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Write better with the right tools: Apps and ideas for aspiring writers

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Many people want to write, but getting started can be difficult. Double clicking Notepad or uncapping a five-cent Bic will get the job done, but the most widely used tools aren’t necessarily the best ones. A number of specialized software tools can help you at every step along the way, from brainstorming to final publishing.

While a good app won’t plant the idea for a Pulitzer award winner in your head or help you effortlessly spin out prose like Mark Twain, leaning on a few apps for assistance can help ease the friction that prevents many new writers from setting words to page. If you’ve ever wanted to write, your first column or story could be just five deceptively easy-sounding steps away with the right tools and workflow.

Step 1: Have an idea. Don’t lose it.

You need things to write about. Don’t worry, you have ideas all the time. You just need a system to manage those ideas.

What I do: I use Quicksilver to append ideas to my “Blog Topics” file very quickly when I’m at my computer. I use the previously-mentioned iOS app Captio to capture notes to email when I’m away from home. When typing isn’t an option — in the car, for example — I scrawl on a notecard while keeping my attention focused where it needs to be. I process ideas from all sources into “Blog Topics,” and review that text file when I’m starving for a topic.

Why I like it: No matter where I am, I have fast and easy options for capturing any idea that strikes me. Organizing those ideas in one place frees me from the worry that I might forget them. These habits seem to have helped ideas flow more easily and comfortably.

What you can do: Establishing a good capture habit can be easy. David Allen (author of Getting Things Done) recently outlined a simple, powerful method in the New York Times. If you prefer, use note cards or a text file. Just make sure things captured are processed to a more durable, accessible list that you can review when you need to.

Eventually, you may need a system to manage the stuff your capture habit generates. Consider Allen’s Getting Things Done if this happens to you. I’ve found it to be extremely helpful.

Step 2: Brainstorm. Discover related ideas.

You need more than one idea to write a column or story. Your brain is great at filling in the blanks. It just needs a bit of support.

What I use: Everything I write starts as a mind map – a type of diagram that starts with a central idea and branches off as far as you need it to into smaller points. I craft mine in iThoughtsHD on my iPad.

Why I like it: iThoughtsHD’s keyboard shortcuts make it easy to get out a lot of ideas in a hurry. My mind map serves as the roughest of drafts. Remember, I’m typing in iOS. It’s not perfect. If “iOS” is autocorrected to “onions,” I just move on. Speed is more important than fidelity. My goal is to generate the framework for a post very quickly. The complete picture iThoughtsHD provides helps a lot when I’m writing actual sentences and paragraphs.

iThoughtsHD also integrates with Dropbox and exports a variety of formats, which can be a real plus. I need my mind maps to be transposed to outlines on my computer to be most useful. iThoughtsHD makes this a snap.

What you can do: iThoughts is available for iPad and iPhone and iPod Touch. A variety of other applications for iOS, OS X, and Windows support mind mapping. Don’t be afraid to mind map with a pen and paper if that feels more comfortable. Echoing a point made earlier, be sure to process that mind map into a more durable system afterwards.

Step 3: Make real sentences. Make them better, then mark them up.

What I use: I use Textmate for most of my work. I don’t need its power, but I purchased a license ages ago and just like it. I used its default font and theme for ages, but recently installed Christina Warren’s Tubster theme and the MPlus half-width font family. I like them both very much. I live in text, and I want it to be a nice place. Cool fonts and themes make things more comfortable.

I compose in Markdown, a syntax devised by Jon Gruber. I’ll quote his definition because he is awesome and I certainly can’t do better:

Markdown is a text-to-HTML conversion tool for web writers. Markdown allows you to write using an easy-to-read, easy-to-write plain text format, then convert it to structurally valid XHTML (or HTML).

Thus, “Markdown” is two things: (1) a plain text formatting syntax; and (2) a software tool, written in Perl, that converts the plain text formatting to HTML. – Markdown Introduction.

Why I like it: I don’t need a lot of features to put words onto virtual pages. I find apps like Microsoft Word annoying when assembling paragraphs. With Markdown, I get to stay in plain text as long as possible and then transition into HTML in an easy, predictable way. It’s great to avoid WYSIWYG interfaces, which can cause hassles when publishing.

Markdown also makes it easy to separate the composition and markup phases of creating a post. Typically, I hunt for links after I’ve composed and edited the bulk of the column. I don’t want to get bogged down on the Internet when I’m in put-down-words mode. Reddit can wait.

What you can do: Your OS’s built-in editor will work just fine for writing in plain text or Markdown. If you want more functionality, Lifehacker recommends Fraise for OS X and Notepad++ for Windows. Both are free. You can learn Markdown at the excellent Daring Fireball.

Step 4: Publish to a site that looks like one you’d read.

What I use: I’m lucky to post this to Digital Trends. It’s a great-looking site. I know that my words will look great here. When not writing here, I write a personal blog powered by Squarespace.

Why I like it: Squarespace is fantastic. It’s a hosted solution, so a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff is handled for you. You’ll never have to patch Squarespace. The interface is beautiful and easy-to-use. Themes, even those provided free of charge, look terrific and are a cinch to customize. It also boasts built-in analytics, great iOS applications, and a very workable import utility (or so I’ve heard).

What you can do: Use Squarespace. Period. Focus on putting down words you can be increasingly proud of, not on database problems. The small fees Squarespace charges are well worth the hassles their service saves.

Step 5: Now do it every day.

Steven Pressfield says in The War of Art:

How many pages have I produced? I don’t care. Are they any good? I don’t even think about it. All that matters is I’ve put in my time and hit it with all I’ve got. All that counts is that, for this day, for this session, I have overcome Resistance.

You have to keep at it. Even on the days that you are frustrated, you’re figuring out what doesn’t work. You can’t get better without doing that. Writing may require a lot of trial and error. It will take years to get good at it. Sitting down and working trains you to sit down and do more work. It’s only by working every day that you can create anything good.

That’s what I keep telling myself while I slog through these early columns. It encourages me. I hope it encourages you too.