THREE THINGS YOU'LL GET FROM THIS ARTICLE
1. Where exactly to find five online writing tools that will make your writing better.
2. The cheapest alternatives to those same services (where available).
3. The one tool for writing you will NEVER get an app for.
Everyone is a little intimidated by writing because they want to do it well enough. They say, "I don't want to write great literature, I just want to write well". But creating a mental scale, with "great literature" at one end and "crap" at the other, means you'll almost always be disappointed with what you do. It's very hard to find that "good enough" mid-point between crap and good. And writing content is not about that.
Writing content is not about literature. It's about knowledge. How you say something is less important than what you have to say. So if you can find online tools that take away the burden of using the right words, or of saying something the right way, you can focus on sharing your knowledge. Luckily, those tools exist. The ones I'm about to tell you about are the ones I've used, and can recommend, but if you find others you think are great, I'd love to hear about them.
The one rule for all these tools is: use them but don't rely on them. They aren't a replacement for writing. They are just a framework that frees you up to be better at writing. Some of them are free, some are cheap, and some are expensive enough to make you raise an eyebrow. I haven't included anything here that I think is overpriced for what you get. It may be a great app, but if you're paying through the nose for it, you're not going to appreciate it.
Tool number 1: Google's related search results
One of the first stumbling blocks to writing is figuring out what to write about. If you can start with a list of possible topics, that take a lot of the pressure off. If only you knew what people were searching for on Google. The good news is, if you can do a basic Google search, you already have a rich source of ideas for blog posts that you can tap into.
How to use it: Let's say you have no idea what keywords you want. In fact, let's take another step back, and assume you don't know what a keyword is. Just open up your browser, and type in whatever word or phrase you think someone else will type if they're looking for your service.
Down the bottom of the first results page, you may see a greyed out area saying "Searches related to...", with half-a-dozen more, similar phrases that other people have searched for on Google.
Every one of those phrases is the genesis of a possible blog topic. So let's say you were a dentist in Mosman, so you typed "dentist Mosman" into Google. The related searches results will tell you if people were looking for an 'emergency dentist Mosman', or a particular dentist in the area.
What's good about it: It gives you a real idea of what people are looking for. If you write about stuff people are looking for, it follows that they will be more likely to read your blog, right?
Why not to rely on it: If you rely entirely on Google search results to fuel your blog, it will end up reading like a Google search results page. And sometimes people don't know what they don't know. For example, someone who needs TMJ treatment might not know that, so may be Googling 'headaches' or something similar.
Also, sometimes you want to contribute to conversations that are happening online that doesn't fit with one of your keywords. You don't want to limit your interactions with patients, and you don't want to limit your aim to get good quality information out on the web.
Alternatives: If you want to play around with the idea of keyword searches a bit more, try Google trends (I've written about it in this post). You can also do keyword searches through your own Analytics page. And there are plenty of online tools like Wordstream that will help you generate a lot of keywords, which can, in turn, lead to article ideas.
Tools number 2: The Hemingway App
This free online tool will NOT make you write like Ernest Hemingway. Just thought I'd clear that up now. What it will do is give you a visual guide to writing simpler sentences. That's important if you want to communicate with a wide range of people.
When you were learning your profession at university, you were rewarded for writing long, jargon-filled sentences that showed how clever you are. That is the opposite of good communication. If you wrote sentences that could be understood by a pre-school child, a greater number of people would find your writing easier to read.
According to the creators of this app, that's what Ernest Hemingway did. They also say the author of the children's book, Goodnight Moon, did the same thing. I don't think as many writers would like it if it was clear the Goodnight Moon app, though.
How to use it: I start by writing my first drafts elsewhere, and only use the Hemingway App when I have something I'm about to publish. But you don't have to. You can just open up the web page and start typing into the page. The app will grade your sentences based on how hard they are to read--if it highlights a sentence yellow, that means it is hard to read. Red means very hard to read. It will also highlight unnecessary adverbs and use of the passive voice. And it will make suggestions for changes based on how long your piece of writing is.
Finally, the app will give you a Readability score. The lower that score is, the better. To give you an idea, Grade 6 level is considered good. These two paragraphs were grade 4.
You can either use the free, web-based version of the the app, or download a desktop version which will cost you about 10 bucks.
What's good about it: The real value of the app is the visual result. A grammar check in your word processing software is okay, but it won't highlight the mix of easy and difficult sentences so clearly. You can take-or-leave the app's suggestions for changes.
Why not to rely on it: Because you're not just writing for children. Sometimes you'll want to express a complex idea, and you will want that idea to stop people in their tracks. If you simplify every sentence to the level of a Grade 4 student, you run the risk of sounding too simplistic.
Alternatives: The appeal of this app, other than its functionality, is its price. There are other grammar-checkers people rave about. Grammarly has many fans, and is comprehensive. I got put off by their 'free 7 day trial' which requires you to put in your credit card, and will charge you as soon as the week is up. But, you know, they might be great.
Tool number 3: Online transcription services
Sometimes you can know a lot about a topic, and know what you want to say, but you just can't start writing. A way to get over this hump is to interview yourself.
