Writer’s Tools: Online

I unfortunately wasn’t able to post yesterday–good argument for not promising to post daily, not enough time for that–but fortunately was planning a piece on some cloud based technology that will work well with today’s post: tools you can find online.

Nowadays, the internet is ubiquitous. You have it on your phone; you can get information almost anywhere, at the touch of a button. With the increasing prevalence of wi-fi Hot Spots at restaurants, airports and coffee shops, you can even bring your laptop with you most places and plug in. Which makes writing on the go a lot easier.

When I was in University, I had a Palm Pilot with a little fold out keyboard, and everything folded up into a neat wallet sized bundle. I did all my writing on this device–creative and schoolwork–and it was a godsend. But the one thing I always missed was that it was only a place to get my thoughts out; I couldn’t do any decent editing because the word processor wasn’t great; there was no dictionary or encyclopedia on the device; and research was no more convenient than bringing a notepad to the library and writing by hand. Then I got a laptop, and would bring that everywhere; I had a lot more at my fingertips, but still couldn’t connect to the internet for research, and the battery life wasn’t all that great.

Today, your average phone has more processing power than my laptop did back then, and you have a plethora of tools available for you whenever you want them. In fact, information is so readily available that, interestingly, it’s holding us back; in his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr posits that having so much information so easily available is causing us to only skim it for what we want right now, rather than digging deeper. But that’s a topic for another day.

The internet has a wealth of tools for writers, from forums where other writers will discuss issues with you, to how to’s on publishing, eBook building, getting an agent and so on, to myriad contests writers can enter to get their work off the ground. Here are a few of the ones I visit regularly:

Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com are a must. Of course, nothing beats having a real Webster’s, but for quick reference, it’s a lot better than the options in Microsoft Word. The thing I like most about these online resources is that entries are hyperlinked, so you can click your way from one definition to the next very quickly. It might seem like cheating, but it’s a quick way to double check the spelling of your word or find an alternative to fit the story. You can also check out popular quotes on a variety of subjects.

Wikipedia is another invaluable “quickie” resource. Now let’s get this out of the way first: it’s an open to all platform, where anyone who signs up can edit an entry. This means you’ll find a lot of obscure information that won’t be in Encyclopedia Britannica–but more importantly that you can’t rely on the truth of the information you find. I use Wikipedia as a starting point, looking up a topic I think is interesting and exploring it from there. Each entry should include source material, and that’s where you’ll find the proper books to do some real research. It’s a great place to get the tip of the iceberg–but for real research, you’ll have to dig deeper. As a side note, there are wikis made for pretty well any subject you can imagine, some of which will have much more specific information that Wikipedia, so do your Googling.

One of these separate wikis is TVTropes.com. It’s a compendium of various well used tropes and ideas from all media–the site is quick to point out the difference between a trope and a cliche. This is a place where you can look up, for example, character archetypes. Or your basic plots. Or one of my favourite Sci-Fi devices, The Watson. This is the kind of site that’s worth just wandering around in. You’ll get lost for hours, but there’s so much to learn about the nature of entertainment, and how and why we enjoy it. Getting to know some popular tropes–and how to use them properly–can definitely make you a better writer.

Speaking of becoming a better writer, you can’t go wrong with studying The Elements of Style. This is the seminal grammar text from Strunk and White, and is a must-read for any writer. That website (which includes the entire text), says it best on the front page: you have to know the rules before you can effectively break them. Grammar is important for a creative writer because¬†you want to break it occasionally, whether it’s to fit the tone, alter a character’s dialogue, or create tension. But don’t do it blindly:here’s the road map.

Another way to improve your writing is to get in touch with your audience. That means building a fan base, but also paying attention to what others are writing in the same genres as you. Goodreads is a site where you can review books you’ve read, and see how others are reviewing the same books. By browning through the stacks, as it were, you can see which authors are acclaimed for what they do–and put them on your reading list. With some careful consideration about what types of books people seem to most enjoy, you can start thinking about elements you want to bring into your own work. Now, I’m not saying you need to write for the masses–that’s not what creative writing should be about–but it’s also not wise to write something nobody wants to read in the first place.

Almost any city, province, region or country is going to have a writer’s guild somewhere. Up here, we have the Writer’s Guild of Alberta. Any writer’s guild worth it’s salt is going to be a congregation of like minded–and geographically close to you–writers who can share their craft. You’ll find writing tips, editing services, constructive feedback, contest, and publishing information. If you haven’t already, find your nearest writer’s guild and sign up!

One of my favourite online resources is Sugarsync. Cloud based storage is the Next Big Thing, and Sugarsync got in early enough that’s they’ve got a really solid business model and great software. You can try Dropbox or iCloud or the new Google Drive; they’re all the same idea with different implementations. Now I admit that once I tried Sugarsync, I haven’t gone with anyone else–but that’s because I don’t need to. This program has everything I need–large storage space, easy access to the cloud, integration with Blackberry, and excellent customer service. There’s really no reason not to use them.

I find Sugarsync to be invaluable, not only because all my writing is safely secured in the cloud, but also because I can edit my work anywhere. I’m the kind of person who gets ideas out of the blue, normally when I’m not at my home computer. Sugarsync allows me to open up a document and edit it from wherever I am, even if the computer I’m using doesn’t have the software and isn’t hooked up to my own cloud. I can just go to their site and edit from there, and it’s the same on every other computer as soon as it’s synchronized.

And no, I’m not on their payroll. I just love this company.

So there’s a bunch of links for you to try out. It’s by no means an exhaustive list–there are dozens of great resources out there for writers. Share yours in the comments!

Bonus:

National Novel Writing Month is a website that encourages users to…well, write a novel in one month. Their term is from November 1 to 30, and they’ve got a strict set of rules to follow. The idea is to challenge yourself as a writer under these time constraints–and honestly, a month is a lot of time if you plan it well. Can you write a full novel in 30 days? I haven’t tried this out yet, but am considering signing up for this year’s trial. Hope to see all you other writers there!

 

 

 

 

 

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