When I teach, nothing creates more of a buzz than discussions about tools. Some people have favorites. Some people have horror stories. All seem to secretly hope for an automated apprentice who can take those messy story lines, rambunctious characters, and half-formed concepts and render them as award-winning prose.
Sorry. Most of that work is still on you. And that’s really a good thing since tools like that might put storytellers like us out of business. (There are, in fact, some programs out there that turn data into news stories. I don’t think journalists are celebrating.)
Some of the best technologies cost a lot of money, but there are free or free versions that are available and ready to boost your writing productivity.
My favorites is probably already on your system. Whether you have a Mac or a PC, your word processing program is likely to have text-to-speech capability. This means that it can read research articles to you as you get daily tasks, like washing dishes, done. But text-to-speech has a more vital role. It can help with your proofreading.
I have been constantly frustrated by my inability to spot typos and odd sentence formations. Based on surveys of my students, I’m not alone. But I’ve discovered that I can cut down on these mistakes by 90% just by having the computer read my manuscript to me. As opposed to reading through myself (out loud or silently), the computer does not fill in or correct errors the way my brain does. I hear the mistakes and fix them before anyone else sees them.
I also use Autocrit to scrub my prose. You can register to get three free reports a day (analyses of up to 400 words). Autocrit finds repeated words, clichés, junk words (that, almost, etc.), weak verbs, and adverbs. Since my output is relatively high, I sprang for the Platinum version, but many people find the free version is good enough for them.
I also put another word processing standard, search, to use to help me compose my work more efficiently. With all of my work, but especially nonfiction, I come up short on names I should remember, streets I should know, and facts I can’t quite bring to mind. Rather than break the flow and kill the rhythms of composition, I just insert the word bagel and press on. I put off researching all those specifics until I have completed the piece. Then I search through the work for the bagels and fix them one by one. (Of course, I am in big trouble if I ever do a piece on a bakery or a deli.)
For those who are distracted by the siren call of the Internet, turning off Wi-Fi is a cost-free option, but distraction-free editors provide space where you can work on writing and writing alone. For those who need a whipmaster for focus, try the Web edition of Write Or Die.
My favorite tool for composing is the humble timer. Setting it is like a shooting a starting gun for me. And I stay on task on until it beeps. I usually use a kitchen timer, but free timer programs are available for download.
Backup is not optional. It is a professional requirement. There is nothing worse than seeing a manuscript die during a hard disk crash. I use physical backup, but I also send drafts to a free Gmail account set up for this specific purpose. I send completed manuscripts to friends, just in case. When collaborating, I use Dropbox. Registration is required.
A key component of my search for markets is duotrope. This is another one that works online. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stay free. There’s a seven-day free trial. After that it costs money. But you do get to test it out. If you want more, buy a month for $5.
If you’d like to learn more about tool writers can use to improve productivity, join my online Savvy Authors workshop, Applications for the Writer, Nov. 18-24. We’ll be looking at technology that can help you work more efficiently across the whole writing process, from ideation to final revision.
PETER ANDREWS is is a full-time, independent writer of speeches, articles, and blogs. He has dozens of short stories and hundreds of nonfiction articles in print. He has worked professionally in PR, and as a Web producer, speechwriter, and radio producer. He is the author of the popular How To Write Fast Blog, howtowritefast.blogspot.com