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A Writer's Tools

Every writer has a certain number of tools under his or her command. In his lovely book On Writing, Stephen King called this "the writer's tool box." While every writer has different strengths and weaknesses, with a few extra sharp skills or techniques they'd rather avoid, all writers have the same few tools that we need to use. These tools are your friends! With the tools of voice, style, and observation, you can make your writing have the authority and professionalism of your favorite fiction.


Voice is a writer's most fundamental asset, the thing that must be flawless, that must carry the story and characters. Voice is an instrument that can be played by the writer; it can be tuned to high or low registers, to comedic or dramatic tones, to male or female speakers. Voice is what makes readers feel immersed in a story. And because it has such an intuitive, natural feel when it's done well, it's hard to explain. But don't be intimidated by voice! Remember that voice is your instrument, your way of telling readers 1)How to read your story; and 2) What kind of world in which your story takes place.

Flair and Style

When we think of flair, we might, unfortunately, think of the wretched "pieces of flair" the restaurant in Office Space makes Jennifer Aniston wear. We might do better to think of the spirit and verve that real flair can bring to writing. When we read fiction, we don't want a clear, colorless presentation of the facts; we want style, beauty, ugliness, oddness. I often read for something that I call "oddisms" ‚*î little ways that the writer shakes me out of my coma and surprises me. These oddisms can come from putting unusual words in pairs together, or using frank and enjoyable idioms, or leaping into a page-long sentence. Your oddisms, whatever they may be, are a vital tool to be used in your writing. Discover what is idiosyncratic about your writing and sprinkle it in liberally.

Your eyes

Your most important tool is your own observations. I say your eyes here, but I'm not excluding blind writers; any senses you use to take in the world will serve your story. We want to see the fresh way you make familiar objects and scenes come to life, because we've seen it all before, but we haven't seen it through your eyes. As you go about your day, consider what you see and work to come up with unusual ways of seeing things. Look at something upside down if you have to. Turn an object all around if you have to, or consider a situation from another perspective. What is the crime from the criminal's point of view? What is a traditionally male setting from a female point of view, or vice versa? How will you look at the world with fresh eyes?