“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
—Louis L’Amour

The Creative Writer’s Toolkit: 6 Tools You Can’t Write Without

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So you want to write fiction. Where do you begin? And what creative writing tools do you need to accomplish your writing goals?

Creative Writing Tools

Photo by icultist (Creative Commons). Modified by The Write Practice.

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.

1. NOVELS!

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.

2. Notebooks

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.

3. Software

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:

  1. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  2. The Star Copy Style by The Kansas City Star
  3. 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:

On WritingOn Writing by Stephen King

The best memoir on the subject.

Writing FictionWriting Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French

An absolutely indispensable guide to writing. Talk about nuts and bolts, this book has it.

Plot and StructurePlot and Structure by James Scott Bell

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.

Let's Get DigitalLet’s Get Digital by David Gaughran

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.

There are a bunch of other great books on craft, but these four are a solid, well rounded group of them. Set aside time every week to study craft.

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:

  1. Moral support. Other writers understand when you complain that writing is hard.
  2. Like-minded people. Share your hopes and dreams with like-minded people.
  3. Feedback. The invaluable critique that comes with workshopping manuscripts. They will give you honest feedback even when you don’t want to hear it.
  4. 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.

PRACTICE

Now that you know what’s in the beginner’s toolbox, what do you do to practice? Here are five options.

  1. Read a novel or short story
  2. Write in your notebook
  3. Read a book on craft
  4. Study a style guide
  5. 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!)

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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.

  • Diane Turner

    1,2, and 3. I do these three anyway, but this is a nice reminder to flap open a book and grab a pen. Thanks for the information.

    • Shirley

      I have a few of these tools in my kit. Journaling is the main one. I have so many of them that my house might collapse at any minute. For years, I have been in a critique group. We meet weekly. Two of the four of us has published a book or four. One of us got an MFW in the Bennington program. All of us have are members of the Squaw Valley Summer Writing Program. This helps.

      I like reading as a tool. I like to read “everything”. Well, not everything — just everything. Of course, there are favorites. (Never begin a sentence with “Of course”. Never use fragments. Break the rules once in awhile).

      Grammar is my “Bète noir”. I’ve tried for years to get it write, have looked at small but concise books on grammar. Nothing works. I’m bad at it. I’m good at spelling, or, once was. Our spell checker is a fluke.

      Write. Write. Write. And, read.

      ps Oh, and I keep notebooks to paste in stuff that pleases the eye.

  • My essential writing tools are:

    1) Word.
    2) Spotify
    3) Critique Circle
    4) The Write Practice
    5) The Emotional Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi
    6) Ink by R.S. Guthrie

    7) Robert’s Rules of Writing by Robert Masello

    and most important of all, my Muse, my best friend, and my Ideal Reader: Jennifer.

    • Lisette Murphy

      Five and seven on your list sound interesting. I will have to investigate those!

      • Ink is another in that vein. Have you read it, yet?

        • Lisette Murphy

          No I haven’t! I will look unit that one too!

          • Hope you enjoy it, too. If you become fans, tell Angela & Becca, R.w.Foster sent ya, and tell R.S. that Wayne did. 😀

          • Lisette Murphy

            Will do!

    • I haven’t heard of 5, 6, or 7—thanks for sharing!

      • You’re welcome. Hope you get use out of them. 🙂

    • Avril

      I looked up Critique Circle and joined. It’s just what I need. Thanks!

      • You’re welcome. If you get confused, look up Whiplash & Momzilla (they are moderators), or want to know who gives good critiques, looks up Emmylou515, Jenb, Missvato & Tami-verse. They’re good people.

        • Avril

          R.w., thank you again, You probably saved me weeks or months of trial and error. Your inside scoop is greatly appreciated.

          • You’re welcome again. Oh, and keep an eye out for Kholoblici. He’s a shady character, always trying to virtually cook the newbies. 😉

            I hope you like it, and welcome. 😀

  • Lisette Murphy

    I have started number five! Any writing club is great! Especially in October when you can do creepy and scary and it fits the season! Horror is a great topic.