Interview yourself? It's not as silly as it sounds. Send the audio recording of your answers to an online transcription service. I currently use rev.com. But there are others. They will transcribe your recording for the cost of about a dollar a minute.
So instead of staring at a blank screen for a couple of days, you will have a long file of text you can editor into shape just a day after you have interviewed yourself. You're half-way there!
How to use it: You will have a voice-memo app on your smart phone (generally comes as standard), and if you don't, it's easy to find a free one. Instead of trying to think of a structure for your article, write out ten questions you would ask someone on the topic. Then print your questions out, and record yourself answering them.
The way the online transcription services work is you enter a credit card and pay upfront for your transcription. Generally, what you'll get back is something that, while not always perfect, is a good, rough first draft for you to work with. I have had experiences where the transcription was well below what I expected. When that happened, I emailed them and got a refund immediately.
What's good about it: One of the great challenges a lot of people face when writing is finding their unique voice. When writers and editors are talking about your unique writing voice, they mean the way you express yourself which is unique. This hack will go someway to helping you find that voice.
Why not to rely on it: When you read the transcript back, you'll read it and hear your own voice in your head. As a result you will probably miss some really big errors, or some clumsy expression, because you're too close to it. So you really need someone you trust to edit the transcript into something that more closely resembles written English, before you do a final draft.
Alternatives: The two transcription services I've tried are rev.com and scribie.com. Both are good. Scribie charges you more for a faster turnaround.
Tool number 4: Email
This was suggested by Copyblogger's Demian Farnworth on his Rough Draft podcast, which is one of my favourite podcasts. He made this suggestion to help people write in a conversational tone. His logic? That you write emails in a friendly conversational tone, which is exactly the tone you want in your blog writing.
How to use it: Apologies to Demian if I'm remembering this wrong--I'm just working off memory here--but he suggested that instead of writing your article or blog post, that you open up your email client and write an email. Imagine you're writing this email to a friend. Address it to them, as if it's part of a longer-running conversation. But don't send it. When you've finished, copy and paste the email into your word processing software, cutting the "Dear so-and-so" salutation off the top.
What's good about it: Some fantastic stories and essays have started as letters or email correspondence. One of my favourite pieces of journalism, Tom Wolfe's The Kandy-Koloured, Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby" was originally an apology letter he wrote to his editor, explaining why he couldn't write the article he was commissioned to do. At best, it will be intimate, conversational, and probably persuasive in the way your best arguments can be. I'd even go a step further than Demian, and find someone you can actually write the email to. That will make your tone real, conversational, and intimate.
Why not to rely on it: Unless it is an actual letter, it can be difficult to fool yourself sufficiently to write in a conversational tone. If you know that you're really writing an article, this won't help.
Alternatives: Apparently in the distant past, people used to write actual letters on actual paper, with pens. I know, hilarious, but it happened. A hand-written letter may even feel more intimate than a email.
Tool number 5: Scrivener
A first draft of this article was written with Scrivener. I hadn't used it before, and I was prepared to not be impressed. But I've found it to be a great tool for structuring your writing. Back in the old days, you could organise a story by writing scenes on cards, then arranging the cards. This app kinda helps you do that.
How to use it: Scrivener would really come in to its own if you were writing something really long, like a book, or script, or thesis. Your screen or window is divided into three columns: one wide one in the middle, and two narrow ones on either side. On the left, you have a folder menu where you store the drafts of your chapters, or scenes, or ideas. Under that you have a folder called "Research", where you can store any original research but keep it separate from your actual writing.
In the column on the right hand side you can see a synopsis card, which you can put notes in for later reference (kinda like post-its, but digital).
And the nice wide, white column in the middle is where you write.
What's good about it: One of the hardest things to do when writing is to structure your thoughts. The bigger the piece of writing, the harder it is to look at the big picture, then zoom right into detail to craft artful sentences. This software makes that structural work significantly easier. One particularly nifty feature is being able to look at just the cards of your various chapters (or scenes or whatever), and re-order them without cutting and pasting. You just shift them around on a virtual cork board.
But you can also block all that out, and just have the page in front of your screen. The nice thing about Scrivener is you can turn features on and off based on what suits you.
It's early days, but I suspect I'll be buying the full version of this software once my free trial runs out.
Why not to rely on it: To be honest, right now, I can't think of many negatives to this app. Maybe the price (which is still pretty reasonable). It's really about convenience. Scrivener doesn't do anything you can't do with an organised mind, some bits of paper and a pen. But by putting it all together in the one package, it will make your writing life about 20 per cent easier.
Alternatives: Paper and cards are cheaper.
In the end
The most important lesson you'll learn as a writer is to trust your gut. People assume writing is a very cerebral activity, probably because people who do it wear glasses and read a lot of books. But one of the greatest tools in the writer's arsenal is empathy. That's what will help you feel it when you're writing something true.
So as a final piece of advice, never let one of these tools overrule your gut instinct. But understand the difference between that empathy spark that connects your writing with someone else, and pride in having written something good. It's a tricky line. It means approaching your writing as if it needs fixing, and working on those sentences until you can't fix it anymore.
And unfortunately, no-one's invented the empathy app yet.
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