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Many radio shows or blog memes ask what you would take with you to a lonely island. In a similar vein I'm currently setting up my SelfControl whitelist. As yet it only contains:

  • dictionaries
  • my university library catalogue (I sit in the uni library to write)

This made me wonder:

What are the absolute bare essential online tools that a writer needs while he is writing?

I'm less interested in the different websites that different writers use, but in the turning point where too little resources will hinder you and too many resources begin to distract you or stifle your creativity.

I sometimes tried to take my laptop to the public pool or a park, but I soon found I had to go home again because being unable to look up a synonym got me stuck. The library (or the park outside the library) is a good place for me to write, because I can turn off the internet, and at the same time only have to walk a few stairs to have all kinds of printed resources available to me (or even a public computer, if I'm really need something online).

Some writers recommend going completely offline while writing, but it seems to me that being totally alone with only your "paper" (real or virtual) cannot work. You do need some resources, because you cannot have everything in your head.

So, what is it that the normal writer (who is not a genius) absolutely needs, that he cannot do without, and at what point do resources become counterproductive?


Both answers (by CLockeWork and Dale Emery) recommend to not get stuck on missing information and instead use a placeholder and continue. That is what I did while I pumped out the first draft of my novel in the course of ten days. It is filled with placeholders. Now I am writing my second draft, and the writing process consists mostly of filling those placeholders and polishing my prose. Not writing finished sentences is not an option anymore.

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Online thesaurus and WriteLaTeX.com is all I need :) –  CLockeWork Jul 17 at 12:33
    
Regarding your edit, perhaps split the task into two parts; editing prose (offline) filling in blanks (online) –  CLockeWork Jul 21 at 8:15

3 Answers 3

This comes down to what exactly you mean by "while writing." To me writing is the act of getting the story down, just as laying out the plot is preparing, and editing and proofreading are different stages again.

With that in mind any online resource can be a distraction. That's one reason why I've favoured pen and paper for so long: it doesn't matter how good your first draft is, you can get access to the net and all that shiny stuff once you're cleaning it up.

By now you probably know that I love WriteLaTeX.com, but even that can be distracting -- going off to look for some formatting code for instance. Hell even the squiggly red lines of a spell checker error can be distracting where you're trying to get in-the-zone.

So perhaps the tipping point is being online in the first place; as soon as you stop writing to go look something up you've been distracted. By the time you get back you may have to ramp up your flow again.


As an example, I was recently reading a Charles Stross book, Singularity Sky. At one point a man was talking to another man who was smoking a pipe. The pipe was being used as a dialogue beat but halfway through the conversation the man was smoking a cigar and the beats related to what actions that may entail. Clearly he'd stopped writing mid-section and had then forgotten the man was smoking a pipe.


Luckily there's a very simple solution to all of this, and I tend to use it even when I'm online: Anything you want a synonym for, don't know the name of, or don’t have the exact detail of: wrap a quick description of what you want to go there in square brackets and then just move on.

The landscape was littered with the jagged and tumbling corpses of [mine shaft tower things], abandoned after the Source was discovered -- the only things standing on the barren tundra.

When I'm editing, then I can go find out that a mine shaft tower thing is called a Winding Tower.

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2  
I can't be online while writing. No self control. To add to what CLockeWork said, I try to not even look back at previous chapters while writing new stuff, because I start editing the old stuff instead. So if I forget the name I had for something/someone/somewhere, I put in a placeholder. Sometimes I'll go so far as to write the new scene/chapter in its own document. –  dmm Jul 17 at 16:24
    
Same here @dmm, that's another great thing about LaTeX, you can have each section/chapter in it's own module so once one is done you can just close it and move on :) –  CLockeWork Jul 21 at 8:11

I think there's an assumption at the center of your question: That when you lack some crucial piece of information that is not readily available in your head or your offline files, you are therefore stuck and cannot make progress.

I think that assumption is false and problematic. What makes you stuck is never lack of information. What makes you stuck is insisting that progress is impossible without the thing you lack.

There are always ways to make progress, because in writing, stuckness is always local.

If you lack just the right word: Write an almost-right word, mark it in some way, and make a note to find the right word later. Your stuckness is local to that one word. Skip to the next word. Then keep writing.

If the sentence or paragraph or scene or chapter depends on the details of some critical bit of information you don't have: Write something approximate or generic or just plain wrong, mark it, and make a note to fill in with the right information later. Your stuckness is local to that one sentence or paragraph or scene or chapter. Skip to the next one. Then keep writing.

If the entire remainder of the story hinges on the missing information, set that project aside. Your stuckness is local to that one story. Open another story. Then keep writing.

Stuckness is always local. Skip to the next word, the next sentence, the next scene, the next story. Then keep writing.

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I'm addressing the below edit to the question specifically as I think both of the previous answers would still apply.

Both answers (by CLockeWork and Dale Emery) recommend to not get stuck on missing information and instead use a placeholder and continue. That is what I did while I pumped out the first draft of my novel in the course of ten days. It is filled with placeholders. Now I am writing my second draft, and the writing process consists mostly of filling those placeholders and polishing my prose. Not writing finished sentences is not an option anymore.

I use a very similar method whether I'm writing fiction for pleasure or technical documentation for work.

After finishing the first draft, marking place holders where I've gotten hung up on words or ideas, I make two lists. The first list is a list of all the placeholders where I need just a word or phrase. Synonyms, idioms, specific technical terms, error messages, these all go into that list. The second list is a list of all the placeholders marking places where I realized I need to do more detailed research. Anything from the steps in a related process to more information on the command structure of Russian Intelligence during WWII would go on this list.

I take a day or two to work through the first list. During this time, I'm not actually writing or editing. Just filling in the placeholders with the necessary words. After I'm finished with that, I break the second list into chunks. If it's a novel, for example, I'll do the research for every placeholder in the first five chapters and take copious notes. Then I'll go back and begin the actual revisions to the chapters, incorporating the new information into those placeholders based off my notes. If I again get stuck during this process, I'll start with fresh placeholders and new lists for later. Then, I'll take on the research for the placeholders in the next five chapters.

Once I've worked my way through the original lists, I start over again with the new lists I've created during revisions. This way I've essentially split my time into a cycle of "research time", when it's okay to go online or read offline source materials, and "writing time", when it's just me and my notebooks.

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