TOOLS AND RESOURCES FOR WRITERS AND OTHER CREATORS
Here are software programs, apps, services, and hardware you can use in your everyday creative work, as well as some books to inspire and inform your creative endeavors.
These are all things I personally use, or have used. I vouch for everything you’ll find here. Many of the links on this page are to items with which I have an affiliate relationship. If you purchase something through a link on this page, I may earn a small monetary commission or non-monetary incentive at no additional cost to you. It’s a great way to support this site and my creative endeavors, so thanks in advance!
The One Tool I Use All Day, Every Day
One cross-platform, online / offline, instantly synchronized application serves as my to-do list, my commonplace book, my note clipper, my “offboard” brain… and it’s where I brainstorm, outline, and even sometimes draft my fiction and non-fiction, too!
Dynalist calls itself “the best outlining app for your best work… Where brilliant ideas are captured, fleshed out, and realized.”
On the surface, it’s deceptively simple: a nested, “foldable” bullet list that is completely searchable. Hence the “outlining” descriptor. It’s that simplicity that makes it so flexible. It’s the fact that it can be used on Windows, MacOS, Android, Linux, and iOS, offline or online, and (when online) instantly sync between all those devices, that makes it indispensable. And because it uses standard, open formats (and saves to your local machine(s)), your data isn’t locked in by any proprietary technology.
Many of the essential features of Dynalist are absolutely free. For extras like syncing to your calendar, file attachments, versioning, and daily backups to Dropbox or Google Drive, it’s $9.99 per month or $95.88 per year. Use this link to visit Dynalist, try all features for free for 14 days, and get a free month if you decide to pay for a premium subscription!
Writing and Publishing Tools
I’m primarily an author of fiction and non-fiction books, but I also write articles, marketing copy, poetry and songs… plus content for clients. Additionally, I edit, produce, and publish works for myself and for clients. These are the applications, services, and tools with which I do most of my writing and publishing work.
Notepad++ is my plain-text editor. It’s Notepad… well, plus plus! I keep it open on my secondary monitor as a scratchpad, to type notes during client calls, and to always have a handy plain-text editor at hand. I’m copy-pasting text into a blank document throughout the day to get a quick word- or character-count, to draft an e-mail, or just to have a snippet of text visible before moving it somewhere else.
Because it’s a tabbed application, I usually have a half-dozen or so text files open at once, and because it remembers its state after it’s closed — even after the computer is restarted — when I open Notepad++ again, those same files are ready for me. It’s oh-so handy… and completely free.
Dynalist is ah-maz-ing, as I’ve mentioned. When I need more of a knowledge store or wiki (think your own personal version of Wikipedia, an inter-linked repository of your notes, ideas, and other longer documents), I open Obsidian.
I’ve also got an online wiki, but I personally prefer to have offline tools if possible so I’m never dependent on an Internet connection. Obsidian is designed to encourage linking between documents (ideas) and can even display your linked ideas in a kind of web to visualize the connections.
Also, since Obsidian saves everything to a common folder in the non-proprietary Markdown format, I keep that folder in Google Drive, so I can access material about my various storyworlds and other writing-related data on my desktop or laptop machines whenever I need it. Since it’s all in text-based Markdown, anything created in Obsidian can be exported to a variety of formats.
It’s pretty amazing, frequently updated, and honestly, as of this writing in early 2021, I’ve barely scratched the surface of how I can best use it. Check it out!
yWriter is free (donations accepted) software created by, and used by, an author, Simon Haynes. If you’ve ever thought of using Scrivener for its primary purpose (breaking up a larger work of prose into manageable scene-sized bites, and / or as an outliner to plan your fiction or non-fiction work) but don’t want or need the many, many, other features Scrivener has added on over the years — or if you’re a Windows user frustrated that Literature and Latte continues to treat the Windows 10 version of Scrivener as a “we’ll get around to updating it eventually” afterthought — yWriter is an excellent alternative.
I’ve used it for all three of my novels to date, and there’s a very good chance I’m using it right now, no matter when you’re reading this. Track characters, places, and items, set word or time targets and deadlines, export to EPUB, Rich Text, or other common formats, and, of course, re-arrange chapters and scenes to plot, plan, and write your fiction.
