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

This guest post from Manuela Boyle looks at writers' tools - the handy and sometimes indispensable things we all need to get the job done.

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.


john@prowritingtips.com 15 February 2009 Reply

I’m right with you on Nos. 3 and 4, but on No. 1, I’ll see your thesaurus and raise you a copy of Fowler’s.
But I think that the item that I use most is the mess on and around my desk. Between my wife, my toddler and me, we’ve got more than enough prompts for me to draw from. I wind up writing more about Barbies and cookie crumbs than I’d like, but that’s the way the cookie … well, you know.

guffinmopes@guffinmopes.com 16 February 2009 Reply

As much as smoking is pretty much the grossest, most horrible habit ever, I don’t think I could write without them.
Without the constant two second pauses it allows me I don’t know how I would consistently reach that “a-ha!” moment.

scotly@gmail.com 16 February 2009 Reply

In my toolbelt? My laptop, WordPress, the Internet (need I mention?), food (most any kind), music, and emotional stimulation via music, blog posts, tweets, digg, etc.
And I shouldn’t leave out my wife, the one person who gives me time to write by cooking food, or cleaning up after me, or taking care of my son, etc.

foljs@decoma.com 11 January 2011 Reply

Sounds like you never get any writing done.

george@tumblemoose.com 16 February 2009 Reply

Well, here I was, thinking I was something special.
Coffee/caffeine and smokes are essential ingredients to my writing.

A thesaurus is a wonderful tool as well, but I rarely remember to use the darned thing.

Some would say that tunes are essential but I find music distracting sometimes.

A room with a door is a wonderful tool as well.

I like this user friendly list, all right. Good job!



ulla.hennig@googlemail.com 16 February 2009 Reply

Funny that nobody has mentioned “Tea” up to yet. There’s nothing like a hot cup of tea to get me writing!

mgeffy@gmail.com 16 February 2009 Reply

My five are as follows:
1) Computer

2) iPod (plugged into my ears)

3) Coffee (espresso from fresh beans)

4) A clean, well-lit place (as Hemingway made famous)

5) Finger food (chicken fingers are perfect)

manuela.boyle@gmail.com 16 February 2009 Reply

Good morning America! And thank you for all your comments. The toolbelt is now bulging, I’m glad to say.
@JohnRoach – very funny and may your desktop long continue to inspire you! I think that our thesaurus preferences probably say something about what sort of brains we have.

@GuffinMopes – am so with you on this. Clearly one of the biggest benefits of smoking, and yet…an angle that health researchers dare not go near!

@Ryan – like your distinction between emotional needs and other needs. And how could I forget – behind many a great writer is a tolerant and patient partner…

@Tumblemoose – yes, coffee and cigarettes are just the best bedfellows, ever. And as for the room with the door – heck, we all need a clearly-signed exit from time to time…

jean@jeanhannahedelstein.com 16 February 2009 Reply

I would like to rant about how disgusting cigarettes are, but in the final weeks of writing my book I drank about sixteen Red Bulls.

marc.pieniazek@gmail.com 16 February 2009 Reply

Two tools that no writer can be without: – something to write with and
– something to write on

It may not strictly be in line with what you had in mind but a writer can never be sure when the next idea will strike 🙂

alex.comments@yahoo.es 16 February 2009 Reply

My moleskine cahier, a bunch of pens (because I’m always losing them), my laptop with Internet connection with: Thesaurus.com, dictionary.com and fmwriters.com as the three main writing reference tools. And of course, automated backup software to the web (ALWAYS BACK UP!). 😉
No coffee, no smokes, no tea. Tap water works best for me.

And snacks. Healthily rice cakes and carrot sticks, but far too often bags of potato chips and cookies/cake.

manuela.boyle@gmail.com 16 February 2009 Reply

@UllaHennig – tea, coffee, diet coke, g&t – whatever your poison is, we definitely need to stay perked up and hydrated!
@MikeGeffner – a very appealing top 5, especially the finger food.

@jean and AlexFayle – let it out chaps, our vices come in many shapes and sizes…

@Marc – it’s a fair cop, and all too easily forgotten. Oh the fag packets and receipts I’ve scribbled on when I’ve been caught out 😉

lisa@hitthosekeys.com 16 February 2009 Reply

I find that reading is a great starter:
a) something you really admire/wish you’d written

b) something you really scorn/you know you can do better

phoenixlily@yahoo.com 16 February 2009 Reply

eek. that’s a really hard question….
1. in front of my desk (that could be one actually), on the wall in front of my laptop (laptop is another one), are photographs and printed pictures – nothing gets the juices working like some awesome vistas from awesome places. It’s a bit tacky, but I always have a postcard of Edward Hopper’s nighthawks around. amazing painting.

