Online tools for writers

There is a whole range of free online tools that are useful for organising your work as a writer. Here are a few basics:

Most of us take our web browser for granted. If you own a PC with Windows like most of the world, you probably use Internet Explorer.
A minority of us use other browsers like Firefox, Chrome or Safari.
Yay us.

Whichever browser you use, you need to know that they have changed a lot over the years and you need to keep updating (they’re free, so why not?). They also come with a great many more bells and whistles than they used to, such as better management of your bookmarks or favourites.

I use Firefox because it’s open source, which means that it has a whole community of people out there who build extra bells and really good whistles that you can bolt on. One, for example, is Gtranslate, which (because I read a lot of documents in French and my French is appalling) allows me to translate any word on any web page into English with a right click.
Another is Add This, which lets me share something I like from any website on a blog or social media such as facebook, or save it to a bookmark list like delicious.
I also have Firefox extensions for programs I use all the time, like Evernote and EndNote.

Make that little search box in the top right hand corner work for you – choose which search engines you use for which tasks (you can get quite different results, you know, searching outside Google), and if it lets you (eg in Firefox) add the option to search sources like Google Scholar or Chambers dictionary. Then you don’t have to go to a site to look something up – just type it into the box in your toolbar.

(Firefox – Dropbox, with Zotero open at the bottom of the screen)


I use Dropbox for backing up my drafts and documents: it is an online service which keeps your documents (or pictures or anything) in a secure space online. You simply save items to a folder on your computer and Dropbox will synch it up on a regular basis. This means you can also access your documents from any computer, and you can also set it up as a place to share or collaborate with others. Much easier to use than Google docs, if you ask me.

I adore Evernote. I started using it simply as a searchable database of research notes (like Microsoft OneNote). For example, I can write a quick note about a building in Paris that was around in 1670, maybe include a link to a relevant website, even a picture of it. In a year’s time when I can’t remember where on earth I put that note, I’ll be able to search for it and there it will be. A great deal easier than flicking through card indexes or notebooks. That alone is valuable, especially for people whose writing includes lots of research – you could use it for character biographies or almost anything. But wait – there’s more. Your notes live online, securely, so again you can access them from anywhere – that means that when I’m in Paris walking down the street where that building once stood, I can whip out my iPod or mobile and take a snap or make more notes, and the Evernote iPod app will synch it up with my other notes. Too easy. In fact, it’s a little addictive.

Websites and blogs

A website, at least, is now a given. You have to get one. People will look for you online and if you aren’t there, they’ll wonder what’s wrong with you. It’s as simple as that.

But it doesn’t have to be a drama. You can set up a blog or site very easily – how much time you put into it is up to you.

There are many free blogging platforms. I use Blogger for my blogs, because that seemed the easiest to use all those years ago when I started blogging. It’s still pretty good. You just sign up (it’s owned by Google), choose your blog name and select a design from a wide range of prepared templates. Then add content: blog posts, links to sites or blogs that you like, images.

After several incarnations and countless hours slaving over Dreamweaver, I now just use WordPress for my websites. It’s fundamentally a blogging platform, a little more complex than Blogger but still easy to use. You can post, just like a blog, but you can also create pages which don’t change, menus and sub-pages, and again you choose a template from a range and then add images or change colours or page structures according to your taste. Simple is better.

Both these platforms are free and allow writers to get online with an investment of time and effort, rather than having to fork out. If you know about the technical side of the web, you can make them do extra stuff, but I don’t bother (and I am a professional geek in my day job). I’m a writer, not a designer or a developer. They aren’t the prettiest websites in the world but that’s OK. Up to you.

Both platforms (and others) host your site or blog for free, so you don’t have to pay anyone for website hosting, and both are big stable platforms that aren’t going anywhere (I remember once, years ago, I published my Masters thesis online with a similar service – one day it went bust and millions of people’s websites vanished).

What you might want to do is register a domain name: this does cost money. Say you want your site or blog to be at the web address: You have to buy the right to that name. But with WordPress you can simply buy the domain name and then use it for your WordPress site by adding a redirect. Easy. And well worth it, even if the domain name itself costs a couple of hundred bucks, because then you get to own a nice, clear and short web address. I think the redirect costs another $12. Bargain.

Social media
I admit I have only just started using social media as an author – literally just in the last few weeks. But I use it as a civilian all the time and have done for years, and work with it as part of my day job. In fact I train people to use it.

So my advice is, don’t go near Twitter or facebook if you aren’t prepared to post regularly, and that doesn’t include telling the world what you had for dinner.
But if you like the medium, you can use it to be involved with readers and other writers, and that can have a promotional effect in the long-run. It’s about engagement with people, not just flogging your latest book.
First thing is to separate out your personal self from your online author self – set up an “official” Twitter feed or facebook page and only post author-type things. Your friends and family may follow you as an author as well as a real person, but you don’t want readers confusing your personal life with your public persona.

Second thing is to use a few nifty tools to bring together your social media, so that you don’t have to keep bouncing from one to another and spend your whole life posting on different platforms. I use Hoot Suite which allows me to write a brief post and then choose which of my social media profiles or pages it appears on.
I also set up a feed from my blog into my facebook page and my website, so that they appear to be updated without me having to actually change pages on the website or post links to my blog all the time.

Third thing is to keep yourself nice. Behave on social media as you would at a school visit or bookshop reading: answer politely, be interested in your readers, ask them what they think – what they read. Don’t grump at people if they leave nasty comments or bad book reviews. Rise above.

Reader communities
I jumped onto LibraryThing early on in its life, and obsessively catalogued a few hundred of my books before I ran out of steam. I have a widget on my blog which feeds up books from my LibraryThing collection, so people can see what I’m reading (or at least, what I read years ago). I still love the idea of it, but haven’t been much involved in it as a community because I just don’t have enough hours in the day. I also recently joined GoodReads.

Both (and others, like Shelfari) are online book geek communities where people share what they’re reading, post reviews, list their own collections, recommend books to one another, and discuss books, reading and writing – endlessly.

Take a look. Often. See what people are reading, what they say about books and what they are looking forward to. If nothing else, register as an author so you can post updates on your own upcoming titles.
For people outside the US and the UK, you may notice that local titles are less likely to be on these sites (and other places like Amazon reviews) but that’s OK. Just know that’s the case and that there will be plenty of people from all over the world reading a huge range of books from everywhere.

It is, apart from anything else, fun. You’ll find a whole lot of books you suddenly must read.
And that’s a good thing. Right?

Those are a few of the tools I use. You will have your own favourites or latest apps and add-ons that get your blood racing. So go on, blog about them.