I rebooted a project a short while ago, and I was pleased that each time I felt I needed a new tool I knew exactly what to reach for. My arsenal of devices, software, and more is keeping this project humming along really nicely, so I thought I’d share what I use and why.
I think the big takeaway here is not to lock yourself into a single suite of pre-made tools. A bunch of these tools cover the same ground, but they have different strengths. It’s okay to have overlap!
Writing Tools I Use
Yeah, okay, we’ll start with the obvious. Word is the dominant word processor globally, and in the publishing industry. It’s great at what it does well–make a document look nice. I really like the Track Comments feature, which I use to leave feedback when I’m critiquing. (Bonus: I can do this from my phone!) Word has its limitations, obviously. It’s not designed for organizing scenes or chapters (though the Navigation Pane is leaning in this direction) and there’s no ‘single file’ to contain all your files a la Scrivener. But, so its versatility and pervasiveness, I have to give Word props. It does what it says it’ll do and it does it well.
I’m a Scrivener user, hands down. It’s by no means perfect–there’s a steep learning curve, it uses proprietary file formats, you can’t open it on an Android device–but it makes my planning/organizing brain squeal in delight. I can store all peripheral information (character profiles, worldbuilding notes, etc.) within the project file, and know that they can all be moved as one unit. I can generate an outline made of summaries or I can compile the full manuscript. Basically it’s the bee’s knees. I suggest learning it by inserting a project you’re already partway through. Alas, Scrivener isn’t great for collaboration. Yes, you can import comments from Word, but it’s really made for one person to work on. The internal file structure is a little finicky and it warns you if the file is still open on another device (I ran into that all the time going between my home and work computers, or even just my laptop and desktop). So it has a specific use case where it’s amazing, and then runs into limitations. I still highly recommend it because, again, the things it’s designed to do well? It does them really well. (And yes, I’m dying for Scrivener 3 for Windows to release.)
Are we seeing the overlap? Cuz this is certainly overlapping the functions of Word and Scrivener. Why do I need a third word processor? The obvious answers are, 1) it’s free, 2) it’s easy to access so long as you’re online, and 3) it’s the best damn collaboration tool. You can literally watch other users typing in the same document and use the comments function to have a conversation in real-time about potential changes. Unbeatable. For a while it was also the best way to work with a text document on Android, but Microsoft has made Word much better with recent updates. I choose which one I want to use based on who else needs to see it and if having the file stored in the cloud is going to interrupt me. Yes, you can opt to store individual files offline but since I don’t sync my whole Google Drive (I have Dropbox for that, see below) that becomes tedious. I pretty much know which I want to use when I start a new file.
While Docs is very similar to Word, Sheets is the user-friendly version of Excel. I’ve always found Excel to be great in theory and a huge pain to work with. It feels old and clunky, with features tucked away in odd places. Sheets, on the other hand, feels clean and bright and modern, with the things I use most already visible. (For example, I love sorting columns. I still don’t know how to do that quickly and easily in Excel. In Sheets every column always has a button visible that gives you that option.) I took to Sheets like a duck to water and never looked back. When it comes to writing I use Sheets for a million different things. Cataloging characters and places, doing quick timelines, making massive outlines with columns for different subplots/threads… it’s extremely useful.
This software is developed my MyHeritage, one of those ancestry sites/companies that helps you find your lost relatives. That’s great and all (I’ve used it for that, too) but you don’t have to use it for real people. I use it for fictional characters! (You can turn off the auto-matching with historical records.) You can view multiple generations at once, set up multiple spouses, include multiple, unrelated families in one file, add pictures… it’s awesome. If you want you can even back up the tree to the MyHeritage site, invite other users to view it, and sync with your software–perfect for collaborations or, say, tabletop role-playing games. Ahem. There are limitations on the free plan, but it’s still amazing. One limit I keep running into is that unless you subscribe you can’t generate a chart of everyone in the “family”, and that’s a pain. However, Family Tree Builder uses the standard GEDCOM file type which you can export to other systems that may allow you to do this. (I’m investigating one, and if it works I’ll make a post!)
