stevemedcroft.com
3Jan/190

The Writer’s Essential Toolbox

Stephen King at his writing desk (sometime in the 80's)

I love looking at photographs of famous writer's desks. Seeing the way another creative person works is pruriently fascinating. I can't be the only one. Websites dedicated to sharing famous writer's workspaces exist. Hashtags exist (#writersdesk). Kurt Vonnegut's wife Jill Krementz produced a book of photographs of writer's working spaces (the Writers Desk).

These images are like porn for a writer. Is Stephen King's desk cluttered or organized? Did Hemmingway write in pencil or typewriter? Does Dean Koontz use notecards to plot stories? It is so interesting to look at these images and try to glean some hint, some epiphany that can help my own journey as a writer.

But for all I absorb this kind of imagery, obsession over how other people write is just another way we put off getting to work ourselves. The truth is that I have long settled into my own way of working. Looking for the silver bullet to getting writing done in photographs of other writer's workspaces is just another form of procrastination. I have what I need; a simple set of tools that are essential to me sitting down and getting my writing work done every day. Yes, I have a desk (three actually; one at each day-job engagement I have and one half of the big kitchen table at home). But the desk does not determine the flow of my work. I prefer to be mobile. I write wherever my butt and my brain happen to be when it's time to get the writing done. My workspace is virtual. My workspace is this set of tools:

Good, old-fashioned pen and paper: The most basic tool in my kit is a notepad and pen. To be a writer (to communicate in the medium of language), we don't need anything more than this. Paper and a pencil. A typewriter and a clean sheet of copy paper. A notepad and a pen. I keep my version of these tools close by at all times because even though I am digitally organized, as a writer, capturing ideas and thoughts at the moment they occur is critical to my writing process. So long as you have a pen and some paper close by, you have the most essential tools a writer needs to get started on any project. Mainly because I thrive under the stability of routine and known things, I am a bit particular on which notepad and pen I use; soft-sided, medium-sized, lined notepads from an Italian company called Legami (because I just fucking love them) and a LAMY Studio fountain pen with a medium nib and blue/black ink.

Any old computer: You can't post an article on the Internet using a pad and paper or submit a handwritten manuscript to a publisher or client, so a computer is essential to writing. I use the Microsoft Surface Pro because it's light, it has cellular service built in (which gives me Internet access anywhere whether there is WiFi available or not) and has a strong enough battery that I can work 5-6 hours without recharging. You don't need something fancy though. The great thing about being a writer (compared to say, a photographer or graphic designer) is that we need very little computing power. I've written on an iPad, at a library desktop computer, on whatever company machine was assigned to me in my day jobs, even my smartphone. Anything from the cheapest used laptop to the best credit will buy you will work.

A word processor: We lived in blessed times. There are so many options for word-processing software, that there is the perfect option for everyone out there. It almost doesn't matter which one you choose. For my work, I use one of four.

  • Microsoft Word - I use MS Word for my professional writing (copywriting, marketing pieces, and blog posts for business clients). It's the most widely-used word processor in business, so I can supply finished work in Word to any client without the problem of them being able to access it.
  • Scrivener - Have you heard of Scrivener? (What? You haven't? And you call yourself a writer?) Don't worry, I hadn't heard of it either, even after years of pursuing writing. Scrivener is a stand-alone word-processor and writing-organization system that is perfect for long projects (like novels or non-fiction books). Whereas Word is organized as a single document for each written work, Scrivener is organized as folders containing individual written files that make up longer work (like chapters in a book). As well as all the word-processing functions a writer needs, Scrivener provides tools to create outlines, synopsizes, and manage research material (among other things). It even provides the ability to output work in a variety of formats (so you can output formatted files for printing or publishing on all the available platforms). There's more but I can't do it justice in this small space. Check out Scrivener for yourself if you're serious about writing in long form.
  • WordPress - I built my personal website and my humanbeing.earth project both using the free web-publishing platform from WordPress.org. Its built-in editor is perfect for writing web posts. You can dynamically move blocks of text around to get the right flow, add images, videos, links, and every other element you need to make your work sing online. WordPress offers the ability to create and save drafts, to publish immediately, or schedule posts to go live at a specific future time. It manages versions. It's a powerful writing tool. I draft right into WordPress for content that is going to live on either website.
  • Google Docs - For personal journals or documents that I want to share, I use Google Docs instead of Word. It's free, works like a charm, allows you to create, edit, and share documents whether or not you have an Internet connection, or not. If you don't have access to any of the above and just need a word processor, I recommend Google Docs.
This is it - everything I need to do my writing.

