Arriving at My Perfect Writing Tools

Writing is easy:  All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.
Gene Fowler

About five years ago, I wrote a post here called The Search For the Perfect Writing Tool.  It’s proven to be one of the most popular posts, attracting more than 9000 visits over the years.  Lots of people are interested in writing.  Most, as I am, are always seeking the right secret sauce, or helpful gimmick, or way to think to overcome all the things that prevent us writing and expressing the magical mystery that lurks within.

I’m about to embark on writing a novel that I’ve been gathering notes on for several years now.  I’ve come to the end of my note gathering just because it may otherwise turn into terminal procrastination.  During the holidays, I’m trying to figure out the best schedule so that I can produce a certain amount of first draft ideally every day, but practically maybe five days a week.

In a subsequent post, I want to consider the several books that I will be leaning on in this journey.  But for this one, I want to revisit some of the tools I looked at five years ago, and tell you about the ones I’ve come to settle on.  This too is a kind of preparation for me.

In tune with that previous post, I remain skeptical of novel writing software which claims to help propel one down the road of success.  In the end, they all provide some kind of generic formulation, or somebody else’s idea of what it takes to give your characters and story life, and it’s not enough.  I tried a few of them a number of years ago, and given my own foibles, they didn’t work for me.


In the 2006 post I mentioned that I found Quintura Search of interest in gathering information.  At the time, it had a fresh graphical cloud way of providing search avenues to pursue.  Looking at it now (it’s still out there), and given that its format has changed somewhat, it seems pretty ho-hum.

Like most everybody else, I’ve come to rely on Google for what I want to find on the web. As I’ve mentioned in several posts over the years, I’ve found the derivative Shmoogle search strategy to be of use when I want to find something more rare or intriguing than might pop up in the first few pages of Google.  Shmoogle randomizes the Google results so you don’t get the benefit of all that search engine optimization people work so hard on.

[Note: Google made it so Shmoogle won’t work. These days Google is not so much a pure search engine, as a way to give preferential exposure to those links who pay them for services, as far as I can figure.  For an interesting alternative search engine, try MillionShort — it strips the most offered links off the top to see what else might be available.]

A related idea is the search engine BananaSlug, where you add to your search term a random word selected from such categories as Emotions, Great Ideas, and Themes from Shakespeare and then it searches on Google.  Good for odd ideas for characters or plots….

When one needs to get more specific than a general search engine, especially as in my case with science fiction as genre of choice, I’ve found Science Daily indispensable in discovering new ideas and investigating old ones.  The short articles are readable, not totally buried in the jargon of abstracts, and the site is well organized to pursue specific interests whether on global warming or dark matter or neuropsychological quirks.

For a search engine tailored for writers specifically, there’s Writer’s Knowledge Base.  It seems to be genuinely useful…. for instance here’s a post found through it about a scene checklist at The Writers Alley site.

And a blog post at Accredited Online Colleges gives 60 writing-related search engines for your consideration….

Organization and note-taking

For collecting and organizing all that great information you might find on the web, a way to archive that material would be useful.

I trust my own hard drive (and backups) more than I trust permanent availability of some site on the web. Accordingly, I used to use the free version of Local Website Archive, as mentioned in the old post, which is still available.  Although somewhat limited in its free form, it stores web pages of interest on your machine, to be reviewed at your leisure later.  I did try Surfulater briefly, a good and more comprehensive program although it costs a few dollars.  I also experimented with Evernote, but the ribbon style and the eventual web-based archiving led me to give it up.  But for effectiveness and sheer convenience, since I use Firefox, ScrapBook Plus is hard to beat.

I’ve struggled with the right software to keep my text notes.  Like a real writer, I do carry around an old-fashioned notebook where I scratch down any observation, reference, or momentarily bright idea I come across.  But I’m going to work at my computer in the end, and I would like to record and create a database out of all that material.  As mentioned in the old post, I did try The Literary Machinea 2007 version of which is now available — but in the end I found it too inscrutable to use.

I discovered I didn’t really want an outline program to keep track of notes, or even as a planning aid for my novel, although there are good ones out there, including Keynote which I noted in the 2006 post.  Treepad Lite has also received good reviews. An interesting one that I haven’t tried but which may be good just for its exporting function is TextTree 1.3.  TextTree used to cost money but is now free, and claims to be designed for writing purposes using the “snowflake method.”  (For more discussion of that idea, see this post at WritersCafe.)

