Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Essential Equipment for Writers

By Alex Roddie
2003, Alex Roddie

 

Ultimately, a writer's choice of equipment has to be based on personal preference.  Some of the items on this list are obvious, some not so obvious, but I find them all indispensable.  Your range of equipment will be constrained by your budget, but I would seriously recommend getting a computer to do your writing with if you think you can afford it at all.  Of course, all you really need for writing is paper and a pen.

Computer

Some people prefer to do all their writing by hand, but most people will have to use a computer, even if it's only for compiling the final version of your manuscript.  Typewriters are a possible tool, but they make editing harder.  To save time and sanity later on, I'd recommend using a computer throughout the writing process; sections of work can be added, deleted and reorganised with ease.  If you rely on handwriting or a typewriter, editing can be a nightmare.

Although most people on this world use bog-standard IBM compatible Windows machines, I don't like them.  I think that the Mac has a lot to offer for the writer; not only is the software more reliable, friendlier and a hell of a lot easier to use, the machines also last years longer.  Although Macs are marginally more expensive, they're a better class of computer.  They're less prone to viruses, too.

If you plan to be moving about a lot, or if you want to be able to write at different places in the house, a laptop may be a more realistic option.  They are more expensive than desktop computers, but the portability is definitely worth it.

Use a word processor that you're comfortable with and can use competently.  If you intend to rely on Microsoft Word, I'd recommend that you disable the thousands of useless features that keep getting in the way.  Also, turn off the Autocorrect and Auto insert options.  There's nothing worse than all your em dash symbols (--) being replaced by long dashes, or words magically transforming themselves into incomprehensible gibberish before your astonished eyes. 

For the Mac, Appleworks (previously Clarisworks) is a great word processor.  It's been bundled free with every Mac since about 1995, and is absolutely perfect for writing.  I've used it since Version 3 when I was at primary school, and it's never let me down once.

Your choice of printer is also important.  If you can't afford a laserjet (I certainly can't), buy a good quality inkjet printer and replace the black cartridge regularly.  Never print out final manuscripts on the Economy setting, or with a dry cartridge, or your manuscript will be difficult to read.  Economy is fine for doing your own editing, if you can stand the faint text.  However, invest in a new ink cartridge before printing off the final copy.

And now I come to storage.  Every computer has a hard drive on which you store your work, but don't rely on it entirely.  Even Macs crash occasionally, and all it needs is a power surge to trash your equipment.  Don't take the chance of losing months of hard work; back up your work regularly.  For most writers, this will mean at least twice a week.  If your computer has a CD recorder drive, I would recommend that you backup your work onto CDs -- they're cheap and small, and you can store more than enough data on each one.  Memory cards are also coming down in price.  I actually keep all my writing on a small Compact Flash disk, connected via a USB cable to the Mac.  That way, it's isolated from any problems that may strike the computer itself.  In any case, never take chances with your writing, or you'll hate yourself when you lose it.  Keep it safe and backed up at all times.

Sketchbook and technical pens

These may seem a little out of place on a list of equipment for a writer, but I often find them useful.  If you have any skill with drawing at all, keep a sketchbook close by at all times.  Use it to draw out maps for your fantasy world, street plans, aliens, monsters, whatever.  I also find it useful for drawing out scenes in my WIP (Work in Progress); the view from a castle's battlements, for example.  Even if you're no good at drawing whatsoever, practice a little, and your skill will improve.

Notebook/PDA

Most writers carry a notepad of some kind around with them.  This can either be the traditional kind or an electronic one:  a Personal Digital Assistant or PDA.  PDAs have come down in price dramatically over the past few years.  Mine is a Palm Zire, and I bought it for just under 80.  Whenever you're on the move and inspiration strikes, you should have something to jot down your thoughts.  Few things are as frustrating as coming up with a great idea and then forgetting it because you couldn't write it down.  If you use a Palm computer, it's probably best to buy a small keyboard to go with it, to allow faster text entry.  For those of you who don't like the idea of tapping away at a miniature computer in public, a notebook will do just as well.