Even though I prefer yWriter for a bunch of reasons (I like supporting an independent, altruistic developer like Simon, it’s lightweight, it Just Gets the Job Done), I have, indeed, used Scrivener, and for one giant project (my free serial fiction project Hazy Days and Cloudy Nights, which you can get for free!) I continue to use it.
For those folks who prefer an all-in-one solution, Scrivener is certainly that. Scrivener does pretty much everything yWriter does (but not everything!) and is much more customizable and flexible. If you’re building a series of novels, you can keep everything related to all the books in one massive Scrivener project, whereas yWriter is much better suited to working on individual works. Also, Scrivener has very comprehensive formatting options that allow you to export a nearly-ready-for-shipping e-book, PDF, or Word document.
Scrivener is not free software — as of early 2021, the Windows version of Scrivener is $49.
LibreOffice is the free, open source, full-featured, and complete replacement for the Microsoft Office / Office 365 bundle. Everything you need: Writer (replaces Word), Calc (replaces Excel), Impress (replaces PowerPoint), Draw (replaces Visio), Base (replaces Access), and Math (formula editing).
LibreOffice opens, edits, and saves everything created in the MS suite. Thanks to LibreOffice, I haven’t installed a Microsoft Office product in years. In those rare occasions when I do need Word (usually because a client insists), the free online version of Word, or Google Docs, is good enough. For everything else… LibreOffice!
There are many ways to create an e-book from your manuscript. Indeed, LibreOffice Write, Scrivener, and yWriter all export to EPUB, the industry standard e-book format.
That’s a good start, but I prefer more fine control over my e-book files. For that, I turn to Sigil, the open source, free EPUB editor.
You’ll need some HTML knowledge — EPUB files are really just HTML and CSS documents bundled together in a kind of container file, after all — but it never hurts to know how the sausage is made… especially when the ingredients are your words, and your brand.
I design print books, both as an author and self-publisher, and as a creative services provider for my author clients. If you’re a self-published author, learning the basics of print design is a handy skill to have, and could save you money in the long run.
While the industry standard for print layout is arguably Adobe InDesign… and while open source, free tools like Scribus exist… InDesign is expensive and bloated, and Scribus isn’t quite ready for prime time.
That’s why I was so pleased to discover Affinity Publisher, an excellent, frequently updated desktop publishing solution available for a one-time price of (as of early 2021) $49.99. Considering just one month of Adobe InDesign is almost forty bucks… that’s a no-brainer if you’d like to design your own print books, magazines, and other print media. Highly recommended!
Image Creation and Manipulation Tools
As independent writers and authors, we might spend most of our time dealing with words, but eventually, we find it necessary to make, or edit, some images: maybe a book cover, or a social media post, or an ad. Here are the tools I return to again and again.
IrfanView is a free graphics viewer with some basic editing functions. It will read — and convert — pretty much any bitmap / raster image format you can think of. It’s perfect for quick operations that don’t require firing up a full-powered graphics program.
Need to resize or crop an image? Optimize it for the web? Browse through a folder full of images? Run the same operation on a bunch of images? IrfanView is ideal. I’ve made it my default viewer for the most common image file formats.
Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer
Just as Affinity Publisher is an excellent and (comparatively) very inexpensive alternative to Adobe InDesign, Affinity also makes a Photoshop replacement (Affinity Photo) for creating, manipulating, and editing bitmap and raster images like photos and most graphics for the web.
Need an excellent vector graphics application for scalable images for logos, print media, and other design work and don’t want to commit to Adobe Illustrator’s high monthly subscription price? For you, there’s Affinity Designer (same price as Affinity Publisher, above).
Here’s something neat about the Affinity suite: when all three are installed, they work seamlessly as one program. Let’s say you’re doing a print layout in Publisher, and it includes a bitmap graphics image. You realize you want to make some changes to that image. No need to open it in Affinity Photo… just click the Photo icon in the toolbar and your interface changes to Photo without actually opening the separate application! Make your edits on the image, apply the changes, and bang, you’re right back in Publisher. This is a highly effective time saver.
Considering that a one-time purchase of all three Affinity programs costs about the same as three months of access to Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign, to me, making the switch makes sense on every level.
