Do You Really Need Any Fancy Writing Tools?
What ‘tools’ do you need to write great articles or blog posts? William Faulkner apparently claimed that the only tools he needed for his trade were “paper, tobacco, food, and a little whisky”. Perhaps, for some of you, it’s just your keyboard and a plentiful supply of coffee and biscuits.
However, writers down the ages have made use of a few more resources than these bare essentials. And good tools aren’t, in my view, to be sniffed at. Napoleon Hill said that you should “work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along”.
While they’re certainly not the be-all and end-all, good tools can often make life easier, save time and help you do a better job. This was powerfully brought home to me last year, when we were constructing a garden fence. We were just about to start sawing the tops of the fence posts into shape by hand, having resigned ourselves to spending the entire weekend on the job. Then our neighbour appeared, like a guardian angel, wielding a rather scary looking machine with which he proceeded to saw our posts into perfect shape in minutes. We were only too pleased, I can tell you, to fore-go our old handsaw for this marvellous bit of kit. It enabled us to finish the fence in double-quick time, with no aching arms or blistered hands – and no wonky edges.
But what about writing tools? As with all forms of art, as technology advances, tools for writers are becoming ever more sophisticated. In this internet age, you have a plethora of resources at your disposal, many available at the click of a mouse and often at no cost. I think it’s mad not to make the most of them.
Let’s face it, even the greatest writers can sometimes be stuck for words and need a bit of a helping hand.
No writing resource is going to turn you into a 21st Century Shakespeare or Dickens – or a Brian Clark or Seth Godin, for that matter. But I think they can enhance your writing and help you to improve your skills.
Let’s start with the basics….
Reference Tools to Help You Find the RIGHT word – Online Dictionaries
No matter how well read you are, there will be times when you need to resort to a dictionary. Besides which, using a dictionary is a great way to improve your vocabulary.
In the UK we have a radio show called Desert Island Discs, on which the person being interviewed has to select their 8 favorite pieces of music – the ones they’d want to take along with them if they were stranded on a desert island (please don’t ask what they’d play them on!) At the end of the show, they also have to select a luxury item to take with them and a book – I’ve always thought I’d ask for an enormous stack of writing materials and the complete Oxford Dictionary.
I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have a word come into my head that I want to use, but I’m not absolutely sure what it means. We absorb so many words in the course of our lives, but don’t always take in their precise meaning. And when I’m writing, I hate to use a word unless I’m certain what it means – and how to spell it correctly, of course.
So I reckon a dictionary’s an essential writer’s tool. A good dictionary can also act as a kind of mini thesaurus – because when looking up a word, you may well find a better alternative lurking amongst the definitions.
There are tons of free dictionaries online – here are some of my favourites:
- Google – yes, the all singing all dancing Google is, amongst other things, a free dictionary. Simply type the word you’re looking for together with the word ‘definition’ or ‘define’ into the search box and, hey presto, Google will generate a brief definition.
A Writing Tool for Finding Even BETTER Words – the Magical Thesaurus
You know what it’s like – you know what you want to say, but you’re struggling to find just the right turn of phrase. Then there are those times when you’re suddenly aware that you’ve used a particular word three or four times already and you’re beginning to sound like a stuck record. Or maybe you just need a more powerful word or expression to get your point across – like when you’re trying to come up with a killer headline.
At times like these, a good thesaurus is your best friend. In case you’ve never used one, a thesaurus is just a special kind of dictionary that lists words in groups of ‘synonyms’ and ‘antonyms’ (words with similar or opposite meanings). I use an online thesaurus pretty much every day – I usually have it open in my browser and refer to it all the time.
Using a thesaurus can stimulate your imagination by presenting you with new words that may not have occurred to you before. It’s a great way to vary and enrich your content by broadening your vocabulary.
Most online dictionaries also provide a thesaurus facility – here are some of the main ones:
There’s also a Visual Thesaurus, which creates ‘word maps’, but I’m afraid it’s not free. At the time of writing this post it costs $2.95 a month or $19.95 a year – you can try it out for free for 14 days. It looks fun and might be something you want to consider, particularly if you’re a very ‘visual’ person and into mind-mapping tools.
Whether you’re writing a blog post, a magazine article, an advert or an eBook, your titles and headlines are critical. Without a great headline, whatever you write is unlikely to get much air play. Most blog posts are promoted on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. And amidst the tsunami of posts people get flooding through their newsfeeds, your article’s got little chance of being opened, let alone ‘re-tweeted’, ‘liked’ or ‘shared’, if it doesn’t have an eye-catching title.
The bad news is that most of the best headlines have already been written. The good news is that you can ‘steal’ the ideas and formulas that made them so successful. Most of the great headlines you see today are simply ‘recycled’ from golden oldies, many of them written decades ago.
