The Writers Circle: Tools of the Trade

One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

What tools do you use for writing? Does your preferred tool change based on what style or form you are writing? Does your choice of tools change between your first draft and your final draft?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

24 thoughts on “The Writers Circle: Tools of the Trade

  1. I’ve started hundreds of stories, most of which have never gone beyond a few pages before I lose interest, at least for the moment. What I find, when I go back and look them over again, is that the ones I love the most are pen-and-paper efforts with scratched out chunks and a better, more appropriate word occasionally squeezed in here and there. Even when these get transcribed to the computer, they still come through as the ones that come from the gut, and from the heart.

    • I do the exact same thing. The pen to paper ones are usually the ones that I had to get written down, right then, and thus have a little more drive in them. I always edit as I go when typing which is a bad habit and takes away from the creative thought process.

    • anitascribbles & ashley,
      I do the same. It’s the internal editor problem — when I”m on my computer I edit as I create. This works for me in nonfiction / academic paper. But to get anything good that doesn’t come prepacked with a structure I need to squash that internal critic but good. Pen to paper and scribbling as fast as my thoughts flow does it. Sounds like that’s what you need as well — to gag the editor inside you mind and shove him/her into the closet until the story is done.

  2. For scripts, I use Celtex (, which has a free desktop version. It has new features for storyboarding and such but I’ve never tried them. Overall, it has been very helpful and really quite easy to use for almost all script formats.

    For poetry, short stories and novels, I basically use Microsoft Word. I don’t bother with anything fancier than a Heading 1 or Heading 2 to manage table of contents type stuff, otherwise it’s just normal text. If you’re easily distracted by the formatting options, then MS Word probably isn’t for you.

    I’ve used Microsoft OneNote for capturing poetry that pops into my head while out and about (easy to use on a windows phone, for example). It automatically date/time stamps the writing so you can keep a good handle on when things were written down.

    Since my life really revolves around my kids’ lives, I often will be writing with pen and paper. I like it because it is freeing and because I lose the distractions of the internet and email and the like. Plus, when I then turn around and type it in, I can edit as I go and it doesn’t slow me down from the creative process. The worst part about writing by hand, though, is that my handwriting is terrible. Also, if I can’t remember a fact or if I am working on the next section of a longer work which I don’t have with me, I can’t refer back to remember where I am in the story.

    So, I don’t know. Basically, I use whatever tools I have at hand, but overall my favorite writing tool right now is MS Word. I have heard some other tools that are specifically designed for writing novels are far superior, but I have not had time to get in and actually learn them. I’ve installed them and pulled them open but had no idea where to start… and that’s when I turned them off and went back to MS Word.

  3. I used to do all my first drafts with a pen and paper but then I always found it annoying when I typed it al up later and decided that I hated everything so I wouldn’t even type up the whole thing. These days, I only do my planning on paper (plain, with a pencil where possible) and just start typing straight away. I always try and not re-read over anything until I’ve fininshed the finished the entire first draft so that I feel more compelled to save it and turn it into rather than hitting delete.

  4. 1. For beginnings: The shower, driving…all help with ideation. When I’m on the road I use the voice memo feature on my iPhone to record ideas so I don’t forget them.

    2. For characterization and mood setting: Music on my iPhone – I listen to music to inspire the inhabiting of a character from the inside out, often creating “soundtracks” for short stories to play while I write.

    3. For continuing and finishing: Stress and deadlines. Classes provide good deadline angst. I’m a die-hard UCLA Extension Writers’ Program fan – they have lots of remote classes, and I haven’t taken a single class that didn’t pay out with invaluable tips and learning. Less costly workshops can be found at LitReactor, with some of the same instructors for shorter durations.

    4. Rewrites: a) Workshops are critical, I thrive on feedback from peers and instructors. b) To get some distance from my own work without the benefit of time, I often reformat the story to look like a magazine piece, so I can pretend to discover it for the first time. (e.g. two column, single space). c) I download and use different typefaces for the same reason. I like Electra and Miller Text Roman which is a New Yorker type face. If you’re on a budget, I think Georgia is very similar to Miller and comes with Word for Mac (and maybe PC too). It’s surprising how different your work looks using various fonts and layouts.

