November 15th, 2021

Tools of the Trade to Supercharge Your Writing

by Lisa Norman

I've been providing technical support for computers and software in various forms since the 1980s, and for most of that time I've worked with writers. As a writer and an indie publisher, I'm fascinated by the tools authors use to create books. Writing is a creative process, and the tools we use can enhance or destroy the magical creative energy that feeds the muse.

The first writing software that I fell in love with was called Liquid Story Binder. Written by an author, it had a bundle of tools that made writing a joy. My productivity soared, and I learned that working with software that works the way I do makes the writing process easier.

Sadly, Liquid Story Binder is no longer being developed. It still exists, but technology is moving ahead, leaving it to fall into the realm of quaint antiques.

The good news is I have new software that I love. I'll tell you about that in a bit.

The 6 Phases of Writing (and why they matter)

First, I want to talk about writing, because the key to finding the perfect writing software is understanding how you work as a writer.

Writing has roughly 6 phases:

  • research
  • planning
  • draft writing
  • editing (where the magic happens!)
  • publication (including the query process for traditional authors or formatting and distribution for indie publishing)
  • marketing

How much time you spend in each phase will be different for each author. Where you focus your efforts will reflect your process. Depending on how you work, you'll want different tools.

There is no one tool that is perfect for every author.

A Roundup of Writing Tools

When I finally accepted that I couldn't use Liquid Story Binder anymore, I went in search of a replacement. My muse had gone on strike and was refusing to cooperate and I needed a new tool. Sadly, she turned out to be finicky. 

Because I work with so many authors, I hear about a lot of tools that different writers tell me they can't live without. I held each tool up before my picky muse in the hopes that she would respond. She turned up her nose at nearly everything. (More on her favorite later in the post - she continues to surprise me.)

If you haven't explored writing tools lately, here's a roundup of some that I've come across. Some you may know of. Some you may have already discarded. Some may surprise you.

Physical Tools:

These tools find their way into many areas of a writer's process. Most of these only do one thing, but they do it well.

  • Paper. Don't knock this one. J. K. Rowling herself swears by it. Sticky notes, whiteboards, poster boards — these are fundamental, classic writing tools
  • Rocketbook — paper, meet computer
  • Freewrite— for those who like to type

Software Tools:

  • Scapple — mind-mapping software from the makers of Scrivener
  • Plottr — plotting software
  • WorldAnvil — created by gamers, loved by authors creating worlds, contains interesting options for letting others play in your world
  • Grammarly — software to keep you from annoying your editor later

Word Processors:

For years, the staple of writers everywhere. Some writers maintain older machines just so they can keep using their favorite one. Even if you write in another program, you'll probably need a word processor at some point to interact with editors, agents, etc.

More Advanced Writing Tools:

These do just a little more than the standard word processor. Some are specialized. They tend to have a more minimal editing interface than word processors.

Fancy Writing Tools:

These seek to be everything an author could ever need. Some are more effective at this goal than others.

Formatting Tools:

Used mostly by indie authors, these tools are designed to help you turn your completed novel into a polished product that can be uploaded to vendors.

  • Reedsy — I think of them as a clearing house for author services, but they now have a formatting app
  • Vellum (Mac Only) —creates a beautiful, finished product without a lot of stress
  • Sigil (free) — for creating epubs
  • InDesign — like all Adobe products, this one has a learning curve, but it produces lovely print versions and covers

My Favorite Writing Software

People are surprised by what I picked. The winner for me was...Evernote.

Why?

Remember, my muse was on strike, refusing to produce much of anything despite being showered with a variety of different writing products. As a geek, I was growing desperate and began considering what it would take to rebuild Liquid Story Binder for a modern mobile world. I sat down with a techie friend and showed him Liquid Story Binder, wondering if there was any way we could get a team together and build something similar.

"You don't need to. Just use Evernote."

"But that's for taking notes!" I was sure he didn't understand the writing process.

"I wrote my thesis on it. It works a lot like what you're used to. You use it the way you want. Bonus: it is automatically backed up in the cloud. It even keeps a revision history."

I didn't believe him at first, but then I decided to try it. My muse started giggling right away. The minimal interface felt like home. I moved some drafts out of the old software into Evernote as a test, and my little muse immediately started writing, connecting pieces, and throwing all her creative energy at her new toy.

I'm a plantser, doing some plotting and a lot of off-the-cuff writing. My research looks a lot like throwing clippings into a bin and hoping to sort them out at some point. Ideas come to me at random times, and I need a spot to capture them before they run away.

Evernote understands me.

Evernote lets me work however I feel like working today. The search function means that I don’t need to sort those clippings. It is almost like Evernote does it for me.

