Into the Toolbox It Goes

Do you ever get confused by the sometimes contradictory advice you hear from successful writers? Some may say “write every day!” while others say “write when you have something to say!” Or you may hear “Write the whole thing before you edit. Just get it on paper.” Then you’ll read about a bestselling author who labors over every page before moving to the next one. And we’ve all heard about “pantsers versus plotters.” Pantsers write as they go without knowing exactly what comes next in their story. Plotters outline and then follow their outline with only minor variations.

So what’s a writer to do? I think the best way to look at it is to consider the various “rules” about writing as tools in a toolbox. Every time you learn a new “trick” to writing that has worked well for someone else, go ahead and toss it in your writer’s toolbox. And then remember that not every tool is used in a building project. Some, like hammers and saws, are used frequently. What carpenter wouldn’t have a hammer and saw in his toolbox? The carpenter will also have a crescent wrench in his toolbox, but may use it far less than his hammer and saw. Some carpenters will have both a flathead and a Phillips screwdriver, though they may use only one, depending on the occasion.

So, too, as a writer, it’s wise to keep a full toolbox of the tools you hear about. But don’t feel you have to use both the flathead and the Phillips screwdrivers. Don’t think you have to always be a pantser. Maybe this new project will require you to be a plotter. So take out the plotter tool from the toolbox and go for it.

Some tools, to be sure, are like the trusty hammer and saw. Tools like “show, don’t tell” and “active, not passive sentences” are always in vogue. You will want to reach for them frequently (though even with those tools, you won’t need them all the time. You CAN write an occasional sentence that tells, not shows. You CAN write a passive sentence when that’s what’s called for).

So, really, becoming a better writer is, like carpentry, a learned trade. You learn which tools in the toolbox are needed for the WIP (work-in-progress). Therefore, when you hear a piece of advice that seems to conflict with what you assume to be true, just stick it in the toolbox and pull it out if and when you need it. If you never seem to need it, just let it sit there. Your toolbox is big enough to hold even the seldom used tools.

The fun part is when you throw a tool in the toolbox that is your own tool—no one gave it to you through a magazine article or a workshop….you found it on your own. It’s yours to share with other writers so they can put it in their toolbox.

Like a skilled carpenter, I’m betting your success as a writer will depend on your ability to discover and artfully wield your favorite tools in your toolbox. And that, my friend, takes practice…and a few bent nails.

9 replies
  1. Richard Mabry says:

    Nick, Great advice and well-put, too. Very helpful way to handle the plethora of “rules” that are thrown at writers. We use the tools that work for that particular job, and don’t worry if the others gather dust in the bottom of the box. We’ll get around to them.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Kathy Bailey says:

    Nick, what a wonderful metaphor. Just as our characters often surprise us, we often surprise ourselves. This is especially true for Christian writers. We can’t say we’ll “never” do something, any more than we can say it in the part of our lives outside writing. God controls the toolbox, and when it’s time to use the crescent wrench, He’ll let us know.
    I’m not published yet, but I’ve been in several critique groups over several years. I’ve learned that other writers’ systems, tricks, techniques and rules are tools to be thoughtfully considered, but only used when they work for me.
    As Bob Hope would say, “Thanks for the metaphors.” (Um, memories.)
    Kathy Bailey

  3. Bonnie Leon says:

    Nick, thank you. I love this simple to understand, straight forward metaphor. It makes sense. I will continue to build my stock of tools, but also remember I don’t need them all . . . all the time.

    Grace and peace to you.

  4. Kathy Bailey says:

    Writing is SUCH an inexact science. I often compare it to pastoring or any other full-time ministry. There is no “formula,” and you can’t measure it with the world’s eyes. Nor can we expect a particular “tool” to be the right one all the time. Some are basic, some for special needs or situations.

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