Articles / On Writing

Ten Things that Should Be in Your Writer’s Toolbox

In today’s article I’m going to cover the specific books and programs you should have squirreled away in your writer’s toolbox. Of course there is MUCH more out there than what is listed here, but this is a list to get you moving in the right direction.

Must-have Books

–The Basics

  1. The Latest Version of The Chicago Manual of Style – This is the usage guide that your editor is going to use. It’s the gold standard for fiction and non-fiction writing. So whether you are penning a novel, a memoir or writing web content, you are going to need this guide. What is it, you ask? CMoS, as we affectionately refer to it, is a guide to common usage issues. Do you want to know how to render that number or whether you should hyphenate “beautifully rendered painting”? CMoS is the place to look. CMoS comes in two forms: internet subscription and hard copy.
  2. A good dictionary – Yes, you need a dictionary. A good one in fact and preferably unabridged. A dictionary not only tells you how to spell a word, but it provides information on the history of the word, the usage of the word, and the part of speech. So if you want to know if a word is appropriate for your period piece, check the dictionary first. If you want to know if the verb you have chosen is transitive or intransitive, you guessed it, reach for a dictionary. How about if you are wondering if you can use that noun as a verb? Yep, the dictionary! And if you want to know if you should capitalize that word or not, the dictionary will be your guide. The Divas recommend the Unabridged Merriam-Webster Dictionary, but the Oxford Dictionary and the Cambridge Dictionary are nice to have too.
  3. A good thesaurus – After my last article on the dangers of using a thesaurus, you may never want to crack one open again, but I recommend that you do. A good thesaurus is like a fuzzy blanket. It’s good and comforting to have in season. A thesaurus can help you avoid the repetitive pitfalls that tend to hamper manuscripts.

–The Nonessential Essentials

  1. Latest version of The Writer’s Legal Guide by Tad Crawford & Kay Murray – If not this book, you will need one that is comparable. This book covers what you need to know to protect yourself as an author.
  2. The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi – We say it all the time: show, don’t tell. This book shows you how to express emotion through body language. It’s a must have for every author of fiction in my humble opinion.
  3. The Dimwit’s Dictionary by Robert Hartwell Fiske – Oh how I love this book; let me count the ways. If you are caught in a metaphorical rut—literally—this is the book for you. It lists common and overused idioms, clichés, and turns of phrase and gives you alternatives to them. It’s basically a thesaurus for idioms, and this book is well worth the few dollars it will cost you.

Must-have Programs


  1. A good word processor – There are several things that you should look for in a word processing program. The ability to make comments and track changes is at the top of the list. Spell check, grammar check, and a one-click thesaurus are good things to have too. I use the full version of Microsoft Word, but there are some good options out there if you are not a fan of Word. Pages and Corel’s Word Perfect come to mind.

–The Nonessential Essentials

  1. Autocrit – No, it won’t replace your editor, nor will it replace a content edit (or any other type of editing for that matter), but it will help you catch some things. This is an automated program that looks for repeated words and phrases, analyzes sentence length, and points out overused pronouns, idioms, etc. It will light up your manuscript like a Christmas tree and help you revise some of those content issues that might otherwise be overlooked in a lesser edit.
  2. Scrivner – Haven’t heard of Scrivner? This is a great tool for drafting your manuscript. Scrivner combines a word processor with project management and beyond. It allows you to view your manuscript and your research in one place. To make multiple drafts of your manuscript. To revise in safety. The features are too many to list here. Just go check it out.
  3. OneNote – If you have Microsoft Office, you may have this lovely tool. OneNote is a combination notebook, scratch pad, and whiteboard all rolled into one. It’s a bit unwieldy in my opinion, but with a little creativity on your part you can create a notebook to contain your internet research in one place or even to whiteboard your characters and plot. There are some lovely add-ons for various browsers that will allow you to send an internet page to OneNote with the click of a button. Talk about a nice feature!


Have I missed an essential book or program that you love? Please share it below.


  1. Lindsey Gray Says: March 13, 2014 at 9:48 am

    I can’t count the times my editor told me “show, don’t tell”. Great list. Looks like I have a few more things I need to add to my toolbox.

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