Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Writer’s Most Important Tool

by Warren Adler @WarrenAdler

I have written numerous essays on the three repetitive questions asked to and reported by every author I know. For review they are:
  • When do you write, meaning time of day or night?
  • How do you write, meaning pen, pencil, typewriter or computer?
  • Where do you get your ideas?

The second question in particular about the tool a writer uses to make tangible the inspiration of one’s muse has very consequential importance. A writer is essentially a craftsman who uses the raw material of words to create a product. To do this of course requires a tool.
Picture Moses on Mount Sinai carving God’s ten commandments into stone tablets. It is as good an image as any to explain the significance and meaning of a writing tool. He needed the right tool to do the job. Ancient writers used dyes on stones, then came animal hides, then papyrus, then paper and ink and on and on.
I’m sure every writer understands the significance of the right tool to do their work. It is, in fact, very specific and very personal and worthy of being one of the three eternal questions. My tool journey is equally specific and personal.
My first tool, after childhood crayons, was pencils with erasers. Then came pen and ink. Remember pen points and inkwells? Every school desk was equipped with an inkwell in the days when an essential course was “penmanship.” My first effort at writing stories in my school days began seriously with pen and ink.
Indeed, my first attempt at a long form story was with pen and ink, a blotchy mess on lined paper in a black notebook with a speckled cover. Even then I was a prodigious rewriter and my earliest teen efforts were barely legible even to me. Besides, my penmanship was lousy and cursive handwriting was not my strongest suit.
At age sixteen, I saved to buy a clunky second hand Remington typewriter and taught myself to type. I used it all through college to write my papers and my first serious stories published in my late teens and twenties. I remember having a very good and personal relationship with that clunky Remington. I said goodbye to it when I was drafted into the Army during the Korean War and left my parent’s home.
The fact that I was an accomplished touch typist put me in good stead after graduation from NYU as an English major. After a stint as a copy boy at the New York Daily News I became a reporter, then editor, then editor-in-chief of The Queens Post, the largest weekly newspaper in Long Island.
Typing speed was necessary to put out a 56-page weekly, write numerous news and features, a column, obituaries, social notes and assorted copy, to keep pace with the demands of publication. There were only two of us and some freelancers. The effort was gargantuan.
We had to compose and write like lightning to get that paper out, especially around Christmas time when the paper bulked to 96 pages.
In the Army I was assigned after infantry basic training to the Pentagon as the sole Washington correspondent for Armed Forces Press Service where I wrote stories of interest to all services and those of our allies on par with all the major news outlets covering the Pentagon. It was the early fifties and I continued to use a mechanical typewriter although I believe that the electric IBM was beginning to be the tool of choice for most typists.
I think I resisted the opportunity to go electric because I feared that somehow the use of a strange alien tool might slow down the creative juices. I continued in my spare time in the Pentagon to write fiction, but, alas, although I tried, my efforts met with rejection after rejection. Not that I had lost confidence in my ability or my talent but I felt that I lacked the marketing skills to get my work published.
After the Army, a series of jobs, and then the founding of my own PR and Advertising Firm in Washington I finally went electric. By then I had acquired a wife and three children and my mission was to provide for them as best I could. I had done well in my business career, another fact that I attribute to my writing skills and the expert use of my writing tool.  I could write advertising copy, press releases, captions, features, in fact, anything that required useful and creative composing.
Throughout this period I never gave up my dream of being a full time novelist. Hell, the stories were piling up in my brain and my hope was that one day my career would morph into authordom.  It did come to pass, but only in my middle forties.
I set up my writing studio in the basement of my then suburban split level and pounded away all throughout my business career, writing early in the morning, then going off to work. By then, my principal fear was that a breakdown of my electric typewriter would force me to put it in the shop and deprive me of my writing tool for who knew how long.
To solve this problem, especially after my first novel was finally published by Putnam who was pushing me to write more novels, I bought two other Smith Coronas, the reasoning being that if one broke down, I would always have at least one spare when the others were in the shop. I can’t remember how many novels I wrote on those three electric typewriters, but I did discover that the advanced tool made little or no difference in the creative flow of my work, a relief.
Then came the computer. Again I resisted, fearing yet another technology might interfere with my work. Many of my writing friends were still working on typewriters, some even continued on manuals. I had by then eschewed all business interests and devoted my full time to my writing.
Writing novels by both manual and electric typewriters was a tremendously time consuming and expensive process. As I stated I am an inveterate and habitual rewriter. My drafts in those days were always full of corrections and had to be typed and retyped ad infinitum. I kept a series of freelance secretaries busy cleaning up my manuscripts for submission.
A friend who was a pioneer techie had been on computers for a number of years and after much prodding persuaded me to go digital. I was really scared. The computer was a totally foreign tool and after much soul searching I finally took the plunge.
The program I used was Wordstar, long gone. My printer could spit out no more than four pages a minute. Nevertheless, I persevered, largely on the common sensical fact that I would be able to make my corrections immediately and not need endless retyping by a secretary.
I missed the sound of my fingertips slapping the keys of the keyboard. I missed the smell of the ink ribbon and the paper.   What I learned from the use of these different devices that it made no difference. In fact, I think the computer actually allowed the creative juices to flow more freely.
On all these devices, all these tools, I have written more than 55 novels, hundreds of short stories, a number of plays and a never-ending gaggle of so-called blogs like this one. The fingers still dash over the keys and, in a fit of nostalgia, I did purchase a keyboard that replicates the sound of my first old clunky Remington.
Perhaps I have over answered that second question. But then, considering the importance of this tool to a full-time writer, I think it deserves such detailed treatment.

The Writer's Most Important Tool - from novelist @WarrenAdler on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)
Warren Adler's forthcoming novel, Torture Man, is slated to be released on December 1st and can be pre-ordered here

Warren Adler has just launched Writers of the World, an online community for writers to share their stories about why they began writing and invites all writers to share their reflections here. Explore more at

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