    5. Finally, I have some key “notes to self” hanging up in my writing area. Just a few notes on scene and characterization so they “pop” every time I look at them (e.g. Scene should include and Objective, Goal, Action – and something changes; make sure Characters have a Goal, Secret, Vulnerability, Contradiction). I also have pages and pages of notes on Craft that I’ve gathered through the years of taking classes.

    6. For screenplays, Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” beats can’t be beat: Opening Image, Theme Stated, Setup, Catalyst, Debate, Break into Act II, B Story, Fun and Games, Midpoint, Bad Guys Close In, All is Lost, Dark Night of the Soul, Break into III, Finale, Final Image. I’ve been applying a good deal of screenwriting theory to my novel as well! Sorry for long post. I’m looking forward to reading others’ comments! Cheers.

    • You make a great point about classes. (And thanks for the tip on where to find remote classes. I’m almost at the point of having time.) But classes take time, outside of just writing. Are other ways to get hard, external deadlines? (Looking for other posters to add in here too.)

  5. Admittedly I am a novice, having only just begun. But I have found that what comes to me naturally as far as ideas go tend to be the projects I look forward to most. I also have found myself creating a path, or outline, of my story before I begin writing.

    I definitely picked up on a few tips having read peoples comments, thank you! I shall put them to good use.

  6. Anita, so many writers and writing instructors advise pen and paper to begin the creative process, because for many people it’s more intuitive. I used to write on lined paper, and my handwriting was only a tad less legible than my transcription to a typewriter (OK, a long, long time ago in another galaxy.) Then a friend typed it for me in legible typing. Now I find the soreness from handwriting makes it impossible for me to pen-write more than a few sentences before the whole thing falls into messy and unreadable scribbles and my hand cramps into a monster’s paw. I use Word and find it easy. Each book has many support files, and as long as I title them accurately, I can always find my notes. If you like handwriting as the process that’s closest to your soul, get yourself a stack of journals and go for it.

    • Shari – a friend recently said that using the larger pens – larger circumfrence fountain pens – really reduced hand pain from writing. Might be an option for you to try, if you want to pen-write.

      • Thanks, Kristen, I already knew about those grips and they’re a good idea. What I didn’t explain is that I’m also an artist. Painting allows me to hold brushes a bit differently than a pen or pencil, so I can usually paint for a long time with minimal cramping. But drawing requires the same tool position as writing so I prefer to save my hand for artwork.I sometimes add a chunky pencil grip to art pencils and often wear a brace at night to relieve the pain along with Advil. But I’ve also learned – no, forced myself – to type without correcting every little boo boo until I get to the end. That prevents some of the disconnect between creativity and writing, at least for me. And I’m finally a better typist so that helps too. The biggest plunge for me was recognizing the long dormant writing muse and letting her out of the dark cell at the end of my insecurities. Now she won’t shut up and I love her.

        • Hi Shari, I definitely get that, as I’m an artist, too, so I very much understand saving your grip for artwork. 🙂 I’m glad you’ve found your muse – mine was asleep for a very long time as well, until I began dating a writer, and it woke her up again.

        • Shari, have you tried timed writing as a way to write without editing? I’ll be honest here, it doesn’t work for me, but a version did for my July challenge. I set a word minimum that I had to reach before doing anything that day. Given that I have an external alarm (Mommy, are you done yet? Are you done yet?) that pretty much forced me to be organic (rather than critical) and just write the da- er, blasted – scene in the shortest amount of time.

          • Thanks for the idea, Jessica. Timed writing is something worth trying, though I cringe a bit at that kind of structure. I may even try the Pilot pen that Heather wrote about in her post today, and I have a stack of journals given as gifts. But I’m pretty good about writing to the muse. Music helps. I sit down and let it pour out of me, even on computer, and am content to let my 2 creative sides be separated between pen and pencil for artwork and keyboard for writing.
            My external alarms are a little different from yours, given than my munchkins are grown up now. My current alarms are the other stuff that must get done, family business attended to, a yard that demands a lot of hands on, among others. Not nearly as sweet as yours but just as demanding.

  7. I love pencil-and-paper writing and since the April Camp NaNoWriMo have done almost full drafts that way. I have certain types of pencils and pads I like but whenever an idea, word, or sentence snippet hits, anything will do so long as I capture it!

    After getting whatever-it-is down on paper, I type it (sometimes editing/changing as I go). If the idea really starts to flow again while I’m typing, I will sometimes continue the story then. I find that I dislike it when this happens because I end up going back and forth between the typed and written versions. It doesn’t always happen that way (fortunately).

