A Writer’s Little Helpers

Twenty years ago, the only tools I needed for a productive writing session were a sharp pencil and a fresh notepad. But that was before the internet. Now my already short attention span gets pulled in every direction. So to increase my word count or to even get a single word on the page, I need help from high- and low-tech writing tools. These are a few of my favourites:


I’ve raved on about this internet-blocking software before, and for good reason—it’s simple and it works. Activate Freedom and it’ll become impossible to connect to the internet or email from five minutes to 12 whole hours. The only way to override it is to shut down your computer. Honestly, it’s the best $10 I ever spent. If I have 15 minutes spare, I will switch on Freedom and write at least 250 words. The same developer created another app called Anti-Social ($15). This doesn’t cut you off entirely — you can block specific sites that are most likely to drag you into a cyber black hole. (Hello, Pinterest! Or should I say goodbye?)


Write or Die

If you need a good scare to get you working, the web-based Write or Die is perfect for you. Set a word-count target and the time in which you want to achieve it. Fail to meet your target and the app will emit a poisonous substance that will kill you in three seconds display a consequence, like a disturbing image or an annoying alarm. It’s not all dire — select Reward mode and ye shall receive pleasing sights and sounds when you reach your goal. This app is $20, and there’s an option to try before you buy.



I no longer use plain old MS Word to write my manuscripts. Instead, I work with Scrivener. It allows me to keep plotting and revision notes, critiques, synopses, images, research, and the manuscript in one file. I haven’t explored every function of the software; I’m learning new things all the time. Ruby sis Anne Marie Becker alerted me to a target tracker, which is great if you’re a visual person and like to see your word count grow in chart form. (In Scrivener, go to the Project menu —> Show Project Targets.) I also love the random name generator in Scrivener (Edit menu —>Writing Tools —> Name Generator). Prior to that discovery, I used Name Dice for iPhone to come up with first and last name combinations.

 For great advice on using Scrivener, check out these past Ruby posts:



This alternative to virtual and paper sticky notes allows you to float ideas and images on your virtual desktop in one handy document. I use Scapple when brainstorming or working through a synopsis. It’s made by the people who devised Scrivener and can be yours for $14.99. Free trial available.



Dragon Dictation

Note to self: Use a voice recognition app when weary hands demand a break. Dragon Dictation is a freakishly accurate app for iPhone and iPad as well as Android. A desktop version is available, but it’s considerably more expensive.


Writing Prompts

The Amazing Story Generator by Jason Sacher is a fun flipbook designed to spark thousands of plot ideas. The spiral-bound pages are horizontally divided into three elements – an introductory clause, a subject, and predicate. For instance, In a post-apocalyptic world, a computer hacker is transported to a new galaxy. Flip just one of those elements — say, the subject — and you could find a more comical direction: In a post-apocalyptic world, a clown in training is transported to a new galaxy.


Here’s my cat being very unhelpful indeed:

 ’Tis the season for giving, so I’m *giving away* a copy of Freedom for your Mac or PC! All you have to do is tell me what makes you more productive or what sucks your time away. Who’s game to write a story about a trainee clown in a new galaxy?

37 responses to “A Writer’s Little Helpers”

  1. Kathy Crouch says:

    Time suck for me is electronic games on my phone, tablet and Kindle. Also, driving the niece back and forth to work finds me staying up too late and gettig up a whole lot earlier than my body likes. So I fall back in bed in the mornings when I get back home from taking her to work all I do is fall in bed and sleep all day. Then get up and go pick her up. By the time I’m back home it’s anywhere from 5-7 or 8 in the evening. I still write every day but I wonder how much more I can get done when driving duty ends not to mention things around the house.

    • Wow, Kathy, my body wouldn’t like all that driving either —how tiring for you! I hope you can at least listen to an audio book while you’re on the road. I’m wondering if dictating your stories or ideas while you drive might suit, provided that doesn’t distract you, of course! I hear you on the electronic games. I had to trash my Paper Toss app. So addictive.

      Thanks so much for stopping by. And drive safely!

  2. Hi Vanessa!

    The internet is a deadly time suck for me.It comes of being a procrastinator of the first order. I must try Freedom and Write or Die – thanks for the recommendations.

