I know not all of you are writers. This article is definitely tailored to fellow writers. But I believe the mentality I describe is applicable in many walks of life and hope that anyone can get something out of it.
I develop lots of tools for my day job. Everything from custom macros in Excel and Word to standalone Visual Basic programs. I have come up against some resistance at work lately regarding the tools that I develop. Most of the complaints boil down to a few arguments:
- Too little training/documentation
- Tools allow people to be more stupid
- Tools will get us stuck when they become obsolete
As for training and documentation, this comes back to the whole “lead you to water but can’t make you drink” concept. I find that many people don’t read manuals. In fact, many men I know brag about how they don’t. My wife makes fun of me when I sit down to read a manual for a new gadget. But I always end up knowing how to work them better than anyone else. So who wins in the end?
I have made several training videos on our tools, and despite having hundreds of users, there aren’t more than about 30 views on my training videos. So what does this mean for you as a writer? Well here’s my advice. You have to know what’s in your toolbox: how each tool works and what it can do. If that means you need to read that manual, do that. If there isn’t good documentation, just play with it.
I am now considered one of the experts in our company for a particular piece of software. Even IT comes and asks me (an engineer) about issues. How did this happen? Basically I just decided to commit to the software. I sat down one day and tried every button. I clicked on every menu and read every feature. Of course I only remembered about half of it at best, but it was apparently enough to make me an expert. So don’t be afraid to explore your toolbox. Try them out in safe settings where you aren’t going to lose your work. And if you don’t like that, see if you can find some video tutorials on YouTube.
Do tools really enable people to be more stupid? Maybe. Anytime I am faced with this argument, I ask if we should still be using an abacus instead of calculators. The answer is usually no. I have to believe that there were a ton of people who incorrectly used the abacus and got wrong answers. Most tools function in a “garbage in, garbage out” method. Any tool has to be used properly in order to function. But DeWalt doesn’t stop making drills because people have used them to hurt themselves. They just slap a warning on there and go about their day.
I find that this argument tends to end where nothing should ever be invented because people will use it for terrible things. Now it is certainly possible to regret inventing something, but to take that fact and propose that nothing should ever be invented because the risk is too high… well that is just silly. So what does this mean for you? Some of this goes back to the first point. Know your tools. But also use them how they were intended to be used. Tools are just leverage, they give you an edge. But you still have to be smart about what you are doing. No tool is going to turn you into an overnight success as a writer, just as buying a new drill can’t turn you into a contractor. But if a contractor is still using a hand drill because he is afraid an electric drill will make him stupid, that would sure be concerning.
Will tools get us stuck when they become obsolete? Of course we don’t want to throw good money after bad. But letting the risk paralyze us is a fast track to be stuck in the old way of doing things. Writers are definitely not immune to this phenomenon. I have heard of writers that still use typewriters or old word processors because it is what they are comfortable with. On the flip side, I have heard of a writer who occasionally writes on a typewriter because she found that it alters the cadence of her writing. So she uses it when appropriate, but also uses an advanced word processor.
Do you need a brand new drill if your old one still works perfectly well? Probably not. But if you are super attached to your corded drill and are just afraid to go cordless because you like the feel of the cord tugging on your drill, you should at least consider what an upgrade could do for you. There are still times when a corded drill is necessary, but most of the time it isn’t the best tool for the job. Don’t buy every piece of software that you see thinking it will help you write more. But no tool in your toolbox should be safe just because it is already in your toolbox. Re-evaluate your systems and decide if they are working for you.
I have never believed in the phrase “can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. I think the proper way to say that would be “can’t teach a dog that thinks it’s too old to learn new tricks”. I strongly believe you are never too old or set in your ways to learn something new. The only thing that can hold you back is yourself. Sometimes you need to step back and think about what you are doing. Think about whether you really understand what’s in your toolbox.
I write some things in OneNote, and some things in Scrivener. I understand the limitations of each software, so I can use the right tool for the right job. Sometimes I brainstorm in Scapple, other times I just do a brain-dump in OneNote. Sometimes I use Word spellcheck, and other times I use ProWritingAid, and sometimes I use Grammarly. Sometimes I use Dragon to dictate, but most of the time I prefer typing on a computer. Sometimes I use the full story-grid spreadsheet to break down ideas, but for short stories I do it in my head.
Know what is in your toolbox, and know the ins and outs of each tool. Don’t upgrade just because someone tells you to. Read about what you might buy and understand what it will do for you. But also don’t be afraid to learn something new. If you do buy new software, read the manual, watch a tutorial, or play with it until you understand something about it.
Lastly, don’t let pursuit of tools distract you from your real work. If you spend all your time and money buying software and training classes, you might successfully distract yourself from doing the actual work of writing. So seek out the balance. Don’t focus so hard on writing that you are afraid to change up your systems, but don’t focus on the systems so hard that you don’t write. When you find the balance and know your way around your toolbox, you can use the right tool at the right time for the right job. Go find your balance so you can get to the real work of writing.