All you really need to write is a pen and paper. But these tools and resources will help you write more — and earn more.
Writing, the old-fashioned way!
You don’t need anything fancy to start writing.
It’s important to say this from the start. Some of the greatest novels ever written were scratched out with a quill. There’s no need for any of us to go quite that basic any more, but all you really need to begin is a pen and paper.
My favourite pen is a Pilot V5 (I have hundreds of them, all over the house). For paper I use more or less anything, though as a left-hander I prefer a notepad that lies flat, or flips at the top.
For my journal, I like a good-quality paper so I can write on both sides without ink showing through. But I’m not loyal to one brand. I find it hard to walk past a stationery shop, so I have a drawer full of blank journals from all over the world. Especially Japan and Italy.
My advice to new writers?
Start before you’re ready. Don’t wait for the perfect time, the perfect writing space, until you can afford a fancy laptop or any of the tools below.
Just pick up something to write with and on (a pen and paper; your phone; a computer) and write where and whenever you can. You’ll be terrible, at first. But the only way to get better is to keep on.
If you are already writing, however, the right tools and resources can really help you become more efficient in optimising your time, juggling multiple projects and finding an audience for your work.
Here some of the best ones I’ve found, in my 40 years as a professional writer.
I still use Microsoft Word for writing short pieces, and if I’m collaborating it’s often on Google docs. But anything complicated or longer than 2000 words goes into Scrivener.
I love the fact you can keep previous drafts, notes, source materials (anything from articles, web pages, photos and maps) within the file and pull them up easily.
I love how easy it is to go into full screen composition mode and focus solely on the page you’re working on, with the rest of your desktop hidden. (Microsoft Word also now has this feature, at the bottom of your document window, the Focus button.)
Scrivener makes it easy to switch between different chapters or sections of a book/long project without endless scrolling. And it keeps earlier drafts of the same chapter or section if you need to refer back to them.
This year, I wrote a 47,000-word non-fiction book about growing your creative business (Making It!) entirely in Scrivener in just an hour a day. The software made it easy to pick up where I’d left off the previous day, and get right into flow.
Learning it can be a steep curve. I first bought Scrivener in 2007, not long after it first came out. People were raving about it as a tool made for writers by people who understood writers. But I didn’t get on with it.
I was a busy journalist then, constantly on deadline with little time for learning new software. And when you first encounter Scrivener, compared to Word or Google docs, it can seem a little… over-complicated.
When Scrivener 2 came out and writer friends started praising it even more, I tried again. And then again with Scrivener 3. By then, however, I was mainly writing books, and the software made much more sense.
I also found a good teacher: Gwen Hernandez, whose clear Fundamentals and Mastery video walk-through courses really helped.
Now I see that every writer can customise it to fit their own writing process. There are features in Scrivener I will never need, but that other writers might find essential. And there are other features I use daily.
Anyway, now I wouldn’t be without Scrivener. For anyone writing books or long-form journalism, papers and essays with lots of complicated moving parts, I warmly recommend it.
I write my books in Scrivener. And you can output finished books from there, too. But when I’m self-publishing, I move to Vellum for formatting and design. It’s easy and intuitive to use, and gives you a variety of options for customising everything from chapter headings to text separators.
Then it will output your professional-looking book into different file formats: Kindle, Apple Books, generic e-book, Nook, Kobo or print versions.
You don’t have to take my word for this one. The trial version is completely free to download and play with for as long as you want; you only need to pay when you’re ready to get the finished files for publishing. The only downside, that I’ve found: it’s Mac-only.
I have been lucky in my career. I’ve worked with some brilliant editors, all of whom made me better as a writer. But now I write Medium articles, blog posts and regular newsletters that aren’t read by anyone else before they’re published.
No matter how carefully I read them before clicking the publish button, later on I’d often spot typos.
Enter ProWritingAid, an editor powered by Artificial Intelligence. It’s not perfect. Indeed, some of its style suggestions can be pretty ludicrous. (You get the option to implement or ignore each one.)
But it’s reassuring to have a second set of (digital) eyes on my copy, and it often points out typos, repetitions or little inconsistencies.
It’s quick, it integrates smoothly with Word and Google docs and slightly less smoothly with my other writing tools, and you can get it to check everything from spelling and grammar to general style.
I use ProWritingAid first to weed out glaring mistakes, then I still give my self-published books to an editor before publication.
There’s no substitute for creative human intelligence, creativity and comprehension. But this is an affordable substitute, and saves you a lot of time proof-reading my own newsletter and blog copy.
I’ve always used Macs, and I’m usually happy with Apple’s built-in software, but this takes handling PDFs to a higher level.
It allows you to edit PDFs, sign documents digitally, and all sorts of other useful things, with none of the clunky over-complications Adobe seems to bring. Best of all, it has pretty accurate OCR (Optical Character Recognition).
I’m currently compiling some collections of my journalism, starting with my music writing. With PDFPen, I can scan in a yellowing newspaper cutting or old magazine feature, then quickly convert this to useable type that I can edit or reformat in Scrivener or Word.
