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I have a firm conviction that if only I could find the right app for every occasion and link them all together, all I’d ever have to do is write and the productivity would take care of itself. I’m not there yet, but here’s a quick run-down of the the apps I always go back to in order to make my writing life and writing business run more smoothly, plus a couple of newbies that I have great hopes for. All of my suggestions are for the Mac, but Windows versions are often available or you can google “Windows substitute for——“ to find the closest counterpart in the Microsoft universe. I include the platform I use the apps on.
The old faithfuls (capital letters denote major software that has satellite softwares)
SCRIVENER (Macbook): It’s where I write. Once I got past the initial learning curve, Scrivener’s flexibility and writer-oriented mindset had me hooked. I particularly appreciate the fact that it autosaves, that I can rearrange folders and documents or move them from one Scrivener file to another so easily, that I can collect odd bits of research there, and that it’s so easy to output into just about any file format I wish. When the long-awaited mobile version comes out my life will be complete.
Aeon Timeline (Macbook): syncs with Scrivener. I’m a big fan of timelines in fiction writing, because even a vague timeline helps keep your story on track and gives your fiction a more grounded feel. And since I write historical fiction, I need to plug in actual historical events so I don’t miss anything major that my characters should know about. Aeon is the best timeline software I’ve found, and has useful features like telling you how old your characters are at the time of an event and making it easy to measure the time between two events. Once you’ve settled on your timeline you can import it into Scrivener as index cards, and voilà! You have a plot outline.
Index Card (iPad): syncs with Scrivener. Once the Scrivener iPad app comes out this one might not be necessary, but in the meanwhile it’s a great way of writing and rearranging index cards to work out a plot without the actual paper.
Scapple (Macbook): syncs with Scrivener. I love using mind maps to brainstorm ideas, and Scapple is a very simple, free-form mindmapping software. You can import your mind map into Scrivener in the form of index cards.
EVERNOTE (Macbook, iPad, iPhone): this is a bit like an electronic filing cabinet where I store articles I find on the internet, and sometimes photos I take or items I scan in. It’s a massively powerful, flexible app that can search for text (even handwritten), lets you organize your stuff into notebooks, and you can even share or publish notebooks if you wish. I swear I’ve saved about 1,000 trees by using Evernote rather than printing stuff out.
Penultimate (iPad): syncs with Evernote. When I go to meetings, I scribble my notes directly on Penultimate using my stylus, safe in the knowledge that they’ll be stored in Evernote where I can find them easily. No more meeting notes littering my desk! Penultimate is very useful for taking notes at writing conferences - I will also take a snap of the workshop presenters so I can remember them at the next conference, and paste it (virtually) into the notebook.
Skitch (Macbook): syncs with Evernote. I use Skitch mostly to take screenshots, although you can also add arrows, lines, words etc. so it’s a quick way to produce an annotated picture. And it saves in Evernote, so it doesn’t lose anything. Not a hugely important app, but I do find myself using it quite often.
Feedly (Macbook, iPad): my blog reader. I find it much nicer to sit in my armchair to read blogs, although I do use the online version on my Macbook sometimes. Feedly’s got some nice features, such as swiping between posts, sharing post links, bookmarking, etc. The Pro version saves directly into Evernote.
Flipboard (iPad): a great tool for flipping through all of those social networks I don't use constantly, just to see what's going on. I don't use it enough and haven't explored its ability to collect saved posts into a "magazine" yet, but I can definitely recommend it as a time-saver (or time-waster, depending on your point of view!)
GoodNotes (iPad): Can be used as a notebook, but I prefer Penultimate because of the Evernote syncing. I use Goodnotes to scribble on PDFs—books sent for review in PDF format, drafts from writer friends, etc. I prefer to annotate documents this way, as long as the author specifically doesn’t want me to use Track Changes in Word.
Moleskine (iPad): another notebook, but this time I use it for research (it’s based on the famed Moleskine notebook). It’s not the easiest app I have and can be a bit bug-ridden, but I love the fact that I can write, highlight, type or pull in pictures onto the page. I can also clip text from websites and paste it in. It suits the way I research, which is messy and disorganized.
Self-Control (Macbook): I use this app to disable certain distracting sites (Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads, I’m looking at you!) for a set time (usually an hour) while I’m writing or otherwise working. It leaves the rest of my internet connection open so I can still do research. And then I turn my phone face-down so I can’t see what I’m missing. I’m red-faced about the number of times I go to check social media when I’m working—I know SelfControl is helping me cut down on that insidious habit.
A couple of apps I don't use much, but you might:
WritingJournal (iPad): This was until recently known as WordTracker, and that's how I found it on Google. It's a very basic app that keeps track of your word counts and writing rates, but it depends on me remembering to stop and start it and I have trouble with that. In my opinion it's high time Scrivener incorporated more efficient word count tracking, with daily word counts, project word counts, words per hour and so on. Because we nerdy writers NEED TO KNOW.
MagicalPad HD (iPad): Another app I haven’t used a lot so far, but it’s a highly powerful app for organizing your thoughts and materials and I suspect I may use it more in the future. They just released a version for the Mac OS. The drawback is that it's relatively costly (I got my iPad version during a free promo period) so I hang back from going all in on it until I'm sure I need it. Might be just the thing for you, though.
Two new-to-me apps I think may have great potential:
Toggl (Macbook, iPad, iPhone): My new favorite toy. It’s a time tracker, and surprisingly sophisticated and feature-rich for a free app. It’s helping me see where my day goes, and makes me more productive by making me more aware of how I spend my time.
Trello (Macbook, iPad, iPhone): a flexible project management system. With four WIPs needing to be written, edited, produced, published, curated and marketed, I’m trying to find a way to keep track of what has to be done. Trello seems like a fast and flexible way to come up with the big-picture overview of the tasks that lie before me, and to keep track of what I’m doing.
Last but not least, I get surprising value out of good old Microsoft Excel. I have Microsoft Office on my Mac simply for compatibility with my Windows-based friends, but I find I use Excel for tracking all sorts of things: word counts, income, book publishing, etc.. It’s a hugely powerful piece of software that’s designed for analysis, and once you start taking writing seriously as a business, analysis goes hand in hand with planning.
There are hundreds of apps out there, and I recommend experimenting with as many as possible to see what works for you. I’ve tried and discarded at least as many apps as I currently use, probably a lot more, and watched two of them (Scrivener and Evernote) grow from newbies to giants in the writing world. Most of the apps I list above are low-cost; some are free, often with a Pro version that costs money. The trickiest commitments are the ones that charge a monthly subscription fee for the pro version—this is happening more and more with social media apps, but therein lies a whole new subject.