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The best tools for writers in 2023

All you really need is a pen and paper. But if you’re serious about your craft, these tools will help

By Sheryl GarrattPublished about a year ago 9 min read
The best tools for writers in 2023
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

You don’t need anything fancy to start writing.

It’s important to say this from the start. Some of the greatest novels of all time were scratched out with a quill. I wouldn’t advise going quite so retro, but all you really need to begin is a pen and some paper.

My pen is a Pilot V5 (I have hundreds of them, all over the house). For paper I use more or less anything, though as a left-hander I prefer a notepad that lies flat, or flips at the top.

For my journal, I like a good-quality paper so I can write on both sides without ink showing through. But I’m not loyal to one brand. I find it hard to walk past a stationery shop, so I have drawers full of blank journals. At the moment I’m loving Leuchtturm 1917 notebooks, which have lots of great features including numbered pages if you like to index your notes, and a choice of lined, dotted, plain or squared paper.

My advice to new writers?

Start before you’re ready. Don’t wait for the perfect time, the perfect writing space, until you can afford a fancy laptop or any of the tools below. Just pick up something to write with and on (a pen; your phone) and write where and whenever you can. You’ll be terrible, at first. But the only way to get better is to keep at it.

If you are further down the road, however, the right tools and resources can really help you become more efficient in optimising your time, juggling multiple projects and finding an audience for your work.

Here are some of the best ones I’ve found, in my 40 years as a professional writer.

Scrivener

I’m using Microsoft Word less and less these days. I often write shorter pieces such as blog posts directly into my note-taking app Mem.ai (below). If I’m collaborating, it’s often on Google docs. But books and anything else that's complicated or longer than 2000 words goes into Scrivener.

You can keep previous drafts, notes, source materials (anything from articles, web pages, photos and maps) within the file and pull them up easily. It’s one click to go into full screen composition mode and focus solely on the page you’re working on, with the rest of your desktop hidden. (Word also now has this feature, at the bottom of your document window, the Focus button.) It’s easy to switch to different chapters or sections of a book/long-form project without endless scrolling. And you can keep earlier drafts of the same chapter or section to refer back to.

Learning Scrivener can be a steep curve.

I first bought it not long after it first came out in 2007. People were raving about it as a tool made for writers by people who understood writers. But I just didn’t get on with it. I was a busy journalist then, constantly on deadline with little time for learning new software. And when you first encounter Scrivener, compared to Word or Google docs, it can seem a little.. over-complicated.

When Scrivener 2 came out and writer friends praised it even more, I tried again. And then again with Scrivener 3. By then, however, I was mainly writing books, and the software made much more sense. I also found a good teacher: Gwen Hernandez (not an affiliate link - I just liked her courses). Her clear and reasonably priced Fundamentals and Mastery video walk-through courses really helped.

Every writer can customise Scrivener to fit their own writing process. There are features in it that I will never need, but that other writers might find essential. And there are other features I use daily.

Anyway, now I wouldn’t be without Scrivener. For anyone writing books or long-form journalism, papers and essays with lots of complicated moving parts, I warmly recommend it.

Vellum

I write my books in Scrivener. And you can output finished books from there, too. But when I’m self-publishing, I move to Vellum for formatting and design. Vellum is easy and intuitive to use, and gives you a variety of options for customising everything from chapter headings to text separators.

Then it will output your professional-looking book into different file formats: Kindle, Apple Books, generic e-book, Nook, Kobo or print versions.

You don’t have to take my word for it. The trial version is completely free to download and play with for as long as you want; you only need to pay when you’re ready to get the finished files for publishing. The only downside that I’ve found: it’s Mac-only.

ProWritingAid

I’ve been lucky in my career. I’ve worked with some brilliant editors, all of whom made me better as a writer. But now I write a weekly blog and regular newsletters that aren’t read by anyone else before they’re published. Of course I read over them carefully before posting, yet I’d often find typos and small errors later.

Enter ProWritingAid, which gives you more options for editing than Grammerly, at a better price. It’s not perfect. Indeed, some of its style suggestions can be pretty ludicrous. (You get the option to impliment or ignore.) But it’s reassuring to have a second set of (digital) eyes on my copy, and it often points out typos, repetitions or little inconsistencies.

It’s quick, it integrates smoothly with Word and Google docs and slightly less smoothly with Scrivener, and you can get it to check everything from spelling and grammar to general style.

I use ProWritingAid first to weed out glaring mistakes, then I still give my self-published books to another human to read before publication. There’s no substitute for creative human intelligence, creativity and comprehension. But this is an affordable substitute, and saves me a lot of time proof-reading my own newsletter and blog copy.

Mem.ai

I’ve been looking for the right note-taking app ever since I read Sonke Ahrens’ book How To Take Smart Notes. Then last year Tiago Forte’s brilliant book Building A Second Brain made the search even more urgent for me.

Both books are great if you looking for ways to retain more of what you learn, and to be able to retrieve it when you need it — even if you’ve forgotten you had it. But if you only read one, Forte’s system was created for the digital world and for contemporary creators, whereas Ahrens is more rooted in academia.

After trying out several apps, Mem.ai is where I ended up. I love how simple it is to use and the clean, uncluttered interface.

