The Creative Writer’s Toolkit: 6 Tools You Can’t Write Without
So you want to write fiction. Where do you begin? And what creative writing tools do you need to accomplish your writing goals?
I’m afraid there’s no right answer to get started as a writer. Each writer comes to fiction in their own way. Whatever it is that draws you to a good story—a gut wrenching plot twist, a heroic protagonist, a likeable villain, a happy ending—is great because it helps keep your passion for storytelling alive.
But when it comes to the actual writing, the composition and craft, all the supposed experts in the field disagree on the right approach.
What a beginner needs is a good schooling in the basics, the foundations of creative writing.
Over the next few weeks, I’m not going to tell you how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle resurrected Sherlock Holmes, nor explain the writing habits of Rainer Maria Rilke. I could tell you both of those things, but neither will help you write.
Instead, in this series, I’ll go over the nuts and bolts that are common knowledge to experienced writers so that you can get moving in the right direction.
6 Creative Writing Tools Every Writer Needs
But before we get to the basic tools you need, we have to know what tools are at a writer’s disposal. For a beginner, this is as good a place to start as any.
If you want to write fiction, you’ve got to read fiction. A whole freaking lot of it.
Start by reading any and every short story and novel you can get your hands on. Don’t worry about taking notes or thinking too much into the stories. Just read. Chances are, you’ve already done a lot of it. All writers come to writing through reading first.
Spend as much time as you can spare browsing new book stores, used book stores, and ebook stores. Free ebooks are a great resource that cost very little and they’re all over the place. There are a lot of great free titles out there, especially some of the classics that are in the public domain. Check out Project Gutenberg or Story Cartel if your budget is tight.
Carry notebooks with you as often as you can. I like the solid dependability of a large Moleskine Classic, but buy whatever kind of notebook pleases you the most. This is your happy place.
Immediately make a habit out of journaling. Write every day, even if it’s just about the weather or what you had for breakfast.
This is a judgement free zone, so don’t worry if what you write sucks or doesn’t make sense. Just fill the pages, and when you get to the end of that notebook buy another one, and then another, and then another.
When it becomes harder not to write than it is to write, you’ve accomplished your goal. You’ve made writing into a habit.
Journaling is all well and good, but it’s not very productive.
Once you start writing stories you’ll want to use a word processor. We’re beyond typewriters, so I don’t mean those. I mean word processing software.
With the rise in ebooks, doing things digitally first makes a lot of sense and saves you extra work anyways. Don’t commit yourself to the pain of writing longhand in the 21st century. Though writing longhand has its own therapeutic benefits, typing on a keyboard is much faster.
There’s a number of word processing software options out there, so I’m going to go through the common ones first:
- Microsoft Word — I think they killed that chummy paperclip guy, but Microsoft Word is still the most popular word processor. It gets the job done.
- Pages — This is the word processor that comes with Mac OS X. Like Word, it gets the job done, but it’s not great.
- Open Office — Just as good as Word or Pages, but free. I can condone that.
And now the king of word processing software for fiction writers:
- Scrivener — Scrivener changed my life as a writer. It’s easy to use, easy to keep organized, infinitely flexible, and for those long-term thinkers, you can compile straight to any format, including ebook formats that are ready to publish on Kindle and various other ebook platforms. It has character and setting sketch templates (we’ll go into more detail about character and setting sketches in the next two articles), it autosaves your work, and it rarely ever crashes (unlike the options above). I could go on for days about Scrivener. Instead, I recommend you check out The Write Practice’s review of it here.
My advice here is the same as with Notebooks, above: use whatever makes you happy. You’ll be spending a lot of time here.
4. Grammar and Style Guides
Every writer needs a firm schooling in grammar do’s and don’ts as early as possible.
English grammar can take a lifetime to master, which is why there are these handy style guides you can keep around and reference while you’re doing your work.
These guides, plus a dictionary and a thesaurus (I like dictionary.com for those), are a must have for every writer’s toolbox.
I’ve written in detail about these three essential style guides for writers. But for easy linking, here they are again:
- The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
- The Star Copy Style by The Kansas City Star
- The Tools of the Writer by Roy Peter Clark
5. Study of Craft
Now that you’ve studied grammar, read the kind of fiction you want to write, kept a journal, and found the right software, you should take a step back and study the craft of writing fiction by reading some nonfiction books on the subject.
I’ve read dozens, but these are the ones that have taught me the most:
The best memoir on the subject.
An absolutely indispensable guide to writing. Talk about nuts and bolts, this book has it.
James Scott Bell is a bestselling author and renowned teacher of writers. This book also introduced me to the LOCK method, which is a really handy tool.
I included this one because, while it’s extremely biased towards indie publishing, it provides an excellent overview of the modern publishing landscape for both fiction and nonfiction.
6. Writing Groups
Writing groups are my favorite tool of all. They’re a great way to meet other writers and put your skills to the test. Being a part of a writing group and workshopping your stories is, in my opinion, the absolute fastest and most surefire way to learn how to write fiction. Hundreds of MFA programs across the country agree.
Writing groups provide:
- Moral support. Other writers understand when you complain that writing is hard.
- Like-minded people. Share your hopes and dreams with like-minded people.
- Feedback. The invaluable critique that comes with workshopping manuscripts. They will give you honest feedback even when you don’t want to hear it.
- Healthy competition. Seeing other people produce work is the best motivation for a writer who is not writing.
I love writing groups and believe that every writer should have one in the early stages. Check Meetup.com or your local bookstore for one you can join.
However, one warning: if the writing group you find turns out to be a back-patting session, bail immediately. You’ll never learn anything if no one has the courage the tell you the truth, especially when it hurts.
How about you? What creative writing tools do you find are essential for your writing? Share in the comments section.
Now that you know what’s in the beginner’s toolbox, what do you do to practice? Here are five options.
- Read a novel or short story
- Write in your notebook
- Read a book on craft
- Study a style guide
- Find and attend a writing group
Share which option you’re going to choose in the comments section!
(Note: Some of the links above are affiliate links. Thanks!)
About Matt Herron
Matt Herron is the author of Scrivener Superpowers: How to Use Cutting-Edge Software to Energize Your Creative Writing Practice. He has a degree in English Literature, a dog named Elsa, and an adrenaline addiction sated by rock climbing and travel. The best way to get in touch with him is on Twitter @mgherron.