5 Tips on Optimizing Your Tools and Writing Space

keyboardI’ve just returned from a hasty shopping expedition to pick up a new wireless keyboard and mouse combo. Having a decent keyboard again has me almost giddy with delight. (Okay, I’m a nerd.)

I loved my old keyboard. In fact, it spoiled me for anything less. When it refused to work any longer, I dug out the spare keyboard (with its trailing cable – gasp! Wires???) from the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet.

Within five minutes, I was muttering dire curses under my breath. The keyboard was years old, and not only did it have a cable, but the keys were unresponsive. And it was noisy. Click clack, click clack. Worst of all, the backspace key was the same size as the = key next to it. You know what that means, I’m sure. Almost every time I backspaced (and man, I discovered I backspace A LOT) I hit the = key instead. Hiss, growl, mutter…

My husband (hearing my not-so-muffled curses) came to the rescue and suggested that I use his wireless keyboard. Hmm, I thought, not a bad deal – I’d bought my wireless keyboard and mouse at different times and had two USB receivers. His was a combo, with a common receiver.

I unplugged the keyboard, ditched the mouse and swapped my USB receiver for his.

Oh no. Another noisy keyboard. No soft-touch keys. And the mouse!!!! It didn’t glide smoothly at all, either on a mouse pad or a desk surface. It was like trying to navigate with a block of cheese. “How can you stand working with this???” I asked, honestly dumbfounded. He shrugged. He didn’t care much; he mostly uses his computer to check email, visit the odd forum or look up things on the Internet.

I handed back his stuff, plugged the spare keyboard back in, wrote half a page, then stopped and announced that I was going shopping. At the mall I spent half an hour analyzing wireless keyboard/mouse combos: the key words were ‘soft touch keyboard’ and ‘easy-glide mouse’ – AND to check that it had full-size keys for ‘backspace’ and ‘enter’.

A couple of hours later and $66 lighter I’m happy again. The mouse glides; the keyboard is quiet and responsive. O joy.

For years, most of my income has come from working on the computer. I spend hours every day at the keyboard, so it’s important to me that (1) I can rely upon my tools and (2) I can work in comfort.

Being comfortable means that I need a desk with an drop-down leaf for the keyboard, an easy-glide mouse, a soft-touch keyboard, and an ergonomic, height-adjustable chair.

That’s the minimum (for me). There’s a lot more involved in having a writing space that works, but you should decide what is the minimum for you, and get it for yourself as soon as possible.

5 Tips on Optimizing Your Tools and Writing Space

  1. Spend what is necessary. You don’t have to have the best, but you do have to have tools that work. If you mainly use a computer for word processing and email, then something very basic is fine. BUT – ‘basic’ doesn’t mean ‘junk that nobody else wants’. You are entitled to a reliable computer just as much as anyone else in the house. You don’t have to have the hand-me-down that keeps crashing just because your kids want a super-fast gaming computer. New laptops are very reasonably priced these days; if you need one, buy one.
    If you use graphics (for book covers, high-end photo processing or website design) or create your own book trailers, you may need a computer with more memory, a faster processor and perhaps a better graphics card.storage_shelvesMake sure that your keyboard and mouse are responsive and comfortable to use; you’ll be spending a lot of hours using these. An extra $20 on the purchase price might make all the difference.
  2. Try out chairs and computer desks. Make sure that the chair supports your back and that the seat is well-padded. Buy a chair that is height-adjustable. Ensure that the desk will serve your needs: it should be big enough to spread out reference books and notes, and you should be able to situate your computer screen and keyboard at the right height. If you can’t get what you need for the price you can afford, look for outlets that sell used office furniture or check online for better deals.
  3. Think ‘storage’. Your aim should be to have maximum storage and minimum clutter. Toss out rarely-used reference books and bookmark websites that contain the same information. Scan articles that might be useful and store them on your computer. Keep your area neat and well-organized – use labelled baskets and storage boxes on bookshelves.
  4. Use an online backup service. NOW. There are plenty of backup solutions online; some free. (I use JustCloud.) Choose one and backup your Documents folder at the very least – that will be where most of your stuff is stored. Also backup photos and graphics. Schedule your backup daily. Then, if the worst happens and your computer is lost or stolen, you can get back the essential info very quickly. (You can backup to USB sticks and DVDs, but most people are pretty slack about doing this. Online is better. And if the house burns down, your information is still safe.) I regard this as an essential tool.online_backup
  5. Know yourself. Does this sound too simple? It’s not. Here’s an example: I’ve tried out different types of writing software in the past. (I don’t mean word processing software: I mean software specifically designed for authors and screenwriters.) It doesn’t work for me. That doesn’t mean it’s no good, or that it won’t work for someone else – writing software might be perfect for you and really boost your productivity. It might be just what you need to organize your ideas and to create a solid plot.

