Finding the Perfect Pencil: Tools for the Modern Writer

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Jack Kerouac famously typed On the Road on a scroll of tracing paper so his thoughts wouldn’t be interrupted by having to insert new sheets of paper.

John Steinbeck wrote East of Eden in pencil:

For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good ones but never the perfect one. And all the time it was not the pencils but me. A pencil that is all right some days is no good another day. For example, yesterday, I used a special pencil soft and fine and it floated over the paper just wonderfully. So this morning I try the same kind. And they crack on me. Points break and all hell is let loose. This is the day when I am stabbing the paper. So today I need a harder pencil at least for a while. (Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, p. 35)

Generations of Little Women readers are familiar with Jo March’s ink-stained fingers and clothes, which were no doubt inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s own inky fingers.

And many a writer—maybe even you—has romanticized the notion of writing a novel in a notebook while sitting in a cafe or on a park bench, but when it comes down to it, for most of us twenty-first century writers, a computer is not just nice to have, it’s a necessity.

But your computer should be more than just a tool for getting words to paper. A laptop equipped with the right tools can be a writer’s best friend—a writer’s notebook, word processor, reference library, and personal assistant all in one.

Here are some of my favorite writing tools.

Background Image: Dan Iggers/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Writer’s Notebook


What it is:

Delicious is a social bookmarking service that allows users to tag, save, manage and share web pages from a centralized source. With emphasis on the power of the community, Delicious greatly improves how people discover, remember and share on the Internet.

Why I like it:

My bookmarks toolbar is fine for saving sites I frequently visit, but I needed a better option for links to specific pages I’m saving for research or writing purposes. With Delicious, I can tag each link with multiple keywords or phrases, and the resulting cloud tag gives me a visual representation of my ideas, which helps me organize my thoughts and saves time in the planning stages of a writing project. I chose Delicious because I like that the focus is on the bookmarking part of social bookmarking (I’m more interested in organizing my own bookmarks than in seeing what other people are saving).

Some other bookmarking options:


What it is:

Office OneNote 2007 is a digital notebook that provides people one place to gather their notes and information, powerful search to find what they are looking for quickly, and easy-to-use shared notebooks so that they can manage information overload and work together more effectively.

Why I like it:

You can print to OneNote (rather than to your printer), which saves a lot of paper and means you can “print” when you’re not actually attached to a printer (good if you want to save a receipt for a purchase, for example). When you copy & paste something into OneNote, the URL or file location, date, and time are automatically appended, which makes it easy to keep track of sources and credit them properly. Everything you add is automatically saved (there is no “save” button). OneNote is actually not one notebook but a set of them (as many as you want to create). Each notebook is divided into sections, and each section is divided into pages. As a writer, you might set up a notebook for each work-in-progress. One way of using the notebook would be to set up a section for each chapter and a page for each scene. Another would be to set up a section for each character. You can type or handwrite, add photos, video, sound, and rearrange sections and pages (without having to tear anything out!).

Some other notebook options:

Word Processor


What it is: 3 is the leading open-source office software suite for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, graphics, databases and more. It is available in many languages and works on all common computers. It stores all your data in an international open standard format and can also read and write files from other common office software packages. It can be downloaded and used completely free of charge for any purpose.

Why I like it:

OpenOffice does pretty much everything MS Office does—but it’s free. OO had the very useful “convert to PDF” function long before MS Office did. It’s easy to convert your OO documents to other formats (including Word docs). I like using OO for my creative writing; it’s nice to keep it somewhat separate from work stuff (done in Word)—and it means I can leave the default template in OO set up the way I like it for writing fiction.

Some other word processing options:

Reference Library


What it is:

Bloglines is a FREE online service for searching, subscribing, creating and sharing news feeds, blogs and rich web content. With Bloglines, there is no software to download or install — simply register as a new user and you can instantly begin accessing your account any time, from any computer or mobile device.

