Every craftsman or craftswoman has a toolbox – a collection of items essential to getting the job done right. As a copywriter, I’m no different from a carpenter in this regard, except that instead of using a saw or a sledge hammer to whip wood into submission, I use reference materials and word processing programs to carve thoughts into blocks of words stacked one on top of the other to form a cohesive, coherent thought-sandwich of sorts, easily digestible in a series of satisfactory bites.
I won’t speak for all copywriters because everyone has a signature way of working, but here’s a breakdown of the tools I find most useful, broken down into three categories: things on my desk, on the Web and on my PC. Whether you’re a full-time copywriter, someone who regularly writes as a part of your job, or someone who writes for fun, I present these tried and true writer’s tools. I hope that you see at least one you haven’t used before and that it makes your life just a little bit easier – because it’s all about working smarter and not harder AMIRIGHT?!
Without further ado, here’s the gold:
On My Desk
The Associated Press Stylebook – This is my style Bible. It clearly outlines how to treat things like serial commas, numbers, capitalization and host of other pesky ambiguous grammar rules that are bendable in regular writing but not acceptable to toy with when you’re going for consistent, cohesive company communications. It’s the standard for news writing, and for Standing Dog. I have it earmarked it throughout with yellow sticky notes so that I can quickly reference things that don’t seem to want to stay straight in my head, such as whether to capitalize north, south, east and west (it depends), and whether to spell out numbers or use numerals for ages. (Use numerals always, unless it’s the start of a sentence. I just looked it up. I’ll look it up again next week, I’m sure.)
The Chicago Manual of Style – I come from a book publishing background, so for a while, this was my style Bible. CMS is the standard in book publishing, and its style rules vary in funny ways from AP style. This mostly has to do with the limited space newspapers used to have before they went online versus the ample space available in books. These days, I ignore its style suggestions but still turn to it every now and then for grammar rules that like to trip me up, such as when it’s appropriate to use a colon and how to format lists. Do you capitalize the first letter of each new list item? I can never remember, because it depends entirely on how the list is structured. Is it one long sentence, or a series of items? Vertical, or run-in? CMS dedicates four and a half pages entirely to the correct formatting of lists, God bless it, so there’s absolutely no guesswork involved.
On the Web
Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips – I go to this site if I’m pressed for time and can’t spare the 10 to 15 minutes it could take to finding a grammar rule in CMS. It’s headed by this awesome grammar guru, Mignon Fogarty, who really knows her stuff. My only complaint with this site is that because grammar rules can be flexible, she presents multiple correct answers if several options exist, which then means I have to go back to AP or CMS for a definitive answer and still spend the time I’d hoped to save. This is a great writer’s tool for quick, correct answers when there’s only one right option, though.
Merriam-Webster – I probably look things up in this online dictionary 10 to 15 times a day. Usually, this is to check hyphenation or whether something that looks like it could be two words is really one, like “backyard.” Sometimes, it’s to check and see if I’ve made up a word, or if the word I think is a real word is actually a real word. Like the word “craftswoman” I used above. I looked it up, and it totally exists according to Merriam-Webster, which both surprised and delighted me because that’s the kind of thing I enjoy.
I also use the thesaurus tab on this site quite a bit. Standing Dog clients are primarily in the hospitality industry, and if I write about the same thing long enough there’s a danger of that writing becoming stale. As a human, my natural tendency is to use words I know, which might work fine for the first two properties I’m writing about, but after the tenth or eleventh similar landing page, I often find I need some new word blocks for my thought sandwiches. The thesaurus is invaluable for that reason.
On My PC
Microsoft Word – I don’t think I need to go into this one too much. This word processor isn’t perfect, but it’s what we’ve got, and I’m told it’s a heck of a lot more efficient than typewriters of yore, what with Word’s fancy functions such as spell check, backspace and track changes.
Excel – I have a love/hate relationship with this tool. It’s infinitely better with tables than Microsoft Word, making it useful for when we need to organize Web copy or content calendars in rows and columns. However, the nicest thing I can say about its spell check function is that it’s clunky. The only other thing I can say about its spell check function without going off on a rant that would fill an entirely new blog post is that I hate, hate, hate how you can’t see misspelled words called out with a squiggly line as you type and that you have to go back later and purposely check cells after finalizing the content. It makes it entirely too easy to forget to run spell check before sending off a document for review, which is a dangerous thing.
Notepad – Ironically, I like this tool for the same reason I dislike Excel: because it doesn’t tell me I’ve just misspelled something. But that’s because I use Notepad to brainstorm. It’s great for that because it never tells me to stop what I’ve doing to fix a mistake. Not only is there no squiggly line to let me know that I’ve mistyped something in Notepad, there’s no spell check function whatsoever. So, in Notepad I can spitball silly ideas stream-of-consciousness style uninterrupted, which is how I work best.
And there you have it, the tools that make my job easier. Hopefully knowing about them will help to make your job easier, too.
Are there any I didn’t mention that you recommend? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!
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