Tools of the Trade
Theoretically, writing can be done anywhere, any time, with any implement that will make a mark on any kind of surface. But if you hope to turn your talent into a revenue-generating career, you need the proper equipment. A few diehards still use typewriters and carbon paper, but most of us prefer the easier, cleaner, and faster methods afforded by today's technology.
A personal computer with a good word-processing program is virtually indispensable for today's aspiring writer. Many publishers accept electronic submissions, either via e-mail or computer disk, and some even prefer electronic versions of complete manuscripts. Some publishers will accept manuscripts created in a variety of programs, but Microsoft Word is the most common word-processing software that publishers accept. Some publishers even stipulate in their contracts that the manuscript must be prepared in Word.
Software packages sold with home computers often include word-processing programs other than Word, such as WordPerfect or WordPad. You may have to buy the Word program separately and install it on your computer, or upgrade the software package when you purchase your computer.
Your computer system must include a good quality printer. The old dot-matrix printers that were common fifteen to twenty years ago are frowned upon today because the quality of the printout is so poor. Some agents and editors have gone so far as to explicitly prohibit dot-matrix copy from consideration. Fortunately, printer prices have dropped significantly in recent years, and you don't have to spend a lot of money to get a printer that will give your copy a fresh, readable, and professional look.
These days, Internet access is standard equipment for writers. Agents and editors like to communicate with their authors via e-mail because it's quick and less intrusive than telephone calls, and e-mails don't have to be sent during regular business hours. For writers, the Internet provides an instant research tool. You can do a lot of your market research online, and even research for your book project; you can connect with other writers and take online classes or seminars; you can check out other books in your genre and keep up with industry news.
In most areas of the United States, you can find an Internet service plan to fit almost any budget, from as little as $10 a month in some cases. If you use your Internet service solely in pursuit of your writing and not for any other purpose, you may be able to claim it as a deductible expense on your income tax return; check with your accountant or tax preparer.
Though quick and convenient, e-mail isn't always reliable. A large test conducted by InformationWeek columnist Fred Langa revealed that up to 40 percent of valid, nonspam e-mails never make it to their intended recipients, presumably because of overactive antispam filters. This is another reason why snail mail remains the preferred method for submitting queries and proposals.
Every professional writer needs an efficient filing system. What constitutes “efficient” varies widely from one writer to the next. You might like to keep your records, notes, first drafts, and so on neatly organized in a file cabinet, alphabetized, and clearly labeled. You might use shoeboxes on a bookshelf, one box devoted to each of your projects. Or you might divide your papers under more general headings, like research, rejection slips, and receipts, and stack them around your office.
It doesn't matter what sort of system you use or how odd your system might seem to outsiders. The important thing is that you know where to lay your hands on what you need when you need it. That's the real key to efficiency.
Even the most talented and technically skilled writers need to look up a word or a punctuation rule now and then. The tools of your trade include a personalized library of useful reference materials. A good dictionary, a good thesaurus, and a good style and usage guide form the foundation of your reference shelf. Some publishers will specify which references they use to resolve questions of spelling, grammar, and style.
Most publishers use the
Your reference shelf also should include directories of potential agents and publishers. Guides like
The rest of the materials in your personal library depend largely on what you write or aspire to write. There are countless how-to books aimed at writers of specific genres. There are reference books about poison and weapons for the mystery writer and about life in the eighteenth century for the historical fiction writer. There are books meant to inspire you and keep you motivated to write, and there are books that show you how to format your manuscript for children's books, short stories, screenplays, and book-length work. Keep the books you find most useful within arm's reach so it's convenient to refer to them as you practice your craft.