I have notebooks for my research, clippings from the internet, emails forwarded to Evernote, scanned drawings, etc. I'm loving mind-mapping and, for now, I use Scapple and link the files to the planning notes for whatever project I'm working on. Images show up on the notes in card view, so I can quickly see pictures of characters, etc.

I've used several methods for planning my novels.

In Evernote, you can build a "dashboard note" — a home base for a project. It can contain links to other documents, etc. As my story comes together, my outline will be in this dashboard with links to different chapters that I'm working on. Rearranging them is easy. I also link to worldbuilding and character indexes.

For writing, the distraction-free interface in Evernote is perfect. Evernote formatting doesn't go beyond the VERY basics. I'm sure this would drive some people nuts, but it lets my muse come out and dance all over the page.

If I'm in a mood and need to hand-write, I use a Rocketbook, then blast the handwritten notes into the cloud. It does a pretty good job of interpreting my handwriting! I can even dictate to my phone if I don't feel like typing or writing.

The best thing for me about Evernote is the flexibility.

If my daughter wants to go to the beach, I can stop writing, grab my phone, drive her to the beach, pick up my phone, and go right back to writing.

For many years, I was the family's designated caregiver. I've written in almost every hospital in western Washington. I've written at the beach, on playgrounds, on trains, planes, and automobiles, and even on the top of a mountain on Unalaska. (Go ahead...look it up.)

Evernote has great portability

Portability is key for me.

I have health issues, so carrying around a heavy laptop doesn't work for me. Back before the world changed, I went to a write-in with only my tiny purse. There's a picture of a Tardis on it for the Dr. Who fans. As I sat down at a table, someone offered to hold my spot while I got my kit out of the car. I said, "Nope, I'm good." Out came my (admittedly large) phone. Out came a foldable keyboard — folds out to almost full size. Out came a tiny stand for the phone. My fellow writer was stunned as I proceeded to get down to work.

Ah, but what about editing?

For now, I export my notes and put them into Microsoft Word so that my editor can go over them. She likes Word. I like her. It works.

Because I'm an Indie, I use InDesign and Sigil for final formatting.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to marketing...I'm back in Evernote, with templates and notes for future campaigns.

Evernote holds my:

  • to-do list
  • my grocery list
  • notes from every client contact.

Evernote is my brain.

What about you?

Which programs and techniques do you use for writing? Have I missed any programs that you love? It is November, the time when many new writers discover a love for the craft. Let's put together a roundup of how we write and share all the tools we love in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Lisa

Lisa Norman's passion has been writing since she could hold a pencil. While that is a cliché, she is unique in that her first novel was written on gum wrappers. As a young woman, she learned to program and discovered she has a talent for helping people and computers learn to work together and play nice. When she's not playing with her daughter, writing, or designing for the web, she can be found wandering the local beaches.

Lisa writes as Deleyna Marr and is the owner of Deleyna's Dynamic Designs, a web development company focused on helping writers, and Heart Ally Books, an indie publishing firm. She teaches for Lawson Writer's Academy.

Interested in learning more from Lisa? See her teaching schedule below.

Note: the Evernote link above is an affiliate link.

Photo credits via Canva Pro.

21 responses to “Tools of the Trade to Supercharge Your Writing”

  1. lrtrovi says:

    You left one of the most promising ones off the list: Atticus! Developed by Dave Chesson, it's a word processor and formatter and more that works both for MAC and Windows. Check it out.

    • Virginia says:

      I love Atticus too, not least because I can easily format my writing for e-books and print. It does a better job than Scrivener at that, though I love Scrivener and currently use it for most of my writing. However, when Atticus updates with the features it has planned, such as planning and interfacing with Pro Writing Aid, I will probably use it exclusively.
      I think I've tried every tool out there, and these are the three I depend on.

    • deleyna says:

      I've left a LOT of the best ones off the list. I'm eager to hear about other favorites and how people are using them so we can fill out the list. If I listed all of the ones I've heard of...this would be so much longer!!! I haven't tried Atticus, yet, but it is on my list to check out. Note that the ones that I didn't mention are probably ones I've never been called on to do tech support for...which can be a good sign! Thanks Irtovi and Virginia for adding that one in!

    • deleyna says:

      Hi, Kris! It is so much fun to compare notes on how people go through the process. Are you using Scrivener for the formatting part?

  2. Kris Maze says:

    Hi Lisa!
    I have been combining Plottr (for Outlining the story) and Scrivener (for the main writing), and it has kept me organized!

    Thanks for the post full of writing resources. It gives writers options to know what is out there.
    -Kris

    • deleyna says:

      (Hm. Somehow my reply to this went above instead of below.) I've been intrigued playing with Plottr lately. I'm such a pantser, but I'm trying to learn to at least plants it...

