Free Tools To Improve Your Writing10 MAY
This blog was originally published in 2015 and has been updated with refreshed content.
Writing a blog isn't quite as simple as it sounds. Once you've come up with an idea of what to write about (a task in itself), sitting down and getting the thing banged out should be easy...but it ain’t.
Procrastination, distraction, lack of motivation and sloppy typing skills are some of the biggest hurdles I find myself coming up against whenever I sit down to write.
Luckily, there are countless technological aids designed to help. Here are a few of the free tools I have found useful. Note that this list is by no means exhaustive - there are many products out there to help you write. If there is a tool you swear by that I haven't mentioned, please get in touch and let me know. I'd love to try it out and add it to this blog.
So, here we go. I've divided my tools into two categories: tools for writing and tools for editing. This blog also comes with some advice on how to best use these apps and websites. This is all about how to use tools to help improve the writing process. It is not about following a set of rigid rules.
Trusty old pen and paper
Not technological, I know, but first has to be the humble pairing of pen and paper. I tend to start out on paper to organise my ideas and write rough drafts. They’ve built apps that try to replicate the freedom that handwriting affords, but in my experience, the pen and paper still beat them all. Here's an example of my spidery scrawlings from when I was putting together our blog about Christmas Advertising…
Write Or Die
If you're anything like me, one of the hardest things about writing isn't coming up with the ideas. It's not the spelling or the grammar. It's not even the numb bum from sitting down for hours on end. It's my mischievous brain that, upon the very first instruction to 'concentrate', decides that now really is the time to check my emails, to post on the brightfive twitter account, to start chatting with my colleagues, to make a cup of tea, to answer that text from mum I got this morning... You get the idea.
Luckily, there’s an app for that!
In fact, there are quite a few apps for that. Popular options include FocusWriter (which will clear your screen of all other apps and distractions to let you get the hell on with it) and Freedom (which goes that ruthless step further, blocking access to all your devices during your scheduled work session). I have been trying out Write Or Die.
This (free, of course) desktop app doesn't stop you from accessing those tempting apps and sites. Instead, it gives you a short, sharp reprimand when your attention starts to wander. Set your time limit and word goal at the start of the session, select your 'mode' depending on how much telling off you need, and get writing.
If you type away happily, all is well. It has a very simple, uncluttered interface and a handy spell checker to help you along the way. But, if you pause for too long (and in the stricter modes it's not all that long!) out comes the stick.
For the purposes of research, I have written this section in 'Kamakazee' mode with the 'Evil' grace period setting. This setting is truly, truly evil! If you stop writing for even a few seconds IT. DELETES. YOUR. WORK. WORD. BY. WORD.
The gamification of the app does seem to be working for me. The real and present danger of losing my work makes the whole process a lot more interesting.
One note - you will definitely need to do a lot of editing of any writing you do in this app. The speed at which you need to keep writing (and the state of panic it may induce in you) will naturally mean you'll come out with a bit of a ramble. But it is so much easier to edit than it is to start writing, so anything that helps coax that first draft out is worth a try.
Cloud-based apps like Google Docs are great for editing and saving your blogs. Google Docs are simple, easy to use and free with any Gmail account. Other big pros include the fact that all work is automatically saved, securely backed up and can be accessed anywhere with an internet connection. It's also easy to download your documents as PDFs or Word Documents for ease of sharing across platforms. Most importantly, Google Docs allows you to work collaboratively. I like to get input from my colleagues and I find the Comments feature is a great way to their feedback.
Widely regarded the most reliable online dictionary and thesaurus. If in doubt, always look it up.
Plain English Campaign
PEC have various free guides including several grammar how to’s and the brilliant ‘how to write plain English’ PDF. As one would expect, the guides are mercifully clear and easy to understand.
Microsoft Word: Enable Readability
Ok, so this isn't free, but if you’re using a PC chances are you already have Word. If so, you can enable Word’s Readability Statistics. Word will analyse your text and give it a Flesch–Kincaid readability score. The higher the score (out of 100) the more readable your text. Here's a step-through guide to enabling Readability.
For a more in-depth explanation of readability scores (including how your favourite authours measure up), this article from Contently proves an interesting read.
Grammarly are not only the crafters of many a fine tweet (do follow them if you're partial to a pithy grammar meme), they are also the creators of a rather useful (and free) browser extension. Install Grammarly (I am using it in Chrome) and the program will diligently check your documents, emails and social media posts for mistakes as you make them.
Handy tools include an easy to customise dictionary and handy suggestions for mistyped words. This is particularly great for me as I am terrible for typing complete gobbledegook when I'm attempting to quickly fire off emails.
On the downside, Grammarly does not currently work with Google Docs. It does, however, have its own in-browser word processing program. Here you can write, save and upload existing documents.
If you don’t want to install Grammarly, Hemingway is a good alternative. Copy and Paste your text into Hemingway’s online tool and it will flag up long sentences, errors, and other grammar no-no’s including the use of passive tense, over-complicated words and phrases, and overuse of adverbs. Hemingway will also give you a Readability score, along with practical advice on how to improve it, which is a very nice touch.
So, there are the tools. Here is the practical bit - how to put these tools to use. Here are a couple of important points you should bear in mind...
Editing tools aren't as good as a real proofreader
Tools like Hemingway or Grammarly are the best solution when you do not have the time, manpower or budget to employ a human proofreader. They can also supplement the human eye, but they will never do as good a job. So be aware and mull over what the programs suggest. Without the human ability to pick up on the subtleties of English language, they sometimes will suggest complete nonsense.
Don’t lose your voice
Use these tools help you to look critically at your writing; don’t follow their advice to a T.
If you’re writing something from you - be it a blog, article or website copy - allow your voice to come through. I find these tools helpful, but I quite frequently chose to ignore their suggestions, as they tend to be a bit over-zealous!
If you’re using Word’s Readability statistics, don’t obsess too much about having the ‘ideal’ 90-100 score. This score means that your work should be comprehensible to the average 11-year-old. So, unless you are writing for 11-year-olds, this should only be something to aim towards, not a rigid rule to follow.
I aim to produce copy which is easily comprehensible; I don’t want it to be a chore. I am not, however, going to cull every complex sentence, unusual word or instance of descriptive or metaphorical language. My (adult) readers will still understand it and I believe the writing is all the richer for it.
You will always fall short of perfection
You can edit, edit, edit, you can have three colleagues check and recheck your work and you can still end up with a typo. Nothing is ever really finished. You will always find something you could improve upon, so at some point, you just have to accept that what you've written is good enough. Do your best to eliminate mistakes, but don’t wait for perfection. You’ll never publish anything that way.
Are there any writing tools or tips you’d like to share? Let us know in the Comments below.