I’ve been pretty quiet on the writing front recently, as least as far as books are concerned. I am still plugging away, but the gig economy keeps me too busy most days to get much meaningful done. Although I am working on a really cool publishing project for a client at the moment that I hope I’ll be able to tell you about really soon!
Between managing social media accounts and writing web copy (technical writing and direct response are where it’s at right now if you want pointers!), I’ve managed to gather an impressive collection of research and productivity tools that come in useful for authors as well as other users. Most are free. The rest are reasonably priced. There may be one or two affiliate links in here because a girl’s gotta grind. Enjoy!
SurveyMonkey is a great tool if you want to poll your readers, newsletter subscribers, or anyone else you want an opinion from. The prices for paid plans are pretty steep, but the free plan has a load of features, including unlimited surveys up to 10 questions and 100 responses.
Ever got stuck looking for a phrase, particularly when it’s time to choose a title? Check out the phrase thesaurus for common expressions containing or relating to a key word.
Time and Date—Free
Have you ever needed to know what time sunset was in London on 12 March 2009? Or if it rained more than average in October 2017 in Detroit? Time and Date has all the answers to anything relating to the weather, astronomy, sunrise/set, and more from 1999 to 2039.
Want to know when asparagus is in season, or the best time of year to plant radishes? Check out Eat Seasonably to figure out if your Victorian characters really would have been eating peas in March or not. It’s a British site so there will be regional variations in harvest times and crops to watch out for if you’re across the pond.
If you write historical and you haven’t discovered Measuring Worth yet, prepare to be amazed. Want to know what the comparative buying power of the US dollar was in 1790? Or what you could buy with an English pound in 1273? Just pick your years to compare and see in seconds if your Regency rogue stealing £2 of bread was reasonable or not for the time.
“He was 6′ 2″ and, being a foot shorter, I barely came up to his shoulders.” How many times have we written sentences like that? And how often are we actually right? With this height comparison site, the answer will be Always. Choose male or female avatars, enter their respective heights, and check out how they look next to each other. Never get your relative descriptions wrong again.
This site archives the UK Top 40 singles chart every week since 1952. Find out what your character were really singing along to! Americans aren’t left out either, Billboard Charts has all the data going back to 1958.
If you’ve ever written about English high society, you’ve probably heard of Debrett’s. Want to know if a baron outranks a viscount, or how to correctly address a duke? Debrett’s is the official guide to everything aristocratic.
Mapping Victorian UK—Free
This is a seriously cool project that superimposed Victorian street maps over Google maps to let you see how the UK has changed. Select your location, pick an old map, and check out the overlay. Brought to you by the National Library of Scotland. The maps go back to 1885, but you can also check out railroads, population density, and even rainfall records.
I adore Project Gutenberg. It has digitised thousands of out of print and public domain books on every subject imaginable, and offers them in a variety of formats such as pdf, mobi, and epub. They even have some audio books and sheet music. The beauty of these archives isn’t just being able to read the classics for free (although, yay!) but they’re great if you’re doing historical research for your own novel. Immerse yourself in fiction from the time you’re writing about, or check out the extensive non-fiction section to read up on subjects such as geography, botany, local history, or fashion to get details about your time period straight from the horse’s mouth.
You’ve probably seen Forgotten Books titles on Amazon before. Like Gutenberg, this is another archive of public domain books. Most are scanned pdfs so Gutenberg wins out on accessibility, and there’s a lot of overlap between the two catalogues, but it’s worth checking out. Top tip: if you buy one of their ebooks from Amazon you’ll probably find a code for limited time free access to the site inside.
What the fork is an Ngram? It’s an anachronism—an object or expression used out of time, like Regency characters gathering around a Christmas tree, or the mechanical clock chiming in Julius Caesar. Google is really good at spotting them, because it’s got such an extensive collection of digitised books. Search for any word or phrase and Google will check it against its archive to see when it was first used, and how frequently.
Plotting & Editing
yEd Graph Editor—Free
If you like to make flowcharts, diagrams, or other visual plotting tools, you’ll love yEd’s free graph editor. It’s a downloadable software available for Windows, macOS, and Linux. Your outlines have never been so pretty.
Another visual plotting tool, although this one is online instead of software. Create flowcharts and diagrams for everything from timelines to character crib sheets. Miro is pretty much a blank canvas you can do anything on. The free plan lets you add up to 5 boards at one time, or you can upgrade to unlimited boards for $12/mo for one user. Note you might have to create a “team” to get the full 5 boards free, you can make a team with just yourself on it, which satisfies that requirement.
Okay I know this one is controversial. Grammarly is pretty good at what it does, which is to peer over your shoulder at what you’re writing and correct your spelling and grammar in real time. However it’s good in the way Microsoft Clippy was good, meaning it’s kinda intrusive and it isn’t always right. Plug it into Chrome and never have a typo in your emails again, or download desktop apps for Windows or Mac. Go premium (starting at $11/mo) for additional editing features.
Hemingway is generally more useful for online writers (blog/web content) than authors, but it’s still a pretty cool tool. Did you know the average American reads at a 7th grade level (that’s 12-year-olds if you’re outside the States)? That’s the cut-off point after which a novel or blog post becomes inaccessible to most. Over 20% of the American public can’t read past 4th grade level, so keeping your writing direct and simple matters, and not just online. Hemingway will help you cut the bullshit from your words. Copy and paste your text into the site (or download their paid desktop app for longer documents) and Hemingway will highlight everything you did wrong, from using overcomplicated sentences to passive voice.
