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The Best Writing Tools

I recommend these apps, devices, and tools for all writers.

This is a post about tools: the equipment and software you might want to purchase if you do a lot of writing.

It is a personal list, in the sense that I am only recommending the things that I use, love, and understand.

The Controversy

Writers are kind of weird about their tools. It’s like a guilty pleasure for us.

Most of the writers I know seem to have this nagging belief, this half-buried doubt, that they should be writing everything with a blunt pencil, on loose sheets of paper, in an empty room lit by fading sunlight.

“If I were a REAL writer, I would just create.”

This attitude has never made much sense to me.

It’s okay to care

If you meet a famous guitarist, it doesn’t seem surprising if he owns a dozen guitars and a whole basement’s worth of pedals and amps. That’s just what successful guitarists do.


Trying out the best tools in the industry, and finding an optimal set-up for the way you like to work, is simply a core component of most creative people’s careers.

But writers, alone, are supposed to be different. If you are an author of essays, blog posts, or books, you are supposed to scrawl your ideas on the bark of trees, or maybe tap out everything with the erratic 1920s typewriter that your grandfather won from Ernest Hemingway in a poker game.

It’s a dream of artistic authenticity that we all feel obligated to uphold.

To announce that you do care about your writing set up, that, for instance you like to write your drafts in one writing app, and to do your edits in a second writing app, feels like a confession of a dysfunctional neurosis — like admitting to a fondness for an overly specific brand of erotica.

I think this dream of authenticity is just bullshit.

Yes, good writing has been done with merely a quill and a sheet of paper. Great writing, in fact, has been created in busy, hectic rooms, in humid houses, by people afraid for their own lives while they suffered from painful veneral diseases.

We know this because we read about these literary heroes in our English Literature classes. And they are justly acclaimed for their triumphs over adversity.

I doubt, however, that any of those now-famous writers felt that their limitations, dangers, and pains actually contributed to their work.

If asked, all of those authors would have gladly requested a well-equipped private office, a cure for their medical ailments, freedom from police surveillance, and a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud.

Tools for actual people with actual lives

And, more to the point, when I picture the typical reader of this blog, you aren’t a hermit living in a mountainside hut in the remotest corner of Taiwan.

Rather, I picture someone who is already using a wide selection of tools and services. This person writes for work, or writes when they are not busy working, and she probably relies on a whole series of computer programs, email clients, notebooks and so on already.

This post is written for you. When you write, you want your set-up to help you, not hinder you.

Ideally, you want that writing set up to reflect how your mind works at its best.

Caring about tools, ultimately, is a small but worthwhile component of caring about the work itself.

The List

Okay. Here’s the list.

If there is a theory or premise behind these items, it is this: that every major task, every significant arena of creative work, should get its own tool.

The ideal situation is this: when I’m working on one thing, the tool I am using becomes the exclusive venue for that task. Keeping my writing in a disordered mass of Word files, for instance, which I have to search through just to find a specific project, or an endless array of phone numbers, photographs, and web links dumped into Evernote — that just seems to me a complete nightmare.

The mind focused on one task + the screen focused on one task = good.

One quick note before we begin.

If you buy something through a link on this page, and you would like to get some tips on setting it up, or are just curious about best practices, feel free to email me for advice.

I offer this tech support because some of the links on this page are “affiliate links.” This means that I may make a commission — from Amazon, iTunes, or another company — if you buy something through that link. This doesn’t change the price for you; it’s a finder’s fee paid to me by the supplier. I only recommend things that I use, love, and know how to help someone else understand.

(Since I wrote the above words, I stopped using the Amazon affiliate store, and iTunes closed down their affiliate program, so in reality few of the links here are affiliate. The only affiliate link I mention a few times on this blog is for my mailing list service, ConvertKit, which I thoroughly recommend to anyone who wants to build an audience, share a message, sell anything…)

But I will try.

1. The best writing tools I know:

  • Ulysses: For all long writing projects, a dedicated writing program like Ulysses or Scrivener will serve you better than Word or Pages. Ulysses lets you create a “group” (a project or manuscript) of as many “sheets” as you need — each “sheet” could be a chapter in a book, or a section in a long essay, or even a single paragraph. And when you are ready to share your work with readers, the program will automatically assemble the entire project in a single Word file.
  • Scrivener works similarly, but to me it has long seemed unnecessarily complicated, and I prefer Ulysses. However, if you are a Windows user, Scrivener is your best option.
  • Drafts: Drafts is one of the geniune high points of iPhone and iPad software, and the tool I miss most whenever I log into a desktop computer. It’s a highly customisable note-taker, full of user-defined “actions” that allow you to send text to almost any other location or app. It also sports a build-it-yourself keyboard, which lets you turn any number of repetitive writing tasks into a key or shortcut. I’ve set up a dozen or so crucial shortcuts for HTML insertion and posting: I wrote this very post in Drafts, for instance.
  • ConvertKit: I write all my emails, automated courses, and welcome messages in ConvertKit. It’s a great service and I admire the company ethos.
  • Alternote: I can’t handle Evernote but apparently many people love it. I you think you would like the *idea* of Evernote, but have always disliked the actual Evernote that exists in our world, and you are a Mac user, try Alternote. It is a very elegant app that presents all the data from your Evernote account in a clean, simplified format. It is the front-end to Evernote that Evernote should be.
  • Omni Outliner: this is a great outlining and planning app, and apparently the price of the entry-level version is coming down later this year. (If you would like an introduction to how I combine OO with Ulysses, I have written a quick intro guide here.)
  • Affinity Publisher: if you want to create great-looking print books, magazines, pdfs, and ebooks, and want to save money on InDesign, you should take a look at Affinity Publisher. It’s great.

