Tools of the Trade: The Writer’s Computer

I’ve been reading a lot of articles about writing and taking in a lot of advice from others writers.  There is a lot of it out there. They all say things like, “Get a website,” and “Write every day or you’re not a writer,” or “Journal to get the juices flowing.” This is all great advice.

But not many write about the basic building block of our careers and our shared passion: the writer’s computer. We build elaborate writing rooms, with spacious desks and overflowing bookshelves and busts of Rodin’s Thinker. But at the center of this, is that small piece of technology that makes everything we do, or at least say we do, possible. So, for anyone looking to become a writer, or for the unfortunate supporting a broke writer, here is what to look for when buying a writer’s computer.

  1. Nix the PC or Mac Debate.

Who cares?! With writers, technology quality and software package are less important than say, a graphic designer. Homer etched the Odyssey in stone tablets and Shakespeare wrote on parchment with quills. To my knowledge, none of the publishing houses featured in the latest edition of Writer’s Market accept submissions on stone or parchment. So, yes, a good computer, preferably a laptop, is a necessity of the modern writer.

But whether this computer comes from “Bad Billy,” or the late Steve Jobs, is ultimately immaterial. A Mac may be a bit more fashionable, but PC’s are generally more affordable and more accessible on a beginning writer’s budget. Now, if you are doing your own publication with layout and design, ad creation, etc., then that’s a different matter. You probably do need a Mac. And you also need to think about things like graphics capability, memory size and processor speed—all things that make my eyes glaze over. But, for the rest of us, the decision is less technical.

  1. Keyboard Layout

This may seem like a small thing, but it actually matters…a lot. A writer needs a good well-spaced keyboard. Internet-focused laptops have cramped keyboard spaces, leaving the most room for scrolling and clicking. But a good writer’s keyboard allows the hands to be comfortably positioned and freely move about the space.

The keys must also be responsive, lightweight, and feel good to the touch. You will spend thousands of hours each month running your fingers over and over and over those keys. Spend a few minutes in the store running your fingers over the keys. Which one do your fingertips prefer?

Maybe I’m a bit of a Luddite, but speech recognition software is great for grocery lists, parking space notation, and simple phone-based web searches. But, I wouldn’t trust Siri to write my novel. You just can’t get around a good keyboard.

(But, don’t go overboard and get those silly ergonomic ones with the split in the middle. Those are ridiculous).

  1. Word Processor

Word processing, once the default function of a computer, doesn’t even come standard with brand new computers anymore. A new Windows machine will usually come with a trial version of Microsoft Office. After about 90 days, you have to fork over another couple hundred dollars or you’re on your own. I’ve never been fortunate enough to buy a Mac, but from what I understand, it’s the same thing. So, if you can, ask for the upgrade for a full upgrade to Microsoft Office in the beginning, and get it out of the way.

If you can’t, there are a lot of other word processors on the market. Some writers can actually get a bit snobby about their chosen software. Although, for every successful writer who calls MS Word amateurish, there are two more who simply shrug and say, “I just use Word.” Most other word processors are cheaper than Word and many are even free. Open Office, for example, is a very popular free knockoff of MS Office. The word processor, called Writer, looks, feels and works just like Word 2003.

Although, my favorite word processor, is an application called Scrivener. Created specifically with the needs of novel writers in mind, Scrivener is essentially an interface that links an infinite number of text documents together for one-click navigation. Scrivener looks a bit like iTunes, with all of your scenes listed on the sidebar, neatly organized by chapter. Each scene of your novel can be viewed or manipulated as a separate piece, or as part of a whole. The scenes can also be viewed together in a storyboard format, and even moved around within the whole. At any time, a few clicks can produce a professionally formatted Word document ready for submission. The whole thing costs a whopping $32. It also does a whole lot more, but that’s a post for another day.

Whatever word processor you use on a daily basis, it is agreed you must at least have Word. Microsoft Word is the industry standard among publishers and editors. When you send work back and forth to them, they will want to deal in that format. But for a beginning writer who doesn’t have Word, don’t despair. There are many free web services that will convert other file types into Word documents that you can send to your editor. But, once you get serious, you’ll need to get Word.

  1. Good Internet Capability

Writers don’t particularly need lightning fast Internet, but you will be surprised at how much web based research they will do. Settings, occupations, historical data, phone numbers and “Exactly how did that famous quote go…?” all must be within a finger’s reach. A computer without good online capability can frustrate a writer.

Not to mention, for many writers, music helps the process. I like to stream music on YouTube because I’m cheap, but others may prefer paid services like Pandora, or at least iTunes. Most new computers these days come with adequate memory, but older or refurbished models may be harder to work with. You will need to be able to have several windows and tabs open, and switch seamlessly between them.

 5. Portability

Creativity is fickle, and every writer has their own opinion, usually very strong, about where and how they need to write. I personally like to write in a variety of settings. I find that if I use one place too much, it’s like I dry out the creative energy in the place. I can’t write there for a while until the creative energies have time to replenish. I write in Barnes and Noble, Starbucks, my desk, the couch, the dining table, the front porch, in a notebook at the mall food court…Wherever I can find a place to sit and think. My laptop is a true road warrior.

As such, a writer needs a laptop that is durable and fairly lightweight. Tablets, while scoring a perfect ten in portability, are not good for serious typing. Even the external keyboards seem to be too small and cramped for the heavy use that writing will require. Unless you are a power tablet user already, the learning curve for extensive tablet use also can be counterproductive. But, that’s a matter of opinion. A dedicated iPad writer may strenuously disagree with me.


Ultimately, writing is the least technical function done on a computer. As long as you have a good computer, you’ll be fine. My philosophy has always been never to spend more time and energy talking about writing, than actually writing.

As a matter of fact, experienced writers will tell you that’s how you spot an amateur. They’re running their mouths instead of hitting the keys. So, don’t get caught up in the details. Find a good computer that feels comfortable, and then smile and start typing. Once the paychecks start rolling in, you’ll have enough experience to decide what you really need.


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