Indispensable Writer's Tools

All you really need to be a writer is something to write about, on, and with.  That first one's pretty important, but the last two could be as trivial as some paper and a pencil.  In fact, there are writers who just use those.  Or even typewriters.  If that's you, and that works for you, then this post isn't for you.  But if you have gone, or are considering going, the digital route, then read on.
Windows Live Writer
Windows Live Writer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I've been writing for awhile now and have, what's for me, a pretty good work flow in place.  Along the way, I've tried a number of tools and thought I'd share my experiences.  Certainly there are others out there, but these are the ones that have worked for me, that I find indispensable.  Hopefully, some new writer, or maybe even a seasoned one, will find this post useful.  There may be some crossover between this post and my Links for Writers post, so apologies for repeating myself.  I'm focusing on software tools here, but let's not forget that there are plenty of non-software tools a writer should have in his or her arsenal, not the least of which are a dictionary, a thesaurus, and books on the craft, although I suppose these days, those are all available as "software," too.  Anyway, without further ado, here's my list of my indispensable writer's tools.

1.  An Operating System (OS). 

tl;dr:  Windows, Linux, Android.

Unless you're writing on paper via pen, pencil, or typewriter like I mentioned above, you're likely writing on an electronic device of some sort, and you need an OS to make that work.  There are plenty of choices out there including Android, iOS, Mac OS, Windows, and Linux.  I've used them all.  I currently do my writing on Windows, Android, and Linux, so my choices that follow will stem from those.  Apple and other users may need to find substitute choices.  For what it's worth, my Windows machines run 8.1 & 10, all with Classic Shell.  My Android devices are on versions 4 & 5, and my current Linux flavor of choice is Mint 17.2 Cinnamon.

Let me digress and put on my IT hat for just a moment.  I'm not going to get into the debate between Windows & Macs; that's been done to death.  My preference between the two is Windows.  But let's rather talk about Linux, because there are a lot of flavors, and I've used a lot of them, so my choice of Mint may be surprising.  Yes, I know there are issues with Linux Mint, such as blacklisting upstream patches that cause problems with Cinnamon and renaming packages that then creates namespace collisions.  You know what, I don't care.  There's always a balancing act between security and usability.  Mint is simple, stable, and intuitive.  I would feel confident recommending it to your run-of-the-mill Windows or Mac user.  It's easy to install and use and feels familiar.  I've gone through my share of Red Hat, Debian, and other installs.  A Mint install is a breeze by comparison.  And yes, I've tried Cinnamon on Debian.  Not really the same.  Cinnamon on Mint is just more cohesive and polished.  I have to agree with their marketing: it's elegant, simple to use, and comfortable.  And despite some of their issues, which I hope they address, I'd say you still have fewer security concerns than with Windows or Mac.  OK, IT hat off.

2.  Writing software.  I've used a lot of those, too.  Let's break it down.

tl;dr:  Open Live Writer, Scrivener, Evernote (with Swype+Dragon)
a.  Blogging.  I'm currently composing this post on gedit.  Later on, I'll copy it into Open Live Writer on Windows to finalize before posting to the blog, and then I'll use Zemanta in Blogger to add in a photo and maybe some links.  I used to compose and publish through Live Writer almost exclusively with Zemanta built in, but Zemanta dropped support for Live Writer, Microsoft stopped developing Live Writer, and then I added Linux into the mix which doesn't support Live Writer, so now it's a bit more convoluted.  If you're blogging and on Windows, I'd say it's worth your time to check out Open Live Writer.  Unlike the older Live Writer (which was excellent), Open Live Writer is being actively developed, works with the new Blogger security features, and hopefully has a bright future.  I hope Zemanta comes back with a plugin for it.

b.  Writing.  I use Scrivener.  I bought the Windows version a few years ago, and I've been using the Linux version lately, also.  Sadly, the Linux version has been abandoned but only recently and they decided to put the final versions out for free (it had been an unpaid beta).  I hope they reconsider taking back up Linux in the future, as I would gladly pay for it.  There are plenty of other choices out there, but for my money, Scrivener is where it's at.

c.  Mobile.  I don't do a ton of writing on my mobile devices.  What I am likely to do is send myself a quick email.  However, I have dictated some blog posts, story ideas, and even parts of stories while driving.  I do that through Evernote, which is free, and Swype+Dragon, which is paid.  For me, though, the price of Swype+Dragon is worth it.  Unlike every other Android keyboard I've used that stops listening to you when you pause, you can tell Swype to not automatically detect the end of speech, which means it will keep listening to you until you tap to pause or it loses its data connection.  And because it's powered by Dragon, you can use the familiar Dragon verbal commands, like "new paragraph" or inserting punctuation marks.  This is indispensable for hands free dictation where there may be long pauses between speaking (for instance, only dictating when you're stopped; I don't think we need any more causes of distracted driving).

