills and parchment for apps and cloud computing. Traditional publishing and bricks-and-mortar bookstores are giving way to an era of indie self-pub and eBooks.
There are probably more writers today than ever before, owing to many different influences: ease of access, technology, self-publishing options, reduced costs, increased royalties, and more highly educated people. (The latter also influences the number of readers.) There’s a market for writing tools and as such, there’s a plethora of different products aimed at the writing market.
With so many different tools and programs being marketed at you, it can be difficult to discern what you really need. Here’s a peak into my “tool kit,” which might give you some ideas about what to adopt into your own writer’s tool kit.
1. Pen and Paper
Remember when I said writers have traded in their quill and parchment? I may not be using a feather, but I do still keep pen and paper handy. I don’t use it much, but there’s always a chance you’ll need to jot something down. While many of our technologies can travel with us, there’s something comforting about having a pen and paper nearby. There’s no need to worry if the battery’s going to die or if my program crashes. It goes everywhere with me, including to water parks or beaches.
There’s also the added bonus that people are less likely to be able to read what you’re writing when you’re using pen and paper. My handwriting is pretty neat, but I can make it messier if I want to. I also use a ridiculous, self-invented shorthand, so good luck to the brave souls who want to try to decipher my handwritten work as they peer over my shoulder on the train.
Pen and paper also has other advantages. It’s been shown we engage more deeply with words when they’re on a physical piece of paper. If you’ve ever sat down to write an essay, a story, or an article and just ended up staring at the blank Word document, that could be part of the problem.
2. A Word Processor
For a very long time in my house, we ran an ancient computer. It did not connect to the Internet. It used floppy disks. It ran .Ms DOS. We ran that until 2001. Yes. We were stuck in the 1980s until after the new millennium in my house.
We used a word processor called “WordPerfect,” which had white text on a blue background. It was impossibly simple, especially compared to today’s word processors. In school, we also used WordPerfect, because the company that made it was a Canadian company based out of Ottawa, and they’d secured a sweet government deal to teach all of us Canadian kids WordPerfect instead of Word.
I never encountered Word until we got our third computer, which was a brand-new 2003 machine running Windows XP. Until then, I’d only ever used WordPerfect. I didn’t understand my classmates’ complaints about WP being difficult to use or “unlike” Word. (I still don’t quite understand, since the two, in my experience, are relatively similar). I’ve now fully switched over to Word, as have my parents. On my iPad, however, I use Pages. I’ve also used OpenOffice.
What I’m getting at is you do have options when it comes to picking a word processor. Word might be the most common, but it’s not the only one that exists. Nonetheless, you need to pick at least one. This is likely what you’ll do most of your writing in. I’m using Word to write this blog right now. Most publishers will request Word files (or something they can convert to Word files).
Your word processor doesn’t need to be state-of-the-art or super-fancy. It can be basic. Just makes sure it handles italics in place of underlining and we’ll probably be friends.
3. A Writing Program
Okay, now we’re getting a little bit more fancy. I’m an advocate for keeping things simple, so I’m quick to argue you don’t need anything fancier than Word or even a pen and paper to do your writing in this day and age. Nonetheless, there are some fancy writing programs on the market, and some people swear by them.
Ulysses and Scrivener are likely the two big names in this category. I’m testing Ulysses now, but I’ve used (and am using) Scrivener. I picked Scrivener primarily because I heard it exported very clean ePub files (and InDesign is driving me nuts with the amount of clean-up I have to do after conversion).
I can’t say I’ve been impressed with Scrivener. Yes, it has some additional features, like the ability to add character profiles and research notes and place/setting notes and keep it altogether. It has some different templates, and you can edit in line and export your file in a number of different formats.
Overall, however, I find it a lot of hype for relatively little pay-off. I don’t make much use of most of the features, and I’ve found the program a bit difficult to get on to. Some of the functions seems to be buried. I’ve yet to export a truly clean ePub file from it either.
Why would I recommend having a writing program in your tool kit? You may find the features useful, and these programs are likely the way of the future. I’ve heard many authors and editors laud Scrivener as superior to Word, so it could be Word documents will be going the way of the dinosaur in the publishing world of the future. Best to start learning one of these suckers before push comes to shove.