“mm”

2. Making notes and recording things

  • Drafts: As mentioned before, Drafts is amazing and one of the apps I miss most when I work on a desktop. I collect text fragments here — ideas, phone numbers, lists — like a digital notebook.
  • Pocket: Many people like to save everything in one place — photos, notes, links etc. I don’t. It’s probably just a weird habit of mine, but I always feel that only similar things belong together, so that when you open a particular bucket of stuff, you see only things similar to the thing you are trying to locate. It seems crazy to me, for instance, to save your bookmarks in your browser, because the mental process of surfing the web is completely different to recalling an article you want to re-read. So I use Pocket, a free service for saving web articles. It’s my book marker of choice. The basic version is free, and I have used it almost every day for years without needing the upgrade; however, at time of writing, the service has just been acquired by Mozilla, and if this results in changes to Pocket, I will update this entry.
  • Scanbot: It’s good for scanning documents and taking records of things that need to be preserved neatly.
  • Trello: I seem to be incapable of using a full Task Manager like Omnifocus or 2Do. I have tried. I have tried so hard. But it never seems to stick. Instead, my brain seems only willing to create and monitor and tick off simple lists of tasks. Trello is a lovely little web app that lets you create “boards,” each with their own series of “cards” (a board is like a project, and a card is like a task), and share those boards with co-workers. It’s simple but, for me, it works.
  • “Idea incubator”: I would love to have a more orderly process of coming up with writing ideas, interrogating and examining those ideas, and beginning the process of planning them out. So far I don’t have an app that works well for that. If you know of something, do email me and tell me what you use.
  • Fantastical: it’s nice to have a calendar app, and Fantastical is the nicest I know. This year, however, my wife and I are trying out analogue options: actual paper planners that we bought in Target. I will report back on how this goes.

“morag”

3. Great physical devices

  • Logictech K 380 Keyboard: Some people are keyboard aficionados. I probably should be, too, but am not. This is a cheap, reliable keyboard which you can connect to three devices at once. Mine is “paired” with my iPad and my desktop, so I just flick a switch when I want to move from typing on one to typing on the other.
  • iPad Pro: I know most people find this thing impractical and ridiculously large but I love it. The greatest computer Apple has ever made.
  • Pencil: Is it wise to spend a thousand dollars on a device that mimics a simple note pad and pen? Probably not. But if you already have an iPad Pro, get the pencil. The Apple Pencil is a wonderful digital stylus, years ahead of all the other styli I have tried, and it is a pleasure to be able to take notes on a screen almost as easily as taking notes on a sheet of paper, going through pdfs with a “pencil,” marking corrections, adding notes to the margins.
  • iMac: Some forms of writing are better on a big screen, and we have a 21 inch iMac at home, which is a great workhouse of a computer.

“IMAAGE

4. Reading and listening

  • Overcast: I am raising a small child and own two energetic dogs, so I spend a fair amount of time these days walking around the house and the neighbourhood. Such a lifestyle makes for a lot of listening time, and Overcast is my podcast player of choice. It’s free if you don’t mind seeing an ad on the screen from time to time.
  • Audible“”: Audible is a very convenient subscription service for audiobooks, and is where I get all my listening material that is not on Overcast. You pay a subscription every month for credits for new audio books, and can buy extra with credits if you need more. If that sounds weird there is a free trial — see if you like it.
  • Amazon’s Kindle App“”: The Kindle app on my iPad is how I read almost all my ebooks.

5. Storing your work

  • Dropbox: I have recommended Dropbox to so many people I now have a LOT of free storage. Dropbox not only saves your stuff on the cloud, it also provides you with an easy way to share text-based links to those files.
  • Copied: Maybe this is a niche product, but if you want a great clipboard that helps you shuffle info between your Apple-based devices, Copied is excellent.

“chi”

6. Simply being better with computers

(These apps are all a bit technical and if that isn’t you, just skip to the next section)

  • Workflow: The Workflow app will transform your iPhone and iPad. Along with Drafts, it is the app I miss the most when I work on an iMac. Essentially, Workflow allows you to program a vast range of repetitive tasks to run at the touch of a button.
  • Hazel: Hazel keeps your desktop Mac organised for you.
  • Quicksilver: Lets you operate your Mac from the keyboard. No more searching around with the mouse for stuff.

“image”

7. Writing on paper

  • Uni-ball Roller Pens: I am also not a pen expert. For me, the key thing with pens is that they lay down a distinct line and that I don’t run out of them. I buy these simple 0.5mm pens in packs of twelve.
  • Moleskine Cahier Journal: I am, however, a complete and total notebook snob. The paper quality, the binding, the size of the lines… it all matters. And as a result, I love these large unlined books for writing and sketching in.

8. Supplies to keep yourself human-ish.

    • Perc coffee: order bags of this wonderful coffee direct from the suppliers in Savannah, Georgia.
    • Amazon Music“”: I like to write with one song playing endlessly on repeat. Is that weird? I have a few purchased songs on Amazon Music that I use for this purpose.
    • Streaks: use this iPhone app as step tracker to make sure you get up from the desk and walk around enough each day. (For another way to use Streaks, check out my three tools pdf).

That’s the list!

I hope you found something worth investigating on it. What tools do you enjoy using? What strange ticks or habits do you have which you are quietly stunned other writers might not share? Let me know!

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