What do you keep in your writer’s tool belt?

Guest post by Manuela Boyle
I never thought I’d say this, but I envy plumbers.

They have a set of tools they need to do their job well, all shiny and useful, and they often wear them on their person, as if to say ‘I’m a plumber, I’m kitted out, and ready for work’.

If I could buy a writer’s tool belt, I would. It would probably be utilitarian in look and feel, made from thick red canvas, and have my initials embroidered on it in gold thread. In it, I’d keep the tools of my trade. Which, of course, will vary from writer to writer, but I’m sure you’ll see some tools on the list that I’m about to share with you that you recognise.

Whatever floats your boat

A word of warning before we go any further: sometimes our tool belt contains essential items which propel our writing forward, help us when we get a bit stuck, and are fundamental to the act of writing.

Lurking in there also are crutches… tools we don’t want to throw away because they make us feel comfy and safe, but can be bad for us and actually get in the way of writing.

My list contains both, ‘cos I’m only human. See if you can tell which is which…

  1. Thesaurus
    Sylvia Plath knew the power of the thesaurus. How else do you think she found out about all those bonkers words she routinely sprinkled into her poetry, like arsenic on a freshly-baked cake? A thesaurus is a writer’s friend, and don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise. Sometimes you’ll find a new word in there you never heard before, or exactly the word you needed to make a line of poetry scan. I’m never without mine and I don’t think it’s cheating either. I prefer the alphabetical listing variety, dictionary-stylee. Roget and me just don’t see eye to eye.
  2. Idiom websites/reference book
    Similar to thesaurus. I’ve got my copywriting hat on now, and I must say, I spend a lot of time on English language idiom sites, looking for inspiration for a job that requires a particular copy theme. The client wants food-inspired headlines for an employee engagement initiative… so off I trundle to a food sayings or food idioms website which, granted, normally look horrible, are full of adverts and smilies, but, they give me the material I need to do the job in hand. ‘Peas in a pod’? Perfect. I intend to buy an idiom reference book very soon so my design sensibilities are no longer offended by bad websites, and of course, so I can pop it in my tool belt.
  3. Coffee
    Opinions are split on this one. I am a serious caffeine fiend, and firmly believe that I need my coffee crutch next to me to do my best work. However, there are plenty of writers out there who subscribe to the Glengarry Glenross school of thinking that ‘Coffee’s for closers’. Hot drink making can be a distraction from your work, a way out of a difficult sentence or section, a procrastination, or a reward that comes too early. The next time you think ‘this is really hard, I’ll put the kettle on’, think again – are you putting off the inevitable? Alternatively, ask someone else to make that cuppa for you.
  4. Cigarettes
    I can hear the boos from the back of the hall. Less intrusive than coffee, but clearly, a whole bunch of wrongs in the long run, fags are my best and worst writing crutch. I smoke when nothing’s happening on the page, smoke when something is… even writing about it is making me want one now. Yes, sadly, I’m a paid-up follower of the Hunter S Thompson smoke-while-you-work philosophy. There’s no doubt, cigarettes can affect your focus, distract you from your writing, and yet, give you the space for that little by-yourself meeting you sometimes need to turn a corner.  I realise I’ve not reached a conclusion on this one, *coughs*. Let’s move on.
  5. Word count tool
    Again, a writing tool that’s good for some and bad for others. I once had the good fortune to ask Will Self for his top writing tips, and he was very down on the word count tool. Likening it to the devil’s spawn for writers, he told me to never check word count of what I was writing until the end of my writing session. It’s a false reassurance, something else to check that gets in the way of the act itself. And yet there have been times checking word count has been my personal cheerleader, waved a pom-pom at me, and said ‘you’ve done far more than you thought you had, keep going!’ But Self knows his onions, doesn’t he? I still word count though – it gives me the encouragement I need as I sit there, my computer and me, writing, lonely as a cloud.

What’s in your writer’s toolbelt?

So, that’s my writer’s tool belt. What’s in yours? Is there something that you just can’t do without when you’re writing? Do you have certain handy helping devices, healthy or otherwise? Let us know by sharing your thoughts in the comment section below.

10 turn-offs for restless writers and pen-shy procrastinators

Writers don’t get it easy. Most of us spend our working lives sat at a computer screen. The very thing that’s supposed to help us write efficiently bombards us with distractions.
But of course, it’s not just technology that keeps us from our hectic writing schedules. We’re surrounded by all manner of things that can’t wait to help us procrastinate.

Below is my list of top turn-offs for writers. Feel free to use the comments section to share your own.