Focus & Concentration
I love, love, love Session Buddy. It’s a Chrome extension that will record your tabs as you work. If you’re anything like me and have 14 open windows with 27 tabs each, it’s a lifesaver. No more FOMO when you close a window and wonder if you’ll ever find that page again. No need to bookmark sites you might want to return to but don’t want cluttering up your browser until the next millennium. I work for a variety of clients so I love Session Buddy’s sorting feature that lets me put all my related tabs together and label them, but the same functionality also works great if you’re following several different research threads for a book, or just want to link dive without losing information.
TopTracker was built for freelancers. It’s basically a timer linked to projects you create. If you’re freelancing you can assign clients and bill them through the app, but if you’re an author who just wants to stay on track you can set yourself targets for your books instead. Whether you’re aiming for a goal (“write for an hour today”) or want to keep track of when and how long you write to find the patterns that
optimise your productivity make you write faster and longer, this could be the app for you. Works on Windows, Mac, and Linux.
Love background white noise when you’re writing? Want to create your own perfect blend of crackling fires and drumming rain and rolling thunder? Noisli lets you do that. It’s just a really simple website with a variety of sound effects that you can mix and match to find your perfect concentration mojo.
Pacemaker is designed for authors. Choose from dozens of project types, from books to blog posts, select an activity (plotting, writing, proofing, editing, and so on), pick a goal (words, tasks, time) and a strategy to finish, and it will keep you on track. See your progress, get warnings if you’re falling behind, and tweak your goals until you hit the finish line. With the free plan you can have up to two simultaneous projects, or get the premium membership for more tools and unlimited goals.
Learning & Education
I discovered edX after deciding I wanted to learn more about reading the weather. Last summer I took a course in Backyard Meteorology taught by a Harvard professor who for his day job built and ran a particle detector at a little thing called the Large Hadron Collider. There are some legit courses here, offered by some top institutions, and a lot of them are free (although for a smallish fee you can get a snazzy certificate if you pass). What will you learn today?
Want to say you studied at Yale? With their free library of online courses, you can. Sadly there’s no certificate to be had at the end of the course, but you still totally get bragging rights.
If edX doesn’t have the course you want, you can probably find it on Class Central. This site doesn’t host courses, but it’s a dedicated database and search engine that will help you find the right course for you.
Open Culture offers online courses, but that isn’t all it does. It also offers ebooks, textbooks, audiobooks, movies, language lessons, lectures, art archives, and more.
If you’ve got a website, you need to have an SSL certificate. ZeroSSL is here to bring together free SSLs from Let’s Encrypt with website owners whose hosts want to charge them $$$ (looking at you, GoDaddy…). If you need a tutorial, this site will walk you through what you need to do.
Okay, automation is the devil. Nobody wants to think they’re speaking to a robot online. That said, sometimes it’s handy to have your Instagram crosspost to Twitter, or get an email if someone mentions your website on Reddit. If This, Then That (IFTTT), brings together tons of automations for almost every site and service you can name.
Written a fantasy and want a cool, Tolkienesque map of your world? Go to Inkarnate and get designing. They’ve got features and graphics covering most fantasy landscapes, from castles and dragons to troll bridges and dwarven mines. Create a scene, a cityscape, or a whole world using their online editor, and download your images with a commercial use license for just $5/month or $25/year.
Bonus: Promotional Tools
Want to create pretty graphics for social media? Pablo is a service from social media scheduling tool Buffer. It has 600k+ royalty free images, basic editing tools, and various fonts and layouts. You can even add ~inspirational quotes~ from a preset library. Resize for any social media site, download and publish.
Canva is one of the older players on the block, and is basically Pablo on steroids. Create social posts, profile banners, WordPress headers, posters, flyers, and more. You can even create your designs and have Canva handle the printing. Some of the images and graphics are priced per use, but the free tools and options are very impressive.
If you’re looking for a free designer, Canva is still your best bet, but Stencil’s premium features stand out if you want to go pro with your promotions. Stencil has a stupid massive library of 2.2 million images, another 2 million icons and graphics, almost 3000 fonts, and over a thousand different templates to choose from.
Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably already used Rafflecopter. It’s a great tool for hosting giveaways. Choose preset interactions such as liking a Facebook page or sending a tweet, and Rafflecopter will validate the entries and select your winners at the end of your giveaway period. The free tier offers pretty much everything you need for a basic giveaway, but you can upgrade for more entry options, custom entry forms, and more.
If you want to take your promo a step further, you can create your own social sharing videos with Lumen5. Their forever free plan lets you create 5 videos per month, and includes a media library, plus over 3000 music tracks.
DIY Book Covers
Look, I love my cover designer and wouldn’t replace her for the world, but if you want some guidance and a free tool to help you design your own covers, DIY Book Covers is a great place to start.
I love Photofunia. It’s a pretty basic site that does one thing and does it well: superimposes an image of your choice (such as your book cover!) onto a billboard, art gallery, or building. Choose your background pic, upload your image, and let Photofunia do the rest.
Unsplash stopped being a best-kept secret about a year ago, but it’s still the best source for good quality, royalty free images right now.
So there you have it. Over 30 of the best research, productivity, and promotional tools I’ve been using for the past couple of years. Take a course, research your book, poll your readers, or run a giveaway. Whatever you’re up to, there’s an app for that. Enjoy.