4. An eBook Maker
If you are self-publishing, please get an eBook-making program.
I noticed the other day Amazon’s KDP now recommends using PDF files for their print service, not Word documents. It used to be the case that they actually discouraged PDFs, because they had to convert them for eBook use. Word documents were easier to turn into a Kindle eBook because Word doesn’t allow you to have all the same fancy formatting as a print book file. As a publishing professional, this hate-on for PDFs drove me nuts, because the proper way to make a book in this day and age is to typeset your book, run a PDF, and convert to an eBook.
I use InDesign for my typesetting, which gets me print PDFs. InDesign is also capable of making eBooks, but it’s kind of shit at it. As mentioned, one of the reasons I wanted to try Scrivener was to make better eBook files. What I run out of InDesign requires a lot of reformatting, so if Scrivener or another program can run cleaner files, by all means. I’m a fan of anything that allows me to spend less time mucking around in lines of HTML/XML.
Of course, I haven’t had much success yet, so I’m still mucking with InDesign-generated files. Even if I do find a program that will give me cleaner eBook files, I’d still keep an eBook making program on hand. My favorite so far is Calibre.
Calibre is Mac-compatible and free. It’s also relatively easy to use.
5. Basic HTML Knowledge
The last time I actively took a course about HTML (or any programming really), it was 2003. While the web has changed a lot and programming has evolved, my dusty old HTML knowledge still serves me well. I can’t write you pretty CSS and I only know about perl because one of my friends was learning it, but eBooks are based on HTML.
I don’t care what program you’re using and how clean the files are, please have some basic knowledge of HTML before you make an eBook.
6. A Typesetting Program
InDesign doubles as my typesetting program. I use it to typeset my books for print and eBook, then run both the print PDF and initial eBook files off the program.
If you’re not doing print, you might consider an eBook maker sufficient. It may well be. Some eBook makers are also masquerading as typesetting programs, however. One of these is Vellum. I prodded around at Vellum and ultimately decided it wasn’t worth it. It came with eight templates and cost more than InDesign’s yearly subscription. InDesign gives me complete creative control when it comes to designing my books, so no thank you, overpriced template-maker.
That said, if you don’t already know InDesign, it can be a frustrating thing to use. (Heck, I know it and it still acts up—see my eBook making issues.) If you’re looking for something quick and easy, and you don’t mind the limited creativity, then an eBook maker/typesetting program could be your answer.
7. Good Research Skills
I’m working on a couple of historical novels at the moment. Historical fiction is particularly tricksy, because you actually need to do research. Fiction writers (actually, writers in general) can get a little sloppy when it comes to doing their research.
Unless you’re writing straight-up fantasy or sci-fi and you’re allowed to make everything up in the name of “world-building” or you lived the reality, then you’re probably going to have to do some research. Good research skills are not going to fail you here.
I’ve done a good deal of academic editing, so I’ve had my chance to hone my research skills. If you’re struggling, starting off on Wikipedia and checking out their references is almost never a bad idea. Google Scholar is another great resource.
8. Reading Material
Writers are readers, so you should have a stockpile of reading materials in your writer’s toolkit. Reading is like taking the master class in writing. Writing is the practical application of what you learn by reading other writers, so go ahead and take some time to read that book. You won’t regret it.
9. A Wild Imagination and Curiosity
The historical novels I mentioned stem out of some of my academic work. I got reading a book about the Vikings and thought, “What about Vikings … with an incubus?!” Another came about after reading a textbook on the Renaissance. A third manuscript I’m working on is high fantasy, which means I have a freer hand when it comes to making things up.
Curiosity is another important tool for any writer. Why? Even if you’re just writing about the mundane, everyday experiences, you’re in essence asking to explore those situations, the lived experiences of those people. You’re plumbing the depths of your own experience or imagining what it would be like to walk in someone else’s shoes. All great fiction begins with a “what if?”
10. A Good Grammar Guide
I’m an editor. I know spelling and grammar. I’m the person who corrects your work. And I still keep a grammar guide handy. In fact, I have several of them: The Transitive Vampire, Chicago Manual of Style, and The Copy Editor’s Handbook are all sitting on my shelf right now, should I ever need to refer to them.
A good grammar guide can be your best friend. Don’t leave this tool out of your writer’s tool kit.