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The writing tools I love

English is my second language. In addition to writing emails, texts and slack message, the last time I write was in Grad School. In school, I’ve had much help from teachers, staff, and classmates. This time, not living in the academic bubble, the help are a little harder to come by. Here are a few tools that are helping me become a better writer:

Ideation stage

In the ideation phase, it’s more about thinking rather than writing. I find the tools that help me the most are pen and paper.

Putting threads of ideas on paper helps me to see the contour of the essay. In the beginning, it’s usually all over the place. Most of the notes are an array of mini stories relate to the topic when I put them all on paper. They are like building blocks laying on a playground.

Once I see them all in one place, I can start to critique myself on the backbone of the story: “What’s this story is about? What is that you really want to the reader to walk away from?” Using the backbone as a measurement, I cut the irrelevant building blocks to the story. Sometimes, I find a mini story is actually the one I want to talk about, and I ditch the rest and dive into that mini story.


Write drunk

My favorite writing tool is iA Writer.

When I open this software, it transforms my computer into a typewriter. It’a canvas for writing. It’s open and inviting, and it removes all the obstacles away to bring your thoughts into words.

It does not have auto correct. Because it says to me “don’t think about spelling errors when your ideas are flowing”. It does not have choices for typeface or the size of the font. Because it says to me “it does not matter which typeface you use, it’s your thoughts that matter”

What it do have is a beautiful user interface. It has a white background, but if you put your nose next the screen and exam it. It has a very subtle texture that made it feel like I am typing on paper. It has a fixed width, about 10 words per line. It helps me write more concise lines and help me read. Lastly, it has a beautiful typeface that I can read with ease.

iA Writer

Edit Sober

Grammarly is the first tool I use to help me edit.It’s like the auto correct feature but better. When I dump my text into this app, it takes a while to identify the spelling errors. It almost feel like it’s reading my writing and trying to understand it. (My guess is there are some smart algorithm behind it). As a result of that, the recommendation it gives me are usually more contexture, fits in the line of what I am writing.

It helps me build up my vocabulary. It also helped me identify my most common grammatical mistakes (missing article). What I like the most is it sends a weekly email to compare my writing with all its users. It made me feel like I am part of a community.

Hemingway edit is the second tool I use to help me edit. It’s a software help me structure sentences and use an active tone. The tool identifies the adverbs, passive voices and complex sentences, and it sets a goal for my writing on the write. As a result of this, I start to use the active voice, omit useless words, take out adverb and structure shorter sentences.

One more thing this app provide is a metric for “readability”. It’s a metric of how understandable a piece of writing is. It suggests the lowest education needed to understand my writing. (Ernest Hemingway’s work score as low as 5th grade). This feature nudges me to use less jargon, and use simple words to convey my ideas.

Frame it

After all the editing is done, I bring them into Medium, which is what you are reading now. In here, I add some styling to the article, make a few words italics to emphasis, and add a few images to help the story.

The act of bringing writing into Medium remind me of framing a piece of artwork: I bring the artwork from easel into a frame, dust off the dirt and put a light on. In that moment, it feels a small sense of accomplishment. It’s a zen and joyful moment.

Reflection: Machine vs Human

As an English language learner, All the tools I mentioned above helped with my writing and mastery of the language. Some of them are built on technology like machine learning, some are built on disciplined design guidelines. None of them exist ten years ago, in this technology age, they are helping people like me write better, and that’s amazing.

Does that mean we don’t need human editors anymore?

Although the machine is very good at picking out the detailed errors, they are not good at giving advice in the overall architecture. A few weeks ago, when I shared one of my writing with a friend, she wrote back to me:

“I really like the examples you pulled from Airbnb, etc. Having talked to you about your particular dilemma, I have a comment about writing structure. I was looking forward to hearing about your dilemma at your work. I wonder if you could structured the essay like:
1. My dilemma (open with your personal interest, have it on the readers’ minds)
2. Other dilemmas (explore with the reader other types of dilemmas designers face, see if you can glean inspiration)
3. Synthesize (how is your dilemma different or similar? what would readers do? how to approach unique ethical dilemmas that crop up for designers today)”

It’s one of the best advice I’ve received. It’s advice like this push me to think harder, write better and communicate clearer.