Tag Archives: Writing Tools

U is for Unplug

Time away from the interweb universe is a good thing. It is especially a good thing when you consider that as a writer, the internet often functions as a serious distraction. But even if you are not writing, it is good to unplug if only to recharge your own batteries.


I typically like to unplug over the weekend, if only from work devices. Which means I don’t like to check my email, or even sit in my office, during the weekend. I stay off Facebook, for the most part, but I have been known to be on Twitter on weekends. It’s the desktop that I avoid. Ironically, I am now sitting at my desk on a Sunday afternoon writing a blog post about unplugging, because I am trying to catch up before the end of the April A to Z Challenge.

I believe unplugging is very important for a writer (hey, for anyone!). You can find any number of articles, opinions, or writerly advice columns to back me up on that one. In many ways, I think that writers of the past had it easier than us. Not so many distractions. But then hey, they didn’t have the internet (for research, now) and they didn’t have the bliss that is copy and paste or the ease of printing multiple copies.

I remember back in college, when computers were first being used, and I was still using a typewriter. I had a professor who would allow us to make certain changes in our papers for a better grade. But in order to do that, we had to type the whole paper over again. For a 10 page paper, that was two hours of work for me. For one paper, I told her that I was okay with the B. She asked why and I told her I didn’t have time to retype the whole paper. She allowed me to retype only the section in question, so I did. But she had assumed (as many of my profs did) that I was living on campus and so was using the rudimentary computer center in the basement of the library (which used BankStreet Writer!), and so could easily make the change (inserting my floppy disk) and print out a new paper. But I wasn’t, so I couldn’t. Okay, but that’s a different story.

This is just to illustrate the beauties of modern word processing (as we used to call it back in the day). However, as we all know, it has its foibles and its snags. If you are typing away on your home computer or laptop, you are likely on a machine that is hooked up to the internet. So if you hit a snag, like what is the capital of Bulgaria? you can simply search for the answer and you are done. You might even check a couple sites to be sure. But then while you’re online, hey, you want to check to see if that book is in at the library, and oh, there’s a new message on Facebook, and you really should post about that upcoming event that you’ve been meaning to share. And then you see a link to an article that sounds interesting…

And so it goes. Suddenly, an hour has gone by and whoosh, you have written like one paragraph. There are several schools of thought on this. The old-school of thought, that I tried to practice (and that made more sense back when using typewriters), was to just get it all down. Type it all up. If you need to look something up, make a note and look it up later. Don’t let it slow you down, don’t get bogged down in research, don’t go chasing facts while you’re in the midst of the writing process. Research is research and writing is writing.

Only now, it’s so easy. It’s so easy to just go over and click that icon. Mozilla, my friend! So nice to see you! And then go down a long rabbit hole of indeterminate length. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

In addition to the old-school method of just getting it down – or perhaps in tandem with it – there are several things you can do to avoid that rabbit hole. There are apps and programs that will effectively shut off your internet (I know someone who uses the ironically named program Freedom and swears by it). You can have a separate device that you use just for writing. This can be a different laptop, or a device designed solely for this purpose. Or you can, maybe, use your indomitable will to resist the urge to click.

While I was at AWP, I saw one such device being demonstrated. It is called the Hemingwrite (no subtle play on the writer’s name), and it is only meant for writing. There is no internet connectivity, except for the fact that your file is saved to the cloud. There is also no revising, no saving of files. No hard drive. I’m not really sure how this would work. You could likely retrieve your file from the cloud and then work on it later. But this is for pure generation. The best part, though, may be the fact that it actually looks like a typewriter. The Old Man would be proud (truth, the Old Man would likely be horrified, but well, that’s another story).

I liked the feel of it, and I liked the nostalgia of it, of course. Bear in mind that this is from someone who still has her old Smith Corona in the closet (I remember how excited and proud I was when I bought that – correction all the way to the beginning of a line! Oh my gosh!), as well as an old black metal Royal in the basement (which I’ve been meaning to promote to the office). There is nothing quite like having to bang on those keys to get your point across. In fact, if the Hemingwrite has any flaws, it’s that the keys are too soft, and it doesn’t have that clackety clack sound (not like the app called Hanx Writer designed by Tom Hanks that lets you type on your tablet while making the noises that evoke thoughts of yesteryear. Yes, I downloaded that).

