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I have been making a full time living from my writing for six years. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not very long. But in that time, I’ve managed to write for millions as a staff writer for a popular filmmaking blog, build a freelance content marketing career, and started a small online business that’s completely driven by written content.
And in addition to the articles I write for clients and my business, I’ve been known to dabble in direct response copywriting, technical writing, scriptwriting, short story writing, and more.
Writing is my life. The written word puts food on my table and keeps a roof over my head. It’s also my favorite creative outlet, and the best way I know for expressing myself.
This is why I take my writing workflow very, very damn seriously.
Today, I’m going to show you exactly what my workflow is, why I’ve constructed it in this particular way, and the specific tools I use. Most importantly, I’ll show you how you can adapt all of this to your own writing.
Before we get started, there are a few things you should know. First, this workflow is largely geared towards non-fiction writing for the web. If you inhabit the world of “content marketing,” or you write to educate, this workflow is tailor-made just for you. That said, I’ve used it for ebooks and short pieces of fiction as well. It’s fairly malleable, and you can tweak it to fit whatever you’re working on.
Second, and most importantly, this workflow places an overwhelming emphasis on producing quality writing. I believe it’s my duty to not clog up the internet with more vapid 350-word articles meant to drive clicks. If I write about a topic, my goal is to produce something of value that will be read and enjoyed for years to come. And I’ve carefully crafted this workflow to help me achieve exactly that.
If you place the same value on producing quality work, my hope is that you’ll get a lot out of this article. It’s literally everything I’ve learned these past few years about how to produce writing I’m actually proud of.
Writing workflows aren’t a complex or tedious thing — or at least, they don’t have to be. More than anything, it’s just the series of steps you take from the moment you have an idea to the moment you hit publish.
It can even be as simple as having the idea, writing something, giving it a quick read-over, and then sending it off into the world. That’s probably the simplest possible workflow out there.
That said, there are a few strong reasons to get into the weeds and build a more complex workflow. Before we get into the specifics, we should talk a little bit about what this workflow allows me to accomplish.
Following this workflow produces a consistent level of quality
If you care about putting out quality writing consistently, a workflow is the key to making it happen.
As far as I can tell, very few people can just sit down and write a quality piece in one fell swoop. It’s a rare talent, and I’m a bit jealous of the people who can.
For the rest of us, writing is an iterative process. We start with an idea, then move that idea through a series of steps until we’ve got a draft. Then we move that draft through a few more steps until we’ve got a finished piece of writing. And during all of those steps, there are plenty of opportunities for the quality of your piece to either improve or slip in the wrong direction.
That’s why having a segmented workflow is key. It’s essentially a bunch of quality control checkpoints that allow you to take stock and make sure you’re still on the right track.
This gives me confidence that I’ll always produce something good. No matter what idea I start with, or whether I’m passionate about the subject, I’m virtually guaranteed to produce a thoughtful, readable, well-structured piece of writing about it when I trust my workflow.
There’s real power in that. My workflow ensures I can put out work in line with what the world expects from a professional writer.
A workflow breaks a big process into small, manageable parts
I don’t know about you, but I excel at procrastinating. In fact, during my college years, I was an elite procrastinator. Sometimes I’d pull all-nighters, sure, but more often than not, you could count on me to write the entirety of a five page paper on the same morning it was due.
Even just reading that sentence now makes me cringe.
Anyhow, one of the biggest reasons we procrastinate is because the task before us is simply too large or too vaguely defined. Either we don’t know exactly how to get started, or we do know, but we’re so overwhelmed by the size of the project that we wallow in inaction.
A workflow solves both of these problems. By applying a workflow to a big writing project, you’re essentially breaking it up into smaller, self-contained parts, which gives you approachable and concrete things to work on at any given time.
A good workflow doesn’t just improve the quality of the finished piece, it makes it easier to actually get it done. It’s an antidote to one of the major forces that causes us to procrastinate in the first place.
It’s an essential part of keeping yourself inspired
My workflow doesn’t just encompass the writing process; it’s also part of my day-to-day life. It weaves its way into just about everything I do, no matter where I am.
