Writing tools

The Five Essential Writing Tools that Every Writer Needs

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Before I started on this post, I scrolled through hundreds of quotes about writing, in the hope of finding one to open with. But this isn’t an article that celebrates any of the “romance” in being creative and putting pen to paper. Instead, it’s about the practicalities – namely choosing the right writing tools for the job.

Much as I hate to break any idealistic spell, being a professional writer is a job like any other. I’m sure there must be a few successful writers who do their work in a beautiful room filled with tastefully distressed furniture, finding their inspiration as they look upon a view of fields and hazy sunshine. However, back in the real world there’s a constant hustle to find clients, please them and meet their deadlines.

Looking at it from a slightly more positive perspective, writing can be a flexible career with a great sense of freedom. Perhaps you will find yourself writing in your favourite cafe, or with a view of the sea. But you still need the correct writing tools first. I suspect even JK Rowling has a crappy day if her laptop crashes and she loses a Word document.

So with that in mind, here are five writing tools you really shouldn’t try to live without:

1. Note Taking Software

The first of my writing tools is something I use repeatedly throughout every day.

It’s easy to take notes in a Word document or a Google doc, but it’s immeasurably better to use something specifically designed for the task.

Good note taking software:

  • Opens in a split second when you click on it – so you actually use it regularly.
  • Syncs to an app on your phone and tablet – so you can take notes anywhere and access them anywhere.
  • Has an instant search facility so you can find what you’re looking for – so it really doesn’t matter how organised your notes are.  

Once you get used to being able to take notes in seconds, it’s something you start doing all the time. For example, I knew I’d be writing this article today, and listed the main headings on my phone while I was cooking last night. Then this morning, there they were on my computer ready to paste into this article.

OneNote

There are lots of options in note taking software and some are free. For a long time I just used Apple Notes, which is easy to sync between iPhones and computers, and ticks all the key boxes listed above. I recently partially defected to a Microsoft Surface laptop and have switched to OneNote, which comes with my Office365 subscription and offers a lot more funky functionality. There’s also EverNote and various other options.

If you don’t already use one of these solutions, give it a go. I just looked and I have over 1000 individual “notes” synced across my devices. If they were each individual bits of paper, my life would be chaos, but when you can search for a string of text across the lot, it suddenly becomes a very effective personal database.

2. A Reliable Computer

Don’t worry, you can be assured that the other items on this list aren’t quite as obvious as having a decent computer. However, there’s no question that this is sufficiently important to include.

At the time of writing, I’ve been having some recent computer problems. Late in 2018 I spent a frightening sum on a new MacBook Pro. It turned out to be inflicted with a common problem where keys on the keyboard stick and repeat without warning. It’s currently away being replaced.

Tempting though it is to turn this article into a cathartic rant about my experiences with Apple, I shall instead make just one point: The impact of working around a flaky computer is absolutely enormous for someone who typically writes several thousand words each day.

If you write for a living, your computer is the main tool of your trade, and it’s therefore something you shouldn’t skimp on. The keyboard should be perfect and your workflow should be perfect. If the machine you use slows you down or gets in your way then that’s a problem that needs fixing.

The Importance of a Backup Machine

You generally get what you pay for with PCs and laptops, but unfortunately my recent experience illustrates that you can sometimes end up with a lemon regardless of what you pay – and that brings me on to my second point:

You must have a backup machine. I don’t just mean a backup of your data (although you need that too!) I mean another computer you can switch over to relatively quickly if the other one is lost, stolen or unexpectedly fails you. I learned this the hard way several years ago when I had a system failure on the same day I had several client deadlines.

Broken computer keyboard

While I had options of a warranty claim or buying replacement parts, all would have taken time. In the end, the only way to restore my backup, keep working and keep the clients happy was to rush out and hand over the money for a brand new machine. Since that day I’ve always had a “plan B” computer at arm’s reach.