    I have Scrivener but haven’t really had time to get down and find out how to use it effectively. It all seems a bit complex, though you are not the only one who swears by it!

    • Lovely to see you here, Kandy, my fellow procrastinator! 🙂 I’m sure there are dozens more Scrivener features that I’ve yet to discover. I did like the fact that I was able to at least get in there and write straightaway!

      Believe me, if “researching” on the Net is taking you away from writing, you’ve just gotta have Freedom. I’m just amazed by how much I can accomplish when I’m prevented from looking at cats and cakes on Pinterest. I do 15-minute blocks, but if I’m feeling brave, I’ll take it up to 20.

  3. June Love says:

    Vanessa, thank you for some great tips! Especially Freedom. I’ve not heard of it before. I have to be careful with venturing online because that usually leads to seeing a weird news story to read, that ignites a thought of something I need to check out at perhaps Amazon that takes my scattered brain to another realm of exploration and so it goes. The internet is my downfall. So, yes, Freedom, is what I need!

    Also, thank you for reminding me again about Scrivener. I really want to invest in that. I think the organizational part of me that I used to know and love would greatly benefit from it. 🙂

    • June, you’re very welcome! I fall into exactly the same online trap. I start off looking at one topic and that leads to another and another… Before I know it, I’ve lost two hours of my life and sometimes a few dollars, too. Yep, Freedom was made for people like us! 🙂 When I first used Freedom, the inability to access the internet and email caused quite a bit of anxiety within me, but I got over that when I realised how much work I could accomplish without it. That organisational part of yourself will love the way Scrivener keeps your ms’s bits and pieces in one convenient place.

  4. Wonderful tips, Vanessa. I keep meaning to try Scrivener, but I really, really hate the learning curve in mastering a new format.

    But the tips and links you added are very helpful. Perhaps this will be the season to gift myself with the app. 🙂

    Thanks for the great post.

    • Hi, Elizabeth! There is a quite learning curve involved in using Scrivener. I haven’t mastered all of it yet; I’m not one to read manuals in their entirety. Take it from me, though, it’s possible to dive right in without knowing how to use it. The thing that appealed to me most was being able to lump all of my research, character notes, etc, in one easy-to-access place. And now I’m obsessed with the name generator. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by and thanks for tweeting!

  5. jbrayweber says:

    Must. Try. Freedom.
    Thanks for these tips with links, Vanessa. I will certainly have to check out Freedom and Anti-Social to keep me on track…oh look! A squirrel!


    • Lol, Jenn! Squirrels are so adorable… Both Freedom and Anti-Social are life-savers IMHO. The former was recommended to me by a friend. Time and time again, it’s proved to be a great investment. I don’t know if I could set it to its highest level, though — 12 hours without the internet could break me!

  6. Vivi Andrews says:

    I feel so old school – I’m still a pencils and sticky notes girl. I scribble story ideas on the back of receipts. I love the idea of Scrivener, but I’m afraid to change anything in my process – as if I will suddenly be incapable of writing another word if I stray from my MS Word habits.

    • Ah, Vivi, nothing wrong with using the basics — pen and paper! If it’s working for you, don’t change a thing. Actually, whenever I’m really, REALLY stuck, I sharpen my pencil and scribble something down by hand. It seems to jolt my brain into action.

  7. Julie Mulhern says:


    Great post. Turning off the internet is not a problem for me but keeping track of notes and ideas is. Thanks for the Scrivener tips!

  8. Tina Ferraro says:

    Brilliant ideas here, Vanessa, and I could benefit from each one! Some years ago I heard author Suzanne Brockmann speak on this topic and she said she used two computers–one for writing and one for internet. I’ve long claimed I had to try this to keep myself from sneaking away to Facebook Scrabble and cat videos…but alas, still plugging along on one. Freedom sounds what I really need!

    • Lovely to see you here, Tina! Hmm, smart woman, that Suzanne Brockmann! I don’t want to sound like a salesperson here, but Freedom is a much cheaper alternative to buying a second laptop or device. 😉 If I bought a second laptop, I’m sure my cats would use it as a bed.