That’s because, for me at least, writing is all about combining ideas from different sources. My job isn’t necessarily to share my own expertise through writing, but to be a curator of interesting ideas and a craftsman of compelling and useful content.
That’s why I make a point of collecting and storing anything that might be useful to my writing. I’ll talk more about this in a bit, but the point here is that I almost never have to wait for inspiration. There are always limitless ideas waiting for me, ready to be combined with other ideas into something new and fresh. And it’s all thanks to my workflow.
It’s a useful marketing tool for freelancers
This last advantage is a bit more specific to my situation. As a freelancer who often charges premium prices, I’m always playing the game of justifying my value to the person holding the purse strings.
And in a market flooded with content writers and copywriters who claim to be able to do exactly what I can for 1/10th the price, confidently charging a premium can be an uphill battle.
However, when you can show potential clients your process, then show them how that process will benefit their bottom line, you set yourself up to command higher rates.
For instance, let’s say I’m talking to a potential client who’s looking for niche content that ranks well on search engines.
I’ll point out that the best way to stay relevant in search (and not get punished by algorithm updates) is simply to craft insanely useful long form articles that solve a burning need for their specific audience. Toss a few strategic keywords into the headline and subheads, and you’re good to go. No other SEO trickery needed.
Then, when I delve into the specifics of my workflow with them (and emphasize that I can tackle keyword research), they can immediately see that I’m the best person for the job, and that in the long run, my work will be worth well beyond what I’m charging.
Before we get into the specifics of the workflow itself, I want to share three important principles that help guide the workflow and make it even more useful.
The A.B.C. principle
In the brilliant film adaptation of David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin delivers one of the most iconic speeches in movie history.
As a cadre of underperforming real estate salesmen look on in disbelief, Baldwin’s character delivers a scathing ultimatum — sell or be fired — and tries to beat a piece of old-school sales wisdom into their brains. “A–Always. B–Be. C–Closing. Always Be Closing,” he says while pointing to a chalkboard.
What does any of this have to do with writing? Well, nothing really. But I’ve adapted a slightly modified version of Baldwin’s ABCs for my workflow.
Like I mentioned before, my view is that great writing isn’t just me sharing what I know, because frankly, I don’t know much. Instead, it’s all about my ability to combine ideas from different sources in a clear and compelling way, then weave them all together with stories, anecdotes, quotes, and the occasional sprinkling of original thought.
So instead of Always Be Closing, I live by the axiom Always Be Capturing.
All day, every day, year in and year out, I make a point of capturing things that might one day be useful in my writing.
More often than not, this comes from reading a ton — all serious writers should be voracious readers — then pulling interesting quotes and ideas into my writing systems so I can search for and use them later.
I’m also fond of capturing as many of my “shower thoughts” as I can — you know, those random and sometimes profound thoughts that inevitably come to you when you’re not in a good place to capture them (the shower, on a walk, while you’re on a conference call, etc).
I have systems set up on my computer and phone, as well as pads of paper everywhere, so that my shower thoughts can be captured and categorized and saved for later. I don’t always get them, but I give myself as good a chance as I can.
I’ll get into the specific tools I use to capture stuff later on. But for now, it’s just important to know that I’m always capturing, and whenever I’m in the depths of the writing process, the things I’ve captured are there waiting for me, ready to be utilized, and ready to make my writing better.
Keep it organized
This is sort of a corollary to the first principle. If you’re serious about capturing, but you can’t keep it all organized in any meaningful way, you might as well have not captured anything to begin with.
Trust me on this one. Before I arrived at my current system, I spent years randomly capturing things and making notes without any sense of organization. The result was a big goddamn headache. Nothing kills inspiration faster than knowing you have something good, but not being able to find it.
So, if you’re serious about capturing ideas, make sure to have a solid system in place so that you can find whatever you’re looking for at a moment’s notice. That’s the main goal: to be able to seamlessly capture ideas whenever and wherever you are, then quickly organize them in a way that makes sense to you. Doesn’t have to be a big fancy system — it just has to work.