Or you could, you know, just go commando. A pen and paper. The old yellow legal pad. My favorite is a notebook that my husband bought me, wrapped in suede, with a tie-closure. It’s soft, yet firm. And works on the deck, never needs battery replacement or wifi connection, and is fairly durable. I take it on trips. Go ahead, go old school. Or go for a walk. That works too, if you really want to unplug.

R is for Reading

I know, you all want to hear more about AWP, right? Well, I can’t help it. I got so much inspiration from there, that I have to liberally sprinkle it throughout my posts.

One thing that came up again and again was that writers must read. A literary journal will ask that you peruse previous issues before submitting. Most periodicals, in fact, will ask the same. They don’t want you to submit a story about a boy wizard with a scar on his head when they have, in fact, just published one. A magazine will take queries of a similar vein, aimed at the same audience (their audience), but they do not want stories that echo articles recently published. A newspaper will prefer that you submit items of local interest; the smaller the paper, the more locally focused it will be.

In a session at AWP in which we were discussing how to please editors, Jeffrey Levine, the editor of Tupelo Press, put it thusly, “There is a home for a lot of writing. And your job as a writer is to find that home. How you do that is by reading.” I’ve seen numerous variations on this advice from many different directions. There’s no way around it. You have to know your market, your competition, and your marketplace.

So that’s your job, then. Which, to my mind, is not such a bad row to hoe. I love to read. Don’t get me wrong – some reading is work. I write reviews for some national publications, and when I get a book that doesn’t interest me, it’s sheer drudgery. But when I get something good, that can be so much fun. In the past, I’ve read for work doing manuscript critiques and of course the compulsory reading involved in either working on a book as an editor or representing it as a publicist.

These days, though, I’m reading with a different aim in mind. I went to AWP with the goal of finding out more about getting published, and came away with a few tote bags full of journals (yes, four). I now have these stacks of journals sitting near my couch, and I am hopeful that this weekend, I can begin at least perusing them, to find out which ones I might want to submit to. I spoke to most of the editors of the journals I collected, so I am encouraged. (In fact, I have never been asked to submit so much in my life. But they haven’t seen the work yet, have they?)


In addition to the journal pieces, I have a couple of book ideas in my head. For the first one, I have been reading books on grief, loss and death for more than a year. It isn’t all I’ve been reading, mind you, but I definitely see a trend. I have a stack of books here waiting for me on that project. Currently, I am reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, after watching the PBS series. This relates directly to my work, since my book is about my best friend’s death from cancer. Other books for this project include Nox by Anne Carson, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down by Rachael Hanel, Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen, Stiff by Mary Roach, and many others. I guess you could say I’m making a survey. My own book will be creative nonfiction – not quite memoir, not quite straight nonfiction – with some poetry mixed in. I also am looking at some fiction, just to be thorough, like The Hollow series by Jessica Verday and My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. They all relate to each other with themes of friendship, loss, grief or illness.

What I am aiming for with this particular spate of reading is to find forms I like, to find ways of approaching the subject matter, to hear what others have to say about it. I am drawn to this like a magnet. I can’t resist a book about grief or death these days. I know, it sounds macabre. But that’s what is in my head, and I know the only way to get it out is to write it out. I don’t aim to copy these titles; I want to get at what makes them tick. This started rather casually, but it has turned into a methodical research project. As it should be. For years I devoured books about books and YA novels. But now my reading is much more focused.

If you aren’t reading for a particular project, you can still have purposeful reading that you do. I have reading lists for many things. Many of my Facebook friends are writers, and many of those writers teach college. Occasionally they will post a request, like Recommendations for books about poetics by a poet? Last year, someone did that and the discussion went on until there were 50 titles listed. I promptly copied it all into a Word document and I now have my reading list for my own Master Class in Poetics. This list should prove to be helpful for another book project. I also have a list of favorite book-length lyric essays and a list of creative nonfiction craft books, gleaned in a similar way.

Why not take a stroll through your favorite bookstore’s writing section? Or sit down with a stack of journals. See what grabs you. Or check the back of some of your favorite writing books for Suggested Reading lists, or, best yet, ask those you trust what they recommend. Next time you read a nonfiction book (or even a novel), check the list of sources, and you’ll see why I’m reading so widely. For books on writing, I recommend Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and for reference, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. What do you recommend? What are your favorite writing books – either on craft, the writing life, or for reference? Because there’s no way around it – a writer’s gotta read.