  9. Elizabeth Langston says:

    I love Scrivener. Since I discovered it a few years ago (from Ruby Sis Di), I can’t plot a book anymore without it. I love the Name Generator tool too. (There is a 10 minute youtube video to get you started, and it really does work for the basics.)

    As far as what sucks my time…it’s not one big things. It’s a dozen little ones.

  10. I’m pretty sure that the internet was invented to be a time suck. Internet shopping at sites like Zulily or Wayfair suck me down a rabbit hole that takes me hours to crawl out. I’m weak and they have such pretty things. Usually, I allow myself until 9am to play on the internet before it’s time to get down to business, but since it’s 9:22 right now, I suck at time management.

    I have Scrivner, but I’m scared to death of it. On the phobia list, Scrivner is right up there with snakes and tap dancing. If God had wanted me to be a snake handling tap dancer, I wouldn’t have been born in small town East Texas.

    • Uh-oh, Katie, I’ve just added two more shopping sites to my places-to-see list. I like your idea of giving yourself a time limit for internet fun. I know it doesn’t always work out, but it’s the thought that counts, right? 😉 Actually, Freedom now lets you schedule internet black-out times so you’ll have no choice but to start writing!

      Your snake handling tap dancer comment cracked me up! Now, thanks to Elizabeth, I’ve found the Scrivener YouTube tutorials — see the link above and be afraid no more!

  11. Tamara Hogan says:

    Great round-up, Vanessa! I manage to stay away from the internet during my morning writing time by bringing only a netbook with corrupted wireless capability to the coffee shop. (I corrupted it myself.)

    I also find Dragon software really useful, especially for writing first drafts. I don’t like looking at a blank screen, so, using Dragon, I talk through the first draft of each scene, with no regard for formatting or punctuation. It’s just a brain-dump, a regurgitation of everything I can think of that I need to factor into the scene. Then, voila! I have something to revise, which I greatly prefer.

    I bought Scrivener on Black Friday. I haven’t started to use it yet, but I think I’ll dip my toe in the water when it comes time to format, convert, and publish my WIP, ENTHRALL ME. Even if formatting and file conversion is all I end up using it for, the software package will more than pay for itself.

    • I love that you corrupted the wireless on your netbook — whatever it takes, eh? I can’t wait to see how ENTHRALL ME turns out, Tammy! I had a quick look at the ePub capability in Scrivener and it looks relatively painless.

      I’m glad Dragon/voice recognition has proven to be such a great writing kickstarter for you. I was really surprised by the accuracy of my Dragon iPhone app. I used voice recognition earlier this century for my laptop and became frustrated with it, but this version is so much easier to use and accurate. Sometimes I “write” emails with it.

      Have fun with your sparkly new Scrivener!

  12. Oh, my gosh, what a great post! I still love the targets portion of Scrivener and use it to gauge progress on a daily basis. Hadn’t heard of the name generator, though – can’t wait to try it! And Scapple – how have I not heard of this?! Looks like fun. 🙂

    • Anne Marie, I have you to thank for mentioning Scrivener’s target function in a Ruby comments trail! You’ve got to try the name generator — hours of fun there! Scapple’s fantastic, too. I like paper sticky notes, but my problem is I lose them or the cats get hold of them, so Scapple’s perfect for me.

      Thanks for popping by!

  13. Hi Vanessa! What fantastic advice. Thanks so much for sharing it. As you know, right now I’m one hand down (luckily my left hand – I keep saying, it could be worse!)so I’m thinking I may have to investigate dictation programs like Dragonspeak. I’m holding off as long as possible, but we’ll see!

    Wishing you and all the lovely Ruby sisters a very happy Christmas!

    • Merry Christmas to you, dear Anna!

      I hope Santa brings you a copy of Dragonspeak this year. Even if you just use it for jotting notes on a page or to get started (like Tammy above), it’ll go a long way in giving your hands a rest.

      Thanks so much for stopping by even though you’re down to one paw. Get well soon! xx

  14. Laurie Kellogg says:

    I love all of the new apps and programs to help writers. Unfortunately, I’m a techno-tard, so the time it would take me to learn to use any of them is counterproductive to what I’m trying to accomplish–to write more. 🙂

    • Hi, Laurie! I know what you mean about putting your energy into writing instead of learning how to use a new program. That’s one reason why I’ve utilised about 20% of what Scrivener offers! But it’s a very useful 20%. 🙂

  15. Rita Henuber says:

    Great advice Vanessa. I have Scrivener can’t quite get into it. I think I’m not trying it in the right mind set. I use Dragon off and on. Dictating is different then actual typing.

