The most important thing to a writer is writing. Without words on a page, the rest of our future discussion about formatting, editing, pitching, platform building, and marketing is pointless. So the first tools to put in your toolbox are those that will help you write and that’s why I’m about to help make word processing easier. Of course, you will need something to write about (and I’ve got my go-to tools for plotting a novel and unpacking what makes a character tick), but that’s a topic for a later day.
Tool #1: Set a daily word count goal. I’ve tried a weekly target but kept finding excuse-filled days pushing me toward an impossible Saturday marathon and burnout. I also tried to set a daily goal of 500 or 1000 words a day, but now set individual goals for different days depending on appointments or other responsibilities. The important thing is to make writing a daily activity in order to exercise the creative muscles and develop internal discipline. Even if I only think I have time to write just one sentence or ten words, I always find myself writing more words than I thought simply by putting my fingers on the keys.
Tool #2: Get a timer. I have a ticking kitchen timer that sits above my computer, almost taunting me to keep the ticking of the keys at the pace of the ticking of the dial. At first, use the timer to make yourself sit there for fifteen minutes before being tempted to go check email or Facebook or even fold laundry. Then use the timer as a challenge to see how many words you can get down in half an hour. Finally, you may end up needing the timer to remind you to get up and move around every hour … or stop writing for the day and pick up the kids from school or fix dinner.
Tool #3: I have an old AlphaSmart Neo that is a dedicated machine for word processing. Without being distracted by the other features of my laptop and the Internet, I’m forced to write. And the tiny screen that only shows about four lines of text forces me to turn off my internal editor’s desire to fix things and instead keep plowing ahead with new words. An easy Control-W command gives you the word count of the file you’re working on so you can see how fast the words pile up. It runs on a few AA batteries that last for almost a year AND instantly saves every keystroke for you in eight different files. When you have a chapter or scene done, simply plug it in to your laptop, open Word, press “Send,” and watch your words appear. I’m not sure they make them anymore, but a quick Google search found a bunch on EBay for under $25 and more on Amazon.
Tool #4: Scrivener. This word processing program was originally designed for Apple/Mac computers but later came out with a PC version. The beauty of this software suite is that it keeps all of your manuscript and research in one central place and allows you to easily rearrange the order of scenes without needing to cut and paste. Entire courses and even a Dummies book have been written on how to use this powerful program, but here are a few of my favorite features:
- Project/Session Targets let you see a little bar move across as you type toward your daily word count goal and see how close you are to finishing the total project as well.
- You can customize the “Labels” feature to color code scenes by differing points of view and see at a glance if the heroine is taking up too many scenes and you need to let the hero talk.
- Split the screen and have two files open at once. This is handy when referring to a piece of research, a table or calendar of the story timeline, or even to see the picture of a character or the setting to help you get into the story as you write.
- Use the index cards to create an outline and then a synopsis. Each section of text is attached to a virtual index card with a place for a title and text. I use the title line for a brief overview of the topic (like “snowy outing” or “opening night” or even “black moment”) and then summarize the action in a few sentences. I can check the pacing of the story at a glance and then use the scene summaries to jumpstart writing a synopsis.
- Switch between scenes with a simple click instead of endless scrolling. This really comes in handy when you come up with a great plot twist and need to drop a few hints in an earlier scene to make it believable. I go to the earlier scene, write myself a note, highlight the note in yellow so I can spot it later, and then jump back to where I was writing. You also can write whatever scene you’re inspired to write in the moment since the index cards serve as placeholders for the eventual text you’ll add.
- When I’m ready to send chapters to my critique partner or an editor, I can compile and export the entire manuscript or only certain pieces into a Word document or other formats with customizable features. I know indie-authors who use the compile feature to create the ePub file necessary for ereaders.
- The best news? It’s FREE to try! You get to test drive the software for 30 days of actual use (not days on a calendar) before having to make a purchase. If you decide the program is not for you, simply compile your files and export them to Word. Otherwise, you can buy a licensing key for $40/$45 depending on your PC/Mac setup. Find out more or try it for free here, or if you’re ready to buy, use these links Scrivener for Windows or Scrivener for Mac here. (You pay the same price and The Author Toolbox gets a referral bonus.)
Now that you’ve got your word processing tools in place, go write!