Digital Tools For Writers

Echo Smartpen. A writer’s best friend.

I run a seminar called Digital Tools For Writers, in which I basically play with toys before a crowd. It’s rich.

Of course my goal isn’t just to show off cool gadgets and software to freelance writers, but to convince them that they make our jobs so much easier and to get them to appreciate the golden age of technology in which we live.

Given the proprietary challenges technology has posed to writers, there’s also a lot to be said for how easily we can connect about our work and distribute it. There’s so much out there that it can be overwhelming, but hopefully you’ll find a few things here or there that you can put to use. I’m sharing my notes to bring you one step closer.

Writing on the Go

Use “the cloud” to store interviews, works in progress and research so that you can access it on any device (laptop, PC, phone or tablet).

Bluetooth keyboards for tablets: Lots on the market, all do a good job but vary in weight, texture (rubber keys vs. plastic), function (doubling as stands and/or cases), battery life and “clickability.” I recommend Logitech iPad Keyboard Case.

Google Drive
-Free, like Gmail or any Google membership
-Create and edit docs, spreadsheets, powerpoints
-Can create a Folder on your computer and save up to 5 GB of any file
Pros: Easy syncing; very nice interface, easy to navigate and browser has tracking changes; also, good and stable apps for Android and Mac; make PDFs for free
Cons: Tracking changes isn’t intuitive and I can’t find it in app (but maybe I’m dumb); can’t edit important formats, like doc (must copy and paste it into Google format)

Drop Box
-Free up to to 2 GBs of storage ($10/mth for 50 GB after)
-Storing only, doesn’t have a word processor
Pros: Easy syncing; available in browser, apps or just a regular folder on your cpu
Cons: Fills up fast if you’re storing audio recordings. Can’t edit within on tablets/phones.

iCloud
Pros: It’s on every Apple product now; stores your reminders, calendars, notes, documents and more in a distant world that you can access wherever you are; can track your devices if they go missing and wipe the hardrive if it gets stolen.
Cons: Can’t edit docs within

Pages
-$10 iPhone app
-Create and edit documents on iPhone or iPad, now with tracking changes
Pros: Relatively stable; includes most of what you need to write your first draft; you can redo all the way back to your first word; intuitive folder interface; you can download documents from iCloud.com if you ever lose your tablet
Cons: Like I said, relatively stable; hideous “woodsy” interface; track changes is very limited; no curly quotes/apostrophes!

Other Word Processors

For iPad: There is no better word processor than pages unfortunately. Office 2 HD is alternative but crashed twice within first ten minutes (refund received; apology, too).

For desktops: OpenOffice (PC) and NeoOffice (Mac) both are free to download and are pretty strong word processors.

Ommwriter: (PC, Mac) Serene, zen-like word processor with beautiful backgrounds and hypnotic sound FX. Free on desktops. $5 on tablet.

Write Room: (Mac only) Black screen and text, stamps out distractions, but looks like something out of an early ‘90s teen movie about hackers.

Scrivener: From outline to first draft, this is the software of choice for many book authors. It would be very helpful for long-form magazine writers dealing with lots of research that needs to be in front of them at all times. Also syncs with Dropbox and other cloud software to backup your files. [Shout out to Danielle Paradis for putting me on this.]

Ultimate Distraction Killer

RescueTime: Very popular software monitors your computer habits and analyzes it in numbers so you know whether you’ve been writing or tweeting/shopping/watching cat videos.
Pro-tip: “Focus Mode” voluntarily blocks things about the Internet deemed by you a “distraction.”

Organizing in the Cloud

Freshbooks: Excellent cloud-based invoicing software that keeps track of your invoices (what’s paid, what’s not), calculates estimates (great for communications writers and consultants), adds tax with ease. Best of all, takes pictures of receipts with tablet/smartphone apps and organize them for tax time (best to keep originals, just in case). $20/month.

Make a pitch sheet in Google Drive that allows you keep track of your ideas, where they’re at, when to move along, and to whom it should go to next. This takes the “thinking” out of rebounding and keeps the process efficient. Here’s an example:

Story First Pick Second pick Third Pick Fourth pick
Street Food Map go! magazine
(Sept. 13)
Boulevard
(Oct. 31)
The Pepper  World Health
Lebanese Food Movement Let’s Eat (June 1) World News (June 18) Art of Dining
(Aug. 15)
Lucky Apple (Dec 1)
Evil Furbies World News (June 1) Stiff Mag (Oct. 1) Boulevard (Oct. 9)  Vice

Bold topics=success / Strike: Rejected / Bold: Assigned / Italics: didn’t pitch
Pro-tip: Make a label on your calendar just for pitching so that you can see can keep track of your queries and touchy-baseys with cursory look.

Google, Beautiful Google

Aside from Drive, there is a wonderful calendar that is compatible with all smart phones and many websites (if you want to promote your tour dates) and that you can colour code according to your appointments (like interviews, queries, events); task manager (not compatible with iPhones); and a beautiful email labelling and ranking system that’s also drag-and-drop for easy organizing.

