Writing is difficult, even for those who have been doing it for a living for years like me.
Non-writers think that we can magically create a well-written and well-researched article in just a couple of hours because we do it every day, but that's not how it goes. We equally treat every piece of our work as a masterpiece, and a masterpiece always takes time and a lot of thinking to be as flawless as we want them to be.
From thinking of what to write, doing the research, to constructing the first few sentences of our work – it will never be the same process because it's always a unique struggle every time. Fortunately in this age, we are blessed with apps, online tools, and websites that can lessen the struggle of writers.
If you're a blogger, content writer, journalist, or novel writer, here are 10 FREE online tools that I recommend you to use to make your writing life a whole lot easier:
Content Idea Generation
When I started working as a Content Strategist for Spiralytics and having worked as an editor for magazines before, I thought that my main task to create blog topics for various clients in different industries would be an easy task. I was dead wrong. It might have been easy on the first time, but if you do it on a weekly basis, you will definitely run out of ideas. Thank God for these tools, I will never run out of topic ideas and content inspiration:
Ever wondered which articles or contents are getting the most shares for a specific topic? That's what Buzzsumo can help you with. Just input a keyword or phrase then it will show you a list of top content. You get to decide if the content that they will show you are from the past year, month, week, or in the recent 24 hours. You can also exclude specific types of content like videos or giveaways. What does the list mean? If these topics got a ton of shares, then you should create a better version of them.
Hubspot's tool is one of the easiest topic generators that you can use. Just input a couple of nouns that you want to write about and voila, it will give you a list of topics that you can work with. It's not perfect though and you still need to tweak the titles that it gives you, nevertheless, it's a fast and easy way to create topics out of a single or two word ideas.
Now don't get intimidated by this one. Though it has the word "AdWords" in it, you don't need to have knowledge on it to be able to use this one. This tool is used mainly by our Paid Ads and SEO teams but it's a great tool for us in the content team as well because it shows us a list of keyword groups that are getting a high volume of search. Neat huh? Here's how you can use Google AdWords Keyword Planner for your topic generation.
- Click on "Search for new keyword and ad group ideas".
- Type in a word or keyword that you want to write about. If for example you want to only view the keyword searches in a specific country, you can select it under Country in targeting. Then click on Get Ideas.
- It will show you a list of keyword ideas. Sort it by Avg. monthly searches to find out which keywords have the highest searches. In this example, "wedding invitation" get the most number of searches in the Philippines so work on article variations about wedding invitations.
While Google search is the more obvious free tool for research, I find these two tools convenient for keeping myself updated with topics that interest me, as well as bookmarking and taking down notes especially when I'm not in front of my laptop. And if you're a writer, you know that our best ideas usually come to us at the most inconvenient time, like when we're on a bus and we only have our smartphone with us.
If you're following a lot of blogs and subscribed to a ton of email newsletters that are piling up in your email, I suggest you sign up for a Feedly account and download the app in your phone. Feedly is a better version of the now discontinued Google Reader and I'm a BIG fan of it. All of the work (and non-work) blogs that I follow are in my Feedly account and are organized into their own categories. Because it has an app, I can also read my feed while on the go. If you're researching for an article you're working on, just add them to your Feedly in its own category and read them whenever, wherever.
Evernote allows you to take down ideas, write a blog when inspiration strikes, and even take snapshots for your notes whenever you need to, even if you're on the road or stuck in traffic. Unlike paper notes that will get lost, your notes taken with Evernote will be synchronized in all of your devices like your phone and laptop.
Writing (and focusing on it)
Though the Internet offers us a lot of information to help us with our research, it's also full of distractions. While writing is already tough for us, Facebook and other websites eat up a lot of our time that we should have been using instead to write.
Those who write for a living have deadlines to meet so we can't afford to be distracted every now and then. Some writers need peace and quiet to do their work. While plugging in your earphones to listen to soft tunes can do that trick, writers will also need a clutterless screen to avoid the temptation of doing other things aside from writing. FocusWriter is a great tool that lets you do just that with its clean interface to get you immersed on your writing.
