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10 Essential Non-Writing Tools to Help Writers Write

6 December 2013

From PBS:

The last decade has seen an increase in programs to help writers plot, write and read their books — but there are also plenty of non-writing tools that writers can use to help them create their masterpieces.

. . . .


If you’re working on a Microsoft Word file or similar, regularly save your file to Dropbox. That will keep an archive of all previous saves (just in case the worst happens and you accidentally delete the whole thing! It sounds silly, but it’s guaranteed to happen to every writer at some point in their careers). It’s free to download and easy to use.

. . . .


Most computers come with sticky notes in some form or another. They look and work a lot like Post-it notes that you can stick to your desktop to remind you to do something. They’re also great if you need to quickly jot something down in a rush, like a new scene or story idea.

Link to the rest at PBS

Passive Guy is a big Dropbox fan. All current projects are saved in Dropbox by default. It’s not just a backup solution, however. It also allows you to automatically replicate files across computers. If PG sits down at Mrs. PG’s computer, with Dropbox, he can pull up any file on his own computer. Ditto for the notebook, the netbook and the tablet and the smart phone.

Dropbox is highly useful in its free form, but if you want to store gobs of files there, you’ll need to buy a subscription (reasonably priced).

One tool that should have been on the list is Evernote. It’s the simplest way of remembering everything. Send something to Evernote – web page, document, email, pdf, photo, and it’s there forever. You can create lots of different notebooks – one for each project, for example. You can add one or more tags any note to make things easier to find or search on the contents of a note.

Like Dropbox, all your Evernote stuff is on the notebook, tablet, smart phone, etc. There’s a huge online community of Evernote users you can tap for ideas.

One of PG’s most recent daily-use tools is DoIt. Basically, it’s an easy-to-use to-do list that lets you easily schedule and categorize reminders, then check them off.

PG isn’t a heavy-duty Getting Things Done person, but DoIt is perfect for that level of organization if you are.

UPDATE: Some commenters warned against using Dropbox as the sole backup system for your computer. PG absolutely agrees. Some time ago, he described his backup system. You can read about it in all its OCD glory here.

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24 Comments to “10 Essential Non-Writing Tools to Help Writers Write”

  1. You don’t need an extra to-do list. Evernote has a terrific drop down reminder/to-do function that lives on the top right of my Mac & is accessed via a small Evernote icon. It’s a cinch to use, instantly available, you can set alarms, save to Evernote if you want, it clips web pages, takes dictation. It’s super handy and it’s FREE!

    Here’s Evernote’s announcement:
    Reminders are Here
    Accomplish more with Evernote’s newest feature. Using Reminders, add alarms to notes, pin your important notes to create a to-do list, and mark tasks as they are completed.
    Mac, iOS, and Web / Android / Windows Phone →

  2. My ‘To Do’ list is a 3′ X 4′ lined dry-erase board hanging on my office wall.

    I feel so old.


  3. I like WorkFlowy for project lists/to-do lists. I find it strikes the balance between clean and simple and complex and over-designed.

  4. The problem with Dropbox is that you have to actually be plugged in to the internet to use it. And I leave the internet behind to do the sort of work that people say it’s great for.

    IMHO, an SD card makes my docs plenty portable.

    • Yeah, I don’t trust the cloud. Ever. I have multiple backups of my works in progress, including off-site (yay for friends and family). And USB drives. I think I once dl’d my files to my camera when I couldn’t find a USB drive. That worked.

    • For updates to Dropbox files, you need to be plugged into the Internet, but copies of all files in Dropbox exist in your Dropbox folder on your hard drive.

      You can edit, add new files, etc., to your heart’s content while you’re unplugged. When you plug back in, Dropbox sucks up all the changes into the cloud, then updates Dropbox folders on all other computers. It happens very quickly.

      When I get a new computer, one of the first things I do is install Dropbox. By the time I finish doing the other stuff necessary to make the computer useful, Dropbox has put all my files on the hard drive, ready to use.

      That said, I have multiple backups of my Dropbox folder on external hard drives and Mozy.

      • I don’t use my netbook at home at all. So booting it up to capture what’s in the drop box (and then booting it up once I get home to get the updated files OFF the device) is actually more work and way less convenient than using an SD card.

        Drop box has a whole lot of great features for a whole lot of situations, but my workflow isn’t one of them.

