My father has been building things since before I was born. In his 20s, he was a furniture maker, first independently, and later for the famous Kittinger Furniture Company in Buffalo, NY (where my sisters and I were born.)
His career has taken him from craftsman to plant manager to company president to owner of his own furniture company. But he is, at heart, a builder. And that means that every home he’s had since I was a kid included a workshop chock full of tools.
Wood-handled chisels. Drills and nail guns. Jars full of screws, nuts, bolts, and other methods of joinery that I couldn’t identify. Gallons of wood glue. Table saws. Circular saws. Stains and brushes. Fabric rags (which are really just old t-shirts).
They’re the tools of his trade.
As a writer, I also have tools. They’re mostly free, often online, and all significantly less likely to cut off a finger than anything you’d find in my father’s workshop.
If you write anything—blog posts, social media captions, stories, emails, grocery lists—you’ll want to check it out.
OneLook is, in my opinion, one of the most useful online writing tools out there. It’s a dictionary and thesaurus, but it’s so much more useful than that.
When you’re trying to create a flow across sentences, sometimes you want words that start with certain letters, or have a specific number of syllables. OneLook lets you search and filter for these characteristics and several more. It’s probably the tool I use more frequently than any other when writing.
Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus
If OneLook is so great, why do I still use a physical thesaurus?
1) It’s more succinct. OneLook returns a ton of results, and they often don’t all apply. The writer’s thesaurus is more curated. While it will return fewer options, they’ll be more accurate in their definitions.
2) The internet is an amazing, phenomenal tool that is also addictive and distracting. Sometimes I prefer to minimize my online time, and prefer to go analog.
The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus is a gem. It includes usage notes to help you use words correctly, plus little mini essays about some words that can be surprisingly entertaining.
If you’re looking for a rhyming word to round out a phrase, RhymeZone is a super helpful tool. Type in the word you want to rhyme and hit search. You’ll get a list of rhymes organized by syllable to fit into your work.
This tool isn’t specifically for writing or writers, but it is very helpful in staying focused. Pomofocus is a customizable Pomodoro timer. If you’re unfamiliar, the Pomodoro method is when you work for 25 minutes, followed by a 5 minute break. After four cycles, you usually take a longer break. The idea is to keep yourself focused in short sprints, which can keep your mind fresh longer.
I am a big fan of the concept, but I personally find 25 minutes to be too short when writing. That’s why I like the Pomofocus timer. You can set your work and break sessions for however long you like. I personally prefer 50 minute work sessions, with 5 or 10 minute breaks. The longer sessions let me really dig into something and get into a flow. And when I’m starting to flag around the 45-minute mark, I only have a few more minutes to go before break time.
In my line of work, I do a ton of research for blog posts and copy. This means I grab info from all over the internet, and save it in a notes document. I’ll then combine that research with first-hand knowledge from clients and my own word magic to create finished content.
But when you’re getting some of your facts from online sources, it can be easy to repeat their wording, even if you don’t intend to. A phrase comes to mind. You think you made it up. But really, it was fluttering around the cobwebby corners of your brain after you picked it up from one of your sources. Now you’ve plagiarized, even though it was completely unintentional.
Copyscape is how I prevent this. For an amazingly low price, you can do a quick plagiarism check of your work to make sure it’s not duplicating content already on the internet.
Ernest Hemingway is legendary for his simple, uncluttered writing style. The Hemingway Editor helps you to emulate his approach.
You can either write directly in the app, or copy and paste your writing from another app or platform. Hemingway Editor will check it for spelling and readability. Where the app really shines, though, is its checks for passive voice, adverbs, and difficult-to-read sentences. In general, the fewer of these things in your writing, the better.
Now I’ll be honest—ol’ Hemingway Editor and I don’t always agree on what makes a sentence “hard to read.” It generally thinks that long sentences are hard, and short sentences are easy. I don’t think that’s always the case. Plus, if you only use short sentences, your writing will be choppy.
As the writer, you have to decide if you agree with the app’s assessment or not. After all, they’re your words.
I use Trello for many, many things. Weekly to-do lists. Long-term planning. A content calendar. Home renovation projects.
I also use it to jot down blog post ideas or stories whenever I think of them. This content bank helps me to come up with blog topics and makes the actual writing much easier.
You don’t have to use Trello for this, but a story or idea bank where you can save thoughts as they come to you can be invaluable. If you don’t write it down, you will forget it. I’d recommend using something with both a computer and phone app version. That way, you can save your ideas whether you’re in the office or the grocery store checkout line.
Frase is the most helpful SEO tool that I’ve tried yet. It’s not a free app, but I’ve found it to be worth the cost.
When writing web content, you’re usually trying to rank for a certain keyword. In other words, you want to make sure your content shows up at the top of the search results when people search for that term. For this particular blog post, I’d like to rank well for the term “tools for writers.”
Frase scours the content that already ranks well for your keyword, and pulls out contextually-related words and phrases. These are called semantic keywords. And they’re another indicator to search engines that your content is valuable to people searching for your keyword.
So for my keyword “tools for writers,” Frase is saying that good semantic keywords include
- writing tool
- online tools
- writing process
and many more. I’ve used this app to help me write top-ranking blog posts and web pages for many of my clients.
Good Old Fashioned Paper and Pen
It’s not groundbreaking, but it sure is useful. I find that a handy notebook and a pen are some of the best writing tools I have.
I write a lot. I start right when I wake up with my morning pages. These are from Julia Cameron’s brilliant book, The Artist’s Way. Morning pages are three pages of long-hand, stream of consciousness writing about anything. It’s a way to practice mindfulness, calm my jumbled brain, and work on silencing my internal critic. These are not to be read by anyone, ever. They’re not capital-w-Writing. They’re just junk to get out of your brain and onto the page.
I also use pen and paper for copy work, mostly when I’m trying to brainstorm. I’ll write down a dozen or so headlines, subject lines, or random bits of copy as I’m trying to make something work. I find that I can “play” much more easily with pen and paper than on my laptop.
And I use another notebook on occasion when I’m working on a fiction project. After 9+ hours on my laptop for work, sometimes I’d rather chuck the thing across the room than open it back up to work on a story. So I’ll crack open a special notebook just for that purpose, and write longhand instead.
Don’t discount the old school.
While I use Google Docs for my copywriting and content writing work, fiction projects go into Scrivener. It’s a one-time purchase of about $50, which I find to be super reasonable.
Scrivener makes it easy to organize chapters, notes, character profiles, settings, research, and more. You can easily add images, citations, notes and comments, and a ton more functions I haven’t even figured out yet. You can also look at your writing sections in a card view, which lets you move them around to reorder scenes or entire chapters. And you can set word count goals to help you build up your writing habit.
I tried Novlr for a while as well, and while I like the writing interface, it didn’t have the same kind of organization and storage for notes, outlines, and research.
The more you read, the better you write, so the old wisdom goes. And as a voracious reader, my Kindle is my jam.
I actually try pretty hard not to shop on Amazon anymore. But I’ve had the same Kindle for almost 10 years. It still works great, it’s lightweight, and I can borrow ebooks from the library at the touch of a button.
I won’t say I prefer the Kindle to a physical book…but I absolutely prefer the convenience of a Kindle over a trip to the store or library. When this one eventually goes the inevitable way of all electronics…I’ll buy another one. Curse you, Bezos.
PS. If you’re curious about what I like to read, follow me over on Instagram at @eat.drink.writecopy where I’m sharing everything I’m reading this year. Check the Story highlights “2021 Booklist” to get up to speed.