This ruthless chrome extension is like your Mom getting you grounded so you can stay at home and do your chores. StayFocusd limits the amount of time you spend on time-wasting websites like Facebook so you can increase your productivity and do your work. It's not my most favorite tool in the world but it makes me get the job done.
I recently discovered Dayboard with the help of our resident designer Jevie. In the Spiralytics team, we use Asana to keep track of our daily tasks, but when you're swamped with tons of tasks, it can get confusing as to which tasks you need to prioritize for the day. Dayboard is a to-do list that shows up everytime you open a new tab, so you will always be reminded of your tasks. I love that Dayboard only lets you list down 5 tasks a day. Because of that feature, you'll be able to quickly reorganize your long list and decide which ones are the most important. It lessens the stress too compared to looking at a long to-do list.
I know, I know, this is a list for writers so why include design? Adding visuals to your content is a great way to increase the page views, engagement and shares of your work. Investing in good quality images help to make your article more readable, easier to scan, and make it stand out from the tons of content produced on a daily basis.
I love Canva! It's an easy to use browser-based graphic designing tool that is also user-friendly to non-designers or those that don't have or don't know how to use Adobe Photoshop. With Canva, you can produce social media images, infographics, blog headers/banners, and more by dragging and dropping design elements that are built-in in Canva. You can also upload your own design elements if you want to use a photo that you have for example. They also have a blog called Design School where they teach tips and tricks on graphic design to non-professional designers.
Last but not the least is editing your work. Though you might have an editor, you should still check your own work for spelling and grammar mistakes, including plagiarism.
Okay, so maybe it's tempting to immediately submit your work after you've spent hours (or even days!) on it, it doesn't hurt to check for mistakes. After all, your work has your name in it. I understand that you might just depend on Microsoft Word's spelling checker, but it's not as accurate and doesn't have a plagiarism checker, unlike Grammarly. Editing is as simple as clicking on the underlined and highlighted words, a suggested correction will appear in the sidebar and clicking on it will automatically make the corrections. It will also explain why it thinks there's a mistake. For plagiarism checking, it will show the link to the original source of the said plagiarized sentences or paragraph. Grammarly also has a browser extension so I use it when I directly write in Wordpress or in my social media accounts.
Bonus Productivity Hacks for Writers
1. Have a note taking device ready all the time.
Inspiration often strikes when you're taking a walk, while in transit, taking a shower, or in bed just before you fall asleep. In short, they usually happen when you're away from your computer—which, come to think of it, is exactly the reason why you should step away from your computer when inspiration is running dry. That said, you should be ready to take down notes anytime inspiration strikes.
If you're someone who likes taking notes by way of paper and pen, by all means, bring a pocket notebook with you wherever you go! I suggest you read this article about various forms of analog note taking.
In most cases, however, like when you're inside a train, in the shower (unless you have this cool water proof note pad!), or in the darkness of your bedroom, writing on paper may be impossible. In this case, a note-taking app in your mobile phone or tablet spells wonders. Not only are you able to type down notes wherever you are, it's also easy to transfer your notes digitally.
Here are some recommended note-taking apps:
- Whatever built-in note app you have on your phone or tablet. IOS has one, and it's the one I normally use. It's very basic, uncomplicated, and connects to the cloud (although I rarely use this option). Most times, when I'm done typing notes, I just copy-paste my text and email it to myself. Tada!
- Evernote. Many people would swear by Evernote as it brings to the table more than you can ask for from a simple note-taking app. It has the ability to clip articles, save photos, collaborate and create presentations, among others. What can I say, Evernote is not the best note-taking app for nothing.
- Simplenote. This one is available for ios and android and syncs to a web-based platform. I love everything simple, and this app took out a lot of the unnecessary stuff from its screen. If you like all of your digital scratch papers in one place, Simplenote is a good option to consider.