Building this system will take a bit of work up front, and it will probably always be in a constant state of tweaking and improving, but once it’s set up, I’m willing to be it will be an incredible asset to your writing workflow, just as it has been to mine.
Trust the workflow, but don’t let it chain you down
This third principle is more of a mindset than anything else.
The workflow I’m about to show you is fairly involved. There are quite a few steps, and depending on the scope of your projects, some of those steps can take a few hours, or even more.
And like I mentioned, when I take an idea through this workflow and do the work, a good piece of writing is almost always the result. That’s why I try to use this as much as I possibly can. It’s a process I can trust.
But I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always follow it. The truth is that sometimes I just feel like writing. I get inspired, so I dive head first into a project out of sheer excitement. I let myself get into flow and don’t stop myself to consider the workflow at all.
And that’s fine. Sometimes this “go get ’em, tiger” approach even leads to some great work. But it’s not something I can rely on. Inspiration is a useful friend when he decides to show up for the party, but I have to produce quality writing whether I’m “feeling it” or not. And that’s why the workflow exists.
The point is, don’t let yourself be a slave to your workflow. It’s there to serve you and help you craft great work. But sometimes you can ride the whims of inspiration and craft great work regardless of whether you’re using the workflow or not.
The 7-step process
With our foundation is in place, it’s time for the main attraction, the nuts and bolts of the process that I use to produce good writing.
The workflow is broken up into roughly seven parts. I say “roughly” because like I mentioned before, this is kind of my platonic ideal of a writing workflow. It’s something I strive for with each and every project.
Sometimes I hit all seven steps, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes a few steps are combined into one to save time, and sometimes I fly off the rails and ignore the workflow completely.
It really depends on the specifics of the project, whether I’m under a tight deadline, and which way the wind is blowing on any given day.
The seven steps are:
- Idea: putting the initial idea through the ringer.
- Research (Parts 1 & 2) making sure you know what you need to know.
- Mindmap/Outline: getting everything out in the open and organizing it.
- Structure (Optional): applying a tried and true writing structure to your outline.
- First Draft: building a cohesive document from your outline/structure.
- Second Draft: turning said document into “good writing.”
- Edit: smoothing the edges and polishing.
There’s obviously plenty more that goes into producing work for the web, a book, or print. But in terms of producing the core product — the writing itself — these seven steps will get you most of the way to your final destination.
Now, let’s get into each of these steps in more detail.
The “idea phase” of my workflow only takes about 5 minutes, but it might very well be the single most important piece of the puzzle. This is where you weed out ideas that aren’t worth pursuing, and you start to hone in on what will make your article unique.
This can be done by asking yourself a few key questions, and doing a little bit of light googling to see what already exists around your topic.
So, here are a few questions to ask yourself in the idea phase.
- Is this an idea worth pursuing?
- Has it been done before?
- If it’s already been done, how can I do it better?
- What can I bring that’s unique to this piece?
- Who specifically is this for, and what tangible value will they get out of it?
For me, these questions are really at the heart of what I do and why I do it. Maybe I’m just an idealist, but I believe it’s my duty as a writer not to clog up the internet with more empty, surface level bullshit meant to drive clicks. Like I mentioned in the intro, when I write about a topic, I want to produce something of true value that will be read for years to come. That’s the goal here.
If you can come up with definitive answers to these simple questions before you ever start writing or planning, you’re already well ahead of the vast majority of writers on the internet who don’t bother to think about these things.
If you care about quality, don’t skip this step. Put your idea through the ringer and figure out what will make your article worth reading.
2. Research (Part 1)
Unless I’m a true subject matter expert in the topic of my article (which almost never happens), there’s going to be a decent amount of research involved. After all, this workflow is about crafting a quality piece of writing, and a big part of producing that quality is knowing what the hell you’re talking about.
Now, in my experience, the research phase can be extremely quick (like 20 minutes), or it might take hours, even days, to do it right. It really depends on the scope of the project and how readily available your research sources are.
