ESSENTIAL KIT FOR WRITERS

I'm often asked for advice on the best software and other kit for writers. Basically, it's whatever works for you. Seriously. People have written with needles on bars of soap in prison, and on paper bags with stubs of pencil when in extreme poverty, so lack of fancy equipment is no excuse for not writing. But it's a very individual thing, and all I can tell you is what works for me.

I swear by:

1. A computer.
No, that's not as daft as it sounds. Not everybody finds typing is for them. I have colleagues who always write drafts longhand. I couldn't manage my output that way, much as I love my fountain pens, but longhand has its virtues, notably making you slow down and think before you commit words to paper. Much the same can be said of a manual typewriter. (Or even a dictaphone.) Try everything first before you plunge automatically into the digital world. For me, the verbal-diarrhoea-mode of a desktop system is a trade-off against time. I'd be a better writer if I went back to the typewriter I was trained on as a reporter, I think, but I'd also never get anything finished in time.

2. A mechanical keyboard. Yes, this is Gucci kit. If you opt to write on a computer and you type fast -- and you type a lot -- don't buy an ordinary membrane (rubber dome) keyboard, which is almost certainly what you'll get 99% of the time. Pony up the dough and buy a mechanical one, the kind that hardcore PC gamers like. I bought a Matias Tactile Pro and its clattering Alp switches transformed my working day. Ask my techno-marvel buddy Sean: I had so many typos most days that I thought I might have had a bloody stroke, and mentioned it to him. "No, you've got a membrane keyboard," he said. "Get a decent one." So I did, and my typo rate plummeted to near zero. Membrane keyboards can't handle really fast typing. I've got a cupboard full of discarded ones to prove it, some much more expensive than the Matias. I've since ditched the Tactile Pro simply because of the high failure rate of the Alp keys -- two keyboards in succession developed faults after two months' use each -- and I'm now using another mighty mechanical beast, the Unicomp Ultra Classic IBM style, a resurrected version of the one with buckling springs that we older folk recall from the 80s and 90s. It's satisfying and solid. I don't think it has n-key rollover like the Matias, but so far I haven't noticed the lack of it. Poncey mind-my-latte wafer-thin keyboards might look nice on your desk, but if you're serious about writing, roll up your sleeves and get a clunky, clicky keyboard with chest hair. You won't believe the difference. It's a Yorkie Bar versus a Flake.)

3. A big screen.
Size counts. It counts even more when you're editing or proofing and need multiple windows open. I use a 27-incher (oo-er missus!) but I could often do with more. Having said that, I can work okay for a while on a 7" tablet, and I can edit PDF galleys way better on a tablet than on a desktop monitor, but that's more about the ergonomics of e-ink annotation than the visibility factor.

4. A dictionary. No, not a spell checker. A dictionary. An actual book of words, be it hard copy or an online subscription. You learn nothing from a spell checker and it makes you lazy and semi-literate -- and that's when it gets the right word. Do it the old fashioned way. A dictionary enables you to see the word in context and the words related to it, so you take in more info and develop more feel for language. Hard copy dictionaries are cheap, and you can use Merriam Webster or SOED free online. But even their subscription services cost peanuts. You don't want to end up like some of the dolts on the BBC who think "coruscating" means "excoriating." Had they been in the habit of looking up big words before using them, they'd have learned a lot.

5. An efficient paper note system. I've been through a few, believe me -- loose leaf, clipboards, notebooks, the lot. In the end, I learned to work backwards from the desired result. You need to make notes when ideas strike you. You also need to be able to organise those notes in a way that lets you find and use the information later. I use pen (or pencil) and paper, but the format depends on the location. Nothing is universal for me, so I keep a small clipboard with a pilot's light pen (not a white light -- I won't bore you with why that's preferable) by the bed, because I always have ideas when I'm falling asleep; a Midori Traveler notebook on my desk, because it fits into any bag as well as laying flat on the desk, plus the inserts can customized, and then taken out and filed, any way you like: and 3 x 5 card jotters in the car and in other rooms. Because by the time you find a pen and paper, you'll have forgotten what you were thinking. Keeping lots of manual notes means you also need the discipline to file and/ or transcribe them into some kind of system. That's not a bad thing to learn in itself.

6. Software. I swear by Scrivener. Everybody knows that. It's more for pro writers and people who have to produce big, complex docs, and it requires a bit of effort to learn its many wonderful ways. But it repays the effort.

7. A change of wall. Never underestimate the power of changing what you look at while you work. A PR colleague referred to it as "staring at a new wall." Such are the complexities of the brain -- you can kickstart it into new pathways simply by changing the other stimuli it's subjected to. That might mean moving your desk, or going somewhere else to write. That in turn might mean switching from a computer to a notebook. But it does work.

Anyway, like I say -- your mileage not only may vary but almost certainly will. Don't be afraid to try out new methods and kit. You'll know what's right for you when you find it.


© Karen Traviss 2012