If you’re looking for open source / free options, check out GIMP and Inkscape! They’re not as polished, and the learning curve might be steeper, but you’ll save some bucks… in exchange for spending time, of course.
HUION Kamvas 13 Graphics Tablet
No single tool has improved my productivity, sparked inspiration, and probably helped stave off carpal tunnel syndrome in recent memory than my Huion drawing tablet / monitor.
You’ve seen these — it’s essentially a small flatscreen tablet with some shortcut buttons. The screen mimics one of your monitors, and you can draw directly on it with a stylus (pen) with thousands of degrees of pressure sensitivity, mimicking drawing or writing with a real pen, pencil, or paintbrush.
If you need to do any kind of graphics work that involves fine detail and you’ve been getting by with a mouse… like me, when you try a graphics tablet, you’ll wonder why you waited so long.
The Huion Kamvas 13 is reasonably priced at around $250, which is a great price for a thirteen inch graphics tablet — not too small, and not so big it gets crazy expensive. I can’t recommend it, or something similar, emphatically enough for editing or creating graphics.
Video Editing and Livestreaming
Why would an author need to care about making videos?
Maybe you want to start a YouTube channel to promote your books! Maybe you have a Facebook page and want to do a live video chat with your fans! Heck, more than once, I’ve set up a live video stream while I was writing and people tuned in.
Video! It’s a thing. Here are the tools and services I use or have used to livestream, record, edit, and convert videos.
As IrfanView (see above) is for image viewing, so VLC is for watching videos (and consuming just about any other kind of media, but it’s video where it shines). Created and maintained by the non-profit VideoLAN organization, VLC is is a free and open source multimedia player for most multimedia files as well as DVDs, VCDs, and even some streaming protocols. If it’s a digital video file — heck, if you still have a DVD or Blu-ray player on your computer — VLC will play it! Make this your default for playing video (much as IrfanView should be your default for opening image files). But wait! There’s more: VLC is also a great converter if you need to change one video file format to another (works on audio, too!)
“Livestreaming” is, when all is said and done, essentially live television for the web. Well, mostly it’s live television on a public access channel at four in the morning… for the web.
That’s the beauty of the web: there’s an audience for everything! You don’t have to be a video gamer or “cam” personality to have good reason to livestream, either now and then or as a regular way to communicate with your community of friends and fans.
However, it’s not as simple as just firing up your webcam. You need a way for your webcam to communicate with the livestreaming platform, especially if you want to add nifty things like picture-in-picture, screen capture, custom audio, multiple cameras, and so on. That’s what OBS Studio is for.
OBS Studio is free and open source software for capturing multiple video and audio sources and letting you manipulate and switch between them, just like the people in the control booth of a real TV show. “Go camera three! Bring up the chyron in three… two… one..!”
OBS Studio integrates with all the major streaming video services, piping your composite production to live audiences in real time.
It’s not just for livestreaming, though! You can also record, making it great for screencasts if you want to create an unboxing video, a tutorial, or perhaps video components for an online course. Very cool stuff… and it’s dependable, and absolutely free.
OpenShot Video Editor
Much as Adobe InDesign is the de facto standard for desktop publishing even though there are excellent alternatives available, the conventional wisdom will tell you to get Adobe Premier if you need to do timeline based, multi-track video editing and production.
Well, Premier will set you back $20.00 per month. How about a completely free, open source option instead?
Check out OpenShot! It will do anything you need for professional-looking, high quality videos: multi-track, multiple sources, title cards and text, keyframe animation, transitions and cuts, slow motion, 3D rendered effects, color and tint adjustment, and on and on! Whether you’re splicing together all seven bazillion takes of that tutorial video you struggled over yesterday or just adding an opening credit to your latest vlog, OpenShot has you covered. It’s awesome.
Audio Playing, Editing and Podcasting
Hold on, you mean you don’t have a podcast? Don’t worry, at the rate those things are popping up, pretty soon you’ll be the cool kid. But if you change your mind, or if you need to play, record, and edit audio (maybe for your audiobook?), here are the programs and some services and equipment I use and / or recommend for all your audio needs.