Google Chrome is a very clean browser that stores all your history/booksmarks in the cloud so no matter your device, you can find your destination in seconds as soon as you start typing in the address bar. Also, it’s faster. There’s some good apps in the browser store too (like Evernote, more later).

Google Phone offers free voice and video phone calls in Canada and America (from a California number, unfortunately, so plan ahead). There’s also an app for Android and Mac, so you can avoid megabills from Rogers.

Google Voice, a supplement to Google Phone, is apparently both a great way to screen your calls (it transcribes your voice mail, albeit somewhat unreliably) and to record calls. I say apparently because I can’t figure out how to do this. Better luck to you.

Social Ladders

Fictionaut: Dedicated literary community (pro and amateur) reading each other’s unpublished work in a closed and apparently trustworthy environment.

Wattpad: Publish novels/shorts/poetry collections periodically and develop a fan base of followers (like Twitter). Advantage is analytics of number of reads, comments and votes you’ve earned. Also has a dedicated community of readers. Noticeably more amateur and younger (but Margaret Atwood likes it!).

Facebook
-Don’t just use it to sell your book to your friends (you’ll get annoying, f’real)
-Post links to topics and research related to your story to build interest and get people talking.
-Use it to join other groups on topics relevant to your stories and take the time to nurture those relationships, cultivate interest in your authorship.

Twitter
-Hands down, best social media tool for audience building and promoting
-Don’t discount how good of a networking tool it is. Basically 24-hour cocktail party.
-Promote your work, but also stuff related to your work (become a brand on a topic).
-Find people talking about topics similar to your book or journalism and start conversations with them.
-Don’t spam people (Twitter is public, it’s embarrassing).
-Reward people for supporting you with #FF (follow Fridays)

About.Me: A virtual calling card that’s nice on the eyes and simply has room for your name, short bio, email and buttons to all your other social network profiles.

HootSuite
-Smart and free site/app lets you post across many platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, with one click.
-You can schedule your posts so you’re not overloading people’s feeds with information.
Pro-tip: Use auto-scheduler. This gives control over to fairies (I think) to publish at the most optimal time for information-sharing (more on peak times below)

LinkedIn:
-A less restricted “friending” culture lets you connect with people you’d be too intimidated to stalk or add as a friend on Facebook.
-Lots of niche groups with professionals searching for talent and collaborators, and more forthcoming with advice.
-New endorsement tool shows off your many talents and actually has credibility behind it.
-New widgets allow for beautiful display of past work.
-Don’t be afraid to pitch here, too. Not just stories but proposals too (eg: pitch your book to school libraries in a group for librarians).

Other professional networks/job boards:
AMPA (magazines)
-PWAC’s writers.ca (all writers in Canada)
Jeff Gaulin (journalism)
Freelanced.com (all types of freelance professionals): Mix of pro and amateur. Requires aggressive maintaining to get “kudos” that raise your credibility. Overemphasizes “social aspect” (unrequited commenting, liking, etc.)

Pro-tip: The more local, the more useful. Larger “professional writing” groups ironically attract more amateurs.

Book Touring Tips

Canadian Booksellers Association: Good resource for the remaining indie bookstores in Canada, where you will most likely have your meetings.

Pro-tips from Jason Norman:
-Search through online listings in a cities’ newspapers or weeklies for book readings and follow the trail to your future host.
-Bookstores want to be confident that they can get a quota of guests, so give lots of lead time to promote it. Better yet, find another author from the host city to co-present. Get them on board, name drop them with the tour host, and host will have confidence in attendance.

When’s the Best Time to Query Cold and “Post”?

According to my research, the best time is Monday morning. In my experience as an editor, I found late Friday afternoons good too. I schedule my pitches accordingly.
Pro-tip: Have it in someone’s inbox before 8 a.m. (according to one source, 68% percent of employees check email before 8 a.m.), so send it Sunday night or Thursday night.

Social Media promoting: Facebook peaks at 3 pm. Wednesday the busiest day; Sunday the least busy. Twitter 1–3 pm is the sweet spot.

Take Note

Evernote
-Hands down best note taking device.
-Voice, photos, words, etc. with drag and drop abilities in browser. Strong app syncs with Mac, Android and Chrome browser on any desktop.
-Uses cloud computing, so accessible anywhere there’s Internet connection. (You can start files unconnected but can’t edit.)
-Pro-tip: Use Siri to dictate book passages or scribbles from your notes. She’s very smart!

GoodReader
-Very robust PDF app for Mac only (Androidites can use Aldiko)
-Let’s you highlight, make notes, bookmark, doodle, etc. on PDF doc and save/send changes Pro-tip: Never have to print and fax a publisher’s contract again!