I freaking love Aeon Timeline. It’s grown so much since it was launched. You can create a timeline of real-world events or make up your own custom calendar with unique months, days of the week, and eras. It has a pre-set for fiction projects, which gives you tools to manage things like tension, characters, arcs, locations, and more. My absolute favorite feature is the ability to set a character’s birth date and then see how old they are at any other event! I used to dream of having a tool that would do this for me, and here it is! The learning curve on this is not nearly as steep as Scrivener so I highly recommend checking it out.
I discovered this very recently and I am in love. Again, I dreamed about something like this, and now here it is. It will generate a new fantasy map from scratch for you, or derive one from an image, and you can customize whatever it outputs. Need a mountain? Add a mountain. Mountain in the wrong place? Flatten. It’s extremely sophisticated, even calculating things like population based on how many cities and towns there are. There isn’t a lot of documentation so there is a learning curve, and you can’t always hit “undo” if you mess up, so I suggest saving the .map file on a regular basis. But, there’s a subreddit, a Discord server, and a Patreon if you really need help. As if all that weren’t enough, it also looks great… and it’s free to use. If you write in made up places do not miss this one!
This is also pretty new to me and I was so in love when I figured out its capabilities. More than just a spreadsheet, Airtable is actually a user-friendly database. That means you create multiple tables and then you can link them. HOW AWESOME IS THAT, MY FELLOW NERDS?! Definite learning curve, but if you need something like this then you need something like this. I’ve been thinking about using it for character cataloging but have yet to come up with a system I like. What I am using it for is querying. I’ll share my experience with that after I actually have something query-ready and make use of it.
I like Dropbox, but really you can use any of the file syncing systems out there. My entire life is in my Dropbox folder and it’s saved my butt so many times. I pay for space so I also get the ability to rollback to previous versions of a file. (You CAN rescue a corrupted Scrivener file this way!!) It makes moving between devices–either willingly or through hardware failure–a breeze. It’s crucial for writers to back up to the cloud, so if you don’t yet have a cloud back up GET ONE.
Massive sheets of grid paper
I’m so glad I bought myself a bunch of giant pads of grid paper. They’re great for drawing maps, making mind-maps, scrawling ideas, keeping track of word count, free-handing anything you want. I like to put my chapters/scenes down one side then use the grid columns to track things like emotional intensity. It just feels more organic to be able to draw a vortex to represent my character spinning out instead of, say, trying to decide if that’s a 7 or 8 out of 10 on the intensity scale. Sometimes it can help me clarify that number to give it. It’s also good for spotting gaps. So, highly recommend having giant paper to mess around on.
I use my phone so, so much for writing tasks. I have an Android, and as I mentioned above, I use the Microsoft Word and Google Docs & Sheets apps to access my existing stuff. Mostly I use it for reading and making comments, but every so often an idea will hit in the middle of the night and then I tap out a story premise or a scene. Tablets are also excellent for this. (My tablet died, alas.)
My new planner/mini-binder
I went ahead and treated myself to something I’ve wanted for a long while–a small binder that can fit in my purse and act as notebook. Mine is about half the size of a standard sheet of paper, so I can print things and cut them in half before putting them in. I made pretty tabs for all the different areas I want to focus on. It’s beautiful and I love the flexibility. I’ll write up a post about it after I’ve used it for a bit longer. What I’m loving about it for writing is that I have a section for each writing project so when I think of something I just flip to that part, make my notes, and done. No more flipping around a static notebook because there’s a smidgen on page 43 and five pages starting on page 69 but a character profile on 102… I love this planner. Best gift to myself in ages.
So those are the primary tools I use. I’m sure this list will change over the years, and I’ll try to keep it updated periodically.
What’s your favorite writing tool?
Getting stuck in the Muddy Middle of your novel is no fun. But there’s a scaffolding for how your novel should be built–that’s what makes it a novel.
The Monster Novel Structure Workbook: How to Plot Without Getting Stuck comes with downloadable worksheets, examples, and even a Scrivener template.