For a while there, before smartphones become our One Device to Rule Them All, the iPod was ubiquitous, and the software supporting it, iTunes, was the go-to music player for Apple and Windows computers alike. But let’s face it: iTunes is a resource hog, it’s slow, and it’s bloated. Do you even need the Apple Store? No? You just want something to manage, organize, and play your digital music, your podcasts, and your internet radio?
You want MusicBee! Everything iTunes does that you actually use, MusicBee does, and then some… and it does it all using a tenth of your computer’s resources than iTunes. Go get it, and make it your default player for MP3s.
If you’re on a Mac, you may have used Garageband. If you’re on a Windows machine like most folks, or even a Linux user, your comparable entry-level multi-track audio recorder and editor is Audacity.
Audacity is free and open-source software that first came to prominence in the early days of podcasting. Over a hundred million downloads and over sixteen years later, it’s still essential and economical “kit” for podcasters and anyone else interested in creating professional quality audio without a lot of extra bells and whistles.
Wait, you need bells and whistles? Audacity is compatible with LADSPA, LV2, Nyquist, VST and Audio Unit effect plug-ins, so if you need spacey reverb or a shredding distorted guitar sound, pretty much any third-party software effect available can be used with this software.
Cakewalk by BandLab
Need to up your audio recording, editing, mixing, and mastering game? You might be ready for a full-featured Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). There are many, many choices, but many years ago when I — a sometimes musician — went looking to move from analog to digital recording, I started with Cakewalk… which then became known as Sonar… and recently became a free product once again called… Cakewalk (“by BandLab,” but let’s not nitpick).
Considering the premium version of Sonar retailed for around five hundred bucks, and the latest Cakewalk includes all of its features… yeah, this is an amazing piece of kit.
Why might you need Cakewalk when you have Audacity?
Audacity is great for recording digital audio from an external source, like a microphone. Cakewalk, among other things, includes a MIDI sequencer, drum machine, musical notation and tablature tools… it’s an entire music composition studio for your computer. Oh, and you can record and mix your podcast, too.
Podcasting Recording and Hosting
Many writers and other creators take up podcasting as a way to boost the signal on their work or message, as another way to express themselves, share a passion, or simply because it’s fun! I’ve been podcasting since 2004, and I help others with podcast creation, production, and management.
Beyond the software mentioned above, here’s the hardware and services I use and / or recommend to folks looking to have a podcast of their own.
Blue Yeti USB Microphone
As someone who started podcasting with just the equipment I had laying around from my sometimes-life as a performing musician, I am well aware — and support the idea — that you can really begin podcasting for zero dollars. You can use mic probably built into your laptop or tablet… heck you can even use your phone to record audio… and you can use the free Audacity software I mentioned earlier to edit and mix your audio. There’s nothing wrong with starting as down-and-dirty and “punk rock” if doing anything else is going to keep you from starting!
If you have a little scratch to invest, though, you’ll be a few steps ahead in the game — and you’ll undoubtedly sound better — with a decent entry-level dedicated microphone.
The Blue Yeti USB mic is a general purpose condenser microphone very, very popular with many podcasters at all levels of experience and success. Versatile without sacrificing quality, it’s also dead simple and convenient to use: it simply plugs into a USB port on your computer, and boom, your system recognizes it as a microphone you can use as an input in Audacity or Cakewalk or the podcast recording service I’ll mention in just a bit… and no one says you have to restrict yourself to podcasting! The Blue Yeti also makes a fine mic for voice or instrument recording, and it’ll prove to be an improvement over your webcam’s mic during those increasingly ubiquitous Zoom and Skype video conference meetings, too!
The Blue Yeti comes with a desktop stand. I recommend spending a little extra and getting a boom stand (an extendable arm) so that your mic isn’t sitting on the same surface as your keyboard and, I’m going to assume, your mug of coffee or tea, as that can create extra background noise and vibration you don’t want while you’re recording.
Yeti recommends their own brand, but it’s pricier than it needs to be.
My choice for a boom mic stand that mounts to your desk and includes a wind screen (a filter than minimizes the pops and other mouth noises we all make) is the InnoGear Heavy Duty Microphone Stand.
Together, the InnoGear stand and the Blue Yeti USB mic will set you back around $150.00.
If you’re going to be recording yourself or others, you need a decent set of over-the-ear headphones. Earbuds, which let outside noise bleed right in, aren’t going to cut it.