  3. JL Nich Author SFF says:

    PLOTTR, Scrivener, i have a year at The Novel Factory but have yet to jump in. ProWritingAid, Grammerly, Evernote (paid and yes its awesome), Word, I tried a website site called 4thewords which adds a little DnD gaming into the daily writing and you then progress in the game. It was interesting. I find Scriviner is my go to writing tool. Everynote is used for brainstorming and possible backstory, and PLOTTR is my new best plotting tool.

    • deleyna says:

      oooh! I haven't heard of 4thewords! I'm definitely going to need to check that one out! Adding gamification to the process is HUGE!

      • V.M.Sang says:

        I agree, but does the gaming part slow down the writing part?

        • deleyna says:

          Excellent question! We'll want to hear from JL on that. I find that it depends on your process. For me, when I get stuck on a plot point, I think about the different potential outcomes and then I'll put it to a dice roll. If I hate what wins, then I take it off and roll again. For me, this helps me avoid getting stuck, and some of the options send me into a fit of fun that makes the writing twice as fast. Not always, but sometimes...

  4. Jenny Hansen says:

    Scrivener, OneStop, Rocketbook, OneNote -- LOVE OneNote. I've heard Evernote works similarly to OneNote, but I haven't tried it. I'm a Windows/Microsoft girl, so that might be why. I'm really interested in Plottr and I need to ram up my OneStop usage.

    My biggest challenge over the last year is that I changed computers and lost Scrivener, so my writing is now flung out every-damn-where. It makes it tough.

    • deleyna says:

      Sometimes we need to value our process and get Scrivener back and set up! (grin) I've been there. Something goes wrong and I'm tempted to make do until I can focus, but I'm learning the value of respecting my process. When something interferes with the process, I need to make that a priority. OneNote is very much like Evernote. I've seen pros/cons for using one over the other with the choice being: which one makes your muse happy. OneNote makes your muse happy! And Rocketbook works with both. How did we EVER survive before Rocketbooks???

  5. LivRancourt says:

    I've used Evernote off and on for years, but never to the extent you describe. Now I'm intrigued...

    • deleyna says:

      It was a complete surprise to me that I could actually write in it! There's a trick if you want to export an entire novel at once. Get your notes in order and selected, but DON'T merge them!! Export them as 1 HTML document...which creates this big long thing that opens in your browser. Then you open it, select all, copy, and then paste it into Word. From there...it's all formatting. They come through surprisingly well. Notes also convert well to other online spaces as well, because when you just copy/paste from within Evernote, there is no pesky formatting to mess things up! Evernote as a company has been doing a LOT of upgrades over the last year, with more to come.

  6. I will have to try Evernote for writing. I use it for other things but never considered it as a writing tool. What I love is my iPad. I can write in Scrivener with a keyboard, or brainstorm by hand using an Apple Pencil and Nebo, then convert it to text and export it to my computer. I also have a Supernote tablet, which has an e-ink interface, excellent for writing outside. Portability is also important to me and I love having the power of a tablet which I can stick in my pocketbook.

    • Lisa Norman says:

      I think we are so fortunate to have such portability in our tools these days. You should also be able to grab bits and pieces that you save into Evernote and put them into Scrivener if that's your tool of choice as well. Enjoy!

  7. dholcomb1 says:

    I use paper and I use Word. Word is great for me since I use a PC and it's the industry standard.

    I don't like Google Docs for a variety of reasons, and I find it annoying when it pings on every device I have. Someone once attached me to a document without telling me, and it was the worst. I try to avoid it, but sometimes, it is useful.

    I tried Evernote once or twice. I think I lost something on it on my last laptop.

    Someone once sent me some kind of Apple-only doc, possibly Storyist, and because it was late when I went to work on the edit, I couldn't ask for the Word conversion. It should have been sent in Word. But I managed to find a way to convert it after a deep dive online.

    denise

    • Lisa Norman says:

      Word is definitely industry standard. Most editors use it. Several indie publishing auto-conversion tools work from it as well. Formatting tools are generally happy to start with a doc file. And yep, you can find converters to go to and from doc files. That is a huge factor in choosing it.

      I find Word a little cumbersome once I get to manuscript length, but it does what we need it to.

      I was surprised to find that Evernote has a trash can that holds anything you accidentally delete. As long as it can back up to the cloud, you shouldn't lose anything even if you lose a hard drive. BUT...it has changed a LOT in the last year or two. They've reworked it completely.

      I love seeing the tools and the methods different writers use. I think the variety encourages new writers.

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