    • Rita, it’s nice to have the option of using voice recognition. The technology is so much better than it was when I first used it over a decade ago. As for Scrivener, I recommend taking a look at those instruction links I posted after Elizabeth L’s post above.

  16. Annie West says:

    Vanessa, wonderful about all these tools that are available! I use very little except a basic word processing program. Distractions? All in the mind. If I’m not disciplined enough I’ll end up frittering my time on the net instead of writing. Facebook is a great way of distracting myself. What works best for me is breaking down my big goal into some smaller ones and attacking those. Often with a treat if I succeed!

    • Annie, my hat’s off to you for being so disciplined. Treats are essential. I can’t believe I neglected to put Lindt chocolates at the top of my list of must-have tools! Must’ve been distracted… Thanks so much for visiting me here!

  17. Vanessa, I hear you with the short attention span! The internet is my biggest time-warp – so many fabulous sites to explore. And when I’m researching a particular topic… it’s all too easy to be lured off on a tangent with a link to a different topic. Argh!

    Thanks for a peek at your favourite writing tools. I’ve been thinking about Scrivener – I know a few people who raved about it.

    I had something called Omm Writer on my old PC – it’s kind of fun because it blanks out the screen and only allows typing space so you can’t see tempting links to email, internet… card games. (sigh – yes there’s a confession about my other time warp!) Actually I must sort out Omm W on to this PC too.

    • Oh, Sharon, I am all too familiar with that time warp! (Hence my current obsession with Freedom!) MS Word also has a full screen mode, which I discovered by accident yesterday. From the toolbar, select Menu, then Focus. Et voila! You can choose a similar mode in Scrivener.

      But you’ve got me very curious about Omm Writer, so I’m off to google it now. Fingers crossed this important research won’t put me in a time warp again!

  18. Wonderful tips, Vanessa! I live in the middle of nowhere and work with people with whom I have NOTHING in common! My friends are all online and many of them, like you, are on the other side of the world – or at least the other side of the Pond! The internet is my lifeline and therefore tends to distract me in a MAJOR way from writing as much as I could.

    However, since my debut launched I have come to realize whether I go traditional, indie or hybrid I have GOT to write more every single day. Which means the internet has got to be trimmed down considerably. The Freedom idea looks like a great place for me to start.

    I haven’t tried Scrivener yet, but I know many people who swear by it and I love the idea of keeping my research handy.

    I have a little voice activated recorder to catch ideas when they come to me. I even have these things called AquaNotes. They hang in the shower and you can write things down and save them without washing them away. I find entire scenes or sections of dialogue come to me when I am in the shower. AquaNotes has been a Godsend!

    Whilst at work I carry index cards in my pocket at all times. If something comes to me I can whip out a card and write it down. Then when I get home I have index card boxes for all of my manuscripts and ideas for manuscripts. I drop the card in the appropriate box and it is there when I actually write.

    Right now my biggest distraction is going on Amazon and checking where Christmas Revels is in the numbers. But, like many of you, I will start researching something and that leads to more research and that leads to more research and before you know it I am either reading a travel guide written in 1808 or searching the web to find a print copy. It’s a sickness. Sigh.

    • Louisa, congratulations again on your publishing debut! I’m guilty of checking rankings too, and it’s making me a little crazy. 🙂

      Totally understand what you say about the internet being your lifeline. I’m in the same boat — most of my dearest writer friends are hundreds and thousands of kilometres away, so I rely heavily on emails and social media to keep in touch with them.

      I love all your tools of the trade. AquaNotes — what a find! I know our mutual friend Anna Campbell gets her best ideas while in the bath. So guess what Anna’s getting for Christmas this year! 😉

  19. Thanks so much to everyone for visiting and commenting. The randomly chosen winner of Freedom, the wunderbar internet-blocking software, is…


    Tina, I’ll contact you shortly!


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