The only thing you really need to ask yourself is this: based on what I want this article to be (which you’ve figured out in the idea phase), what do I need to know in order to make this as good as it can be?
The answer to that question should lead you to the sources you need.
In terms of how to do the research, that’s entirely up to you. Once you get into researching, try to have a system in place to keep everything organized so that you can access it later.
For web-based research, I’ve fallen in love with a nifty Chrome plugin called Toby. It’s essentially a tab-management app that lets you group a bunch of tabs around a certain topic, and save them for sessions later on. It’s super useful when you want all of your tabs for research grouped together, and available all at once.
My other recommendation is that as you’re researching, you pull out exciting bits of research that you think would make for great citations or quotes within your piece. Then, stash them somewhere safe, perhaps even your primary writing app if you’re comfortable with it.
There are a ton of ways to accomplish this, but I’ll show you mine in the “tools” section down below.
Research (Part 2)
This previous section was all about “research” in a traditional sense. You’re going to external sources to make sure you’re informed about the topic of your article. Nice work, amigo.
However, if you’re like me and you make a point of capturing interesting ideas as often as you can, you should also check over your library of stuff to see if there’s anything that will help your current project.
This shouldn’t take more than five minutes, but in my experience, whatever you find here is more likely to make your article “stand out” amongst the other articles on the topic. If you can color your piece with quotes and ideas from various sources not contained in other people’s work, it makes you look really smart and well-read. And who doesn’t want that?
Anyhow, in my research library (which I keep in Ulysses), everything is organized by keywords. So let’s say I’m working on an article about the creative process, I’ll just scan through everything with the keywords “creativity” and “art” and whatever else seems relevant, and I’ll pull anything that seems useful. In this hypothetical case, I’d probably end up with a whole bunch of awesome Steven Pressfield quotes.
Almost every accomplished or famous writer talks about the idea of shitty first drafts. It’s an invaluable way of thinking about the writing process, because no one produces top notch writing on their first try. Like I said before, writing is iterative.
However, while I wholeheartedly believe in that “shitty first draft” concept, I’m also often working on a deadline. I need to produce something of high quality as quickly as I can. Such is the nature of freelance work.
And that’s why I almost always choose to spend part of my workflow getting all of my ideas out (even the shitty ones), and then organizing everything into a bulletproof outline. Nothing improves the quality of your work or the speed of your writing more than a well conceived outline.
There are a few strategies you can use in this part of your workflow.
A mind map is a visual document where your main idea or topic is in the center, and subtopics and ideas are branches of that main idea. You can make connections between the nodes, rearrange them however you want, and generally just see a nice visual overview of your entire article at a glance.
Mind maps are also my weapon of choice in my writing workflow for two specific reasons.
First, because I find it incredibly quick and easy to get out all of my ideas into a mind map. Once you learn some keyboard shortcuts, you can build a well-structured mind map at (nearly) the speed of your thoughts. Second, most mind mapping tools allow you to export your map to a markdown or plain text file, which you can bring into your writing app of choice and use it as an outline.
For me, I just love being able to see the entire structure of what I’m trying to create, move pieces around, and then create an outline from that, something I can bring into my writing app and start working on immediately. It’s liberating, and I can’t recommend mind mapping highly enough.
If mind mapping doesn’t jive with you for whatever reason, the next best thing is a traditional outline. Basically, you’d jot down all of your ideas for sections and subheads, make a few notes for each, then rearrange everything to suit your desired structure. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
While you can always do this in your primary writing app, there are a few solid outlining tools on the market that are pretty fun. On the Mac, there’s OmniOutliner, Outlinely, FoldingText, and a few others. On Windows, I have no clue, but I’m sure a quick trip to the Google will net you a handful of great options.
Freewriting is exactly what it sounds like. You set a timer (or don’t) and start writing freeform without editing yourself. You just keep going in an attempt to get all of the ideas out and generate new ones on the fly.
Now, I think freewriting is one of the most powerful tools out there for plumbing the depths of the human mind and producing interesting ideas. I’ve experienced it myself, and it’s pretty remarkable what you can come up with during a lengthy freewriting session. (For more on this concept, check out Accidental Genius by Mark Levy).
