I find it fascinating to learn about the tools other writers use to make their lives easier. Not just to increase their productivity, but also to make writing more enjoyable.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been obsessively searching for the perfect tools that would catapult my writing to the next level. It was a naïve and extremely frustrating pursuit. But I learned a lot of interesting lessons along the way and that’s what I want to share with you.
Can we start from the beginning?
I’ve always struggled to be and stay productive as a writer. Mind me, I do have highly productive weeks, but they are usually sparse and far in between. And I never seem to have enough energy and motivation to finish a novel-length project, let alone edit it.
It was only at the beginning of this year that things have started to change for me. This week, I’ve hit 45K in my current work in progress and I’m thrilled to know I’ll need to write at least 45k more to finish this story.
What makes this project so different from my unfinished manuscripts?
I believe it’s a combination of:
- Having truly amazing critique partners
- Using voice dictation to write my first draft using otter.ai and a simple condenser microphone, which I just recently bought!
- Google Docs with the Writing Habit add-on to keep track of my word count
- Meta documents – a real lifesaver for a pantser like me
- A pretty but simple notebook that I use to experiment with ideas that sound too crazy to write
- And finally, a text-to-speech tool for the early stages of editing
Having insightful critique partners had a tremendous impact in my motivation. Being able to reach out to fellow writers with my lousy first drafts turned out to be extremely therapeutic and encouraging.
Working with my partners has been one of the best and most rewarding experiences I’ve had as a writer. Because sometimes writing can get lonely and overwhelming. Often you get stuck in the details. And most of the time you just forget that novels, particularly first novels, take a long time to write. Especially if you have a demanding day job, kids, or anything in-between.
Finding the right critique partners takes a bit of persistence and luck. I’ve found mine via Twitter and I’ve never looked back.
I have to be honest, I’ve known about voice dictation for a while now, but I’ve always been too scared to try it. As a non-native English writer, I’ve always been self-conscious about my pronunciation, because I’ve always struggled with reading my drafts out loud.
I thought that no matter what software I used, nothing would to capture my words like a keyboard.
Turns out I was wrong.
I tried voice dictation for the first time a couple of months ago, when I first realized I could be dyslexic. I was very surprised to find that dyslexic people benefit tremendously from dictation because it saves us the trouble of remembering how to write a specific word. For the same reason, typing on a phone can be more productive for dyslexics because of the auto-correct function.
After some research, I took the jump and ventured into using the otter.ai app on my phone. A brilliant tool that comes with a free version. It shocked me how well it transcribed my words, even without a fancy microphone.
I nearly doubled my hourly word count after only a week of using this app. And I’m currently trying to increase the accuracy of the transcription by coupling it with a simple condenser microphone. It turns out, that using a decent microphone really makes a difference!
A couple of pointers on how you can train yourself to use voice dictation:
- Accept it will take time and a lot of practice and patience
- Imagine you are telling your story to a family member or friend
- Start small, dictating only for a couple of minutes (5 maximum) and editing the transcription not long after your sessions
- Don’t be afraid to make long pauses
- Write a bullet point outline before your sessions (it helps when you’re feeling stuck)
- Take breaks
If you’re just starting, don’t go overboard. Your phone and the otter.ai app are all that you’ll need to figure out if you can make dictation work for you.
As soon as you start feeling more comfortable, a condenser microphone will be truly useful to increase the accuracy and reduce the time you’ll need to spend editing that first draft.
Voice dictation might be a great tool for writers who have a desk job and struggle with screen fatigue. It might also benefit writers with injuries or chronic illnesses affecting joints. Or just writers who don’t have a lot of time to write but are looking to increase their word count in the most pain-free way possible.
Google Docs (vs. Scrivener)
Let me be clear. I love Scrivener. I’ve used it for a while and I think it’s awesome.
There’s only a tiny problem with this software – the lack of an android version.
Yes, my friends, if you love writing on your phone and you don’t own an iPhone, Scrivener may not sound so cool anymore. I found a way around this heartbreaking discovery by migrating my manuscripts to Google Docs.
Since then, Google and I have become best friends. It keeps my manuscript safely stored in the cloud. Allows me to write on my phone. Or just open it at random times and stare at my lousy drafts while contemplating the sanity of my life choices.
Plus, Google Docs is insanely simple, so it helps me trick my perfectionist brain into believing that I’m not writing a novel, I’m just scribbling on my phone and having a blast.
When it comes to sharing your draft with beta-readers or critique partners, Google Docs also gets the upper hand compared to Scrivener. You can share a file with multiple people and get their feedback in real-time. Plus, your beta-readers can see each other’s comments and give their input regarding specific issues another beta reader has brought into focus.
While Google Docs doesn’t have a built-in word tracking function, you can overcome this limitation with an add-on. Right now, I’m using Writing Habit. It’s a great add-on that reminds me of NaNoWriMo’s challenge tracker with the advantage of recording your progress as you write.
A slight inconvenience is (you guessed it!) the lack of a mobile version. I haven’t figured out a way around it, but let me know if you do!
If you want to learn more about using Google Docs, I recommend Sarra Cannon’s video – Writing in Google Docs (vs. Scrivener!).
The term meta-document was new to me. That is, until I came across a whole blog about them written by Scott Westerfeld. The author explains it so much better than I could possibly explain, so I suggest you read his blogs to learn more.
On an instinctive level, all writers know that having some kind of support document is useful. But what I didn’t know is that these documents are useful for pantsers too.
Just because you discover your story as you write it, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep an outline with your major plot points, timeline, and character sheets. After experimenting with different ideas, it can be invaluable to keep a simple document summarizing the ideas that made it into your draft.
Believe me, I know the drama of thinking you’ve written a scene, only to discover that you have only just daydreamed about it.
So when do I find the time to work on meta documents? I revise my documents every 2 or 3 chapters, making sure to add all the new information. Plus, if I’m feeling stuck in the story, updating these documents often helps me put plot points into perspective and decide on the best sequence of events.
Text-to-speech tools for editing
Are you a perfectionist? I know I am. To a point that I can barely resist the urge to edit the hell out of my first draft whenever I read it.
I get stuck in the details most of the time and end up failing to see the big picture. Using text-to-speech was a real life-changer for me.
It’s very simple. I either use Word’s built-in text-to-speech function or an app called @Voice Aloud Reader that transforms any document from PDF to EPUB, to speech. Both tools are extremely useful, free, and useful in helping you resist the urge to edit every single annoying detail without looking at the big picture.
If you want to learn more about the different stages of editing, I recommend Jessica Brody’s free Revision Workshop!
Do you use these or other tools to make your writing stress-free?