(Mostly techno-) time drains for writers

Okay, so the first part of this list contains some pretty obvious turn-offs. However, they’re worth mentioning, because I’m sure we all fall into their inviting little traps from time to time. Some you may not have thought about before and the final two are, well, a little more personal and much harder to switch off. Onwards…

  1. Email
    Some people receive just a few emails a day, others get dozens. At work, I’m in the latter category and it can be a real distraction. I’ve recently taken to simply closing my email client. It’s been a revelation. Try it. You can always load it up again at lunchtime or after an hour’s worth of uninterrupted graft.
  2. Instant messaging and Twitter
    It’s good to talk. Well, it is unless you’re up against a deadline or you’re struggling to write the final scene of your script. I write in short bursts and save my Twittering for 10 minute breaks or when I’m not busy. Come on, I know it’s addictive, but turn if off!
  3. Mobile phone
    Obviously, if your wife’s eight months and three weeks pregnant, or you’re waiting for an urgent call from your literary agent, don’t turn off your mobile phone. However, if you’re not expecting anything drastic to happen, and you want a little uninterrupted time alone, just you and your keyboard, get it switched off.
  4. Music
    A lot of people write to music and swear by its ability to relax and inspire. Indeed, I will often have my headphones on when I’m doing more run of the mill sort of work. You know, head down, churn-it-out stuff. But if it’s anything that requires a little more brain power, I turn off my iTunes and concentrate. If your music is any way distracting, turn it off.
  5. Television
    Come on, we’ve all done it. You’ve been meaning to write all day and are determined to get that last couple of paragraphs down, but flaming squirrels if it isn’t your favourite programme about to start on the tellybox. Here’s the truth: you can’t write and watch television at the same time. Admit defeat and put your laptop down. Or better still, turn off the TV.
  6. Spell checker
    Who uses a word processing programme that very kindly points out all your typos and misspelt words within nanoseconds of you committing such terrible deeds? I do and it can be a real pain in the doo-dars. If you’re sick of being pushed around by squiggly red and green lines, turn them off. Go on, they don’t fight back. When you’ve finished writing (in peace), turn them back on and let them do their job. On your terms.
  7. Statistics
    This is a blogger-specific entry. Goodness me, it’s tempting to refresh your blog statistics every 20 minutes, isn’t it? And no good ever comes of it, you know. Whether you’ve had an extra 10 or 10,000 page views, it makes very little difference and you could quite easily get the same information an hour later, instead of when you’re supposed be writing. Turn off your stats. Get some work done.
  8. Your computer, as in the whole thing
    These days, many writers work straight to screen. Personally, I like to make a few notes on paper (preferably) and then head for the computer. I find it quicker to type than write by hand. However, if you’re struggling for inspiration or getting distracted (see 1-5), why not reverse the process? Print out whatever you’ve done, find a dark corner and scribble your notes in the margin. Oh, and remember to take a highlighter pen – an essential tool for writers.
  9. Friends and family
    We all have responsibilities and you can’t write every second of every day, but if you need to tell everyone to shove off for a couple of hours, do it. Generally speaking, writing is a fairly solitary process. It’s not your fault. That’s just the way it is. Turn them off. Even if you can’t find the switches.
  10. Your inhibitions
    Many people argue that the only way to beat writer’s block is to just write. Write anything. Hopefully, you’ll scramble your way out of whatever mental hole you’re in and everything will be a-okay. But what about those people who procrastinate because they’re scared that what they’ll write won’t be good enough? I’ve done it. I’ve sat at my computer completely petrified to the point of, frankly, not doing anything. There really is only one thing you can do. Turn off your inhibitions – all those negative thoughts – and write. Write, write, write!

Get involved

We all have our different distractions and things we really should avoid when we’re writing. What are your turn-offs? How do you protect yourself from the ever-present lure of procrastination?

Writing goals 1: Don’t expect the unexpected

A new year has arrived and us writers have been pondering over our plans for the coming 12 months. Everyone’s been at it.
Writer Dad tells us to set achievable goals and commit to seeing them through, while Leo Babauta at Write to Done suggests 2009 as a time for expansion and new projects.

Meanwhile, Joanna Young at Confident Writing and Maria Schneider at Editor Unleashed just come out and ask us all: What are your writing goals in 2009?

Personally, I do think it’s important for writers to set goals. Apart from the obvious glee when a goal is met, they also:

  • help us structure the writing process
  • give us something tangible to aim for
  • provide useful milestones that separate projects.

So yes, clear goals are a positive thing and I’ve been setting some of my own over the last couple of weeks.

However, as writers we need to tread carefully. We have a tendency to confuse our goals and expectations. I’ve done it myself and ended up disappointed and a little red-faced. It was most unpleasant.

Writing goals versus expectations

Before I go on, I want to make one thing clear. I think all writers should aim for the stars.