However, in the context of this particular workflow, it’s not very useful at all. At its core, freewriting means that you’re going to have to do a ton of editing later on if you’re trying to turn it into a published piece. It loses all the benefits of having a thoughtful structure to work from once it’s time to write your first draft.
So yes, you might find some great ideas during the freewriting process, but ultimately you’re just making more work for yourself. And ain’t nobody got time for that.
If you’re writing for the internet (or even in print, for that matter), chances are you’ll be writing something that fits into one of a handful of basic writing structures.
Just off the top of my head, there’s the “How-To,” the “Story-Study-Lesson” (a particular favorite among science and data writers), the “Myth vs. Truth,” the “Human Guinea Pig,” the “Case Study,” the “Listicle,” the “Editorialized Interview,” the “Round Up Post,” and probably a few others.
Nearly everything we write these days, at least in terms of non-fiction, fits into some kind of tried and true writing structure. That’s a great thing — it means we’re never tasked with reinventing the wheel. We can rely on these existing structures because they’re easily recognizable and comfortable for readers.
So, you may have already decided on a structure during the earlier phases of the workflow. However, if you don’t have any kind of familiar overarching structure to your piece, this would be the time to add one.
5. First Draft
By the time you’ve gone through the first four steps of this workflow, you’ve already done more work up front than most web writers put into their entire finished piece. But that’s okay, because not only are we aiming to produce the highest quality writing on the internet, but we’ve already tackled the most difficult work.
At this point, you should be able to bang out a solid first draft relatively quickly. You’ll still be operating on the idea of the “shitty first draft,” where you’re not aiming for perfection, but instead a finished draft of the entire piece. However, because of all that work you’ve done up front, I guarantee your first draft will be far less shitty than anyone else’s.
So if you’ve got that bulletproof outline ready to go, finishing your first draft shouldn’t be any harder than filling in the blanks. That’s what I’m doing as I write this right now. I’m just jumping down through each pre-written subheader and filling out my thoughts in a bit more detail. Funny how that works, huh?
6. Second Draft
Alright friend, we’re coming down to the wire now — only two more steps to go. These last two should be pretty recognizable to any writer, whether you’re a first-timer or a seasoned veteran.
Next up is the second draft. This is where I go back through my first draft, section by section, and try to make my writing actually sound good. If I’ve plowed through my first draft as quickly as I like to, all of the ideas and structure will be there, but the writing itself will need some work.
What I’m looking for here is that the sentences themselves are well constructed. I want each sentence to say what it’s supposed to say clearly, and in as few words as possible. I’m also generally concerned about “flow” at this point. This is where I’ll start reading certain parts out loud if I’m worried about whether they flow well from one to another. Lastly, I want to make sure there aren’t any obvious gaps in logic that might leave a reader confused. If there are, that needs to be fixed here.
Basically, I’m doing a lot of the work that typically happens in the “edit” phase.
But unlike the actual editing phase, I’m not going through with a fine-toothed comb trying to catch mistakes and make the writing as clean and snappy as possible. I just want to go from a draft with sloppy writing to a draft with writing that I consider to be “good.” And I want to make sure there aren’t any structural problems that I missed originally.
As for how I do this second draft, I literally just start from the top, then move down the document section by section, really trying to focus in on those things I mentioned above. Not much else you need to know besides that.
Note: sometimes your first and second drafts will be smushed into one. It depends on whether you prefer to edit as you write. For a lot of people, it’s hard to separate the two processes, so they’ll produce both of these drafts in one go. Others find it helpful to separate writing from editing because it allows more ideas to make it to the page, and they can be edited into something great later. Again, it’s totally up to you.
We made it to the end of the workflow! High five!
At this point, you’ve got a cohesive and (hopefully) well-written piece of content. Now it’s time to put on some polish and really make this thing shine. It’s time to edit.
Now, if you care deeply about the quality of your work, there’s one thing I can’t possibly recommend highly enough: hire a good editor.
