Writing Tools

Writing tools that come immediately to mind for most people are things like computers, paper, pens, notebooks, typewriters, word processors, word processing software, etc.  Those are not the tools I’m thinking about, however.  I’m thinking about tools far more integral to the writing than instruments for committing words to physical paper or file.  They are tools every professional writer needs to know and use correctly:

Language:  Whatever language you write in, be sure that you know the standard version and usage.  For English, we have some excellent style manuals in America including The Associated Press Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style, and of course, where would we be without Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.  Every revision needs to involve a review of language and its usage, i.e. how you have used it to tell your story.

Words:  Yeah, a no-brainer.  Words or vocabulary make up language, and they are the basic building blocks of sentences.  Words occupy different places in a sentence and have different jobs.  Knowing how to write a sentence correctly involves some other tools:

  • Grammar — It amazes me as I’m revising just how many grammar mistakes I’ll find on my own.  Trusted readers point out others.  I have grammar reference books to help me with complex sentence constructions, as well as simple things.  Many are available.  A reference can tell you the jobs words do in a sentence, what a clause is, and so on.  I own Barron’s A Pocket Guide to Correct Grammar and Edit Yourself: A manual for everyone who works with words by Bruce Ross-Larson.  For online references, search on “English Grammar.”  A final draft needs to be grammatically correct on every single page.  Mistakes tend to annoy readers and reflect badly on you.
  • Active Verbs — Verbs do the heavy lifting in your writing.  Passive sentence construction creates boredom and signals a lazy writer.  During the revision process, for each subsequent revision, watch out for verb constructions that use any form of “to be.”  I usually devote an entire revision to this, highlighting every to be verb .  Each one creates an opportunity for more vivid images in a reader’s mind by thinking about what I really see in my mind and how I want to describe it.
  • Spelling — Correct spelling mistakes in each draft during the revision process.  Make certain that you’ve corrected words that spellcheck won’t catch, i.e. homonyms like there, their, they’re.  Become close friends, even intimate friends, with an excellent dictionary whether a book or online.  Rampant spelling mistakes annoy readers!
  • Vacuum Adverbs — Adverbs occupy a place in the language but use them sparingly.  The same draft I devote to excising the passive voice also receives a good vacuuming.  If you’re unsure about what adverbs are and what they do, refer to your grammar reference tool.

Word Choice:  Using the right word to create an image or express an idea, to build one sentence after another that also builds suspense demands a solid vocabulary, open mind, and excellent dictionary.  When revising, I pay attention to every word.  I challenge my use of words longer than two syllables.  Often, the best words are the simple ones.  However, if a character is well-educated and especially erudite, then it makes sense to give him a vocabulary of longer words.  The goal of word choice is to tell the story as clearly and easily as possible for the adult reader in language that will evoke the location and time, describe the characters and action with accuracy, and haunt the reader forever.

Format:  I use the same format from first to last draft to keep things simple and easy.  Standard manuscript format for prose, screenplay format for scripts.  Format includes setting margins (top, bottom, left and right), tabs, line and paragraph spacing, headers and footers, font and font size.  Indent five spaces for each new paragraph, two spaces after periods (although it’s acceptable more and more to use only one).   For examples of the different manuscript formats, search “manuscript format examples” and choose the one you want to see.

These are the tools every writer uses and strives to use well.  How a writer uses them gives her her own unique voice and style….



4 responses to “Writing Tools

  1. writingturtle

    Very good tools you pointed out. Do you have any trouble recognizing passive voice? I know I do =/
    Oh, and very nice point you make in your last sentence.

    • Thanks, writingturtle! I used to have problems recognizing the passive voice but no longer. The first tip-off is to be + participle. The second is that there’s no one doing the action. Good luck!

  2. Linda Seebach

    Where would we be without Strunk and White? Much better off . . .
    See Geoff Pullum on the 50th anniversary,

    and many followup posts on Language Log.

    (The proper use of the passive voice was one of many things S&W got wrong.)

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