2. on same wall, postit notes reminding me of deadlines / the goal or purpose of what I’m writing (otherwise tangents rule) / reminders to turn the computer off and go to bed at a reasonable hour

3. on the floor, usually a little fluffy dog or two. great company, and will always listen when you’re trying to solve a complex writing issue.

iain@writeforyourlife.net 16 February 2009 Reply

Thank you all for your comments and of course, to Manuela for her marvellous post.
On my writer’s tool belt? Well, I finished my novel on an unhealthy diet of late night coffee, something I’d not drunk before and haven’t since. I drink tea at work and occasionally at home if I’m in need of a quick break to put the kettle on.

The one thing I always keep in my belt is my handy swipe, or ‘scraps’ document. It’s basically a single document made up of all the bits and pieces that get written but don’t quite fit anywhere. Or at least not yet.

Anyway, I’ll be blogging about my ‘scraps’ document in the near future, so I won’t give away too much just now.

Keep your comments coming. They make me cock-a-hoop.

manuela.boyle@gmail.com 18 February 2009 Reply

@Lisa – very good point and I agree – we should keep our most and least favourite books in our toolbelts!
@HeliaPhoenix – I’d love to see a picture of your desk, sounds like a very rich tapestry…and I bet fluffy friends make great writing company.

@Iain – thank you. Looking forward to hearing about the secret scraps document soon…

Anonymous 18 February 2009 Reply

[…] lot of writers speak of the pen being mightier than the sword, some prefer them over guns, yet others equip their toolbelts with, well all sorts.  Sure they have a point – or should that be a nib – but our true weapon of […]

josh.turner@brands2life.com 18 February 2009 Reply

@Lisa – totally agree. I currently have a recent novel from a once decent thriller writer that is frankly horrendous, and published I’m assuming purely on the strength of the writer’s reputation. Its presence on the shelf taunts me with the fact that I shelled out cash for it, and inspires me to prove I’m better than it.
Books one admires can sometimes be slightly intimidating if wallowing in self-pity, however. A quick glance at lesser publications can generally lift the spirits.

kevin@mackey.name 18 February 2009 Reply

Thesaurus – yes (now, if I could only remember to uses the gosh-durned thing!)
Chicago Manual of Style – not often, but it has answered a question or two for me

Diet Coke – I take my caffeine cold!

Fountain pen and good writing pads. These, combined, form my number 1 writing tool. Since I did NaNoWriMo last year writing by hand, I have found I write more (without distractions – damn you Internet!) on paper than on a computer screen.

If it’s a short piece, all editing will be done on paper. Anything longer and the transfer to computer forms the first editing pass. If things are going slowly I count at the end of each page (page total at the end of the page, running total at the top of the next). If I’m writing so fast I can’t stop, I’ll wait to count after a few pages.

iain@writeforyourlife.net 19 February 2009 Reply

@KjM I still romanticise about the idea of writing with good old fashioned pen and paper, but I just find it quicker to type straight to screen. That said, last year I did start doing all my planning and dreaded life-admin by hand, following ideas in Nick Cernis’ Todoodlist (see recommended section in sidebar). I think it does help to find a balance paper and screen, but more importantly, to experiment and then simply do whatever works for you!

manuela.boyle@gmail.com 19 February 2009 Reply

@JoshTurner – lesser publications it is! I’m off to attempt some of the Plumed Serpent, again… 😉
@KjM – Diet Coke (forgot about that, am in that tribe too) + handwriting your work = a full toolbelt!

judecalverttoulmin@gmail.co.uk 27 February 2009 Reply

Yeah Iain, I like to write in the British Library after a fix of smack, followed by a crack pipe. All my fellow writers think I’m really cool.
Tsk. Cigarettes are the biggest killer in the western world and are a hard drug. I feel particularly raw about this at the moment as a very close friend, my age, an ex-smoker, is battling cancer at the moment. Smoking isn’t big and it isn’t clever.