Not just a proofreader or a copy editor, though. You want someone who will take a critical look at everything about your writing, from how you structure arguments to how you style your prose. You want someone who can go in and make sure your ideas are cohesive and compelling, and that you have a consistent voice throughout the piece. It’s also important to catch the other small (but not insignificant) errors in style, grammar, and clarity.
Basically, a second set of eyes is always helpful. But when that extra set of eyes has an intricate understanding of the mechanics of good writing, and they’re willing to be honest with you and not inflate your ego, you can improve your writing by leaps and bounds. And that’s why I recommend working with someone like that if you can afford it.
I won’t get into the details of how to find and hire an editor because it would add a solid 2000 words to this piece, but if you’re interested in going down that rabbit hole, Cathy Presland at Author Unlimited has a great two-part series on how to find editors, and how to hire the one that’s right for you.
Regardless, if you’re like me, and the vast majority of your writing ends up on company blogs and web publications, you probably can’t afford to hire someone to do this regularly. That’s why it’s essential to learn the basics of self-editing.
I’ve got a few tips of my own for this, but first and foremost, you should always try to take a fairly sizable break between your writing and editing. It’s important to let your brain recharge a little bit, and be able to come back to the piece with ‘fresh eyes.’
For the edit itself, there are several difficult skills you’ll need, but perhaps the most important is the ability to recognize superfluous words, phrases, sentences, and even entire paragraphs.
For individual words and phrases, it’s always helpful to refer to a list like this to see if there are shorter, snappier ways to say the exact same thing. For sentences and paragraphs, look for instances where you make the same basic point, within the same context, just in slightly rephrased ways.
Then—and this is the truly difficult part—you must have the willingness to throw this stuff out if it isn’t adding anything to your piece. It’s hard to kill your darlings, but it will make you a better writer.
In terms of the specifics of what to look for when editing your writing, that could be an entire massive article of its own. Perhaps I’ll tackle that next.
But for now, here are the basics. During the edit, I clean up sentences that might still be too long or confusing after the second draft. I remove as many unnecessary adverbs as I can and replace them with stronger verbs. I nix phrases where passive voice muddles things up. If you’re curious, Hemingway (which I talk more about down below) is the ideal tool for these tasks.
And, of course, I try to cut anything that isn’t supporting my ideas, or that’s only in the piece to boost my ego. It’s not about me. It’s about the reader.
And if you’re ever in doubt, read it out loud. It’s great way to catch mistakes of all types.
All right, it’s almost time to wrap this beast of an article up, but first I want to share the exact tools I use to implement this workflow. Some of this stuff, especially the “Always Be Capturing” and “Keep It Organized” principles can get a little technical, so I hope it’ll be helpful for you to see how I put them into action.
And a quick note before we get into these. I’m a dedicated Mac user, and a majority of these software recommendations are only available on Mac. If you’re on Windows, you’ll need to do some searching to find alternatives that work for you.
Let’s start with the primary tools. These are the ones that I use every single day to carry out the bulk of this workflow.
First up, let’s talk about mind mapping software, because it’s such a foundational piece of this workflow.
Up until last month, I’d always used MindNode. It strikes the perfect balance between elegant simplicity, while still having considerable power under the hood. It’s a delightful app, and if you’re looking for something that’ll be useful far beyond just your writing workflow, MindNode is the way to go (at least if you’re on a Mac).
However, during an epic procrastination session earlier this month, I was browsing ProductHunt and stumbled across what might be my new favorite app. It’s called WriteMapper, and I’ve gotta say, the concept is absolutely brilliant.
It’s basically a mind mapping tool mixed with a minimalist markdown writing interface inside of each node. When you combine those two things, it’s insanely fast to produce not just an outline, but a fully written draft. This tool allows me to knock out my outline and my first draft in a single step, which is a huge time saver.
It allows you to either export to a markdown file, or copy the markdown of your document so you can paste it directly into your writing app of choice. This also saves time, because I can just jump straight into Ulysses and paste my completed first draft without having to create and organize more documents.