So don’t waste time trying to come up with your own original headlines from scratch – like the proverbial wheel, the best ones have already been invented. Instead, I recommend you have at least one headline crib sheet in your tool box, a list of proven headline formulas. Then you can just ‘fill in the blanks’ to create your own killers.
I regularly use the great Jon Morrow’s 52 Headline Hacks, but there are plenty of others out there. Here are a few to get you going – they’re all free, but you’ll have to subscribe with your email address to access some of them:
- Headline Hacks
- 10 Sure-Fire Headline Formulas That Work (Copyblogger)
- 101 Headline Formulas
- Proven Headline Formulas
- 102 Headline Formulas
Quotation, Quotation: Tools to Help You Add a Bit of Borrowed Spice
“One must be a wise reader to quote wisely and well” (A. Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), U.S. educator, social reformer)
Slipping in the occasional choice quotation can be a great way to add a bit of color and interest to your writing. I sometimes find I have a quotation, or part of one, lodged somewhere in my leaky brain, but I’m not sure I’ve recalled it accurately – or perhaps I can’t remember who said it. As the author Simeon Stunsky said, “Famous remarks are very seldom quoted correctly”.
Good old Google will often be able to help you out there – if you have at least part of the quote, you’ll usually be able to find it in full, together with its attribution, just by doing a search.
But what if you’d just like to see if there’s a relevant quote for the topic you’re writing about? It’d be marvelous if we were all so well read that great quotations tripped effortlessly off our tongues. Unfortunately, most of us just haven’t read enough to boast such a skill. And even the most avid bookworms can’t possibly read everything – or, indeed, remember it all for future reference.
There are several websites that help you search for quotes by topic, but these are some of the best I’ve found:
If you’re ever in search of a hot quote, it can be worth trying more than one of these sites, because I’ve found they all come up with slightly different results.
Of course, if you’re as witty as George Bernard Shaw, this tip might be superfluous – he’s alleged to have said:
“I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation”
Spelling and Grammar Writing Tools
I don’t want to spend too much time on this one – although I do get irritated by glaring spelling and grammar mistakes, I know it’s not the end of the world. I read a post recently that contained one or two obvious errors – but it was still a fantastic article and I enjoyed reading it far too much to carp about them.
Having said that, I think writers should at least make a bit of an effort to get these basics right – because it will certainly put some of your readers off if your articles are full of mistakes.
There are plenty of tools out there to help with this – so if you’re really not sure whether you need that apostrophe, why not check?
Personally, I’m a bit wary of electronic spelling and grammar checkers because the English language is notoriously fickle, full of rules that you sometimes have to break. By all means use them if you must – but treat them with caution. At the end of the day, you can’t beat a good human editor to check your work.
There are some great websites full of practical advice and tips to help you with spelling and grammar queries – here are some the best:
- Grammar Girl
- Oxford Dictionaries Better Writing Tips
- Daily Writing Tips
- Dumb Little Man: Tips to Improve Your Grammar
A quick word about British and American spelling – I must admit, I’m often unsure which to use when I’m writing online for an international audience. Most good dictionaries will give you the British or American variants when you look up words with alternative spellings. If you want to check up on some of the main differences, Oxford Dictionaries has some good advice here:
FACT-Finding Writing Tools
People love ‘facts’ – my theory is it makes them feel as if they’re getting their money’s worth. So be informative. When it’s appropriate, beef up your writing with some interesting titbits of information your readers may not be aware of – it might just make their day.
In order to do this, unless you’re a world-famous expert on your subject, you’re sometimes going to need an encyclopedia. Apart from Google itself, which will often come up with the goods, there are plenty of free online encyclopedias to choose from.
The most popular is probably Wikipedia – this is a free online resource, written collaboratively by volunteers from around the world. Its accuracy has sometimes been called into question but it’s very widely used, even by professionals such as doctors, and some studies have found that it’s as good as professionally reviewed resources.
Alternatives to Wikipedia include:
So – there are plenty of reference tools out there for you to choose from. And I’m aware that this article has barely scratched the surface.
BUT – and this is a big but – I also have to agree with Robert Hughes’ observation:
Which brings us back to William Faulkner’s point – the reason he needed so few tools is because your main resources, as a writer, are your human qualities – your understanding, imagination, passion and curiosity. The value of these reference tools is to feed your desire for greater knowledge and awareness – to stimulate your inherent creativity and invention.
So use them wisely and well.
Ok – over to you. What do you think are the most essential tools of your trade? Are there any reference tools you really can’t live without?
If you have any views, I’d love to hear from you – please leave a comment below.
PS: I’m actually trialling another tool as I write this post – a word processing program called Scrivener, designed for drafting manuscripts. I haven’t included it in the list of tools in this post, because it’s not a reference tool, as such, and it’s unfortunately not free (but doesn’t cost a fortune, either). I have it on free trial for a month and it’s taking me a while to get the hang of it, but initial impressions are very promising. I’ll probably write a post on it in the near future – so watch this space.
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