  • Avril

    I’m one of those people that always has 1-3 books going at any one time. Currently I’m reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon, and My Temporary Life by Martin Crosbie. I regularly write in my journal and work on plot elements for some short stories. My novel needs a major overhaul, and I think I’ll better able to accomplish that when I’ve spent time studying the style and craft of writing. The Write Practice is the only writing group I participate in, and it has been very helpful. I do have a call in to a local writers’ group, to see what they’re all about.

    • Go check out that writer’s group! And if that doesn’t work out, look on meetup for others nearby 🙂

  • I love On Writing, so I’m going to give Writing Fiction a go. Thanks for the list of implements for our toolboxes!

    • Writing Fiction taught me a ton, and it has a bunch of great writing prompts and exercises, plus sample stories. Enjoy that 🙂

  • I definitely need to start journaling, I’m going to get started today !

  • Excellent info, Matt. I live in Amarillo, TX and love me some Austin. Hook ’em, Horns!

    I’ve completed four novels over the years and lost my literary agent last fall before we got a chance to sell my book. I’m debating whether to continue the traditional route, or go indie.

    The life-changing all of everything you listed is my weekly writing group. Writing is such a lonely, solitary process, Wednesday evenings are most favorite. I get together with four other, amazing writers who teach me so much, support me all the way and help me be a better writer.

  • Vanilla Bean

    Just requested Writing Fiction from the library, and I will go find my “morning pages” journal. It’s been rather neglected this week… Thanks for the inspiration!

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  • Fleur Chua

    I’m a content marketer and personally I’m using this writing platform named Wording Lab. I like how the layout is kept simple, without any flashy-distracting advertisements.

    They have this tool called the Tone Analyzer, which helps to analyze if your writing sounds too positive or negative. True enough, I copied and pasted a couple of news article to test out the function, and all of them were found to be neutral! (which is what news articles are supposed to be i believed!)​

    Anyway, if you guys are interested, the website is:

    http://www.wordinglab.com

    • jade cardoza

      Great tool. Thanks for the link.

  • For the ones who are struggling to write, I recommend this Mac app and website
    http://www.placetowrite.com
    It’s called “Haven – Creative Writing Tool” and it helps writers overcome writer’s block and stimulate creativity.

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  • awmarsha

    Great recommendations Matt! If you’re writing shorter articles or papers, i would recommend steller.com to add some visual aspects and publish where your audience will read it.

  • True Novelist

    I would like to suggest http://www.truenovelist.com. It is similar to Scrivener in that it allows you to organize your scenes, chapters, and notes and rearrange them at will, but it is online only so you can access it anytime and anywhere.

    It is also free, so I think it would be a great addition to the toolbox of any writer!

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  • Steve Carmeli

    Has anyone any experience with a technical documentation program called Flare by MadCap Software? It is an alternative to FrameMaker and quite powerful, but hard to learn. Useful, I think, for heavy non-fiction.

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  • Cate Hogan

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful
    article! Four years ago I also left my job as a marketing manager in Sydney to
    do something I’d always dreamed of: writing and editing romance novels full
    time. Anyways, here are also my 8 best tips and tricks for those wanting to
    follow a similar path http://catehogan.com/tools_for_writers/

  • Elliot

    This list definitely needs some updating! Reedsy’s Book Editor is an essential element to add to any author’s toolkit — write, format, and produce your book into various ebook formats, all from one beautiful, easy to use interface. Best of all, it’s free! They even promise to add more functionalities like collaboration and track-changes in the future. If you’re serious about writing a book, try it out for free: https://reedsy.com/write-a-book

  • Cool list! The problem with word processors like Microsoft Word is that, though they have hundreds of features, they’re not built for writing books; they’re built for writing anything and everything. So when it comes to formatting or typesetting, it’s a pain.
    I also recommend taking a look at our Reedsy Book Editor, since it combines a simple, Medium-like writing interface with powerful formatting and typesetting, allowing you to export a flawless ePub and a print-ready PDF for free: https://reedsy.com/write-a-book

  • Lee
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