Now, this app is very new to the market, and it’s not quite as fast and smooth as working in MindNode. But the ability to jump into a node and start writing is a killer feature. I’ve used it to outline my last few pieces of writing, including this one, and I can already tell that it’s going to be one of my favorite pieces of software for years to come.
There are more dedicated writing tools on the market than I could possible count on 10 hands. But having tried pretty much all of them, there’s one that I keep coming back to time and time again. And that’s Ulysses.
As of this writing, Ulysses just switched to a subscription model about a month ago, and it pissed a bunch of people off, myself included. But after a cool-down period, I realized that it had been a solid three years since I’d originally paid for the app, and I’d used it to make a lot of money in that time.
In fact, during those three years, I built my entire workflow around Ulysses. Not only is it easy for me to capture information into it, but Ulysses comes with some great features to keep all of that information organized.
In fact, I use Ulysses to store a pretty crazy amount of stuff, ranging from all of my finished writing for the past few years (and more unfinished writing than I’m comfortable with), to all of my book notes, quotes, web clippings, and more. And all of this stuff is organized by keywords, which means it’s always available through a filter or a quick search. I never have any issues finding anything.
Basically it’s the perfect tool for me, because it combines my first two principles of a great workflow, and it’s just such an elegant, beautiful app for getting your writing done.
I have no issue with continuing to pay the Ulysses developers for this marvelous piece of software. It’s command central for all of my writing and thinking these days, and I honestly can’t imagine living without it.
Flowstate/Cold Turkey Writer
Sometimes you just have to force yourself to write. You’re procrastinating like nobody’s business, but you have a deadline coming up. Trust me, I’ve been there. Hell, I was there earlier this week as I was working on another article for a client.
When you’re in this situation, you can either force yourself to write, or you can rely on some tools to help. Here are the two best tools I’ve found for that dilemma — when you need to force yourself to write, come hell or high water.
Flowstate bills itself as the ‘most dangerous app’ and that is an apt description. Basically, you tell Flowstate how long you’d like to write (I usually go for 10 or 15 minutes), and then once you hit start and start writing, it will delete everything you’ve written if you’ve stopped for more than five seconds. And when I say delete, I mean it. That shit is permanently gone if you stop.
Trust me, it’s genuinely scary the first few times you try, but it lights a fire under your ass and gets you writing. And once you get a few minutes in and have several hundred words on the page, the thought of slowing down or stopping just becomes inconceivable. Plus, it really does get you into a state of flow after a few minutes. You’ll just get in the zone and type at the speed of your thoughts. Pretty cool.
Then there’s Cold Turkey Writer, which is still a pretty intense app, but without the scary consequences of Flowstate. Basically, you tell the app how many words you want to write or how long you’d like to write, and once you hit the start button, it will completely lock you out of your computer until you’ve fulfilled your duties. You’re only allowed back in once the time has expired or you’ve produced the number of words you set out to write.
Sometimes, if I’m in the midst of a heavy procrastination streak, I’ll enable Cold Turkey Writer on both of my computers before bed. That way I’m not allowed to do anything on my computers until I’ve written at least 500 words. It’s harsh. But it works.
When it comes to editing your own writing, there are a few different tools and web services on the market that will help. But Hemingway and Grammarly are my favorites.
Grammarly is by far the most robust tool in this category, and if you pony up for the premium version, it will give more useful data about your writing than you can shake a stick at.
But despite that power, more often than not I find myself doing my editing in Hemingway. It’s a simple, clean tool that really focuses on helping you achieve maximum clarity and readability.
It shows you when sentences are too long, when you’ve used too many adverbs, all instances of passive voice, and when you’re using phrases that have simpler alternatives. For someone like me who’s recovering from a serious case of ‘complex writing is better’ syndrome, Hemingway is a godsend.
Secondary Tools/Workflow Boosters
Ok, so you’ve seen the primary tools I use to write and edit. Now it’s time for my secret sauce, the small, but powerful utilities and apps that are the glue that hold this entire workflow together.
If you’ve never tried dictating your writing, at least while producing a first draft, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot. It’s one of those techniques that can dramatically increase your output once you get everything set up properly and get over that initial learning curve.