Dragon Dictation
-Available as apps and software for desktops
-Dictates voice pretty OK. Siri is better.
Pro-tip: Whether using Dragon or Siri, keep dictation to 2-3 sentences at a time or they get overwhelmed. Don’t forgot to pronounce your punctuation (“period”).

IFTTT (If This Than That)
-Easily create algorithms like “If ‘@meganfox tweets me’ then ‘email wife@gmail.com DivorcePapers.pdf’”
-Comedians who try their jokes on twitter set this up to record their tweets in a cloud document.
Pro-tip: Create a Twitter or Facebook account for your fiction characters and try out dialogue on your followers, or pose questions for your essay to friends on Facebook and record answers you get.

For the Record

It’s easy to find telephone recorders for landlines but few people are still using landlines. Here are some alternatives for cell phones:

Olympus TP-7 or TP-8: ($20-40) telephone pick-up sits between your ear and cell phone and catch the receiver and your words, then plugs into an ordinary handheld recorder (good reviews on Amazon).

GoogleVoice (mentioned above)

Repurpose Music Software: Plug your cell phone into your cpu/laptop’s mic plug and record through Audacity, Garage Band or another simple software (also lets you slow tempo during transcribing).

Skype CallRecorder: Plugin ($20) lets you record phone calls (free in Canada) and video conversations with other Skype users (totally free, wherever you are)

Many voice recorders output a “VOC” file which is very unfriendly to computers without the proper drivers and as far as I know incompatible with Macs. But you can use the web-based VOC 2 MP3 converter to make them into Mp3 files. (Other VOC converter software exists, but this one is free and browser based.)

Zoom H4N: Great if you’re going to repurpose for radio or podcast; it has two mini directional microphones plus a windscreen and memory is limited only by your SD cards ($300)

iPhone microphone: Fantastic quality, second to Zoom H4N in clarity and pickup. I put in airplane mode and use it as a backup.

Echo Smartpen: The greatest recording device for a writer ever?
-Records decent quality sound on your pen, while also recording your strokes so that when you plug it into your computer you can see a digitized version of your notebook, watch yourself write in real time and hear the dictation/interview in the background.
-Also stores memory in the ink on your notebook too, so you can tap any part of your notes with the pen and hear the part of the dictation/interview that took place at that moment.
Pro-tip: Take this chick-magnet/stud-finder to parties and use it to take down all the phone numbers you’re about to get.

Research and Destroy

YouTube: Useful to take you places you’ve never been. Writing about bighorn sheep? Watch nature videos. Setting a story in Cleveland? Watch clips from their local news. Fiction writers can use this to get a sense of characters, speaking inflections, issues on their topics that academics and nonfiction writers overlooked.

HARO (Help a Reporter Out): Submit article topics or research needs and it’s emailed to experts and businesses that might fill your niche.
-Mostly US experts. Relevance low.
-Attracts a lot of overzealous marketers.

TypeWhale: Calgary-based startup that will connect journalists and experts. Lots of potential, sign up for their launch at typewhale.com.

Spundge:
-Browser and iPhone
-Shows a feed of often overlooked media (from YouTube, Twitter, blogs and smaller news channels) on a certain topic.
-Immediately stores what you check off into a reading list.
Pro-tip: Narrower topics are better because algorithms still wide-netting indistinct keywords.

Crowdsource on Facebook and Twitter. Use Twitter hashtags and “@” tags on Facebook to put your message in as many “rooms” as possible.

Other Tips and Tricks

Get into character on Facebook. Make a Facebook profile of your character that helps you understand his or her pop culture interests, reading habits, voice, sense of humor, etc.

Titlecase.com: Use this every time you forget whether a word is capped in a title or not.

To format text from another source, copy and paste it in the address bar, then cut it again to strip it of fonts, sizes and other mucky stuff before putting it in your notes or quotation marks (don’t plagiarize, yo).

Songza: Free music site with pre-programmed playlists for your writing moods or as soundtracks to certain scenes in your book.

Catmoji: Use the site, which is Pinterest for cat content, when you need a lift-me-up.

Speech: Use this function (ctl+alt+S) on Macs to read text to you when you’re tired of reading at the end of the day.

2 thoughts on “Digital Tools For Writers

  1. Hey Omar,

    How do you keep track of random ideas you have for articles and such. Just those things that pop into your head on a daily basis and you think “Hey, I don’t want to forget that, I better write it down somewhere.”

    I’ve been using workflowy.com, but I’m wondering if you might have some better ideas/methods?

    Doug

  2. Good question, Doug. On one hand, I don’t want to lose something when it comes to me, and on the other hand I don’t want to fill my notes with a bunch of half-formed, one-word fetuses of a story. So typically when the idea comes to me I put it in my “pitch sheet” as just a few words on the topic. It sits there, often without a prospective home, until it starts to snowball. Then I start a file in Evernote and add photos, passages, thoughts, voice recordings, PDFs —whatever — and then start thinking about where it’s going to go after that. Then I schedule some time to compress my notes into a story pitch and send it off to my first pick.

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