The tools writers use are as diverse as writers themselves. What works best for you is not necessarily the same as what works for other people (see the list below). So, it’s a good idea to explore different tools and see what you can discover.
Pen on Paper
The first, and simplest – and for many people, the best – option is to write on paper with a pen. There are fewer distractions in this context. You can cross things out easily, rewrite, and refer back. You don’t have to turn anything on or click any buttons. It’s right there. Most of the well-known literature that we study was written in this way: with pen on paper (Mark Twain was, famously, the first author to submit a typewritten manuscript). Pen on paper is a good method, an ancient method, and many people still use it for a variety of reasons. It also tends to be the method that helps us feel the most like writers. Writing on paper tends to encourage the feeling that we are acting in a literary way. Personally, I find writing with a pen on paper to be the most effective means of slowing down to find my topic or mapping out ideas.
If you use, or plan to use, pen and paper, here are some recommendations. Notebooks from Rhodia, ClaireFontaine, Leuchtturm1917, and Mnemosyne are all excellent. The type of paper used in these notebooks is much, much better than what you will find elsewhere. Moleskine notebooks are also good (and more widely available than the other brands). As for pens, Pigma Micron and Pilot fine point pens are excellent (for example the Micron 02 and the Pilot Hi Tec C). But for the true aficionado of writing by hand on paper, fountain pens are the way to go. Fountain pens such as the Lamy Safari, the Lamy Studio, and the Pilot Metropolitan are all excellent and affordable. On the pricier side, pens by Montblanc and Waterman are exemplary. If you are interested in pens and paper, spend some time at the Vancouver Pen Shop – but be prepared for a new obsession, potentially. (I own every item listed in this paragraph, and much more pen paraphernalia besides.)
I don’t use a typewriter, so I can’t comment on this method. I do know, however, that typewriters still have a thriving fan base. For more on this, see the film California Typewriter.
You are surely familiar with this method. Probably most (all?) of what you’ve written, in the last few years, has been composed on a word processor. And that’s fine. But word processors are not particularly built or designed for writers. That seems odd, maybe; but the fact is, word processors are designed for the office environment, in which there is some writing plus a bunch of other stuff like charts and graphs and mail merge. (I don’t work in a traditional office, so I am sort of guessing here about what happens.) So, word processors are not ideal for writing. But I’m not going to discourage you from that pathway. In my experience it’s very tough to convince people to shift away from word processors. But be aware that these tools hide your mistakes from you. A word processor makes everything look good – even if it’s not good. The fonts and margins and automated formatting give the thing a polished look even if you haven’t polished up your prose.
By way of subtle cues and imagery (icons, menus, procedures), word processors introduce a level of aesthetic abstraction that is perhaps not useful to the writing process. Word processors encourage us to fiddle with fonts and spacing, with countless page layout options, with the visual aspect of work that in its initial stages should be primarily visceral. And word processors are also ergonomically inefficient. The mouse, which requires the full use of one arm, is a primary tool in word processors, as are menus and keystrokes assigned for mnemonic rather than ergonomic functions (control-S to save, for example, requires the removal of the left hand from the home row of the keyboard).
Years ago, as I began to understand that my persistent arthritic aches were essentially caused by mouse and keyboard use, ergonomics became a core consideration for me. And that, in turn, led me to text editors.
Text Editors and Tools for Thought
I use a text editor for all of my writing. I use BBEdit (Mac only), Sublime Text, Vim, Emacs, or Ulysses (Mac only), depending on various factors. Many excellent tools exist for writing, and each offers distinct advantages and challenges. This is a very deep study with a long history of contention known as the editor war. The issues are further complicated by the emergence of deep-featured note-taking apps (aka Tools for Thought, or TfT) such as Tana, Obsidian, and Logseq, which offer many possibilities for outlining, writing, and even publishing. (I use all of these tools.)
The first advantage of a text editor (or a TfT) is that you work primarily from the keyboard and don’t use the mouse as much. This is more efficient, faster, and healthier for your wrists and arms if you write a lot. If you are a good typist, then text editors are wonderfully freeing. But they come with a steep learning curve (at least, the powerful ones do, like those in the list above). Vim (or Neovim) in particular can be very frustrating at the beginning but is an incredible tool for writers. Along with Emacs, Vim is the most powerful of the text editors for writing words – but is also very hard to use if you are a complete beginner and you are used to word processors.
So, making the transition to text editors is a bit of a journey. Most people try a few before settling on a favorite. But they all offer a core advantage over word processors: text editors don’t hide your mistakes. They don’t make the page look polished and complete when it’s not. Text editors just show you your words, your sentences, your paragraphs. That’s it: no formatting, no highlighting, no italics, no special fonts. So, using a text editor can be a very Zen-like experience for a writer. It’s kind of like writing with a pen and paper – but on a computer, where you can edit and review and save.
Text editors are also better at preparing text for the web, which is where most writing ends up these days. This is a major advantage over word processors, which can leave problematic hidden formatting codes in text for which the destination is a website. Text editors work wonderfully well with web formats (technically called markup formats) that convert plain text to web-ready content. In the universe of text editors there is an entire constellation of tools (such as pandoc) just for this purpose.
Choose the Right Tool for You
Whichever tool you use, it’s important to enjoy that tool and learn how to use it properly. Mostly this means learning keyboard shortcuts, letting go of the mouse, and keeping your hands on the keys. (I’m getting near the end of this post and I have not touched the mouse once. I’ve been working in Sublime Text and on the website itself, switching back and forth. I’ve made hundreds of edits.) Knowing how to delete a word, remove a sentence, copy and paste just with the keyboard is a great set of skills for a writer. It saves time and is much more efficient. So, whether you use a text editor or a word processor, dig down a bit into the keyboard shortcuts to see what you can find. They’ll make your writing experience a lot more enjoyable.
But, as I said, it doesn’t really matter, objectively, what you use. What matters is that you like the workflow you create for yourself. This will require some experimentation. And, as with everything creative, that experimentation should be fun, somewhat challenging, and it should lead you to interesting places. That’s one of the great things about the creative pathway: it takes you to places you never thought you’d find.
Tools Used by Famous Writers
Paper and Pen/Pencil
John Irving — In small notebooks, then on a typewriter.
Stephen King — On a Mac, until the accident; now uses a Waterman fountain pen.
Annie Dillard — Pen and paper.
Toni Morrison — Number 2 pencil, yellow legal pad.
Rudyard Kipling — Black ink, blue paper.
Thomas Wolfe — Pen and paper, using the top of his fridge as a desk.
Mark Twain — The first writer to submit a typewritten manuscript.
Jack Kerouac — By candlelight, after prayer.
Arthur Miller — Notebooks, then typewriter.
Elizabeth Ann Paulin — Number 2 pencil, yellow legal pad.
Robert Pirsig — Index cards.
John Steinbeck — (Pencil, round shaft only).
Arthur Hailey — Legal pad, with 600 words written at the top.
Joan Didion — Yellow, blue, and white paper.
Robert Lowell — Printing.
Ann Tyler — Fountain pen.
John Barth — Fountain pen.
Sophy Burnham — By hand only when having trouble.
Typewriter — Don Delillo, Joyce Carol Oates, William Carlos Williams, Agatha Christie (using three fingers)
Windows PC — Terry Brooks, Michael Crichton, J.K. Rowling
Mac — Tom Clancy, Salman Rushdie, Kurt Vonnegut
Linux — Neal Stephenson
Dictation — John Milton (blindness), Jorge Luis Borges (blindness), Jean Little (blindness; dictates to computer), Osip Mandelstam