Why doesn’t it work for me? I suspect it’s that I just don’t work well with boundaries and boxes when it comes to plotting and writing a novel. I do need to have some idea of where I’m going: I do need to know what motivates my characters and how they will react in a given situation. I like to have some obstacles in mind for them… but I don’t want to have the whole book plotted before I start. I’m more of a pantser than a plotter. A kind of Virgo pantser or, if you like, a ‘loose’ plotter. [Which doesn’t mean I’m a loose woman. :-)].Even though I know how I like to plot and write, every so often I have a brain seizure and decide that I should try some writing software that sounds really, really good. In the past six months I’ve bought The Marshall Plan (which gets rave reviews) and Liquid Story Binder (also highly recommended). In each case I have:

  • opened the software
  • read through the basic instructions
  • started organizing the idea I have for the next novel
  • decided that I don’t have time to learn to use it now and I need more time to think about what I want to put in the boxes
  • closed the software, and
  • never opened it again.

I know that those of you who use and love either of the two mentioned above are ready to fire off an email saying “But it’s brilliant! You’ve got to give it a go!” You’re probably right about how good it is. Even now, I could go to the website, read about the software, watch the videos, and be motivated to buy it all over again.

But the point is – it’s not right for me. This is not the way I work.

“Knowing yourself” is about more than whether you should use writing software. It’s about what you write (Literary novels? Romance? Mystery? Historicals?) and how you write (A full first draft from beginning to end; no revising until the end? Polish each scene as you go?). It’s about whether you’re a lark or an owl; it’s about whether you can write for 12 hours a day or whether your creativity wanes after two hours.  You may have to focus on one project at a time or you may be happy to wear three different writing hats, splitting up your day between all three.

Know yourself, and you can save yourself a lot of heartache, wasted hours, and wasted dollars.

Wow. All this from a simple shopping expedition to buy a new keyboard. That’s writers for you: they just can’t stop.


5 Tips on Optimizing Your Tools and Writing Space — 20 Comments

  1. I am in the midst of reorganising my work space right now. I was fed up with all the clutter that had dogged the space for years. Love my new shelves, installed yesterday, but want/need more. By the end of March I expect to have it all finished and you won’t be able to drag me out of there!

  2. Another helpful post, Marg, and a timely reminder that I must be more efficient about backing up. I started using an online backup service a few weeks ago immediately after my computer decided to stop working. I had a couple of days of angst because I’d backed up all my stories but there were loads of promotional and business files that I hadn’t copied to CDs. Fortunately my computer magician got my computer working and nothing was lost. I don’t use the type of writing software you mention but one free program I have found extremely useful for keeping track of my many submissions is called Sonar 3. I’m old-fashioned enough to also manually record all submission details on an individual card for each manuscript.

    • Unfortunately, it’s often been after I’ve had a computer malfunction that I start to think about all the stuff that I would find so hard to replace! That was in the past, though… now I have the security of knowing that it’s backed up every day. It does take days to back things up online initially, if you have a lot of files – but after that I love the way it adds any new stuff in just a few minutes. I know I have the alternative of just uploading files to online storage – but if it’s scheduled, I can forget it.
      I haven’t heard of Sonar 3 – will go and do a search.

  3. I would love a dedicated writing area soooo much! But that’s just not an option. I live with my daughter and son-in-law since a medical retirement four years ago and have a bedroom, a lounge/dining room and a 3×3 metre kitchen. More than adequate under normal circumstances, but as a writer, I’d love another room. I have a laptop and at the moment, do my writing in my recliner, or sitting up in bed. A bookcase in my bedroom stores all my writing stuff, and several boxes under the bed hold what would normally be in in a filing cabinet so finding stuff is somewhat of a challenge. Help; any ideas?

