Best apps for writers (and humans)

by 8 May, 2016Copywriting, Technology0 comments

This is something I’ve been wanting to share with you for a while: my pick of the best apps I’ve found in my travels.
I’ve kept the list fairly short. There’s a few more techie apps I dally with, but the apps you’ll see here are ones that anyone could pick up, use, and get value from.

1.  Writing good

I’ve road-tested almost every writing app there is.  If it claims to analyse what you’ve written and tell you how to improve it, I’ve bought it/trialed it/poked at it.

The hands-down best app I’ve seen is Hemingway.  The way it works is staggeringly simple, but that’s part of its appeal.

  1. You paste text into the app window.
  2. The app instantly scans your text and highlights passages that are difficult to read.  Here, it’s looking at factors in your text including the number of words per sentence, and the number of complex words.
  3. Rinse and repeat.

When I’m coaching clients on their writing skills, I introduce them to Hemingway.  I’ll often see instant improvements in their writing — and their confidence.

How does this compare to other writing apps out there? Well, every other app I’ve seen so far (grammarly, whitesmoke, stylewriter and others) suffers from one of two failings:

  1. Reliability: Too many false results: the app tells you that a phrase is problematic when it isn’t (or lets genuinely bad writing slip through the net).
  2. Usability: you’d need a Masters degree to interpret the advice.

Hemingway is visually clean, and scores very well on reliability.  It’s not 100%, but for a robot, it’s close enough.

Cost:  Free to use the online version, or you can download a desktop app for $9.99.

2. Wrangling projects

I’m usually running 10-15 projects in parallel, so I need something to hold everything which is less porous than my brain.

For several years, I used 2DO: a simple list-based app.  That worked reasonably well, but broke down when I started wanting to wrangle attachments and notes all in the one place.

Then I found Zoho Projects.  It’s not going to win any beauty contests (the design is stuck somewhere in the early 2000’s) but it does what I need it to:

  • Project templates:  When I’m doing the same type of work (like writing content for a website), I can define pre-set tasks and the duration of each stage
  • Collaboration:  I can assign tasks to people and track progress from a dashboard.
  • File storage:  I can house all files in a folder-based structure – including uploads and content I create within Zoho itself.

Other folks love Basecamp, but that one just never clicked for me.

One tip, though: for online project management tools to work, everyone involved needs to be comfortable collaborating online.  Some organisations still prefer to do everything via email attachments, in which case the trusty old spreadsheet is your guy.

Cost: Zoho uses a subscription model.  I’m on the $25 per month plan.

3. Herding notes

I love to read up on content strategy, consumer psychology and that sort of gear, but until very recently, I was at a loss for organising my notes.

I’m a scribbler and a highlighter, so whatever system I use has to be tactile.  At the same time, I want it to be searchable.  So if I suddenly think ‘what was that bit from that book where that guy said that thing about smarties’, I can find it again.

Then I discovered Evernote.

Or I should say, rediscovered.  I’d been aware of Evernote for a few years, but like a lot of people, I struggled to work out what to do with it.  Is it a workflow tool? A list management app? A collaboration portal?

The way I think about it now, it’s just a place to organise stuff.

What makes Evernote so useful is that it allows multiple pathways to the same piece of information. Let’s say I’m saving a recipe for baked trout.  I can:

  • Tag it with the name of the book I found it in, the type of recipe, how yummy it is (these are all tags you create yourself)…
  • Create tag hierarchies. For example, I can make sense of my tags by nesting them: ‘Recipes>Fish>Trout recipes’
  • Store it in a notebook.  For example, I could store the baked trout recipe in a book titled ‘Jamie Oliver recipes’
  • Just dump it in a note and find it again via a (pretty good) full-text search (which also captures hand-writing).

I’ll also sometimes use Evernote when I’m creating large reports, so I can have different sections in progress at the same time. That’s hard to do in one long MS Word doc.

I’m definitely not an Evernote evangelist.  I have no plans to move my entire life into evernote.  But it’s fixed a niggling question I’ve had for years, so thumbs up emoji from me.

Cost: You can get a whole lot of value for free, but I’m on a yearly subscription of $56.99.

4. Recording time

Running a service-based business, I need to track my time across clients, and across types of tasks.  I tend to quote as a fixed price for each job, rather than on an hourly rate (fixed price is usually cleaner and fairer). But I still need to keep an eye on how long each job takes.

I use Harvest Timekeeper.  It has a very simple, stop-watch-based interface that lives on my desktop.  Whenever I’m starting work, I just fire up Harvest, select the project and task type, and away I go.

Harvest has a very useful reports function – so I can work out how many hours I’ve done for a client over a day, week or year.

A few of my colleagues also rate Toggl, which has a more basic reporting function as part of a free version. More complicated reporting in Toggl gets expensive.

If I wanted to, I could track non-billable tasks as well, such as breaks and networking. I could become a modern miracle of quantified life.  I wish I was that way inclined, but I’m just not.

Cost: Harvest uses a monthly subscription model based on number of users.  I pay $32 per month.

5.  Keeping my head screwed on

I’d like to share a handful of apps that I use to help me stay healthy. At various times in my life, I’ve dealt with depression, anxiety and insomnia, so it’s just smart to look after myself.

Headspace:  I’d tried to meditate on and off for 20 years.  This is the first thing that’s worked.  It’s based in mindfulness (which has a mountain of clinical research behind it), and is reassuringly non-fluffy. Cost: $7.99 per month.

5 minute journal: several people I admire, Tim Ferris included, have mentioned cultivating gratitude as key to being effective and just generally enjoying life.  As someone who tends to see the downside more easily than the up, that’s a discipline I want to cultivate.  Again, it’s very simple, non-fluffy – just a journal on my phone where I record things that went well.  Over time, the good stuff starts to stand out from the grey. Cost: $4.99

Way of Life: an app that lets you define and track habits (good and bad). Really simple example: I wanted to start was putting my keys and wallet in the same place each night, so I wasn’t rushing around like a berk every morning.  It sounds easy, but before Way of Life, I just didn’t do it.  With a simple app-based accountability system, I do it every night. Cost: $7.99

That’s it, team.  If you have questions about how I use any of these apps, shoot me an email.  And if you have a writing app that you rate, I’d be glad to hear them.

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