My two kids went back to school yesterday. And the Chex Mix of their unique genetic makeup revealed itself again in their very different approaches to school readiness….
My teenage son pulled his messenger bag out from somewhere deep in his closet yesterday morning, tore out the used pages in a spiral notebook from last year, and tossed that in along with two scavenged pencils. Those “supplies” joined up with last year’s flotsam of cookie crumbs, paper clips and an old bus pass.
My daughter, meanwhile, has been carefully assembling her school supplies–procuring each one, checking it off her 4th grade supply list, and then placing it in its precise spot in her backpack. By the time she was done, her backpack was an impressive Gordian knot of tissue boxes, hand sanitizer, markers, and lunchbox.
Witnessing their varying approaches these past few weeks to their “work” of school made me wonder about my own approach to my work. Some writers and editors, after all, have their own messenger bags–or toolkits–they rely on.
Some, like my daughter Caroline, cultivate them for a long time, adding and rearranging priority as they go. For them, the tools are as central to the writing as the words themselves: I’m thinking here of Roy Peter Clark, author of Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer and this “Quick List” of 50 writing tools.
Other writers just wing it. And some prefer to pack light. I’m thinking here of my friend Tom Ehrenfeld, author of the Startup Garden, who tries to rely on his own brain rather than an online thesaurus to find just the right word. He figures he really should be able to conjure up the exact phrase or nuance simply by pondering the sentence enough.
As a writer and editor, I fall somewhere in the middle. I have an assortment of tools I rely on, and here they are, in no special order:
1. M-W.com. Merriam-Webster Online is a simple Web version of the well-thumbed paper dictionary I have on my bookshelf. m-w.com easily beats its online competition (like dictionary.com), because it offers an audio pronunciation along with the definition and spelling, and because its URL is a mere three memorable keystrokes.
2. Word thesaurus feature. Immediate thesaurus. Instantaneous synonym finder. (Ha!) Highlight a word (or simply rest your cursor on it), click Shift F7 (on a PC) or Tools>Thesaurus (on a Mac). It doesn’t offer a giant, comprehensive word list–more like spits out a few ideas (handy antonyms, too)–but when my brain is sluggish, Word Thesaurus is like a hit of espresso.
3. Visual Thesaurus. If it’s possible to love an application, I would say that I love Visual Thesaurus. It’s an interactive dictionary and thesaurus that spawns word maps that bloom with constellations of meanings, and then branch to related words. Click on one meaning and the focus shifts subtly to create new constellations and branches. And it WORKS: I love its display. I love its nuanced interactivity. It’s like having a writing partner who knows exactly the word you want precisely as you are looking for it–and gently suggests a few others you hadn’t considered.
4. A Word a Day. Anu Garg does more than just define a word, he puts it into etymological, historical, and sometimes literary contexts. It’s like a history lesson, English class, and a grammar reminder, all in one daily dose.
5. Great poetry. The poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. May Sarton. William Blake. Often read for inspiration, poetry can also be a great tool to give your writing some muscle and definition. As Tom Ehrenfeld says, “I learn more about the power of words from a poem like Yeats’ The Cold Heaven than I ever will from a vocabulary-builder.”
6. Chainsaw and surgical instruments: the only two tools in my editing toolkit. Because writing, after all, is only half the work. The other half is editing and re-editing… sometimes moving (or removing) whole chunks of text (chainsaw); sometimes delicately finessing word order or even punctuation (surgical tools). It’s hard to edit your own work (see my next point), but you must. If you attempt to look critically–like a reader might–at your own words, you will become a better writer. And when you are too impressed with your own words, remember Faulkner’s: “Kill your darlings.”
7. Another pair of eyes. If you didn’t happen to come equipped with a second pair, I’d recommend procuring them from a really good editor. In a pinch, you could use someone whose writing you admire. I rely on help from the best editor I know, and I rarely publish anything before he looks at it. Editors are vastly undervalued; they shouldn’t be. All writers, even the very best, need editors. A word of caution: though you might be tempted to argue over his or her edits, you probably shouldn’t. Usually, the editor is right.
8. Sneakers and a dog leash. This is the last little thing I keep in my writing arsenal, and it’s not really as much a tool as it is a necessity. The sneakers go on your feet, the dog leash, hopefully with a dog attached, goes in your hand. Open the door and walk outside for a while… or, however long the dog needs.
It’s important to be able to walk away from your writing. You CAN get too close, lose perspective, and tear up a good piece before you have a chance to think better of it or–worse!–publish a really terrible bit before you have a chance to think better of it. Often, when you come back to it, anything that was troubling you about it has been resolved. For better, or for worse.
What tools do you use?