If you want to write a bestselling novel, go for it. If you want to have a six-figure income as a freelance copywriter, go for it. If you want your blog to top the Technorati tables, go for it.

Heck, why not? With talent, hard work and a dollop of luck, you might just get there.

Just don’t expect it to happen. Aim for it, but don’t expect it. The moment your goals become expectations, both you and your writing risk complacency.

It’s absolutely vital that you make the distinction.

Goals are goals. They provide motivation, guidance and something to work towards. Expectations are simply about what you think you know. They serve no useful purpose. All they do is slow you down and cloud your thinking.

I write, therefore I am

The problem is, there are so many writers who fail to make the distinction. They don’t aim to succeed – they expect it.

I’ve met writers who believed that they were destined for greatness. In truth, they’d barely made it to the first rung of the literary ladder, and are probably still there.

This is what writers often forget:

If you write a novel, you’re not guaranteed publication. If you’re a freelance copywriter, you’re not guaranteed a sufficient income. If you start a blog, you’re not guaranteed a readership.

These things will not happen if you expect them to happen. They take planning, patience and a great deal of fortune.

Free your mind (with structure)!

You see, before you can go about what’s actually a very real and life-affecting process of setting goals, you need to rid yourself of all expectations.

Without expectations, you have greater freedom to write. There is less pressure because you don’t have a pre-determined idea of what you should achieve.

Setting goals can give you the structure you need to liberate your writing. Expectations can restrict you and make you feel stupid, especially if you fail to meet them.

Aim high. Expect nothing.

Share your thoughts

Okay, lecture over. Deep breath.

The second part of this double-header post will give you some practical advice for setting writing goals. There are lots of things you can do to make sure you get them right, and it’s always a worthwhile process.

In the meantime, I’d like to know your thoughts.

Have you ever been complacent through making assumptions about your work? Can you make a distinction between your writing goals and expectations?

Embrace your writing community, but don’t be scared to say ‘no’!

Writing can feel like a solitary pursuit at times.
As scribes, we often hole ourselves up for hours on end with just our imaginations and computer screens for company. It can all seem terribly unhealthy.

But it doesn’t have to be, not these days.

The internet has given writers the chance to communicate quickly and easily with other writers. Connect with real people who go through the same creative process and share the same hopes and fears.

Through blogs, groups and forums, we can log on and find comfort in the experience and knowledge of others. We are lucky.

You scratch my blog, I’ll scratch yours

Of course, I’m new to most of this. My background is in creative writing and copywriting. I’ve been part of a number of wonderful writing communities, but blogging is something different. Or so I thought.

Joanna Young, over at Confident Writing, this week asked ‘What advice would you give to new Bloggers?‘.

I was interested to see that much of the discussion focused on the idea of building communities and showing a willingness to contribute. You know, be helpful to others and they’ll be helpful right back.

The conversation was extremely helpful, but one thing struck me: blogging is just like being part of every other writing community I’ve ever known.

It’s a simple formula. You surround yourself with other writers. They read your work and give you feedback. Then you read their work and give them feedback.

The process is invaluable. It’s rewarding. It works.

But, and I’m sorry to say this, there comes a point when all writers have to say ‘No.’

Take responsibility for your writing

I don’t think I would ever have completed my novel without the help of specific people giving up their time to advise me. But that’s all they could do.

The truth is, when it comes down to it, it’s your writing that matters. Writing communities and social networks can provide a fantastic service, but they won’t write your blog, poem or press release for you.

Being part of a community is a two-way process. You can’t expect someone to proofread several pages of work for you and then tell them you’re too busy whenever they ask you to return the favour. That’s just not cricket.

However, your writing is your responsibility. It doesn’t matter how helpful you want to be, if by helping others you are jeopardising your own work, you need to use the magic word.

When is it time to say no?

All writers will have a different breaking point.

You might be a time-management machine and have the ability to juggle your various projects easily. Or, like I used to be, you might be a time-management mess who barely knows what day it is.

It doesn’t matter. There will come a time when someone asks you a favour, and you simply have to decline.

Please don’t feel bad about it.

Your writing is your passion. Your dream. Your income, maybe. It takes time and consideration to provide good quality feedback on someone’s writing. You’re allowed to say no.

For me, it’s time to say no when:

  • you’re struggling to meet deadlines
  • the quality of your writing is suffering
  • your workload is affecting your real-life relationships.

If any of these things are happening to you as a result of too much time spent helping others, you need to start saying no and focus on your own writing.

Exceptions to the rule

There are, as with most things in life, exceptions to the rule.

If your eight-year old daughter wanders into your office and asks you to help her with her homework, don’t slam the door in her face.

If your boss tells you the company may go under and asks you to work late to help out, don’t blow a raspberry and skip your way through the fire exit.