Why I like it:

Sure, you could keep the links to the sites you’re interested in a folder and click on each individually every day to see if there’s an update—but that’s so 1999. Why would you do that when you can subscribe to each site’s feed and have the updates delivered to you? Instead of visiting X sites, you only have to visit one. No update? No waste-of-time visit. With a feed reader, you can keep up with much more than you can the old-school visit-each-site way—and that’s great because there are a ton of awesome writing-related feeds available to subscribe to, including literary journals, blogs written by writers, agents, and editors, publishing news, words of the day and more. I use Bloglines (Beta) because I prefer its interface and like that it’s web-based.

Some other feed reader options:


What it is:

WorldCat is the world’s largest network of library content and services. WorldCat libraries are dedicated to providing access to their resources on the Web, where most people start their search for information.

Why I like it:

The beauty of WorldCat is that you can search multiple libraries (public and university/college) at once. Enter your location and the book you are looking for, and WorldCat will tell you all the libraries that have that book from nearest to farthest away. It’s a huge timesaver!

Directory of Open Access Journals

What it is:

Directory of Open Access Journals is a service that provides access to quality controlled Open Access Journals. The Directory aims to be comprehensive and cover all open access scientific and scholarly journals that use an appropriate quality control system, and it will not be limited to particular languages or subject areas. The aim of the Directory is to increase the visibility and ease of use of open access scientific and scholarly journals thereby promoting their increased usage and impact.

Why I like it:

Access to electronic versions of scholarly journals has generally been restricted to current university students and faculty. Those who don’t fit into that category and don’t live near enough to a university to visit the library and read the paper versions were out of luck. More recently, however, publishers have started to see the value of open access journals—that is, journals that anyone can access—great news if you’re a writer looking to do some background research for a story or novel.

Some other research options:

Personal Assistant


What it is:

Zotero is a free, easy-to-use Firefox extension to help you collect, manage, and cite your research sources. It lives right where you do your work—in the web browser itself.

Why I like it:

Keeping track of the books and writers you need to cite, acknowledge, or thank at the end of your works-in-progress can be a chore—especially when it comes to putting those references into a uniform style. But with Zotero, what used to take hours now takes no time at all. Zotero is a Firefox add-on (if you’re not already using Firefox, this should be sufficient reason to switch!). It’s super-easy to use. For example, if you want to cite a book you found at your public library, just pull up that book’s page at the library site and click on the blue book icon in the navigation toolbar (where you’re probably used to seeing the orange RSS subscribe icon) and the book and all its associated information will be added to your Zotero library (no typing!). When your manuscript is complete, you can create a bibliography (in the style of your—or your editor’s—choice) instantly (again, no typing or formatting required). Best thing since sliced bread!

Some other reference manager options:

Gmail & Google Calendar

What it is:

Gmail is a new kind of webmail, built on the idea that email can be more intuitive, efficient, and useful. And maybe even fun.

Organizing your schedule shouldn’t be a burden. With Google Calendar, it’s easy to keep track of life’s important events all in one place.

Why I like it:

I think every writer should have a webmail account for submissions purposes. For one thing, it’s permanent—or at least as permanent as these things get—unlike ISP, work, or school email addresses, which you lose access to when you change service providers, jobs, or graduate. For another, you can set up the account so the name on it matches your byline, which is extremely helpful to editors. (For example, if Mary Elizabeth Smith wants to be published as “M. Elizabeth Smith,” then that’s the way her name should appear on her submissions account—not “Smith, M. E.” or “Beth Smith” or any other variation.) Gmail has a lot of great features going for it, but the best part is that when you sign into your account, you also have access to all the other Google services. I especially like the Calendar because when you add an event, you can set it to email you a reminder. This is perfect for me because I’m always checking my email, but I’m bad at remembering to check my calendar for upcoming events. Now I don’t have to—the reminders come to me!

Some other organizing & submitting options:

There are also many new tools that can help you with networking and marketing your writing, and we’ll focus on some of those in upcoming articles. While this list is admittedly subjective and by no means definitive, I hope encourages you to think about ways technology can enhance the writing process. As Steinbeck discovered, there is no perfect pencil: some days one tool works best and the next day it’s something different. Keep open to new tools; keep experimenting. The beauty of electronic tools is that adding a new one doesn’t mean you have to give up an old one—and you don’t have to give up your cafe dreams either—just take your laptop with you.

Final Poll Results

Print Friendly, PDF & Email