    As far as the typing bit, I tend to stick with Word but most recently started using Scrivener. I don’t know all the in’s and out’s of it yet, but I’m learning as I go. I have even gotten so brave as to import some of my Word docs into it so I have one common repository. The only downfall I see is that I can’t access Scrivener anywhere; I wish they had a cloud app or a shared folder in which certain works could be stored–that way, if I’m on my tablet and get an idea or am on another computer I can add it in the right place.

    • I wrote the whole of my first draft in notebooks. I even wrote the end of the story about a quarter of the way through, drew a box around it and labelled it, “Ending”. There’s something about writing with a pencil and notepad. Not sure what it is, but it just feels right 🙂

  8. Using Word from the start was my method of choice until recently. I find now that writing it out longhand helps me stay in the flow of my story (which I’ve already “lived out” in my imagination, so I rarely write an outline or plan before just beginning the story), so I’m not stopping and editing too much as I go. My biggest problem with that was having to have a different notebook for different stories, or running out of room. I found that very frustrating, and it would stall me altogether. Recently, my fiance, Dale, showed me a notebook from Staples that you can build yourself – take sections out, add others in…I never run out of room now, and that frustration is gone – so I’m free to keep writing! 🙂

    For beginning ideas, I have a section in the notebook, but if I’m out and about, I will use a notes app on my phone so I don’t forget the thought.

    Currently, I’m transcribing onto Word a novel that I’m writing in my notebook, and am about 1/3 of the way through. I think I’m liking this process much better than starting initially in Word.

  9. One tool I love is ‘research’. Whenever I get stuck, I dig around to see what the neighborhood looks like (with Google Earth) or see if there’s some interesting history. It always sends me directions I didn’t plan on–and always good. I wish I could visit my sites, but just can’t do it so I use the internet.

  10. I guess it doesn’t matter much if you use a legal pad and Bic pen or MS Word on your laptop; everyone will find what they are most comfortable with and very well might utilize a combination of a number of things. One “tool” that I very much recommend is getting involved with a writer’s group, either structured or loose. Many community colleges have writing courses that you can use for feedback. I’ve done that and explained to the instructor my intention and as long as I was willing to dedicate myself to the class in its entirety, they haven’t had a problem. It actually provides a secondary benefit in that you have many chances to read critically the work of other writers in the group and discuss pieces that are growing.

    If there isn’t that possibility, try starting a group on your own. Talk to your local bookstore and see if they’d support such a little startup community. is a place to advertise your group or find one that is already going.

  11. I have to say my preferred ‘tool’ for actually writing down stories and ideas is definitely my laptop. I find that my ideas flow much more naturally if I’m typing them, when I hand write I tend to continuously stop and edit, which disrupts the flow. I also do the majority of my planning in either word, exel or even notebook (depending on what sort of planning it is), and then organise everything into nice neat folders so that everything is in the one place. As a result of this, I have almost all of my writing drafts and planning notes for my novel from 2008 in the one place! Seeing as I’m a uni student, I almost always have my laptop on me (it’s also my preferred method of notetaking in lectures), so it’s pretty easy for me to whip it out and jot down my ideas. The only time I really use pen and paper is when I’m doing language planning or creating maps of my world (which is quite important in fantasy writing I think). Or if my laptop is dead…

    For me though, my most important tool(s) are my big black ring binders that hold excerpts from stories (both typed and hand written), planning notes, editing notes, pictures, envelopes with ideas jotted on them from when I had nothing else to write on, and pretty much anything else to do with my writing. These allow me to look back on my creative process (as my initially novel idea has been constantly growing and changing over the past 5 years), keep track of good ideas and provide some inspiration whenever I’ve got a bit of writer’s block.

  12. I have always wanted to keep things simple. I am more bent upon to focus more on the writing part; and hence I use the basic Microsoft Word. Of course, of what help would a tool be if you are not serious about the real part; about the writing!

  13. Me, I’ve always written via software, right from the start. Probably because my previous career was tech based, and handwriting becomes too painful at large lengths. My favourite tools are my laptop, and iPAD, with various writing, organisation and note-taking apps like Scrivener. I do turn to paper for things like diagrams, floormaps, mindmaps and doodles to get the creative muse going.

  14. The above reply comment from me looks a bit like experimental poetry. Sorry, I should have shifted it over.

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