Every once in a while someone asks me — what tools and apps do you use in your writing?
After giving that answer a couple of dozen times, I realize I should probably just write it down, so that it’s all in one place.
So: Here we go!
A throat-clearing preamble: I’m a nonfiction writer. Mostly I write long-form magazine pieces, books, and a Niagara of blogging. So long before I do any “writing”, I do a massive amount of research: I pore over books and reports and interview people, taking notes all the while. The tools below are focused heavily on the reporting-and-gathering-info process, far more than on “the act of crafting sentences”. So if you’re writing novels or screenplays, this list may not be useful for you.
(BTW, if you dig this piece, it’s part of a series I’ve been doing on nonfiction writing techniques.)
Forthwith, here’s A Guide To The Nine Essential Tools For My Reporting And Writing …
Scrivener is an incredibly complex and full-featured writing tool; tons of novelists and scriptwriters use it. It has about a zillion features, though I only use a tiny smidgen of them. Mostly I use it as a lightweight database: I create a new project and, every time I hit upon a piece of research I want to save, I make a new note in Scrivener — clipping a paragraph or two from the document or interview, or maybe a screengrab from a dataviz, and then writing a couple of my own thoughts about it. After a few days or months or weeks (or years, if it’s a book) of reporting, I’ll have anywhere from a few dozen to a few thousand notes.
What I love about Scrivener is the search is very, very fast. Nonfiction writing requires you to be able to quickly re-look at your notes — and to quickly re-find something. Because Scrivener is storing all its info on your own hard drive, it’s lightning fast to find things. For me, this is absolutely crucial.
It’s also a pretty good word processor, so when time comes to write, I’ll create a new note and write the entire piece in it.
The Windows and Mac versions are $49, and, for me, worth it. Tragically there’s no native Linux app.
While most of my note-taking happens in Scrivener, I use Notion to organize ideas.
I’ve often said that my job as a freelance magazine writer is not really to write, and it’s not even to report; it’s to find new stories and ideas that ought to be reported and written about. This is typically harder — much harder — than actually reporting and writing a story. The latter is a project with a clearly defined goal (“here’s subject X; write a piece about it”). The former is open-ended and much less defined: “What are some fascinating things my editors haven’t heard about yet, that would appeal to tons of readers, and are also incredibly interesting to me?” As I’ve written before, easily 50% of all my work hours are devoted to prospecting for new story ideas.
So I’m prospecting constantly, incessantly. Even while working on a current assignment, I keep one eye peeled and one ear open for possible future story ideas. (When I’m done the piece I’m currently working on, my editor’s question will be: Cool, what’s next? And I want to have something.)
I generally use Notion to jot down possible ideas. I have different Notion pages for different publications or different areas of interest, and when I hit upon an interesting idea I write a quick bullet-point about it, dropping in links to any relevant online
3) Voice Memos (on Iphone)
I do a ton of interviews — six to ten for a short column, scores for a long magazine article, and well into the hundreds for a book.
The easiest way I’ve found to record them is to simply use Voice Memos on my Iphone. For a F2F interview, the audio quality is typically excellent. If I’m interviewing someone on Zoom, I’ll play the audio out my laptop speakers and record it using my Iphone. Even with that speaker → Iphone loop, the quality is still usually very good. In the past, I’ve tried using apps that capture Zoom audio internally but they failed often enough that I can’t risk it. By having my Iphone sitting there next to my laptop speakers, I can visually see that it’s working.
Once I’ve recorded an interview, I instantly upload it to …
I generally create a new Dropbox folder for each story, into which I dump any research PDFs and all audio of interviews. It’s super reliable and syncs well with my phone, so I can dump stuff straight off my phone to the folder, and view stuff on the go.
Not rocket science here, but a crucial part of my flow.
When I’m transcribing those audio interviews? I generally use …
Trint is one of those auto-transcription services. There are a ton of them out there now, and many are cheaper than Trint: It’s $70 a month for an all-you-can-eat account, which is what I have.
But I transcribe a ton of interviews: Every month at least ten or fifteen hour-long ones, and sometimes dozens. If I were to pay to have those transcribed by a transcription service, it’d cost me anywhere from $1,000 to several thousand dollars each month.
What distinguishes Trint from the other AI-transcription tools I’ve tried is that it includes a very slick editor (in the browser) for listening to, and cleaning up, the transcriptions. Typically the AI only gets things about 90% correct. But the editor lets you rapidly scrub through the text, clicking on messed-up clauses to hear the audio at that point, then fixing it. There are tons of key-commands too for letting you whip through the text, zipping a few seconds back to re-hear something that’s hard to fix, or speeding up and slowing down playback.
6) Blackwing pencils (and the Palomino Long Point Pencil Sharpener)
When I’m doing F2F interviews, or making marginalia notes in paper books, I like using a pencil.
And not just any pencils! I have a fetish these gorgeous Blackwing pencils. A famous model from the early 20th century that vanished after the original manufacturer fell apart, they’ve been rebooted and are now available all over the place. What makes them lovely is the buttery-soft and ink-dark soft lead, which make notes fun to write and crisply legible.
The downside is that because the lead is so soft, it gets dull very quickly, so you’re constantly sharpening it. This doesn’t bother me too much; I enjoy the little scritch-scritch-scritch ritual and the strangely intoxicating smell of pencil-wood it releases.
The long-point sharpener, like the name suggests, produces the sharpest point I’ve ever seen on a pencil.
7) Scribd and the Internet Archive
I read a ton of nonfiction books, and I’m frequently dipping into historical research that goes back to the 19th century and before.
My secret weapon for nonfiction book-research is Scribd, the digital-book service. It costs about $12 a month, and has an astonishingly huge amount of scholarly and trade nonfiction books in its library. When I hear of an interesting work of nonfiction, a majority of the time it’s on Scribd, and so within mere minutes of learning of the work’s existence, I’m deep in the first chapter. Since quality nonfiction and scholarly books have the highest research-to-page ratio of almost any media, this is an absolute gold-mine.
The same thing goes for the Internet Archive’s trove of scanned books. It’s patchier, but still, there’s a ton of amazing material I use all the time. Either the books I find are in the public domain, or they’re under copyright but the Archive lets one person at a time virtually “check out” the book for an hour. I do this at least several times a week, for the same intellectual instant gratification that Scribd provides: If I merely hear of a title, I’m reading it seconds later. It allows for an amazing velocity of research.
When I’m doing research, I’m very often cutting and pasting chunks of text from web site and PDFs into Scrivener. The problem is, a lot of this text is formatted oddly, with strange line breaks.
Cleantext is a Mac app that can quickly clean up nearly any odd formatting, so when I paste it into my notes it’s in straightforward paragraphs. It’s dead simple, but when I’m on a big reading/research tear, I’ll use this thing dozens of times an hour.
I’m sure something like this has to exist for Windows and Linux, too; probably on the web. I am too lazy to research this right now.
9) Google Docs
I don’t really use it for writing. But I very often file my drafts to editors using Google Docs, and then they edit it in Docs and we do different revisions that way.
Docs has hilariously wretched search and the folder system is such an ungainly brutalist nightmare that I’d never use it for serious research. But for collaborative remote editing of a document, it can’t be beat.
(Working in Google Docs also makes sure the NSA has a copy of all my drafts, too, which is, like, convenient I guess? For them, anyway.)
These are just the tools, mind you. This only scratches the surfaces of the techniques, which are a lot more complex: I.e. how I organize a piece of reporting and writing.
I’m sloowwwwly building a series of articles on this. You can read the collection thus far here.