  5. Please do not use Dropbox as your only backup. If your computer is compromised (or the computers of anyone you share the box with), the bad actor can delete everything and you’ll have NOTHING.

    Dropbox is useful, yes, but it should be thought of as an additional, transient repository, not your backup strongbox.

    • +1.

      I’m insane, so I use Dropbox for convenience, a thumb drive for a second backup, and Crashplan in case Dropbox fails me and my apartment building burns down with my thumb drive in it. (You can use Mozy or Carbonite instead of Crashplan, if you like.)

      As I say, I’m a bit crazy that way, but not as crazy as I’d be if my novel file disappeared.

    • Agreed, Marimba.

  6. I use Dropbox for a lot of things but never store my active Scrivener file in there. Something about the way Scrivener autosaves and the way Dropbox autosaves caused me to lose a lot of work across various scenes on a manuscript I was editing before I realized something was hinky. I’m not sure if it had to do with the fact that I always leave the file open, but now I only put copies of my manuscripts in there.

    • I use Scrivener, too, but I always close the file and the program when I’m done for the day. That automatically creates a new backup version of everything with a time-date stamp in the file name, so you have multiple backups with each new set of changes.

      Then again, as I say above, I’m insane.

    • Scrivener should always be closed when not in active use.

    • Well, Dropbox should be saving versions of every file. You need to access your Dropbox account through a browser to see the different versions. So, if you left your Scrivener open, got a new file, then closed Scrivener and it “overwrote” the proper file, Dropbox should still have the correct one archived (assuming it finished uploading before it was overwritten.)

    • When I still used Scrivener, I sent my automated zipped backups to Dropbox. I’d just hit command+save every now and then to make it happen since I don’t close files i’m working on.

      I also backup my entire drives with Crashplan and TimeMachine.

      Scrivener has trouble with the active files on Dropbox. I think because the .scriv is actually a container file hosting a number of rtf files.

  7. I can understand peoples’ fears about cloud storage. Think about it, though. What’s more likely, that your account will be hacked and all your stuff is deleted, or that you will forget to save something, your computer will crash, you’ll drop your SD card or flash drive into your coffee, etc etc? My Scrivener automatically saves all of my work once I stop typing for a few seconds, and Dropbox automatically backs all of that up to the cloud, then downloads it all to my other devices (Dropbox gives you not only cloud storage, but as many backups as you have devices). Every once in a while, I back up my work to an external hard drive. Nothing is bulletproof, but my setup is pretty hard to kill.

    • I won’t say that nothing will ever go wrong with cloud storage, but behind every reputable cloud-based system are a number of smart people who understand that reliability and security are very, very important to their business success. Thus, they spend a lot of time working on making sure their overall system is very robust.

      Reputable cloud systems typically have all sorts of redundant, encrypted copies of customer files, often in different physical locations. They have detailed disaster recovery plans to bring things back up in the event of a serious system crash.

      I’m reasonably technical, but I’m not in this league. I definitely will always have backups on hard drives I can see (I’m looking at one right now), but local backups are subject to disasters themselves – fire, earthquake, theft, etc.

      Plus, every hard drive will die someday and if that happens at the same time you really, really need something that’s stored on it, you won’t be a happy person.

  8. Dennis McAllister

    OK, I use Google Drive (formerly known as Docs). Does anyone have an issue with this? I knew a computer security guy years ago who used to argue with me that this was not secure.
    I agree with all of the comments about having everything the cloud is better than physical storage. Google Drive is just so easy to use and is on all of my devices.
    Any problems with this? How/ why is DropBox better (or worse)?

    • Nothing connected to the internet is completely safe, local or cloud. Google Drive should be secure enough for normal folks. I’d worry if I were a public figure … maybe … possibly … more famous than an author. People’s documents aren’t worth much to hackers; there’s no point and so many people they could target. Like looking for needles in a haystack and hoping the needle will be worth something.

  9. Call me crazy, but I don’t think control+z is a non-writing tool. That was a reach.

    I use Word, OneNote, and a browser if I need to look something up.

    Well, I also use a number of Word macros to control cursor movement, selection, and deletion so that my fingers need never leave the keyboard home row. I hate reaching for the trackpad or the arrow keys.

    I’d only consider the browser a non-writing tool.

  10. I upload my Word files–exported from Apple’s Pages–to Dropbox and Google Drive and also save to a USB thumb drive.

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