Among the various music texts on my shelf is The Study of Orchestration by Samuel Adler. I am under no delusions that a textbook will help me to orchestrate like Rimsky-Korsakov or Ravel or John Williams or whomever you care to name, but it is still a useful resource. I can quickly get a good idea of what is feasible on a given instrument, what techniques are generally available for me to use, and how to notate them. It's no substitute for first-hand instrumental knowledge or an imaginative ear, but it's a start.
Of course, I already have a fair bit of first-hand instrumental knowledge. I've played piano, trumpet, trombone, bass trombone, flute, tuba, and clarinet, all for at least two years. That's over half the instruments in the brass family, and at least one instrument in about half of the different woodwind families. Conspicuously absent from that list, however, are strings (and also percussion, but that's a different beast altogether). Consequently, I tend to feel more at ease writing for winds than I do writing for strings. Now, I certainly won't shy away from writing for strings when the situation calls for it -- Midnight Blue, one of the compositions I'm most pleased with, was first conceived as a piece for bass trombone and piano, until I realized that my ideas were just better suited for the cello. But it still feels foreign sometimes. Sometimes I make questionable choices -- what was I thinking when I gave the violin a melody in awkward double-stops in the lowest octave, expecting it to project over two-fisted piano chords and cello in the meat of their ranges, at the climax of Recombinant? And sometimes...well, sometimes I just don't know what I'm doing.
A common technique for strings is to have them play pizzicato, that is, plucked rather than bowed. Along with scordatura -- retuning the open strings of an instrument -- it's one of the earliest "extended techniques" known, dating back to the 17th century. In fact, most musicians don't consider it an extended technique at all, since it has been in common use for so long. When a composer wants to employ pizzicato playing in a passage, they will write "pizz." at the beginning of the passage, and "arco" when they wish for the strings to resume bowing the instrument. Sometimes, particularly in solo work, a composer may call for pizzicato and arco in quick alternation, or even simultaneously, having the performer pluck strings with the free fingers of their left hand, while bowing with the right. Of course, this calls for the transitions between arco and pizzicato to be notated with precision.
I am no stranger to pizzicato writing. I have written four works for string instruments to date, with a fifth one in the works, and all of them include some amount of pizzicato. But every time I write one of these passages, I manage to forget one thing: do "pizz." and "arco" go above the staff, or below? Every time, I have to go to my shelf and pull out Adler and look at the examples. And more often than not, my guess turned out to be wrong. I've even had to do this mutiple times for a given piece, when I go back and make revisions on an older version. Just now, I was editing the score to Recombinant, a piece which I have revised since its last performance, and prepping the parts before uploading them to the site. I looked at the markings in the violin and cello parts, which may or may not have already been checked back at the last performance, got confused, and consulted Adler. It's a question with a binary answer. One bit of information. You'd think, after five or six or seven times, I'd be able to remember. But I can't.
For the record? Above the staff.