Matt Gemmell

My new book CHANGER is out now!

An action-thriller novel — book 1 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Writing Tools

personal, writing & software 8 min read

I spend quite a bit of time writing, and I’d like to briefly share a list of the main tools I use - not just for the writing itself, but to help myself focus, resolve issues, and overcome the occasional bout of block.

Everything but novels

For most of my writing, I use BBEdit, by Bare Bones Software.

BBEdit, by Bare Bones Software

BBEdit, by Bare Bones Software

It does about seventeen million things, it’s been around for more than twenty years, and it’s clearly a labour of love. I use it for:

  • All my writing for this blog.
  • Articles for magazines etc.
  • Drafting really important emails.
  • All of my web/scripting work.
  • Massaging text with regular expressions.
  • All those little text-related needs, like to-do lists, Christmas shopping ideas, and a hundred other things.

It’s $50, and would be cheap at twice the price (which it used to be, as I recall). I don’t tend to use it for iOS/Mac coding because Xcode’s editor is serviceable and convenient, nor for very long-form, heavily structured/planned writing (see below), but for everything else, BBEdit is where I’ll be. Its philosophy is essentially “life’s too fucking short for this”. Almost anything you want it to do, it’ll do quickly, in an unsurprising and sufficiently-configurable manner, then it’ll get the hell out of your way. It would nice if I could say the same for everything else in life.

Don’t ask me how it compares to another editor, because I probably don’t know - and to be honest, I’m not very interested in finding out. I’ll say this: I don’t use a text editor just as a code (or markup) editor, and BBEdit is well-rounded, unobtrusive, lightning-fast, and has been continuously updated since I was twelve years old. I’ll be thirty-four this year.

When I talk about BBEdit, people tend to ask me things about it on Twitter, like I’m actually selling the app myself, or have complete knowledge of its feature-set. They ask things like “Can BBEdit [do something trendy], just like [some new editor that’s at version 0.0.epsilon, and is written in a language invented by someone who never owned a cassette player]?”

Invariably, those people are younger than BBEdit. If that’s not a good enough reason for you to download the trial version, then we probably don’t have very much in common.

Long-form writing

If I’m not in BBEdit, and I’m still writing, then I’m working on something long and complicated - the kind of project with research and character sheets, scene notes and story arcs, and an optimistically pre-written dedication page. I’ll be using Scrivener.

Scrivener, by Literature & Latte

Scrivener, by Literature & Latte

Scrivener is used by proper writers, who write actual things like novels and screenplays. Things you’ve heard of, in real life. It has as many features for organisation and planning as it does for writing and exporting, and that’s a huge benefit. You can write your book in this, whether it’s fact or fiction. There’s a Windows version too.

It costs $45. Grab the demo, and take the time to read through the tutorial book; it’s a Scrivener project in its own right, of course, and it gives an excellent overview of what the app can do. Be sure to pay particular attention to the corkboard view, which is something you can use to manage the flow and structure of your piece, or at least put up on your screen whenever others are walking by, to look all writer-y.

Something to throw

If you’re writing, or indeed doing anything creative at all, you’re going to need something to throw. Do everyone a favour and don’t be one of those arseholes who throws something that could actually hurt somebody, or break a decent computer (like a Mac).

So, no footballs or basketballs or whatever other insanity you have in mind. Similarly, don’t cheat and get a remote-controlled helicopter. You need something that’s safe enough to chuck around, to get you out of your chair, get the blood flowing, and let you fight writer’s block.

The perfect object is a beanbag.

Beanbag

Beanbag

This is mine; it’s purple. A little bag of beads, about the size of your hand. I repeatedly throw it up at the ceiling and catch it, and it’s strangely therapeutic. I can often resolve a narrative, structural or inspiration issue within a few minutes, using this. It’s my first port of call when I freeze up during writing, and I use it to recharge my brain during an editing session.

It doesn’t hurt your arm or shoulder even if you throw it for half an hour, and it also doesn’t cause much pain if it smacks you on the way down. It won’t knock over your coffee, or break the spacebar on your keyboard either - I speak from direct experience. You can also hurl it with rage against a door, and neither door nor beanbag will be much the worse for wear.