Personally, I’m not at the point where I dictate a lot of my writing (I’m a bit of a slow, awkward talker). But I still use dictation for one super important piece of my workflow: whenever I’m reading a physical book and I want to capture a quote or an idea into Ulysses, I just dictate it. I don’t have to put my book down or anything.
Anyhow, in terms of dictation software, Dragon is the gold standard. It’s pricy, but it outperforms everything else by a long shot. It’s eerily accurate, and it just works how it should.
PopClip is a magical little Mac utility that activates every time you highlight text on your computer, and it gives you a little menu of actions you can take. While there are a ton of useful PopClip extensions, the one I use for this workflow is the Ulysses extension.
Basically, whenever I highlight a piece of text, I can automatically send it to a new sheet in the Ulysses inbox, where it can then be categorized. No tedious copying and pasting or anything like that. It all happens at the click of a button.
This is insanely useful for those times when I’m reading a useful article on the web (or an email) and I come across an interesting idea, quote, anecdote, etc. All I’ve gotta do to capture it is highlight the text I want and click the right PopClip button. Again, I consider it to be magical, and it’s easily the most important piece of my “Always Be Capturing” axiom.
Alfred is the single most used utility on my Mac. I use it to launch applications, search for things, add appointments to my calendar, and a bunch of other stuff.
But in terms of this particular writing workflow, it helps in one key way. If you’ve got the Ulysses Workflow installed, you can navigate directly to a specific sheet or group from anywhere on your computer.
This is particularly useful when I’m working on something (or procrastinating) and I have a shower thought I’d like to capture. There’s no need to open Ulysses and manually navigate to the proper sheet. I can just trigger Alfred by hitting Command+Space, type “u,” then type the name of the sheet I’m looking for. Hit enter and the right sheet magically pops up. This is far and away the easiest way to get to my‘ shower thoughts’ sheet, no matter where I am on my computer or what I’m doing. It’s nearly instantaneous.
Though I’ve had a preference for paper books over the last few years, this handy Mac app is pushing me back into the world of Kindle books. Klib basically pulls all of your Kindle highlights directly from Amazon, and categorizes them by book in a nice clean interface.
When paired with PopClip, Klib makes it insanely easy to get all of my Kindle highlights into Ulysses where I can categorize them for later.
Last, but not least, we should talk briefly about music, because it’s an important part of putting myself in the right headspace for writing.
One Song on Repeat
I don’t know what it is about this particular technique, but when you put one single song one repeat while you’re working, it really helps get you in the zone. At least it does for me, and I’ve heard this tip from quite a few other prominent writers as well.
So when I’m working on a serious piece of writing (such as this one), or I’m diving into a writing session that I expect to last awhile, this is the technique I’ll use.
In case you’re curious, here are the songs I’ve leaned on for this exact purpose.
- Song for Bob — Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
- Mess Is Mine — Vance Joy
- Leaving Earth — Seven Lions
- Meet Me In The Woods — Lord Huron
- Cream On Chrome — Ratatat
- First Snow — Emancipator (this is the one I’m listening to at this very moment)
I’m sure there are a gazillion different songs that will work better for you, but I swear I’ve typed more words to those six songs than I have in the rest of my life combined.
Focus@Will & Brain.fm
If I’m not listening to one of the six songs above, there’s a good chance I’m using one of these two services. Both offer music that’s scientifically designed to induce focus, and while it’s easy to be skeptical of claims like that, both of these services work really damn well. Focus@Will uses real instrumental music, while Brain.fm’s tracks are generated by algorithms.
If you’re curious about using music to make yourself more productive, both of these services are worth testing out.
Wrapping up this monstrous article
Wow. This is far and away the longest piece I’ve written lately that isn’t a book. It’s everything I’ve learned over these past six years about producing quality writing, and I genuinely hope that you’ve come away with at least one or two ideas you can use to improve your writing.
Now it’s your turn, I’d love to hear more about your specific writing workflows and the tools you use down in the comments.