3. Miscellaneous.

tl;dr:  Dropbox, Rainlendar, Gmail, Blogger, MailChimp, Excel, Gtasks
a. Tracking: There are things you need to keep track of when you're a writer.  You have your todo list, dates you need to keep (deadlines, events, etc.), and you may even be keeping track of your writing progress.  Let's talk about those first two.  I use Gmail primarily, which includes a calendar and basic tasks list.  My tasks needs are fairly simple, so Google meets my needs.  Plus, I have a couple of great tools that work with it.  On my Android devices, I use an app called GTasks, which works nicely syncing with my Google tasks list and let's me view and update from my phone or tablet.  On the desktop, I use Rainlendar Pro.  I used the free one for years, but with me working from so many places, Pro lets me see and update my Google calendars and tasks across multiple desktops, Windows and Linux (it works with other calendar/todo list solutions, too, but I've not tried those).  And something I stumbled across by accident:  I waited until the end of the trial period to buy and wound up getting it for half price, which was a nice surprise (I totally would have paid full price).  I don't know if I just got lucky or that's a regular incentive, but it can't hurt to try to wait.

b. Syncing:  I use Dropbox to sync most items between my computers.  It's great to be able to just pickup on whichever computer I happen to be working from.  I don't do anything special with Scrivener other than save my files to my local Dropbox folder, and it handles the rest.  Dropbox has saved me a couple of times, too.  I had an OS crash that corrupted my Scrivener file.  I was able to use Dropbox' previous versions to get back to a working state (there are a lot of moving parts in a Scrivener document, so it took some doing, but I eventually got it.  I wasn't using Scrivener's backup feature, which would have made that a lot easier).  There was another occasion, though, where I had a spreadsheet get corrupted, but Dropbox was convinced that I had no earlier revisions.  I would up restoring from backup, so you still have to keep those.  Speaking of backups, I backup my Windows computers using Windows Home Server 2011.  I don't backup my Linux setup, but it's pretty vanilla with very few installed programs and everything I care about in Dropbox, so I could be back up in half a day, if needed.

c. Research:  I mostly use Instapaper.  It is great, really easy to save a page for later perusal.  I've paid for it on iOS and Android, and I'm a subscriber to get search functionality.  Scrivener can also store research, which is great, but you have to have Scrivener on the device you're doing your research on or when you run across that thing that would be great to reference later, and that's often not the case with me.  With Instapaper, I can just clip it, store it in the right folder, and it's ready to go for later.

d. Communications:  My web presence and email run through Google.  I got in back in the day when you could get a custom domain for your Blogger blog for $10/year.  Unlimited bandwidth, traffic, Google apps, and a custom domain for $10/year?  That's a deal!  That's for and included email addresses.  I wish I would have gotten in for, but I waited too long and Google stopped offering that.  Now, I pay $15 a year just for a redirect over to Blogger.  My only concern is that Google sometimes decides to stop offering services, including ones that I used to use (like my beloved and dearly missed iGoogle and the Tea House Fox), but until they sunset Blogger, I'm happy with it.

For social media, I'm on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter, but Twitter's really the only one I pay much attention to.  I primarily interact with those through HootSuite, and I have some automated stuff going through IFTTT and Zapier.  Oh, I'm also on Goodreads.  I love Goodreads.  I primarily use it for tracking my reading, but I sometimes use it for social interactions, discovery, etc. 
For the newsletter, I use MailChimp.  You can't beat totally free for the first 2,000 subscribers.  If I ever get past that point, I'll happily give them my money.

That's about it for my list.  I hope you found something useful here.  These should apply whether you're a hobbyist or a pro, indie published or traditionally. Next time I'll talk about some additional tools that I find indispensable for the tasks an indie needs to take on.  If you have a tool that you find to be indispensable, please share in the comments.  Thanks for reading!

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