For a long time now, I’ve only used Audio-Technica headphones. They last years, and they sound great. Right now, as I write this, I’m listening to Van Morrison (“Domino”) through Audio-Technica ATH-M20x professional studio monitor headphones.
Yes, there are less expensive headphones you could buy… and hoo, boy, there are more expensive headphones you could buy! These are durable, sound great without altering what you hear (avoid “noise canceling” when dealing with audio recording and editing — you need to hear that noise so you can get rid of it!), and since they last years with regular use, over time they’re more than worth it.
Two Ways to Conveniently Record an Interview or Co-Hosted Podcast
If you’re running a solo show, or if your co-hosts are in the same room, you don’t need to worry about capturing audio from someone in a remote location. If you want to record interviews or have co-hosts across town or in another country or state, you’ll need a relatively convenient way to capture everyone’s audio over the Internet.
You might already be using one such service: the video conferencing tool Zoom. An often overlooked feature built into Zoom is the ability to record the audio from each session participant in a separate audio file. Once the session is over, put each file in its own track in Audacity or Cakewalk and you’re well on your way to creating a seamless podcast.
Why is it important that each participant’s voice be isolated in their own audio file? Simply put, it’s much easier to edit and “clean up” an audio file when there’s no overlapping speech or background noise from other “callers.” Also, if one participant is quieter than the other, it’s a lot of work to make everyone sound consistent if everyone is recorded in the same audio file. Having distinct audio files for each participant makes for a much better final product all around.
Zoom is all well and good for recording two or more people over the Internet, but it’s not specifically designed for recording podcasts. For that, you’ll want Zencastr.com, a web-based service that’s rather like Audacity in the cloud, but with lots of bells and whistles for podcasting.
Zencastr.com records in high-quality .wav files (Zoom does compressed and “lossy” mp4 files), separate files for each participants. It also includes a soundboard for live insertions and editing (for example, your intro music, interstitials, or maybe an ad), and you can even mix and do post production right there (although I seriously recommend acquiring the files — saved locally to your hard drive and in the cloud to your Dropbox or Google Drive account — and doing the editing and production in a dedicated program like Cakewalk or Audacity). Both Zoom and Zencastr have free and premium tiers with different functions and features. At the time of this writing (January, 2021), Zencastr has waived recording time and number-of-guest limits during the pandemic, so it’s a heck of a deal.
Podcast Media File Hosting
There are lots of ways to get your podcast hosted and out into the world. While some services will host and distribute for you, I (an old school podcaster, literally) strongly recommend you host your podcast from your own website (I’ll recommend a hosting company in just a bit…) so that you have ownership and control of your RSS feed, the technical means by which a podcast gets into everyone’s podcasting client apps.
Thing is, a web hosting company isn’t set up to handle the bandwidth it takes to distribute the (relatively) large media files that are podcast episodes, especially when your podcast begins to get popular. That’s why you need a podcast media file host.
I, and my clients, use Zencast.fm (no connection to the coincidentally-named Zencastr.com, above). While Zencast.fm does offer distribution, I (and my clients) use it solely to host the podcast media files (the MP3s). They have several pricing tiers, but the lowest, $12 per month, option is perfect for most folks, especially if you’re just beginning as a podcaster. It’s so easy to use. Check it out!
Are there services offering websites for free? Sure there are. I don’t recommend you use any of them, even if you’re just starting out.
Here’s why: when you have a website through one of those free services, your URL — your website address — usually mentions them as well as you. It’s kind of like giving someone your business address, and they find out it’s actually a little post office box in a strip mall somewhere. It reeks of impermanence, unprofessionalism, and a lack of commitment.
Also, with a free service, you get what you pay for… and it’s not much. As you grow as an author or other independent creator, you’ll quickly discover you’d like to do things that free site simply won’t let you do… or it’s only possible through work-arounds and cobbled-together solutions made up of the digital equivalent of bailing wire and wads of old chewing gum.
When you have a website with your own domain name, hosted on your own shared or virtual private server, it’s all you. If having a site through a free service is like running your business out of a MailBoxes Etc., paying for a web host is like leasing an actual office, studio, or storefront. And the flexibility included gives you the freedom to add features and functionality as you need them.
