Building Your Writing or Editing Toolbox

Updated on May 16, 2018
Amy Donnelly profile image

Amy is a freelance content and development editor. She loves coffee, reading, traveling, and editing.

What's Inside Your Toolbox?

According to numerous articles and personality tests, there are several different ways we learn. The largest portion of our society learns visually, meaning they learn by reading. The more you read or follow visual cues, the more you absorb, and your knowledge base increases.

As a writer or editor, learning new skills isn’t something difficult, but it sometimes takes a backseat to the already huge list of tasks that present themselves on a daily basis. More often than not, an author’s time is focused on ideas for the next novel, marketing back catalog, or preparing a novel to publish. Editors spend their time working through projects and sometimes taking on small writing projects. What happens in between those activities?

Let’s focus on a few pillars that can revive—if you’re struggling—if not support, your already solid wheelhouse. Learning a new skill and pushing your limits forces you to go outside your comfort zone. Always a good thing.

There are many ways to change old habits.
There are many ways to change old habits. | Source

Pillar One: Technical References

For fiction writers and editors, there are two consistently used references: The Chicago Manual of Style, Seventeenth Edition, and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

The CMS is a style guide approved for fiction writing and differs in some ways from other style guides.

It’s important to note that the CMS recently underwent revisions. The Seventeenth Edition released in September 2017. Notably, there are several useful clarifications in the update. If you’re using an older paperback version, it’s highly recommended to upgrade.

Using the online version of the CMS has numerous advantages. First, updates are provided real time with new editions. Second, it’s beyond simple to use the search function on the website to track down a specific rule, or research any problem requiring a resolution. The CMS online forum provides useful discussion and input regarding particular topics.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary is recommended for several reasons. As mentioned in The Four Levels of Editing, it’s essential to maintain consistency while editing (especially if using several editors and proofreaders during the editing process). Acknowledging the differences between American-English and British-English spelling is the easiest step to ensure a level playing field.

It's none of their business you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.

Ernest Hemingway


Pillar Two: Reference Manuals

For fiction, there are too many reference manuals and guides to mention. There’s no doubt that researching a writing topic and receiving a ton of instruction manual recommendations is overwhelming.

The goal here is figuring out what will help you as a writer or editor while leaving behind the information that isn’t as important. After reading several manuals this can be precarious, but it's possible. It's all a matter of deciding what will provide a solid foundation for your knowledge bank.

There are several reference manuals I use consistently. Pay close attention when using a supportive manual; they shouldn't replace the technical manuals mentioned earlier but used as supporting documentation.

First, reference a thesaurus often. Any thesaurus will do, but investing in a respected hardcopy or utilizing a free online version is a good start. There are even special thesaurus versions that focus on emotions.

The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation and Elements of Style 2017 both provide clarity through examples to sometimes confusing rules. Having either one or both of these at your fingertips will help demystify some of the more confusing writing rules.

Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors and Publishers (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing) by Scott Norton is a handbook with utility for all fiction writers and editors. The content is broken down into readily applicable terms. My favorite section is at the very beginning where the ground rules for developmental editing are listed. There is something in this book to store in your toolshed for application now or later.


Pillar Three: Writing Skill Courses

Every year, I budget for at least two to three editing or writing courses. I’ve found that soaking in a subject is essential to growing as an editor. Makes sense it would have the same utility for a writer.

Remember the earlier mention of thinking learners? Participating in courses takes that skill to another level. Not only will you read, but you will also apply what you’ve learned through exercises and interaction with your classmates.

The courses here are not the extent of what’s available, but offer the convenience of taking courses online, and the content will strengthen or add to what you already know.

The University of California at San Diego offers a copyediting certification course through an extension program. The content starts with reviewing proper grammar and progresses to practicing your skills on actual written content. I found the required grammar course refreshing and will continue with the copyediting courses even though this isn't my editing focus.

The University of California at Berkeley also offers a Professional Sequence in Editing certification. I haven’t taken courses at the UCB Extension, but the curriculum is similar to the UCSD certification course.