There is one other major advantage of PDAs.  You can use them to keep all your notes on your current WIP -- and anything else you want -- all in one place.  I have well over a hundred text files on my Palm, a writing journal spanning over a year of work.  This is great, because you can access any of your notes from wherever you are, and can add to them whenever you feel the need.  What's more, these notes are automatically downloaded onto your computer whenever you plug in, so you can edit them onscreen.  If your PDA has a large enough memory, you can even carry around your entire novel, to be worked on at any time.  My Palm only has 2 Mb of internal memory, and it got a bit too sluggish when I tried to transfer Darkness in the Forest onto it, but it's a great idea for those lucky enough to have a higher-spec machine.

Music CDs/MP3

I usually can't write without background music.  The exception to this is when I'm working on something really difficult.  At those times, even the rare sound of a car going past outside is enough to knock me off course.  But under normal conditions, I simply cannot write without music of some kind flowing through the headphones.

I mostly use music as a mood modifier.  If I'm writing a dark scene, I put on something like Wagner's Ride of the Valkeries.  If I'm writing a tender scene, I have loads of tracks I can use for that, too.  Of course, the music you play will entirely depend on personal preference.  A lot of writers -- me included -- prefer lengthy, varied classical pieces.  Even if you normally don't like classical music, it might seem right for writing, somehow; more atmospheric, more sensitive.

A room to yourself

The importance of this cannot be overemphasised.  Writing in the midst of clutter and chaos is a nightmare.  Believe me, I know.  At the moment, I'm sharing a bedroom with my 14 year old brother, and it's beyond tolerance.  I'll be getting a laptop soon, and then I can write anywhere, but at the moment I have a rule that he leaves the room whenever I'm working.  Even if he's just reading or something, I can't work with him in the room.  In an ideal situation, you'd have a room dedicated wholeheartedly to writing, with clear NO ENTRY signs on the door.

Of course, that often isn't possible.  Everyone has to make do with whatever they have available, but at the very least make sure you have a corner to yourself, a desk that you can claim as yours.  Somehow, place seems more important than peace and quiet; the inner silence, the silence of the mind, can be achieved even in the noisiest of surroundings.  But if you don't have a place to call your own, you tend to become irritable every time someone walks into the room.

That said, I somehow manage to write in a library filled with dozens of brawling Year Sevens.  Even in the midst of the librarian standing on a desk and yelling at them to 'SHUT UP!'  all the noise just seems to waft straight through my head without registering.  Even the amusing incident of the IT technician jumping over the computer benches to separate a couple of fighting kids didn't distract me.  There's no hard and fast rule to this -- sometimes you need peace and quiet, sometimes you don't.

Books
To be able to write, you need to read.  Not just in your genre, but in other ones as well. Read as much as you can, as often as you can.  A home library is a brilliant thing to accumulate over the years, containing both fiction and non-fiction for reference.  Failing that, read every book in your local library and then move onto the next one.  Pretty soon, you'll have read every book in the county.  Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating slightly, but you really do need to read as much as possible.


Encyclopaedia

An encyclopaedia, especially in CD-ROM form, is an essential tool for every writer.  Use it during the research and planning stage of writing; look up any information you need here first, and if it isn't there, look elsewhere.  But most data (unless it's specific local knowledge) can be found on a CD ROM encyclopaedia.  I use the Encyclopaedia Britannica 2002 standard version, and the only thing I haven't been able to find in it yet is the exact date when the Vikings looted an obscure church on the Saxon Shore.

*****

That's about all I can think of in terms of useful equipment.  As I said earlier, this list can be pared down to the bare essentials: a large pad of paper and a pen.  But I would never consider writing without a computer, and I've found everything else on this list invaluable.

There is one more item I might add, though.  Your brain.  Take the opportunity to learn whenever the opportunity arises.  You'll be amazed at how useful even seemingly random knowledge can be to your writing.  The good writer endeavours to expand his knowledge and experience whenever the chance presents itself.  This way, new ideas and new concepts will give your work added vitality, and your writing will sing.