2. Plug in some white noise.
Plugging in your ear phones while you write is good for two things: (1) It helps eliminate the noise around you and lets you to get "in the zone"; (2) It implicitly sends a "Do Not Disturb" message to others. (Hint: I sometimes wear earphones while working, even if I'm not listening to anything, for this very reason—to shoo people away!)
The thing is, listening to songs while writing can be really distracting. Song lyrics will most likely interfere with your line of thought and would delay your content creation process more than help you.
White noise and creativity
On the other hand, I have found that listening to white noise (or lyric-less music!) not only blocks out outside noises as well as people from disturbing you, it also increases creativity and productivity. One study proves that the right amount of ambient noise positively affects creative cognition. This is most likely the reason why we feel more productive inside coffee shops or school libraries instead of being locked inside a quiet room. And this is probably the reason why we feel creative when rain is pouring down (I do!).
My most favorite ambient sound, in fact, is the sound of rain.
- Rainymood. This one is web-based, therefore no need to download to your gadget or computer. You only need to open the web page in one of your browser tabs and the sound of rain will instantly play in the background. I've been using Rainymood for years, way back when there still wasn't a myriad of ambient sound apps available around. Oh, and try Rainymood with this! You're welcome.
- Noisli. This app lets you mix your own ambient noise. I.e., Combine the sound of chatter inside a coffee shop with the sound of rain. Or the sound of the ocean waves with the wind and the cracking woods around the bonfire. The options are endless. If you're a writer, you seriously need this app in your life.
- Coffivity. If hanging out in coffee shops to get some work done is your thing, you'll love Coffivity. It offers a selection of ambient noise not just of coffee shops, but also bistros, university cafeterias, and tea houses. Something about the sound of people chatting in the background and the tinker of coffee cups enhances creativity, yeah? Now if only someone can create an app that exudes the smell of coffee.
3. Use an egg timer.
The kitchen is not the only place where an egg timer is an essential tool. You need it on your work desk too! There's so much to be done in a day and you need to be strict with managing your time, or else you could be spending an entire day completing just one task without noticing the time.
An egg timer boosts your productivity in various ways. First, as I mentioned, it divides your schedule into smaller chunks, which allows you to manage your time better. Second, it pressures you to complete the task within the time frame that you've set, and maybe even remind you to take a break in between.
For example. You can set the egg timer to alarm after the first hour of your day, a time which you dedicate to reading other blogs. We all know how time consuming and distracting reading other blogs is. While reading is good pre-content creation, excessive reading can become overwhelming, and can sometimes make you feel inferior to other bloggers in comparison.
So be strict with yourself. Time your reading, and once the timer stops ticking, whether or not you're done with reading, move on to the next task in your list.
Egg timer and free writing
For me, I set my egg timer while I do some free-writing. Free writing is a technique where the writer continuously writes for a period of time without regard to spelling or grammar or the flow of thought. This is particularly helpful when you're writing blog content, where you just let your thoughts flow, producing raw material that you can just edit and improve later on.
The sound of a ticking clock may be distracting at first, but when you get used to it, you'll find that it gives you rhythm and serves as some form of a white noise too.
- A real egg timer. I say, if you're not sharing your work space or your office with anyone, buy yourself a real egg timer. Get a cute one!
- Egg Timer by Filibaba (IOS). I use this on my iPhone and I love how simple and straightforward it is. It sounds just like a real egg timer too. Other egg timer apps are designed for use in, well, cooking eggs, and therefore include egg recipes and other kitchen-specific functionalities. This Filibaba Egg Timer is as simple as it can get, with a few options to customize the look of your egg timer, nothing more. It works just right for this specific purpose (of adding pressure to your writing process!).
- E.ggtimer. If you don't like the ticking sound of an egg timer, E.ggtimer is a web-based timer that beeps only when your time is up.
I hope you'll find these tools useful!
How about you? Do you use other tools that are not included in this list but highly recommend them? Do share them in the comments below!