Apps

What Apps Do You Use When You Write?

Written by mark

My dedication to a daily writing practice is the single biggest contributor to the progress I’m making on my current novel.

The second biggest contributor? A small, carefully curated set of apps that make me a more efficient writer. Here’s a bit about each.

Ulysses for Mac and iOS. Investing a lot of time and effort identifying the “perfect” writing app is a wonderful way to avoid writing. To avoid that trap, I identified a list of needs (writing in Markdown or plain text, flexible organizational schemes, the ability to focus on the prose separate and apart from the styling of that prose, seamless syncing between my iPad Pro and iMac, easy output to many formats) and looked for an app that would support those needs. For me, the app turned out to be Ulysses.

Everything I write begins in Ulysses, including this post; my current novel is being written there, as well. Ulysses makes it easy to see a long document (like a novel) as a series of connected short documents (like scenes or chapters — what Ulysses calls “sheets”). These can be organized, reorganized, tagged, labeled, or filed away — all by just dragging and dropping.

(I fell in love with this approach when I was a Scrivener for Mac user, but switched to Ulysses because it was available on all the platforms I use. By the time Scrivener for iOS appeared, I was too enamored of Ulysses to consider switching back.)

Smart folders offer another organizational option, making it possible for me to pull together an instant collection of every sheet tagged “Complete” or every sheet tagged with “POV-Main Character” without actually copying or moving those sheets around. I can attach images and notes to any sheet, so applicable research can be associated with the text that references it. And when I’m ready to export the manuscript, in just a few clicks I can churn out a Word .docx, .mobi, or .pdf — or even a post directly to my WordPress site.

For me, Ulysses is a fast, reliable platform for housing in one library every single thing I write. It’s not perfect — particularly on iOS — but it’s good enough, and I enjoy using it.

Brain.fm. A long time ago, I snagged a lifetime subscription to Brain.fm on BoingBoing.net for $49.00. Man, what a bargain.

Brain.fm’s pulsing, chittering, algorithmically-generated tracks supposedly manipulate your state of mind, making you more sleepy, more relaxed, more meditative, or more focused on demand. I can’t speak for the science behind this, but I can tell you this: no other kind of music gets me in the zone faster or keeps me in the zone longer than a Brain.fm focus track.

I plug in my Beats Studio 3 headphones, tune into Brain.fm, and the next thing I know, I’ve written a chapter or two. Or three. Or four. It’s amazing.

GoodNotes for iOS. Whenever I’ve been writing on regular basis, Julia Cameron’s morning pages technique from The Artist’s Way (handwritten pages, done first thing in the morning) has been central to my success.

My biggest issue with handwritten pages, aside from my ugly handwriting: analog notes aren’t searchable, they’re harder to secure and/or travel with, and they’re a literal pain to write (my hand cramps up).

But with GoodNotes and the Apple Pencil, handwriting is effortless (so, no cramps). The excellent digital ink makes my handwriting neater. And later, when I want to find something I brainstormed for the book, I can do a full-text search of my own handwritten notes. Because I always have my iPad with me, I always have every morning page I’ve ever written with me.

My iPad Pro, the Apple Pencil, and GoodNotes, combined, make up the magical writer’s notebook I’ve always longed for.

Dramatica Story Expert for Mac. I’m a little embarrassed to put Dramatica on this list. First, it’s gummed up with the worst, most annoying, most draconian digital rights management system you can imagine. Second, it’s a woefully outdated app, with an eye-gouging Windows 98-ish interface that fell out of the ugly tree and, as they say, hit every branch on the way down. (On the Mac, it’s also in near-danger of becoming incompatible with the operating system at this point.) Third, it’s not available for iOS — and for me, that’s generally a deal-killer.

And yet — early in my process, I still go into Dramatica and tinker. I don’t spend a lot of time there, because Dramatica can become an enormous productivity killer if you don’t have your head on straight. But I do tinker with it a bit, so I felt I should mention it.

Essentially Dramatica is a database of concepts organized and interlinked in a way the creators claim supports a fully-realized story. There are many ways of working with the database, but I start by using Dramatica’s drop-down lists to associate specific story elements with aspects of my story I’ve already decided on. For example, if I’m writing a story about a heist, I might choose “Obtaining” to represent my Overall Story Goal.

For each choice I make, Dramatica, based on the creator’s theory of story, locks in other choices. (For example: once I choose “Obtaining” as the primary concern of the Overall storyline, Dramatica selects “Changing One’s Nature” as the primary concern of the Relationship storyline.) This back-and-forth continues until no more choices remain, locking down a “storyform” — a model of my story including everything from notes on character development to plot points for four interwoven story lines.

If that sounds complicated, well, it is — Dramatica has a tremendous learning curve, including a vocabulary all its own. And if it sounds like Dramatica cranks out formulaic, fill-in-the-blank story templates, well, that’s entirely my fault, because it doesn’t. Every concept in Dramatica’s database can be illustrated in an infinite number of ways, so even stories with the same underlying storyform (and there are 32,678 storyforms) may be dramatically different from each other.

Do I have to write my story the way Dramatica suggests? Of course not; it’s a tool, not a dictator. That said: for me, the exercise of storyforming is useful — whether I agree with Dramatica’s suggestions or not — mostly because the process makes me think hard about what my characters will do, why they do what they do, and where specific actions should appear in the story.

If you look into it … be wary. Learning a new theory of story, mastering Dramatica’s arcane vocabulary, fiddling with storyforms, and even just the act of getting the software up and running can become a tremendous time suck. My advice: set and protect your daily writing goal … and never, ever let fiddling with Dramatica steal minutes away from the day’s writing schedule.

Those are the apps with the greatest influence on my writing and work as a writer — what works for me. I love it when writers talk about the tools they use, so I’m hoping this post motivates you to write and share a similar post of your own. If you have questions, please drop me a line. Thanks for your time!

About the author

mark

I'm the author of several popular books on topics from Apple computers to Tarot. I live in Atlanta, where I'm a corporate creative by day and a novelist by night. (Well, by early morning.) Reach out. Say hey.

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