Warranties are all well and good, but if they involve you taking a day off to go to a store, or sending a laptop away for a week or more, they’re not good enough to keep your writing business going.

Having a “spare” computer isn’t a luxury. It doesn’t need to be as fancy as your “daily driver.” Losing a client costs a LOT more money than a backup machine.

3. A Text Expander

In almost every job you do, there’s text you have to type more than once. It can just be simple stuff like “I look forward to hearing from you” or “Best wishes, Ben.”

On my computers, when I want to type either of those things, I just type “lkfwd” or “bwb” respectively, and they automatically expand to the full strings of text.

But I also take it a lot further. Every week, dozens of people email me asking for help with becoming a writer. I have a selection of articles that I always suggest to them. It would be rather laborious to type all of those out again and again, so I type “aspring,” and this happens:

TextExpander demo

I cannot overstate how valuable a tool like this is. Say, for example, you’re at the stage in your writing career where you’re sending out dozens of article pitches. While the last thing I’d ever advise is to send the same “boiler plate” pitch for lots of gigs, it’s inevitable that there are always several of strings of text you’ll use over and over again.

When you can construct your emails and documents from lots of building blocks by just typing a few characters for each, you can work FAST. When you’re pitching for gigs, that means more pitches getting sent out in the same period of time.

I respond to a LOT of emails this way, and while I type plenty of unique text manually, I also use the building blocks for things like “Thanks for signing up!” and “All the best.” Without such a tool, I simply wouldn’t be able to reply individually to so many emails every week.

I currently use a tool called TextExpander for this purpose, and it’s available for both Windows and Mac. However, there are loads of other options, such as TypeItForMe, which I used on my Mac for a long time with no issues.

Of all the writing tools here, this is the one that’s probably the biggest time saver. It’s always one of the first things I set up when I’m on a new computer. Try something like this if you haven’t already – it’s a game changer!

4. A Grammar Checker

Even highly experienced writers make errors with grammar and spelling. When you’re writing for a blog of your own you only have yourself to answer to, but perfect grammar can often be a contributing factor in gaining or retaining a client.

There are various options for grammar checking. I used to use the checker built into Microsoft Word, which can prove pretty effective with all the settings switched on. My particular downfall at one point was overuse of passive voice – a common affliction that many new writers suffer from. Word is adept at pointing this out if you select the relevant option.

Grammarly

A friendlier alternative is Grammarly, which is available in both free and premium versions. It has a great user interface and plugs into everything from your web browser to your email client. This means it helps with grammar whether you’re working in a word processor document or directly on a WordPress website.

A grammar checker is one of those writing tools that writers – especially new writers – shouldn’t be without.

5. A Plagiarism Checker

If you’re an honest and conscientous writer (and I’m sure you are 🙂 ), you may wonder why you need a plagiarism checker among your writing tools. There are several good reasons.

Personally, the main thing I use a plagiarism checker for these days is to ensure there’s nothing dodgy in articles writers send to me. But there are other ways in which they come in useful.

If you manage to get some writing jobs that involve lots of repeat business, it’s not uncommon to find yourself writing rather similar pieces again and again. In those situations, you may find yourself saying things more than once across multiple articles. This has happened to me in the past when I’ve written something and thought, “I’m sure I’ve written that before.”

In this situation, a plagiarism checker is useful, simply to ensure you’re not inadvertently plagiarising yourself! If you’re submitting work to a client, it’s also worth running it through a quick check just in case you’d accidentally plagiarised somebody else’s work.

You don’t necessarily have to pay for a plagiarism checker. There’s a free one here that will check up to 1000 words of content against what’s already published online. Alternatively, Grammarly offers a plagiarism checker, and you’ll find plenty of other such tools online.

Which Writing Tools do YOU Need?

Do you have all five of these writing tools yet? If not, I’d suggest it’s worth building up the full complement, even if you’re not convinced you need all of them. Things like OneNote and TextExpander make my life easier every single day. Give them a try, and you might be surprised just how much difference they make.