    • A friend of mine has a daughter at uni who spotted a wheeled kitchen cart and bought it for her bedroom. It goes against a wall and she stores uni work on it in various boxes or baskets, and just wheels it over to the desk when she’s working.
      I’ve also seen wardrobe makeover firms that build in study areas on the wall next to wardrobes, or build them INTO wardrobes – so that could be an option if you are in the position to do some bedroom or sitting room renos.
      I’m sure others will have some great ideas!
      I just Googled ‘office or study area in small space’ and found these two sites… I’m sure there are lots more:
      I bet there are lots on Pinterest.

  4. My old HP is like a dying friend. Her keys are starting to go- especially the “E”. I’ve been in denial that I might have to replace her. I’ve written all my novels on her (backed up on a flash drive). But you’re absolutely right. The right tools make all the difference. Her days may be numbered and I may soon be mourning her demise.

    • Ah yes, it’s often hard to let go… but really, if you have to stand on your head to get the ‘e’ to work, it’s time! 🙂
      And, er, you are going to start backing up on more than a flash drive, aren’t you? (Apart from the admittedly unlikely house-burning-down scenario, I have heard of writers in deep despair because a flash drive failed.) Just sayin’…

  5. This is all so true Marg, Why do so many of us think that we should ‘make do’ with old things? My keyboard has been annoying me for ages as the keys have to be pressed down really hard to work. Not good for the fingers!!
    Another thing I have found useful is a foam cushion on the chair – one with a cut-out at the back to ease pressure on the tailbone. Excellent for long car trips too!

    • Bev, go out and buy yourself a new keyboard immediately! You’ll be blown away at the difference it makes to your work. I’m tapping away here and the keys are so responsive – just enough ‘give’ (I don’t like keyboards where I can’t feel any resistance, either!) but a light tap does the job. Ah, heaven.
      Great tip re. the foam cushion on the chair – I’ll give that a go. (About the only place I’m NOT carrying extra kilos is on my tailbone!)

    • Thanks Marg, I’m definitely going to look into cloud backup. I had an external hard drive fail, and it ended up quite expensive to recover the information. If you’re having minor technical problems with your computer, laptop or tablet, one good place you can get free help is on the Forum at the TechGuide website: http://www.techguide.com.au/
      I had a problem with my laptop and sometimes when I typed an “i” or an “e”, the cursor would jump to somewhere else on the page. When I was typing flat out, sometimes I didn’t notice and would have to try to find where I was and what had to be rearranged.

      I couldn’t afford a new laptop, and the thought of carting around an external keyboard was just something I didn’t want to contemplate. So I went onto the forum and asked for help. It turned out that it wasn’t the keyboard, but the trackpad. Rather than go to the expense of having a new trackpad installed, one person suggested I simply disable the trackpad and use a wireless mouse. Brilliant, problem solved. I can heartily recommend the TechGuide forum for getting answers to any little tech problem you might have.

      • Thanks, Lyn, that’s a great tip. I’m actually going to start up a new page called ‘tips from writers’ or something like that and add information like this.
        I couldn’t work out why the cursor kept jumping on my laptop and then realised it was the trackpad after reading a post on another blog!

      • Hey, I knew what you meant!
        I LOVE shopping for tech stuff. Whereas I can’t get excited at all about, say, jewellery. My family are at last getting to accept the fact that I’d rather have tech toys than flowers and chocolates and jewellery. (I was almost overcome when my granddaughter gave me a bluetooth keyboard for my iPad for my birthday last year. You go gal!)

  6. Great tips! I have been working on setting up my own writing/blogging space in our spare bedroom. I need to invest in a better chair.

    I also need to look into an online backup service. I have an external HD but I need something out of this house, just so I feel my work is completely safe!
    Kecia recently posted…How to Write an Effective About Me PageMy Profile

    • I must admit I’m glad every day that I have my work backed up online! And after sitting here for quite a few hours today, I’m glad I have a decent chair.
      (As well as my lovely new keyboard. I still smile as I tap away…)

  7. YAY! I’m on the Cloud, thanks to this blog! I have always sent my chapters to a dummy email address, but the revisions end up staying in my writing folder. Won’t have to worry now about losing all that precious time I’ve put into my work.

    • Well done, Marti! It’s tedious the first few days waiting for it all to upload, if you’ve got lots of content (but what does it matter? It’s not like you have to put any work on hold until it’s done!) It really does give you huge peace of mind.

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