Of course, I’m not advising you to be rude to people or abandon your writing community, whether it’s on or offline. They are wonderful places filled with wonderful people, as I’m currently finding out all over again.

Sometimes, though, it pays to be selfish.

No, that’s the wrong word. It’s not selfish of you to put your writing first. In fact, it’s an occasional necessity. Always feel free to say no.

Get involved

Have you got the give-take balance right in your writing community? Has your writing ever been compromised by your desire to help others? Do you have the ability to say no?

10 things to write on in an emergency!

Once you abandon your muse and accept the fact that other commitments in your life will sometimes prevent you from writing, you can prepare for the unexpected. When an idea arrives, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, you need to be ready. The truth is, your best ideas don’t always come to you at appropriate times. I used to regularly find myself without a notepad, desperately repeating an idea in my head to make sure I remembered it. It rarely worked. Usually, I’d forget large parts of the idea. Often, I wouldn’t remember I’d had an idea at all.

This is my advice. If you get an idea, write it down. Even if it turns out to be a useless idea, you just never know. It’s better than losing what could be the foundations of an interesting piece of work.

It sounds simple, but it’s amazing how easy it is to have an idea and find yourself thoroughly unprepared.

Usually, all you need to remember is the spark. Just enough to trigger that same train of thought you stumbled upon when the idea first came to you. You don’t need half an hour and a laptop.

Write here, write now

If the idea happens to arrive when you’re in front of a computer and during some free time, then great. You can stick it in a Word document (other document types are available) and spend a couple of hours refining your thoughts.

If, as is more likely, the idea comes when you’re in a business meeting, on the toilet or bathing the kids, you’re in all kinds of trouble.

You’re going to need one of these 10 things.

A notepad

Of course, the wonderful notepad. If you haven’t got one, get one. Preferably a Moleskine. Then take it everywhere you go and you won’t have to use the rest of this list, which may be a blessing.

Post-it notes

Everyone’s favourite yellow reminding device. I usually use Post-it notes to combine and develop ideas, but they’re also great for keeping round the house. It goes idea > scribble on Post-it > stick to keyboard for later.

Your hand

Another classic. The hand is an underestimated writing surface. Not only is it convenient and easy to use, you’ll be very hard-pressed not to have it with you at all times.

Miscellaneous body parts

The problem with writing on your hand is that your idea automatically enters the public domain. So, if you’d rather not have your boss, parents or fellow train passengers reading what’s on your scrawl-ridden palms, find somewhere else on your person. I have previously written ideas on my foot, ankle and stomach. Don’t forget and have a shower.

Someone else

If points 3 and 4 don’t do it for you, try writing on someone else. Why not? How often do we say, ‘Remind me to…’ or ‘I’ve just had an idea…’ when we’re with someone? If you’re about to go into a meeting and it simply isn’t appropriate to write on yourself, write on your workmate instead. They can read it back to you later.


Nick Cernis over at Put Things Off talks about The Banana Reminder in his marvellous book, Todoodlist. He suggests writing important tasks on your morning banana to make sure you don’t forget to do them. It works. I’ve tried it. However, switch tasks for ideas and add oranges, lemons and any other fruit with a non-edible skin to your list of writing surfaces, and you’re in business. Just make sure you transfer your idea to your notepad or computer before you have your tasty teatime snack.

Beer mats

Made famous by many a lyricist, the beer mat has a reputation for being an ideal emergency writing surface, though almost exclusively for writers who frequent public houses, bars or restaurants, of course.


I get a lot of my ideas when I’m in the shower, which is most irritating. Usually, I can hold it in the think-tank (that’s my head, not part of the shower) until I get to my notepad. However, if I can feel the idea slipping away, I’ve been known to reach around the shower curtain and make a quick note in the steam on the window. Other recommended windows include frosty cars and dirty sheds.

Toilet paper

Oh come on, we’ve all been there. Ideas can strike at any time. Leave a pen in the cardboard tube, just in case. Or behind the S-bend.

The Wonderwall

Finally, an idea I’ll talk about in a later post. The Wonderwall is not related to the once well-reputed UK rock band, Oasis. It’s actually an idea we’re currently putting into action where I work. It’s very simple. We’re designating an entire wall of the office to any ideas and brainwaves we might have. That’s it.

Have an idea or suggestion about how we might work better? Write it on the wall. Of course, in your family home, you might prefer not to cover your lounge in marker pen, but there’s no reason why you can’t create a Wonderwall in your study. If you don’t want to write directly on to the wall (which I do understand), use Post-it notes. If your ideas are related, use the wall to plan and combine your notes.

What do you write on?

Have you been inspired and found yourself without something sensible to write on? What do you do in a creative emergency? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.