Writing tools for inspiration, technique and revision

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We thought we’d continue on from our first post on creative resolutions, to check out our favourite six writing tools to help you keep those resolutions.


My very favourite writing tip is suggested, sometimes under a different name or taking a slightly different form, by nearly all my must-read writers. Natalie Goldberg calls it the ‘freewrite’.  Dorothea Brande insists you get up half an hour earlier to, ‘Write any sort of early morning reverie, rapidly and uncritically.’   Jane Yolen calls it ‘everyday writing’ and likens it to priming a water pump:

The old river water thrown into the pump is metaphorically your letters, revisions, journal entries -  if you are so minded – shopping lists, titles, lines of poems yet to be written.

I call it a timed freewrite and trigger it in different ways. Sometimes I use a writing exercise, sometimes just a word or phrase. Sometimes I take someone else’s title or a line from a poem. Occasionally I will know that I want to explore what a character I’m already writing about is feeling, so I’ll think of that character and write from their point of view. The main element of this kind of writing is that it’s not censored. I don’t stop and ask myself it it’s good enough, or worthy of being published, or even what it will eventually become. I simply write for a designated period of time – often thirty minutes, but sometimes only ten.

I try to keep this kind of writing in a separate notebook. I might not look at earlier writing for days or even weeks. Or, I might rescue a poem from those pages later that same morning.

I confess to owning a large library of books about writing. I justify these by using them when I teach, but I suspect I buy them in the hope that just having them hanging around will make me a better writer. (I buy cooking books with the same hope!) A very successful recent buy has been The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, edited by Dinty Moore. I love the diverse exercises this book contains because they drive me in a different writerly direction. Again, I try not to worry where this writing ends up – it’s similar to a musician practising a new piece which may never end up in her repertoire but, nonetheless teaches her something.

Finally, I always direct new and emerging writers to Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax. It’s a book about language written for writers and the examples alone are inspirational – both for new pieces of writing and for effective revision. Along the same lines, I suggest listening to audiobooks – really listening, not dozing off! Listening to writing is slower than reading on the page, it should make you think about the placement of each word and begin to hear any problems with the syntax, any gimmicks the authors uses too often.

The other wonderful tool, partricularly, for poets is to learn a favourite poem each week. I did this on and off for a year and I was surprised at the poems that stayed with me and those I discarded in the process. Learning a poem by heart makes you consider each word, and then each phrase, each line and how the stanzas fit together. It pinpoints a poet’s triumphs and less successful choices. As a side benefit, it leaves you with a memorised anthology you can dip into at will the next time your train is cancelled!



We all need just a little inspiration at times and the very best place to find that is in a good book. Over the years there are a number of books which have touched my heart and helped me guide many of the writers I’ve had the privileged to work with.

The first is Editors on Editing by Gerald Gross. This is a collection of 38 essays on the development of American editing. It is inspiring, thought provoking and an all round companion to an editor, would-be-editor or author trying to make sense of the editorial process. My favourite essay is ‘Editing Fiction as an Act of Love’ by Faith Sale:

Good writing – interesting use of language, evocation of genuine emotion, revelation of unrecognised truths – is, in my estimation, the highest form of art.

Sometimes an author gets stuck in a rut and can’t seem to find their way through the mire and that’s where I step in and give them just a little supportive advice.  what better place to get inspiration than from my trusty Advice to Writers compiled and edited by Jon Winokur:

Just get it down on paper, and then we’ll see what to do about it. Said by Maxwell Perkins probably the greatest editor of  the 20th Century.


Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. Samuel Beckett

And finally, the delightfully idiosyncratic Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. This is a wonderful window into the writing life where practice makes perfect. Anne insists that you must get the words down and for her it is simply about the human condition.

Good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.

To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care. You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on.

Books referred to in this post:

Natalie Goldberg, specifically Writing Down The Bones, Shambahla Press, 2010 but anything by Goldberg talks about the timed freewrite and offers triggering ideas you can use.

Dorothea Brande, Becoming a Writer,  Amazon Digital Services. This book was first published in 1934 – but despite the explosion of new technology, the hard graft of getting words on paper or screen hasn’t changed!

Jane Yolen, Take Joy, The Writer Books, 2003.

Dinty Moore (ed), The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, Rose Metal Press, 2012. (I also like the other titles in the Rose Metal Press series, including their field guide to Prose Poetry and Flash Fiction.)

Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax, Boradway Books, 2001.

Gerard Gross (ed), Editors on Editing, What Writers Need to Know About What Editors Do,  Grove Press, 3rd edition, 1994. First published in 1962, this has remained an invaluable guide for both editors and writers. You might also want to have a look at Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit, On the Practice of Editing Yourself, W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.

Jon Winkur (ed.) Advice to Writers, Vintage, 2000.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anchor, 1995




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