A Writers Tools

If you are like most writers, you're constantly searching for tips on technique that will help you to increase your chances of publication. You eagerly pounce on articles that tell you how to plot better, write better and sell better. In addition, you occasionally buy books on writing, or do a writing course, or attend a seminar.

But... are you sabotaging your efforts by simply not having the right tools?

The right tools can make a huge difference to your comfort and productivity. Let's look at a few I consider essential, and a few that are just desirable.

1. A GOOD PRINTER.

You'd think that a GOOD printer would be a 'given' - but unfortunately, it's not. Think about what you do as a writer. All but a tiny percentage of writers now work at a computer. Some writers can edit and polish their work on the screen, but most prefer to print out their work and scribble changes on the hard copy.

Naturally, the more drafts you print out, the more paper and ink you are going to use. It is essential that you don't skimp on editing and polishing simply because you're worried about the expense of printing out another copy. And for most of us, that means using a LASER printer, rather than an inkjet. If you do a lot of web browsing, or like to print out articles, newsletters and research material, you'll find a laser printer faster and cheaper.

Fact: a laser printer ends up costing you a lot less than an inkjet. It's not worth economising on the initial purchase to save a few hundred dollars - replacement cartridges for an inkjet will cost you significantly more per page. As a writer, you don't really need colour. Consider buying a cheap colour inkjet for the occasional photo or colour cover sheet for the kids' assignments, but buy a laser printer for your main output.

TIP: When you go shopping for a printer, be ready to compare costs. Have a calculator with you, or ask a cooperative salesperson to do it for you. Compare:

  • the initial cost

  • the cost of replacement ink/toner

  • the number of pages that one replacement ink cartridge will yield

  • the speed

  • the memory
An example: I recently went shopping for a new printer. I wanted a simple, fairly fast laser printer - no bells and whistles. I didn't want one that would also act a fax and a scanner. I didn't want colour. I didn't want an extended warranty, either. (Be prepared for the salesperson to suggest that you DO need all these things. Be strong!)

In the end, I considered 3 printers. Printer 1 was $329, Printer 2 was $379, and Printer 3 was $399. The cheapest one put through about 10 pages a minute and had 2 mb memory. The second one ran at 14 pages a minute and had 4mb memory. The third was much faster: it pumped out work at 19 pages a minute and had 8mb memory.

I decided against the cheapest one, because I wanted more memory for complex documents. That left two, with a difference of only $20 between them. On the surface, the faster one seemed a much better buy... but wait. It was time to compare the ongoing costs.

I asked the salesperson how much it cost for replacement toner. The answer?

  • Printer 2: $110

  • Printer 3: $170
Ouch!!! That's quite a difference. Each lot of toner would do approximately 3,000 pages at 5% coverage (the average business letter). Printer 2 is looking good...

I checked out the two printers more closely. Printer 3 had the kind of feed that requires you to stand paper upright in the feed tray. Printer 2 had a cassette in which the paper lay flat.

Another thumbs up for Printer #2: I've had printers before that had paper standing upright, and wasn't keen on them. If you leave them stacked, the paper curls over, and the sheets are also more exposed to dampness in the air.

Finally, I asked about the toner supplied with the printers.

  • Printer 2 came with a full 3,000-page toner cartridge, whereas

  • Printer 3 came only with a 'starter toner' of 1,000 pages.
As you can probably guess, I bought Printer 2 - which happened to be a Brother HL-1430. I had to buy a cable to go with it (another $20); total cost for the printer and enough toner to do the first 3,000 pages: $399. Another thing I liked: when I installed the printer, the software placed an 'interactive help' icon on the computer desktop. When I clicked on it, I found that it ran movies showing exactly how to release jammed paper and other tasks. Now that was a bonus! (So was the printer's ability to print 2, 4, 8 or more pages on one A4 page - good if you want to save toner and you have good eyesight!)

NOTE: Four months after I bought this printer (which I considered a good deal at the price anyway) I spotted it on sale at both OfficeWorks and the local Post Office for only $199. If you can find a good laser printer at this price (or less) you're laughing.

As you can see, it pays to ask questions when you buy your printer. Think about your primary purpose: you want a good, reliable workhorse that will print your pages quickly and quietly without costing you a fortune for replacement ink. It might be worth your while to make this your main printer, and keep that expensive-to-feed colour inkjet for occasional use.

2. A GOOD SCREEN

If you have a perfectly good CRT (cathode ray tube) screen and not a lot of spare cash, you more or less have to stay with it. But if you can afford a Flatron screen, then RUN, don't walk, to the nearest supplier. Writers spend a lot of time staring at the computer screen, and sore eyes (and headaches) are not much fun.

A 17" Flatron screen will give you a good working area, and you'll notice the difference right away. These screens are such a pleasure to use. They also take up less room on a desktop.

Compare costs and features and, if you can swing it, change to one of these screens ASAP.

3. A GOOD BROWSER

Microsoft hold such a huge market share that it's hard not to follow along. So many of the 'add-ons' to make computing easier are tailored for Microsoft products - even though there are better web browsers out there. One that is attracting a lot of interest now is Mozilla - a web browser that also has a good mail program. (The web browser only is called Firefox.)

The big 'plus' with Mozilla (or Firefox) is that it allows you to use tabs for web pages instead of requiring you to open a new window for each one. You can also put links to the sites you visit most often on the browser toolbar.

You may find that even if you change browsers, you need to fire up Explorer now and again for sites that work only with this program. All you have to do is make your other browser your default, then use Explorer if you have to.

4. A GOOD BACKUP FACILITY

OK, hands up all of you who have backed up your novel recently?

If your hand shot up in the air (or even if you smiled smugly), congratulations. You're in the minority.

If you muttered "I keep meaning to do that," join the hordes of others who take the risk that nothing will ever happen to them. And decide now to do something about it.

Backup Hardware

You can backup your work by saving it to a CD ROM or DVD disk (floppy disks are gradually being phased out). Alternatively, many people are finding it useful to buy an external hard drive and save files to that. An external hard drive will take only moments to set up - simply attach the cables and plug it into your USB port. You can save files to it just as you would to the main drive of your computer. (Tip: connect your backup drive only when you want to make a copy of your files. If you leave it attached to your computer permanently, any viruses will find their way to your backup drive as well.)

Backup Software

I've also found Second Copy useful. This has been around for a long while and has barely changed. It's simple to set up and then does its job in the background. I choose which folders I want to be backed up regularly (the default is every couple of hours while the computer is switched on) and then once a week, transfer the full backup file to my external hard drive via a USB cable. You can check out Second Copy at www.centered.com

Backup with a USB "pen drive"

I absolutely could not do without my little USB drive. Just click it into any USB port, and start saving files to it. You can then slot it into another computer to transfer your files there - another household computer, or a friend's computer offsite (in case you have a house fire, or burglars steal your computer and disks).

A USB drive is small enough to drop into a handbag or a shirt pocket and barely make a bulge. Some people have them attached to keyrings. They sure beat the old floppy disks. I have 2 USB drives: one has a capacity of 64mb, the other 128mb. When we were travelling, I found them very useful for transferring files in an Internet cafe.

There are plenty of useful software programs and gadgets to make a writer's life easier. Keep an eye on the computer supplements in newspapers or what other writers say in forums.

(c) Marg McAlister

Marg McAlister has published magazine articles, short stories, books for children, ezines, promotional material, sales letters and web content. She has written 5 distance education courses on writing, and her online help for writers is popular all over the world. Sign up for her regular writers' tipsheet at http://www.writing4success.com/

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