Now these are all well and good, but for my purposes, as noted in a post here “Take Notes. Watch Them Organize Themselves,” I’ve found a personal wiki-style notebook that suits well my non-logical and disorderly tendencies. The wiki “seed” can be found at NoteStorm.

Just by entering one’s notes in NoteStorm, you create a cross-referenced, searchable database.  You do have to organize your thoughts sufficiently to set-up different categories of information which comes to resemble a kind of outline (and this can only be good). But I just find it the most amenable to the way I work of anything I’ve found.

A note on Papel, the free graphical note-organizing and writing software which I mentioned and liked a lot in the 2006 post….  For me it came to seem limited by the available linkages between items — you would need a 3D graphical space to better trace the links.  I still think it is a great concept, and may be found useful by others.  Although the original site and author has disappeared, it can still be found at a mirror location through the website Romanzo.


The basis of the novel is the scene, and those are the building blocks that you can begin to develop in SLang2 available at freefilmsoftware. It is described as story development software.  Scenes can be inserted as if on virtual index cards and rearranged as one goes.  In a subsequent post I will explore this more as guided by several books I set great stock in….

This program is pretty bare bones, and that’s why I like it. Just start whaling away at scenes and sort them out when you feel like it.  Although if you want to eventually export what you’ve written, it seems you must import it into the also free Scriptmaker screenwriting software at the same site, and then export it to a .rtf format file which most word processing programs can use.  (One caution: I haven’t actually tried this yet to make sure it works….)

And then for the actual writing beyond the first chaotic scene stage of the provisional draft (as I find fruitful, and less binding, to think of it), I plan to use yWriter, now in its fifth and still free incarnation.  Designed by an author, this is another software which focuses on the scene.

Of course, I could just start writing in Word or something…. but where’s the fun in that?  I seem to need some kind of chaotic reference system with the possibility of stray creative sparks flashing from it to get me started.

So there you have my current thinking on the subject…. as in 2006, I would like to leave off with an amusing poetry generator offering.  Unfortunately the great generator cited in the old post is no longer available, but as a substitute I’ve gone to the site RoboPoem and submitted part of this post to obtain the following:

Secret sauce or wit mass
Or way to think to price
The things that recant trice
Writing and citadel
pettily clientele
That lurks somewhere in czar
To embark stain jaguar
A novel that I’ve fine
Notes on for lip enshrine

I find “jaguar” ill-fitting there, but still it may be of as much sense as other things I write here….



Note on the above image:

My study, where I like to write…. No, just kidding, that’s the study of English writer William Morris, from Concert Tee.

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8 Comments on “Arriving at My Perfect Writing Tools”

  1. Rick Matz Says:

    Writer’s Block I

    Struggling to find
    Just one cohesive though.
    At a blank piece of paper
    I stare.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Rick,

    Thanks for that! You’ve been there….


  3. sputnki Says:

    Awesome as always! I still use TextRoom which I think came from one of your reviews. It is available in Linux (which I use) as well as Windows and removes all the eye-candy in a satisfying way. The newest version has some neat tools hidden away under the function keys too.

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi Doug,

    Thanks for mentioning TextRoom…. I doubt I can take credit for noting that program before, because I don’t think I did. It looks simple and good, and I like the mindmapping — good for laying out scenes perhaps, among other things. (It’s at .)

    How goes your writing? And your blog…. will you ever resurrect it (Wide Awake, I mean…. you might have other forums these days)?


  5. Tom Says:

    The best tools are as follows. Pen, Notebook and a clear mind.

  6. fencer Says:

    Hi Tom,

    I’m glad you took the trouble to tell me that!


  7. Ashley Says:

    I definitely love being able to organize my writing projects as much as possible during my projects. I hate being in the middle of a creative storm, just to find my creative mind brought to a stop so I can sort through a hail storm of notes to write a scene. I appreciate your suggestions for freeware that will, I’m sure, help me in many ways!

  8. fencer Says:

    Hi Ashley,

    Thanks for stopping by…. glad some of this was of aid.


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