Grammarly: When I started writing, just out of high school in the mid (ahem) 1980's, you spell checked and added diversity to your writing using a printed dictionary and thesaurus. Computer-based world processing, with spell check and grammar functions built in, saved us from that laborious task and made the printed reference all but obsolete. The spell check and grammar functions within Word (and other software tools) are robust and you don't need much more to put out clean copy, but I have recently adopted a tool called Grammarly and recommend it highly. Grammarly is a service you subscribe to that then plugs into your browser and word-processors like Microsoft Word which provides running guidance to help you perfect your written language skills. beyond basic spelling and grammar checking, Grammarly provides you with robust feedback on sentence structure and language-flow problems. You also get data on the kinds of mistakes you make repeatedly (words you use more often than needed, the fact that I miss that serial comma almost every time). Grammarly has been like getting critique-group or editorial feedback on my work as I write. While I don't follow every piece of advice the service gives up, but it informs my writing continuously and I feel my work is stronger after running it through Grammarly than before.

A camera: I know this is counter-intuitive, but every writer needs a basic camera. Why? I write short pieces for web publication on my own websites and to post on third-party publishing platforms like Medium and LinkedIn. Web articles need an image to draw the reader's attention. Sure, you can source images online (like the one at the top of this article), but to avoid rights and usage problems, you're better off using a picture you take yourself (like the one in the middle of this article). The good news is you probably already have the camera you need - your smartphone. Modern smartphone camera's take excellent pictures, plenty good enough for online publication. If you're writing for print, the images need to be of higher resolution. When I need something better, I have a fixed-lens Fuju X100T (the digital equivalent of the 35mm reporter's camera). I use GIMP and DarkTable, both free equivalents of Photoshop and Lightroom, for photo editing.

A process: The best tool I developed for my writing was a simple, repeatable process for getting my work done. I know this is outside of the realm of the what's-on-your-writing-desk nature of this article, but having a work process is just as essential to my writing as a laptop or the right software. We all struggle with getting our writing done. We procrastinate. We get busy with all the other aspects of life. It's hard to put your butt in your seat and fingers on the keyboard some days, but the only true way to progress as a writer is to write. You have to put down words, and put those words out into the world, to get better. I am old enough and wise enough to know where I am weak about writing. I am weak if I let myself get distracted before I work (when I check email, when I go to the office first, when I check in with the news). I am weak when I tell myself I'll write later, after I just do this one thing (or ten things) first. I am weak if I think I'll really, really focus on writing tomorrow. I am best and happiest when I write first thing in the morning, before I do anything else that day. I am strong when I use to the pomodoro method to focus. I am strong when I take a minute to start a writing session with a handwritten warm-up page in my notebook. I am strong when I already have a plan, a task list of writing that needs to be done. To take advantage of where I am strong, and to defend against where I am weak, I have developed an algorithm than I run every morning to get my writing done. I think of myself like a computer, a machine that just has to follow this programmed routine. All I have to do is show up to my writing space and follow the program. No thinking, no negotiation with myself, just show up and follow the instructions. The program works like magic. The writing gets done and I go off into the rest of the day with the sense of satisfaction that the most important thing i want to accomplish in life was done that day. So long as I execute this three-hour morning routine every day, I trust that time and intention will equal a great amount of progress in my writing.

Feedback: The last essential item in my minimalist writing toolbox is feedback. I identify myself as a writer, a human being who uses writing to communicate thoughts, concepts, knowledge, ideas, and stories to the world. I write just for myself occasionally, but my ambition is that my writing is to be read. It is meant to have an audience. Writing is, like Stephen King says, telepathic communication, transmissions of thought from one person to another. I put down thoughts from my mind. Someone reads them and inputs them into their mind. For writing to be effective, the original thought must transfer as comprehensivley as possible. The only way for a writer to know if their work is being received as intended is to hear back from the reader. What did they think of the message? Did they understand it? Did it lead them to wonder, to think, to be inspired? Or was it confusing or uninetresting? Feedback is the only way to develop as a writer.

That's it. Those are my writing essentials, my virtual version of a writer's desk. If I boiled my writing life down to the bare essentials, everything with a purpose and nothing unnecessary, these are the things I need to be a writer.

What about you? What's your desk? What tools are essential to your writing?

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