Tools of the Trade

Oct. 25, 2019


My partner and I are having A Year in Provence moment. Earlier this year, we went halfers with another couple on a 120-year old farmhouse in Prince Edward County.

5 acres. 100-year-old maple trees. Sheep grazing in the field to the south. A boutique winery to the north. Wood burning stove in the kitchen. Lovely, lovely, lovely.

But…as these things often go, the old house needs work. And you know what that means? Lots and lots of trips to Canadian Tire.

Last weekend, for example, we decided to install some blinds in the bedroom. We had driven down from Toronto the night before with the blinds and all the tools we needed to get the job done. Or so we thought.

Right off the bat, we discovered we’d brought the wrong screwdriver. We had a flat-head type but these blinds called for a square-head. No worries – off to Canadian Tire we go to purchase a shiny new square-head screwdriver (even though we have several square-head screwdrivers hanging on our tool rack back home).

With the right screwdriver, assembling and hanging was now moving along nicely. Until it wasn’t. Alas, we had forgotten to bring a level. Richard was all for eyeballing the thing, but I tend to be a little more fastidious (ahem!), so back to Canadian Tire we go – to get a level (even though we have not one, but two levels hanging on our tool rack back home).

Eventually, we got the blinds up, but as you can see, it wasn’t the most efficient process. No tools. The wrong tools. The threat of inferior work. Poor planning, some might say.

Writing is like that. Many of us labour under the delusion that we can sit down and quickly bang out what we want to say. Just like that. We don’t plan, and we don’t bother to check that we have the tools we need – to correct all the little typos and grammatical errors that inevitably creep in, to save our readers from jargon and convoluted sentences, and to polish our prose so it’s clear and convincing.

Well, labour no more. Here are the five essential tools I think every writer should have in their toolbox. Use these to make the writing process easier and more enjoyable – and to create a finished product you’ll be proud of.  

1. Dictionary

This is an oldie but a goodie. You might have given up your hard copy volume long ago, but I’d be surprised if you don’t find yourself consulting an online version every now and then. (Likely not often enough, but who I am to judge?)

Mary Norris, The New Yorker’s self-described “Comma Queen” sings the praises of the Merriam-Webster – in either format. “On the Web site,” she writes in Between You and Me, “lexicographers pop up like gophers, inviting you to learn points of grammar and usage…There are word games, a word of the day, trending words (from the news), a blog...These people are having far too much fun to be lexicographers.”

2. Writing Handbook

This doesn’t have to be one of the traditional texts like Strunk & White’s Elements of Style (although it never hurts to have that old chestnut on hand). These days, there are so many excellent – and entertaining – guides available that you’re sure to find one that works for you. And the surprising, but truly excellent news, at least for word nerds like me, is that new books keep coming out all the time.

A few of my favourites:

  • Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty
  • Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean by Josh Bernoff
  • Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynn Truss

3. Checklist

Bruce Ross-Larson, author of Edit Yourself: A manual for everyone who works with words advises that you should check the use and usefulness of each word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, and section. God love him.  

But if you don’t have time “for such a task,” Ross-Larson says at least check a few basic things. What those basic things are may vary from person to person. It depends on how much time you have, how disciplined you are – or perhaps how picky your boss is.

I suggest you personalize your checklist to include the things that usually trip you up. I have a few pet peeves (OK, more than a few), and if pressed for time, I focus on these five:

  • passive verbs
  • nominalization (see Duct Tape to the Rescue)
  • sentences with 25+ words
  • misplaced modifiers
  • fully justified text – everything in a block, from left to right   

Addressing those issues alone will instantly improve the vigour and clarity of any piece of writing.  

4. Examples of great writing.

As a professional, you may not think of yourself as an artist. No poems or short stories for you. It’s all reports, memos, emails, RFP responses. All day long.

Think again. All writing is an exercise in creativity. You start with a blank page, and you pour out your blood, sweat and tears until “magically” something concrete and interesting takes shape. Yes, writing is hard work. But, as with most things, you learn, grow, and improve by doing. And by trying to emulate great writing. Visual and musical artists do that all the time. Why not writers? Why not you?

My latest go-to for good writing is Rick Mercer’s Final Report (which I highlighted in my September newsletter). His crisp, energetic prose is like a kick in the pants to me. It makes me want to get tapping away and reminds me to embrace simplicity (but not over-simplification).  

Again, a book or passage that inspires one person might do nothing for the next. The trick is to find a piece of prose or two that speaks to you. When you’re writing, dip into these treasured texts often. Stop for a minute to think about why the writing is so great. Why does it seem effortless? Why do the words leap off the page? Why do you get it, quickly and easily, without having to read the text over and over again? That, my friends, is what you’re striving for.

5. A warm body.

Your own of course, but also that of a trusted colleague, friend or relative – really, anyone competent and willing to read and proof-read your writing.

Let’s face it, by the time you’ve gone through the whole process – sweated over your copy, looked in the dictionary for correct spellings and meanings, consulted your favourite writing handbook, checked your checklist, and, if you’re lucky, taken a break to be inspired by a little Virginia Woolf – you definitely need someone else to give you objective feedback.

I don’t know what I would do without my own trusted readers – my partner Richard and my sister Nancy. If my writing even begins to achieve what I set out to do, it is largely because of their eagle eyes, well-placed skepticism, probing questions, and creative suggestions.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, we have a leaky faucet to fix. Just have to find the right wrench….

Remember this:
A writer is like a handyman; to get the job done well, you need the right tools.