I now use Mem to store everything from twitter threads and web pages to my notes on books, articles, courses, podcasts and talks. It has become my hub for managing projects, for my daily journal, and for my weekly and monthly reviews.

Its AI capabilities mean that as I write in it, it constantly suggests connected notes that I can reference in my article, saving me so much time on research or looking up references I vaguely remember from books I've read.

ChatGPT

A friend recently challenged me to pick out which bits of her article were written by her, and which by AI. She expected me to be confused, but I spotted the difference easily. She’s an excellent writer, and I’ve yet to read anything created by a computer that has the style, humour or insight of a human. So why include ChatGPT here? Because it’s an excellent free researcher and assistant.

I now use ChatGPT to suggest headline ideas, lists of books or podcasts, even to give me an opposing point of view on something. I very rarely use all of what it suggests, and certainly never use it exactly.

But it gives me a jumping off point, something to react against, a list of ideas to play with. And it saves a lot of time. It can also be very wrong in the information it serves up, so do remember to check anything you actually use.

Otter.ai

There are now several AI-powered transcription services, and it’s important to say straight off that none of them are 100 per cent accurate. But if you hate transcribing as much as I do, this gives you a good first draft to work from. And when you’re checking over it, some of the mistakes are hilarious, making a tedious task far more entertaining.

I pay an annual fee to otter.ai and use it for transcribing interviews and voice notes. It used to take me about four hours to transcribe an hour-long interview. Now I can correct an hour-long AI transcript in 60–90 minutes. Sometimes, when I’m tired of sitting, I pace around my study and dictate my copy, then use Otter.ai as my virtual secretary. Then I can check its accuracy and edit my copy at the same time.

Writer’s Hour at the London Writers Salon

It wasn’t until the pandemic that I realised how important writing in coffee shops was to me. I’d done it for so long that I took it for granted: if I’m stuck or distracted writing at home, writing while surrounded by strangers seems to motivate and focus me.

Deprived of this, I found it hard to stick to routines. I was easily distracted at home, and ended up working weekends and into the night to catch up. Then I found the Writers Hour, which meets via Zoom at 8am-9am in four time zones every day: GMT (UK); EST (New York); PST (Los Angeles); AEST (Melbourne). You can attend any or all of them, wherever you are in the world; we’re an international tribe.

I’ve barely missed the UK one since I found it, sometimes going for the later ones too if I have the luxury of a full day writing. It’s free to join and introvert-friendly. You log in, say hello in the chat and share what you’re working on (but only if you want to). The moderator reads out an inspiring quote about writing or creativity, and then you write, in companionable silence, for 50 minutes.

Parul Bavashi leading a Writers Hour (desk and photo author's own)

Often I stop noticing the others on my screen.

But on days when I’m tired or distracted, there’s something lovely about looking up and seeing others in flow — or not. Some are grimacing at their screens, staring into space, fidgeting; others are fully absorbed in their work.

At the end of the hour, we briefly share in the chat how the session went, and the moderator might call on one or two people to talk about what they’re working on. (Again, if you’re shy, this is not compulsory!)

We all have good days and bad days, but simply making that commitment to show up and write for an hour every weekday has changed everything for me. It means I get some solid writing time in before breakfast, and even if I don’t get back to the page for the rest of the day, I’ve at least made some progress.

The London Writers’ Salon also runs an array of interviews and masterclasses with authors and publishing professionals, and runs a Patreon scheme with varying levels of additional support.

Books about writing

Some of my favourite books for writers

Writers love to read — and write — about writing. So there’s a wealth of material about the craft, process and rituals of writing, about the elements of a compelling story, or how to write a novel/screenplay/non-fiction/any other genre of book. Here’s a list of my personal favourites.

The Creative Penn

Joanna Penn is a thought leader when it comes to self-publishing. She has two successful fantasy/thriller series of her own under the name JF Penn, and a whole series of useful, reasonably-priced non-fiction books about self-publishing, and organising your life as an author.

Her long-running weekly podcast keeps up with all the latest news in publishing, and often has a guest interview about some aspect of the writer’s life. And her website is packed with useful information. If you’re thinking of going the self-publishing route, this is a great place to start. You might also want to read this post about my self-publishing journey.

Want more podcasts for writers? I’ve made a list of my favourites.

Planning/organising tools

I keep track of deadlines, multiple projects, and stay focussed on what’s important using the monthly and weekly planners from Productive Flourishing. You can download them as PDFs for free. They also have a Momentum app based on the same system. I tried it at launch, but found it a little clunky.

My task manager is Things3 (again, Mac-only). I have it synched across my desktop, phone and iPad, and I’ve used it now for years, after trying almost every other time of digital to-do list and task manager. I like the simplicity and clean design of Things: it keeps me on-track with multiple projects, without being so complex that maintaining it becomes a job in itself.

So those are some of my best tools. But every writer is different, so I’d love to know yours. Share them in the comments below!

list

About the Creator

Sheryl Garratt

Sheryl Garratt is a former editor of The Face and Observer magazines, and has written professionally for more than 30 years. She is also a coach working with creatives of all kinds. Find her at thecreativelife.net

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    Sheryl GarrattWritten by Sheryl Garratt

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