For more than twelve years (as of early 2021), my web hosting company of choice for all of my own websites and many, many of my clients’ sites is Dreamhost. They’re independent (like you!), based in Southern California, and, also like you, are deeply committed to excelling at what they do.
Pricing varies based on the package you select, but you can expect to pay around ten bucks a month or less for your Dreamhost website hosting account — and if you use my link, it will always take you to whatever generous discount deal Dreamhost is offering at that time. If you’re intimidated by having your own site through a hosting company like Dreamhost, don’t be. They have lots of tools to help you install and even design the website you want… plus your own unlimited email accounts and a whole lot of other bells and whistles. Of course, if you really need help… you can always come to me!
This site, and many of the sites I’ve built for clients over the last few years, runs on the WordPress content management system (hosted on my Dreamhost virtual private server). I’m talking about Wordpress the software, not WordPress the free hosting service (don’t use those — see above!)
WordPress is open source and free. It’s what powers nearly 40% (as of 2020) of all the websites on the web, including 38% of the top 10,000 sites on the web, so you know it’s safe to use. Did I mention “free?” The core WordPress software is that… and so are the great majority of themes and plug-ins (think look-and-feel and add-ons, respectively) available to augment and enhance your site, too.
Speaking of themes: WordPress comes with a standard “plain vanilla” look and feel so you can get started using your new site right out of the box. If you want to change the way your site works, there are thousands of free themes to choose from that you can browse through and install directly from the administration area of your site.
Or you can do what I do and use a theme framework, which allows one to create any number of original, customized themes. If a theme is like buying a cool toy, a theme framework is like buying a box of LEGOs or TinkerToys so you can make your own toy!
This site uses the Bricks theme framework. For many, many of the sites I’ve built for clients, I’ve used the Divi theme framework from Elegant Themes. While both allow for very complex designs, Divi might be a little more user-friendly if you don’t have much experience building sites, as it’s designed to be drag-and-drop. If you do understand the basics of HTML and CSS, you can literally create pretty much anything you can imagine.
Divi isn’t free — they offer yearly licenses or a single lifetime license, which is a heck of a deal and a great investment in your personal brand and proxy presence on the web. It’s worth it. Take a look at all Divi can do.
Don't Forget Backups!
We work with bits and bytes stored as magnetic impulses and electrons on thin strips of magnetic materials and in far-removed distributed clouds.
I don’t know about you, but it’s easy for me to forget just how ephemeral it all is. How our hard work — the translation of our thoughts and imagination to the “tangible” collection of symbols we see on the screen — is so, so fragile.
Thankfully, with a dependable backup system in place, we don’t have to think about it. If something goes bad, we know our data is safe… if it’s backed up.
Conventional wisdom says to have a local backup — an external hard drive at your house or office, for example — and a remote backup.
The local backup is easily handled by the built-in features of your Windows, Mac, or Linux machine.
For a remote backup, I trust Backblaze.
No exaggeration: over the last several years, Backblaze has saved me — and the fruits of my creativity — at least three times I can remember.
How’s it work? You install their client on your computer, tell it which drives and directories to back up, and it does it, without limit, automatically, in the background, while you’re otherwise going about your day.
When (not if — when) your hard drive fails, you can download everything (or Backblaze will send you a hard drive with your data that you can use to get your stuff, and then send back) and, a few hours later, be back in business. Ya gotta have a remote backup. I’ve tried a few options. Backblaze is the only one I’ve found that lets up back up pretty much everything, across multiple drives, and doesn’t have a limit on how much it will back up. All for as little as $4.60 / month.
Don't Forget Malware Protection!
The old myth that you don’t need to worry about computer viruses or malware if you’re using a Mac or Linux computer is just that: a myth. These days — especially for creative folks who spend lots and lots of time on the web and in email — we have to be vigilant against all kinds of threats, including the usual viruses and malware… but also including ransomware, phishing attacks, and other nastiness.
For that, I use Malwarebytes to supplement the native Windows Defender protection on my desktop and laptop machines. It’s free to try, but if you want the full range of protection, there is a (very worth it) monthly or, if you choose, annual subscription you’ll have to pay.
Just like using Backblaze for offline data backups, consider paying for Malwarebytes as an insurance policy. Eventually, you’ll probably be glad you did!