If you only need this rarely, use Google docs. The process is a bit fiddly, but it’s free. But if you have a lot of printed words you want to input, PDFPen will save you a lot of time. For me, it was well worth the price.
Writer’s Hour at the London Writers Salon
My desk, and host Parul Bavishi introducing Writers’ Hour
It wasn’t until the first UK lockdown that I realised how important writing in coffee shops was to me. I’d done it for so long that I took it for granted: if I’m stuck or distracted writing at home, writing while surrounded by strangers seems to help me focus. Especially with caffeine added to the mix!
Deprived of this, I found it hard to stick to routines. I was easily distracted at home, and ended up working weekends and into the night to catch up.
Then I found the Writers Hour, which meets via Zoom at 8am-9am in four time zones every day: GMT (UK); EST (New York); PST (Los Angeles); NZT (Auckland). You can attend any or all of them, wherever you are in the world; we’re an international tribe.
I’ve barely missed the UK one since I found it, sometimes attending the later ones too if I have the luxury of a full day writing. Run by the London Writers’ Salon, it’s free to join and introvert-friendly.
You log in, say hello in the chat and share what you’re working on (but only if you want to). The moderator reads out an inspiring quote about writing or creativity, and then you write, in companionable silence, for 50 minutes.
Often I stop noticing the others on my screen. But on days when I’m tired or distracted, there’s something lovely about looking up and seeing others in flow — or not. Some are grimacing at their screens, staring into space, fidgeting; others are fully absorbed in their work.
We all have good days and bad days, but simply making that commitment to show up and write for an hour every weekday has made me much more productive.
It means I get in some solid writing time before breakfast, and even if I don’t get back to the page for the rest of the day, I’ve at least made some progress.
The London Writers’ Salon also runs an array of interviews and masterclasses with authors and publishing professionals, and runs a Patreon scheme with varying levels of additional support. Wherever you are in the world, it’s well worth checking out.
Ads For Authors
This is a pricey, premium course by Self-Publishing Formula, a company run by successful British thriller writer Mark Dawson. He also hosts the informative SPF Podcast. Only invest in this if you’re definitely going the self-publishing route, and are ready to promote your books with paid ads.
It’s aimed primarily at fiction authors writing in series, but there’s plenty of good information here for non-fiction authors and writers of standalone novels.
My first self-published book was a reissue of Adventures In Wonderland, my history of the acid house/rave explosion. It was originally published by Hodder, one of the big UK publishing houses.
But had been out of print for more than 20 years, and I decided to self-publish it because it was selling for £200 second-hand, which felt wrong.
Unexpectedly, it sold very well — especially after I followed this course and started investing in Facebook ads, then Amazon ads. The book has sold steadily ever since, and paying back what I spent on the course many times over.
There is also in-depth information on BookBub ads, and all sorts of other help with writing and designing your ads and launching your book successfully.
The information is thorough, in-depth, and your fee includes all future updates. The course has an added bonus of membership of the SPF Mastery Facebook group for self-published authors.
Every question I’ve posted there has been answered with generous advice and guidance, and it’s a community full of positive people who cheer each others’ successes.
The Creative Penn
Joanna Penn is a thought leader when it comes to self-publishing.
She has two successful fantasy/thriller series of her own under the name JF Penn, and as Joanna Penn she has published a whole series of useful, reasonably-priced non-fiction books about self-publishing, and organising your life as an author.
Her long-running weekly podcast keeps up with all the latest news in publishing, and often has a guest interview dealing with some aspect of the writer’s life. And her website is packed with useful information.
If you’re thinking of going the self-publishing route as an author, this is a great place to start.
Books about writing
Some of my favourite books about writing
Writers love to read — and write — about writing. So there’s a wealth of material about the craft, process and rituals of writing, about the elements of a compelling story, or how to write a novel/screenplay/non-fiction/any other genre of book. Here’s a list of my personal favourites.
I keep track of deadlines, multiple projects, and stay focussed on what’s important using the monthly and weekly planners from Productive Flourishing. You can download them as PDFs each month for free here (there are daily ones too, but I don’t tend to use them), or buy a whole year’s worth.
With any planning or organising method, I tend to find that something works brilliantly for me for a couple of years, and then it becomes too familiar and I somehow stop seeing it.
So for the start of the academic year in September, I’m just shifting from the PDFs above to The Circle Planner, a paper diary on steroids with lots of room for goals, projects, lists and habit tracking.
I have stayed surprisingly loyal to my task manager, Things (again, Mac-only, sadly). I have it synched across my desktop, phone and iPad, and I’ve used it now for years, after trying almost every other time of digital to-do list and task manager.
I like the simplicity and clean design of Things: it keeps me on-track with multiple projects, without being so complex that maintaining it becomes a job in itself.
So those are some of my best tools. But every writer is different, so I’d love to know yours. What makes your life easier, and more productive?
I’m a creative coach and have earned my living as a writer for more than 30 years. If you’d like my FREE writing prompts, to help with journalling and Morning Pages, click here.