This is how I imagine writer’s block. Like Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Shining,” locked inside an old hotel typing the same sentence over and over again while snow piles up outside. Right now I’m in Sweden for my brother’s wedding, alone in a snowy hotel room, and I’ve been tasked with writing an article about writing. Free writing apps to be specific. It’s not going well. The only thing stopping me from hallucinating twin ghosts and a hallway full of blood are the very writing tools I’m supposed to be writing about.
At their best, writing programs pull the words out of you; at their worst, they’re just another distraction. I’ve personally experimented with dozens, and I think I’ve found the right mix for my unruly brain. They might even help me finish this article without (spoiler alert!) dying in a freezing corn maze. Best of all? They’re all free:
Ok, you’re probably aware of Google Drive, but I feel the need to emphasize it anyway. Some people write notes on their phone. Why not pop those into Drive so you can access them anywhere? Some people write with a partner. Why not have a Google Doc so you can watch each other type in real time? You can even use it to store relevant pictures and video. These may sound like trivial improvements, but if milliseconds determine who wins a sprint, how many trivialities add up to a book?
One of my favorite Drive features just came out this year. It’s a self-populating table of contents. It collects all the headers in a document and gives you an index on the left-hand side. Click on a header and be transported to that part of the document.
Apps like these allow you to transform writing from a sedentary activity to something you can take with you whenever inspiration strikes. You can even download these apps to work locally, so you don’t have to stop writing when the subway loses service underground.
I’m big on simplicity, which is another way of saying prone to distraction, and the internet is the multi-headed hydra of distraction. Every time you read a site, two pop up in its place. For instance, today I wasted several hours learning about Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Pussy Posse,” a group of b-list child actors who spent the 1990’s harassing women, throwing trash on cars, and skipping out on bills without tipping. Why did I do that instead of writing this article or rehearsing a speech for my brother’s wedding? I did it because I accidentally downloaded the PC version of Focus Writer, and I have a Mac. Also, I have a hungry hole in my heart that craves short-term satisfaction.
That’s where Self Control came in. Not the character virtue, the app that shuts down the internet for you while you work. There’s a whole gang of them. Focus Writer (yes I eventually downloaded the right one) accomplishes the same thing while also giving you a pleasant-looking, bare-bones word processor. It blurs out the other activity on your screen so you can forget about the outside world, and it includes timers and daily check-ins to keep you coming back. Don’t expect compatibility across platforms or much in the way of formatting, this is for getting words down on a page, and that’s it. It works best in conjunction with Google Drive.
Recently I wrote about productivity tools like the Pomodoro method and apps like Forest. They break up your work day into bite-size chunks and cue you when it’s time to stop or start. Coach.Me is a lot like these, but more long-term. You’re encouraged to sign up for goals like “write a screenplay” or “check in daily,” to hold you accountable to a community of like-minded strivers. These goals are accompanied by reminders, and your progress is tracked within the app, so you have goal posts to measure your progress.
Now, if you’re looking for goal-setting and accountability within an actual word processor, all of these apps fall short. You’ll have to donate to a Kickstarter-like TheRightMargin, which includes your goals right alongside your writing, so you never lose track of them.
Most of the apps so far have been about quantity. How can I write longer, more often, and in more places? Hemingway is about the writing itself. All you have to do is visit the site, paste or type in your writing, and watch as an invisible editor highlights run-on sentences, unnecessary adjectives, and passive voice.
It’s based on the style championed by Ernest Hemingway, who for whatever reason, represents what we consider “good writing” nowadays. For what it’s worth, I was always a Fitzgerald guy, and some of the long, adjective-filled sentences in The Great Gatsby make Hemingway’s hot takes on eating cheese in Barcelona look like a boring travel blog. Still, it’s worth looking in the mirror, and Hemingway (the app) is a great mirror. If nothing else, it’ll teach you to cut out adverbs. Even Kurt Vonnegut agreed with Hemingway there. Everyone vehemently, transcendently, and completely fucking hates adverbs.
Now FreeMind isn’t exactly pretty, but the idea behind it is solid. It’s basically a digital version of the word cloud, allowing you to brainstorm an idea visually. I like word clouds for things like joke writing since jokes are hard to write linearly. A story might go A-B-C: “A happened, then b, then c.” While a joke might go: “Hey remember A? Isn’t that a lot like Z when you think about it? Did I mention the time I covered a goat in glitter?” For a joke like that, you might start with the concept A and just create a series of ideas and “types” that branch off in many different directions.
It works well for complex stories too, especially fiction. Freemind gives you a way to visualize all of your characters, themes, settings, and then see what ideas they spark when viewed from a bird’s eye.
It Takes More Than One Tool to Build Something Good
I’m always experimenting with writing tools because I really believe in them. Google Drive alone might make or break my creative career; it’s that effective. I used to talk to my dad about writing long, investigative journalism with a typewriter lugged under his arm. I felt so sorry for him. He had to spend his time finding a white out that didn’t clog his ribbon and learning how to carbon copy papers. Now I can spend that time learning productivity methods and fantasizing about The Shining and the Pussy Posse.
Sure, I may have to download an app that effectively turns my computer back into a typewriter just so I don’t get distracted, but I’ll take that over murdering my family in a haunted hotel any day. Even if Jack made it look so…damn…good…
Feature image courtesy of rustychuck.wordpress.com
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Beverly Redd says
Thank you for these apps. It is something I needed just at the right time!
Douglas Tull says
Very nice list. I occasionally run into this problem when I am writing on a regular basis. I like to write in blocks for my website and then schedule my posts over the next 4 weeks. It can be hard to come up with topics sometimes and make each article sound like its own when you are dealing with writing so many at one time.