Like most marketers, you’ve probably devoted time and research over the years to selecting the right set of digital tools for everything from social media scheduling to analytics, from content creation to customer management.
But how much thought have you given to the tools you use for writing? After all, you may be regularly tasked with writing content of one type or other – from short email campaigns to massive white papers. Even if you’re not the writer, you may still be required to review and work with the writing of others to get it ready for production.
Sure, Microsoft Word is good, and Google Docs is okay. Perhaps these seemingly default tools are all you need. But if you write content on a regular basis, if you want to lift your professional writing game, maybe it’s time to consider that there are some better options available.
It’s worth remembering that a computer – whether a desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone – is not designed to be a writing tool. It’s a Swiss Army knife of functionality, of which writing is only one function. And while a Swiss Army knife is a handy thing to have in your pocket when you unexpectedly need to uncork a bottle or dig a stone out of a horse’s hoof (apparently), it can never be as perfect for the job as an actual bottle opener or horse-hoof-stone-remover-thingy.
The white page on the screen that we’re desperately trying to fill with the right words is surrounded by toolbars and features, buttons and widgets. All of these temptations and distractions can easily get in the way of a writer’s creative flow.
When the brain butts up against an awkward sentence – unsure what point or even what word to type next – it can begin casting around for something easier to do, avoiding the problem while still giving the illusion of productivity. In a moment of weakness, writers can quickly lose all forward momentum by switching into editing mode, encouraged by word processing software that has made editing so much easier. Instead of finishing a draft, the writer is fiddling with formatting, tinkering with typos, and using cut-and-paste to move sentences and sections around like pieces of a jigsaw.
Word processing software is arguably far more suited to editing than writing. The clue is in the name; software designed to process words, not write them.
When deciding on your ideal suite of tools for your writing kit, it’s helpful to break the writing process down into three basic functions: writing, editing and reference.
There are dedicated writing apps that focus purely on getting words onto the page without any of the editing, formatting and other gubbins.
Look for apps with as few features as possible. The ideal app should keep you focussed on writing the next word, not reviewing the last. I work with two such apps depending on the situation; iA Writer and Draft.
iA Writer is available for iOS, MacOS, Android and Windows. The app gives the user a spartan, minimalist writing experience on any device, with cloud syncing between devices. This means I can start my writing on one device and finish it on another with minimal friction in between, while enjoying the same focused writing experience.
Draft is online only, which is why I still have iAWriter for when I don’t have internet access. Like iAWriter, it also has a minimalist interface for writing in plain text. However, I began writing in Draft because of its Hemingway Mode. When Hemingway Mode is switched on, your writing can only go in one direction: forward. Backspace doesn’t work. You can’t move the cursor to a different spot. In fact, the ONLY thing you can do is keep typing – typos be blowed.
Hemingway Mode has been responsible for some of my most productive writing days I can remember. The first time I used it, I wrote 4,000 words in a single afternoon. Never mind if the prose is ugly and full of errors. That’s what the second draft and the editing process is for!
As mentioned, word processing software like Microsoft Word are arguably better for editing than writing. Depending on your project, this might be the right time to drop your raw words into Word to turn a rough first draft into a more polished second draft – rewriting and cutting where necessary, while adding the necessary formatting.
And when there are other stakeholders or collaborators involved, being able to track all changes and add comments is incredibly valuable. (Don’t be that person who doesn’t track changes. No one likes having to compare different versions of the same doc to spot what’s changed before they can continue working.)
However, I find long-form content – such as white papers or lengthy and complex articles – can be too cumbersome for MS Word. Cut-and-paste may be fine for moving the odd paragraph around, but if the job requires a lot of restructuring it becomes very easy to make a mess of things.
For bigger editing jobs I use Scrivener. Designed for authors, Scrivener is great for working with any long form written content. While you can also write directly into Scrivener, its biggest strength is in how it helps the user to disassemble, rearrange, rewrite and reassemble large projects.
Scrivener allows the user to break content into chunks of any size – whether chapters of a book, sections of a chapter, or even points within an article. Broken apart like this, I can drag and drop and otherwise manipulate the chunks, reordering the information and points until I’m happy with the structure and flow.
And as each chunk is viewed and edited separately, they’re easier to review and rewrite without worrying about what comes before or next.
Once complete, Scrivener can export the project in a number of formats, including MS Word.
While writing, there will be various things you need to look up or check. The quicker you can find the word or answer a query, the faster you can get back to typing the next line. You may already have a trusty dictionary and thesaurus on your desk, but there are plenty of online options as well.
I routinely write with Thesaurus.com open in one tab, so I can find the right word as quickly as possible with the minimum of disruption. In another tab, I usually have Word Hippo open. This website goes further than a typical thesaurus by offering up phrases, slang and even a few idioms instead of only listing direct synonyms.
However, if you want to find more idioms based on a keyword rather than a synonym – and idioms can be great for writing creative headlines – The Free Dictionary website has a fantastic and comprehensive idioms section.
The next tab in my browser is usually for a style guide. You may have an inhouse style guide to refer to – listing the brand-approved way to spell this or explain that, along with tone of voice and so on. For example, should you type ecommerce, e-commerce or eCommerce?
If you don’t already have an established or agreed style guide, there are many well-established versions online. Just be sure everyone on your team or across the company agrees to use the same one. I subscribe to AP Stylebook, the style guide of Associated Press.
And then there’s the extremely popular Grammarly. Forget relying on MS Word to check your spelling and grammar. This AI-powered online writing assistant can integrate with your other tools, including Word, and even has addons for internet browsers – checking your writing for spelling, grammar and basic style errors of all kinds wherever you happen to be typing those words. Depending on your chosen plan (free and paid plans are available) Grammarly can even advise you on tone, style, format and more.
Writing is a craft like any other – and the tools can really matter. An experienced carpenter or mechanic will only work with quality tools hand-picked for each task.
If you write professionally – in whatever capacity – look beyond the usual tools everyone uses by default. Instead, select your tools by considering the process and craft of putting words on the page.