The biggest differences here are the cost and the organization of the content. UCSD is $450 per course, and UCB is $750. The price tag is why I went with UCSD. The courses for certification can be taken individually. However, taking a combination of the courses is recommended. The cost to obtain certification including tuition and books is between $2000-$2500.

If commitment and pricing are an issue, another choice for brushing up skills is The cost is significantly less at $150 per course making this a legitimate alternative. The course selection covers everything from beginner writing courses to advanced technical writing courses, and genre-specific courses for romance and mystery writing. The mystery and beginner writing courses focus on technical content that is helpful for editors and writers.

All of the classes mentioned are offered several times per year and last six weeks. The biggest obstacle for most people attending online courses is completing the work without oversight.

Knowledge is power.
Knowledge is power. | Source

Pillar Four: Writing With Peers

Joining a local writing group is a less formal way to work on your writing style and editing skills. Writing groups meet at your local library or coffee shop. Locations and types of writing groups are shared by word of mouth and electronic bulletin boards. Most groups provide accountability by submitting chapters or excerpts of your writing to the group for critique and discussion. That feedback can help get a manuscript back on track after losing momentum or the topic veers away from the original intention.

The reason I recommend a writing group to editors is simple. Becoming the patient always gives a doctor a different perspective. Writing and having your work critiqued can provide endless ideas and an additional layer of understanding when you edit.

Add Tools To Your Toolshed

Do you budget for writing or editing conferences or classes? What class content interests you?

Pillar Five: Bounce Ideas With A Developmental Editor

Sometimes we all get stagnant and lose sight of our goals. Always remember that most if not all developmental editors enjoy brainstorming or idea sparking plot, characters, and much more. If you know a content and development editor, ask them for a bit of time to weed through an idea that's giving you trouble.

Finding the right editor is essential as explained in my recent article. After you do find your editor, never hesitate to bend their ear.

Pillar Six: Author Immersion

It never hurts to attend conferences that focus on sharing your experience with other self and trade published authors. Topics can range from current trends in publishing to branding to outlining a novel.

The simplest and most convenient reason to attend writing and editing conferences is networking. Meeting and maintaining relationships within the community is such an easy way to stay connected to the writing world.

What pillar do you enjoy the most?

See results

Change Your Habits

The six pillars described are only a few simple ways that authors and editors can enforce or improve their knowledge and perspective. I suspect I'll add to the current pillars and add more pillars in the future.

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut or continue doing what has always worked. What if changing things up by adding to your skill set opens different doors? Regardless if it does, supporting or improving a specific skill is a mark in the win column. Challenging that same skill set ends up in the bonus column.

© 2018 Amy Donnelly

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    • profile image

      tanya mainwaring 

      2 years ago

      Very informative, visually appealing, and fun to read! Love your articles! What is next?

    • Amy Donnelly profile imageAUTHOR

      Amy Donnelly 

      2 years ago from Texas

      Great! I'm planning to add more to the pillars and additional pillars later. There are so many great reference manuals and books that help both authors and editors. I'm glad you liked this article and thanks for reading!

    • Eli Peters profile image

      Eli Peters 

      2 years ago

      Wow! I was waiting for this article. Thank you, Amy. I can’t wait to check out some of the courses you referred to. I know I will have at least one new reference manual after reading this too. I really hope editors and authors are reading these articles. You explain your profession in an amazing way.

    • Amy Donnelly profile imageAUTHOR

      Amy Donnelly 

      2 years ago from Texas

      You're very welcome! I'm sure I'll add to the pillars again soon—I'm always looking for great tools. And thanks for reading.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Nice article. Thanks for information

    • Amy Donnelly profile imageAUTHOR

      Amy Donnelly 

      2 years ago from Texas

      Pretty sure I'll be adding to this column. There are so many useful references and activities to keep our minds fresh! Thanks for reading.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      It’s so true about getting stuck in a rut, that can apply to so many aspects of life.


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