The best book I’ve found about stopping smoking which I have bought for several people, is Neil Casey’s The Nicotine Trick which you can buy on Amazon.

Anyway, as for writers’ toolkits. Mine are:

1) Passion
2) Complete silence
3) Retractable pencil and exercise book or computer

gaubert.justine@googlemail.com 12 March 2009 Reply

p.s If you’re looking to give up diet coke from your writers toolbelt on the other hand, watch the making of the new diet coke add here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFiQF1QxHm8

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to drink diet coke again.

gaubert.justine@googlemail.com 12 March 2009 Reply

My main motivation for writing is to remember smoking and the great times we had together.
Getting the end of a paragraph isn’t half as much fun these days. And it’s much lonelier too, without the excuse to celebrate minor achievements and discuss sticky phrases with a good friend over a nice smoke… We tried oranges, but it wasn’t the same. And yes, I know they’re not the only fruit.

marc.pieniazek@gmail.com 12 March 2009 Reply

I can’t stand that advert. What was Duffy thinking and what happened to her beautiful singing voice!
Was she underwater when she recorded it? Has she aged prematurely? Both?

manuela.boyle@gmail.com 14 March 2009 Reply

@juzza: you are that girl! Taught me everything I know 😉 I expect I’ll have to gnaw on carrots, daffodil stems and liquorice sticks to help me write when I finally quit. And yes, it’s much lonelier without a comrade-in-arms these days… 🙁
@juzza and Marc – I thought the ad was a spoof when I first saw it. I nearly spat my Diet Coke out. Is it me, or does the racer she’s on look abnormally big and high for her? If they want that to go viral, they’ll be waiting a looooong time.

Anonymous 10 June 2009 Reply

[…] 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. […]

cradicalthearbiter@hotmail.com 21 August 2009 Reply

My writer’s tool belt:
1. On Writing by Stephen King

2. iTouch

3. dictionary

4. thesaurus

iain@writeforyourlife.net 21 August 2009 Reply

Hi Conrad
The iTouch is an interesting choice. I find my iPhone nothing but a distraction when I’m writing. I can only assume you’re using your touch for a ready supply of soothing sounds to help you with the words. Or maybe you’ve got both your dictionary and your thesaurus on your iTouch!

ibgeronimo@gmail.com 9 September 2009 Reply

Each day I try a different brand of junk food. But the usual suspects are coffee – lots of them – and cigarettes.
When a particular piece of writing stumps me, I don’t go out anymore to aerate the stuffy brain. I just peek into Twitter to check up on my buddies or open my Gmail to see if anybody needs my special attention. Seeing lots of emails and tweets that screams ASAP always give me the perverse pleasure of leaving them as they are.

I’ve got important thing to do. Capice?

iain@writeforyourlife.net 9 September 2009 Reply

@Jan So your productivity kick is the sight of all the other stuff you need to do but want to run away from?!
I love it!

katie.labarile@gmail.com 6 November 2009 Reply

My toolbelt must contain both modern convenience and nostagic inspiration. My laptop being the former and my antique typewriter as the latter.During a lull in creativity and quick wit, I turn to my trusty old typewriter that requires a hearty whack of the keys to produce one little letter… I feel like I am really working and with each letter, I am accoplishing an incredible feat, deserving of praise and admiration! This process conjures up such embellished pride in my craft that it revives my creativity and quick wit and I am back in business on the laptop. (The same thing happens with film and digital photography!)

Anonymous 29 July 2010 Reply

[…] of the basic how-to tips doled out to beginner writers is to carry a notebook everywhere in the event that inspiration strikes. I do – at least, I try to. I’m still perfecting my […]

Anonymous 13 December 2010 Reply

[…] every once in a while. We hole ourselves up in our writing caves, laptop at the ready with enough tea or coffee to last us that particular day, week, month or […]

simplyopentowriting@gmail.com 8 January 2011 Reply

In my Writer’s Toolbelt, I have:
1. Email as I have a news page set up so I can see current news to help give me writing ideas, or I have it emailed to me. Plus I get ideas right from my friends emails that I receive.

2. Thesaurus, Dictionary.

3. Mp3 player to listen to or youtube on in the background.

4. Pens and lots of writing books, I to find it more productive to write it out first and then type it out on a word document program and use their tools for corrections.

iain@writeforyourlife.net 9 January 2011 Reply

All excellent toolbelt tips – thank you!

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