Find some kind of cheap toy that you can indulge in light, repetitive exercise with, in the same place that you write, and keep it handy.

The old-fashioned way

If you’re a writer, you need a pen. Everyone should have some nice pens and pencils; ideally many. I have pots of them. Here’s my daily-use one at the moment.

Fountain pen

Fountain pen

This is a Parker fountain pen that was a gift from Chris Phin, in his (ex-)capacity as editor of Tap! magazine, for my work on the Dev Zone section of the magazine since the very first issue.

I like to physically scribble temporary notes on post-its, or even just doodle. Something useful always comes out of it, and I transcribe those things into electronic notes for the piece I’m working on. There’s something about the physicality; the hand-eye coordination and the artfulness of it.

My handwriting is appalling, but a fountain pen has a way of creating just a hint of the frazzled elegance of a tormented scholar, rather than the more usual person who recently suffered a serious stroke.

Captain’s Log

I have a wonderful voice. I’m Scottish, and (yet?) I can enunciate exquisitely. Even if you’re not similarly blessed, you might want to consider a somewhat quaint tool of the journalistic trade: a dictaphone.

Digital voice recorder

Digital voice recorder

This is my digital voice recorder, or dictaphone. It’s a Sony ICD-PX312, and it’s a damned handy thing. If you want one at all, this is probably the one you want. It has an unusual combination of features for the price.

It has 2 GB of internal memory (that’s over 20 hours of audio at the default highest quality), but also takes microSD cards or Sony’s own M2 sticks. It takes ordinary 2xAAA batteries (included), or can be powered via USB. You can connect it to your computer via USB too, and it’s just regular USB Mass Storage, with no software required. The recordings are MP3s, with a bit-rate you choose. It has a headphone port, and another port for an external microphone. Sound quality is good, and the microphone can comfortably deal with anything from you holding it in front of your face, to a whole meeting-room of people (it has different modes for those situations).

It’s about the same length as an iPhone 4/4S, and 60% of the width, twice as thick, and a similar weight. It’s also cheap, and pretty solid. Can’t go wrong, really.

I use this to note down ideas for settings, scenes, and even entire articles or stories. I pause and resume recording frequently, to avoid feeling pressured by knowing that the ‘tape’ is rolling. Often, I explore alternate possibilities for a scene (or for the focus of a piece). Most usefully of all, I ask myself questions about a writing problem I’m having, then attempt to answer them. I’ll say that again, because it’s so strangely useful and effective: ask yourself actual questions, aloud, and then answer them. I have no idea why it works, but I think you’ll be pleased with the results.

You could even use it for memos, I suppose, but if you’re like me, the act of just saying the thing aloud tends to cement it in your memory anyway. A dictaphone is also excellent for pricking around with when you’re wasting time, which I’m sure you’ll agree is an enormous bonus.

(Note: the dictaphone link above is an Amazon UK affiliate link, so I’ll get some pittance if you use it to buy something. Maybe you should buy two of the things, you ungrateful wretch.)

Get the hell outside

Unless you’re in a terrible job and/or are Harry Potter, your room presumably has a window. Here’s what the view from mine looks like:

View from my office

View from my office

What you’re seeing through the window is Outside. Now, I’m not a massive fan of Outside, generally speaking - I’m of the belief that we coped with Outside for a long time, until we finally invented Inside, and then breathed a huge sigh of relief - but it can really clear your head and restore some perspective. And sanity. And apparently vitamin D, or something, but health is a worry for tomorrow.

Get outside. Away from the desk, out of the room, and out of the building. Take a walk, and don’t feel pressured to think about whatever issue you’re having with your current piece. Give it at least fifteen minutes. It’s not a lot to ask.

Go back and try again. If it’s still not coming, have the good sense to quit for the day - and if you can’t reasonably leave your office just yet, you should of course still mentally quit, and just slack off for a while.

And that’s about it. Those are the tools I use to help me write. I’m @mattgemmell on Twitter and also on app.net if you feel like talking about it.

Oh, and don’t forget the most important rule of all: try to only write about things you genuinely care about. Truly. Otherwise, shut the hell up.