Ah, tools. Such a seductive word, with that tactile, workmanlike ring. And such seductive implications. Accumulating tools feels like the very opposite of time wasting. Tools promise to transform us into humble, brine-browed word-carpenters, conscientiously whittling our masterpieces in brain-workshops full of sunshine and space, while topless, and grunting. In short, tools rule.
Of course, as a writer, any tools other than your mind, your fingers or voice, and a basic recording device, are entirely superfluous. Browsing the app store, watching little download circles rotate and fiddling with complicated settings are all byways, not highways, to becoming a laser-focused sentence-whore. In fact, reading articles about good online productivity tools for writers is one of the best ways to feel productive without achieving a damn thing. Close this tab! Go! Write!
Still here? Okay, I have to admit that from deep within the towering dung-heap of procrastination-friendly digital shiny things, I have managed to uncover a few gems that consistently make me write more, and very possibly better. Enjoy, argue, pass them on, and don’t be shy about suggesting a few of your own.
From the first day I tried Scrivener, “the first and only word processing program designed specifically for the messy, non-linear way writers really work”, I knew I could never go back to the plodding constraints of Word or even the sensual pleasures of paper and pen. Like many who grew up with screens, I write in a highly architectural way, and Scrivener brilliantly anticipates exactly what my chaotic brain needs.
An independent piece of software developed by an aspiring writer who couldn’t find a way to order his research and his notes, Scrivener has won numerous awards for its ingenious system of folders, corkboards, notes and composing windows, which allow you to keep all your references, drafts, notes and inspirations in one place and instantly navigate between them; tag, categorise and search for super-specific elements; track character arcs or themes; and eventually, download the whole manuscript in the auto-format of your choice, from Kindle eBook to screenplay. Normally a manual hater, I strongly recommend completing the on-screen walkthrough, which will help you understand all sorts of clever shortcuts, details and customisations to get the most from the software. In practice, I spend most of my time in the simple ‘blackout’ composing screen, which focuses your text in the middle of clean, distraction-free black page. But I would be lost without the ‘snapshot’ function, which allows you to capture and store the current version of your document at any time, and the synopsis panes, which force me to summarise each chapter succinctly as I go. A no-brainer. Download it now.
Inspiration usually strikes in places where it is difficult to whip out a notebook – on the tube, on the toilet, in a work meeting, at the gym. I always loved the idea of carrying a beautiful personalised Moleskine and fountain pen wherever I went, but in practice I would forget, or spill coffee on it, or run out of ink, and when I returned to my scribblings they were not only illegible but impossible to organize into a coherent structure.
Evernote is the best digital note-taker I’ve come across. This free, simple app allows you to capture notes on your phone via text, audio, video and photo, then synchs them across all your devices, such as your laptop and tablet. You can search by tag, keyword or even text within an image, and easily transfer notes to another application such as Scrivener. Using your online Evernote account, you can also access them from anywhere in the world, safe in the knowledge that they are always floating in the cloud, and that you need never again lose that perfect opening sentence that you scribbled on a paper napkin with eyeliner. Oh, that sentence. You still mourn for that sentence, don’t you?
Fresh out of beta, Shareist is the quickest and easiest tool I’ve found for capturing and organising the research and inspiration I find on the web. An evolution of the old bookmarking platforms, Shareist provides you with a button for your browser which will capture any webpage, blog, video or image; allow you to title, tag and comment on it; and then turn it into an entry in a private ‘notebook’, which you can edit, format and even export as a book or a blog post.
The key feature here for me is the privacy. Online bookmarking has traditionally been seen as a social facilitator, whereby you display, share and discuss cool stuff you’ve found. Shareist, on the other hand, is geared towards helping you create and curate your own personal treasure trove. It allows you to move more quickly through the glittering mines of the web without getting distracted by individual nuggets; just chuck ‘em in your Shareist bucket, and return to them when you have more leisure for Gollum-like fingering. The free version only allows you to create one notebook, which can be a pain if you’re working with multiple projects or themes, but it’s definitely worth a try.
You’ve finally finished your first draft. First, you need a drink or twenty; then, you need some perspective. After months spent nose to laptop, it’s hard to read your story with fresh eyes, so take a week off, sign up to Lulu.com and turn your draft into a proper book. I have heard more good word of mouth about Lulu than any other self-printing platform. It is clear, easy and quick to use, offers competitive pricing and allows you to order just one copy. A 300 page black and white paperback will set you back around eight quid, and will be shipped within 3-5 days from whichever global print operation is nearest your address, so with a good wind you could have your embryonic darling on your doormat within a week.
This is not an encouragement to consider your first slew of brain diarrhoea as a finished product – nor an excuse to spend hours mocking up cover art complete with ‘Booker Shortlist 2013’ sticker (don’t pretend you haven’t); but it will help to de-familiarise your work. Your Lulu book should be approached as a single working copy to scribble all over, not a mass order to share. Read it through once without making notes to experience the overall flow and only then pick up your red pen. You won’t want to print off a full new copy after every draft, but after the marathon of the first, it really helps.
We don’t need scientific research to know that the Internet is turning us into goldfish. When I finally, properly committed to writing my novel eighteen months ago, I found myself having to entirely rewire my behaviour. At first I could only manage a few sentences before I cast around for a link to click. I was sure that I could physically feel my brain fluttering like a moth trapped in a jar. With practice, it has calmed considerably, but a ‘quick email check’ still has the ability to turn me into the writer’s equivalent of Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth, dashing breathlessly from Pinterest oubliette to Facebook bog while the great social media Bowie-god in the sky waves a hardback in front of me with a mockingly raised eyebrow.
I’m not a big believer in online ‘nanny tools’ such as Cold Turkey or Chrome Nanny, which forcibly shut down timewasting applications or restrict your web access. I am, however, a big fan of the rewarding sensation of self-control. So acquaint yourself with that unfortunately Americanised little menu-option called Quit. Yes, turn shit off. Close your email application. Shut down your browser. Deactivate Skype and MSN. Don’t just put your phone face down on the desk, tuck it in your bag and do up the zip. Promise yourself a ‘check-in session’ every ninety minutes. I still sometimes find this really difficult; I recommend meditation as an effective accompaniment to keep your focus muscles lean and mean.
This feature originally appeared on The Writing Platform.