Paper Doll’s NANOWRIMOMo(nday): Organize Your Writing Platforms for Maximum Focus

Posted on: November 13th, 2017 by Julie Bestry | No Comments

In ye olden days, serious writing required pen on paper or a typewriter, or some combination thereof. Then came computers with Wordperfect (and MacWrite, for my fellow 80s kids), and now, most people write using some of the standard software and app platforms most readily available to them: Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, or Google Docs. Each has its advantages as well as demerits, including bloated features that distract from the writing process or elements that don’t quite do what we wish they magically should.

If you’re writing a term paper or a letter of complaint, these big guns, which are likely already part of your regular writing routine, will suffice. But there are so many other platforms you may wish to consider to help you organize your resources, improve your writing focus, and be more productive.

Previously, we’ve looked at how to organize yourself to write for NaNoWriMo and other projects and how to get and maintain your motivation. As we continue our writing-themed Mondays in November, we are looking at options for selecting a writing platform to keep you organized and focused.


Scrivener – For serious writers (from novelists and playwrights to journalists and academics), Scrivener seems to be the biggest poorly-kept secret out there. Everyone seems to know of it, though most seem to have some trepidation about getting started with it.

Scrivener is a heavy-duty professional writing tool created by writers for writers. At its most basic, it’s a ring-binder, a scrapbook, a corkboard, an outliner, and text editor all rolled into one. Use it to organize your thoughts on notecards in the virtual corkboard mode, view your research and writing in side by side windows, and use one of Scrivener’s templates to get the ideal format.

Create narrative or conceptual structure with easy drag-and-drop tools and write in a clean, distraction-free environment. Scrivener makes it possible to write a long presentation or a complete manuscript for a book in a way that a regular word processing application really can’t. Put all your research into it, and break it down into manageable small chunks (almost like writing on index cards) so you don’t have to constantly scroll up and down 20 (or 200) pages of a document to locate what you need. Then weave everything together to form one unbroken manuscript.

To help you keep track of your goals, there’s a visual feature for seeing your progress toward particular word counts, whether by chapter or document. When you’ve written and edited to your satisfaction, Scrivener lets you format your work to various industry standards and export documents suitable for sharing or for publishing print books or ebooks.

Scrivener is available for Mac ($45), Windows ($40), and iOS ($19.99). To get a feel for what it can do for you, Scrivener’s creator, Literature and Latte, created a video:

Scrivener is complex to customize and comes with an incredibly detailed on-screen tutorial. But the biggest downside to Scrivener is that there’s so much available to you, so many features to accomplish so many different functions, that you’re likely to be overwhelmed. Happily, there’s a particular Scrivener expert I can recommend.

Joseph Michael, AKA @Scrivener Coach on Twitter, is the dude to know. Over the last year, I’ve taken a few webinars he’s offered via other writers and bloggers I follow, and learned more with less frustration in a no-cost one-hour webinar than I did reading the already superb Scrivener for Dummies. (It’s a good book, but not everyone can translate text instruction into learning computer skills.)

I suggest that if you have or get Scrivener, that you follow Joseph Michael for his Scrivener Ninja Tips:

If you’re really serious about learning all that the software has to offer, though, consider his Learn Scrivener Fast course. I’m not a shill for him; I just know that no matter where I go on the web, when Scrivener comes up, Joseph Michael’s name is mentioned in short order, and I can honestly say that he ties with my tech-oriented organizing colleagues Deb Lee and Kim Oser for  offering the most detailed, fluff-free, information-laden presentations on the planet.

IAwriter – This platform is designed to help eliminate all of the distractions of the menus, toolbars, and icons that may keep you from focusing on what you’re trying to say, rather than how it should look. Explaining their approach:

The cover letter for your dream job. The business proposal that will turn everything around. The love letter, telling them how much you care. Why is it so hard to get started? Few of us grow up without a fear of being judged for our writing. So we pause, we hesitate, we procrastinate, while others advance. In iA Writer, we stripped away everything that might stand between you and how you feel, so that you can write from the heart. This is how great writing gets started.

Features for creating this distraction-free environment include:

  • Custom templates find you the form you need.
  • Focus Mode dims everything except the current sentence, allowing you to maintain focus, much like how a typewriter’s limited view kept writers in the moment.
  • Night Mode puts light text on a dark screen, which is easier on the eyes, especially when writing at night.
  • Syntax highlights find weak verbs, unnecessary or repetitive words, erroneous conjunctions. etc.
  • Content blocks allow embedding of photos, tables, and text.
  • Document library lets you search, sort, and swap between documents all from your current window.
  • File export enables exporting your IAwriter document to WordPress for your blog or website, Medium, or HTML, or to Word (.docx) or PDF.
  • Multi-Markdown language lets you format and edit for a streamlined but powerful visual approach.

For the person who needs minimalism but doesn’t want to learn any coding and just wants to click a big B for bolded writing, iAWriter will have some tradeoffs. There are a number of video tutorials to help you learn Markdown, exporting and sharing skills, and setting preferences.

While it’s Mac-only, IAwriter can be used in all of your mobile settings, including on iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. ($4.99 for iOS/Android; $19.99 for Mac.) Also, it’s Stephen Fry’s favorite writing platform.

Ulysses – Are you a Mac person and who wants a clean, spare writing platform? Ulysses clears the decks. From a focus and productivity perspective, Ulysses is all about keeping your fingers on the keyboard and your eyes on the prize.

Ulysses has a basic, distraction-free interface with a few options:

  • Themeable Editor – lets you choose your own color palettes or download user-generated themes.
  • Typewriter Mode – when it’s enabled, the line you’re currently typing stays vertically fixed – top, center, or bottom, whatever you prefer, and you can set a one-line highlight.
  • Plain Text Enhanced – so even when you’re streamlined, you can still incorporate footnotes, graphics, or links.
  • Markdown-based text editor – so you don’t have to fiddle with fancy formatting or styles.

The organizational tools include a single library, which autosaves everything you create, hierarchical groupings, so you can keep track of sub-projects, and attachments (PDFs, images, keywords, etc.) which can be associated with a document without being inserted into the document, and filtered searches. You can also easily set word or character goals and share your progress via social media.

Syncing with iCloud and across iOS/MacOS devices is automatic, and you can add Dropbox folders to your text library. For exporting and sharing, you can export in multiple file formats (text, HTML, epub, PDF, and Word), or publish to WordPress and Medium. There’s a Live Preview feature, so you can see how changes will look when published side-by-side with the changes as you are making them.

To the chagrin of some writers, Ulysses recently moved to subscription-based pricing, $4.99/month or $39.99/year, or $10.99/month for students. Ulysses also offers a 14-day free trial.


Ilys, a web-based option, was designed to help writers drop-kick writer’s block and push past self-doubt. The conceit of Ilys is that it only lets you see one letter at a time, and won’t let you edit until you’ve written your pre-set number of words. (There’s even a Ninja mode, where you can’t see any letters you’ve typed at all!) Obviously, this is only suitable for decent touch-typists, but it’s a huge boon for writers who tend to self-edit every other word.

To start an Ilys writing session, enter how many words you want to write. Then just start writing, because there’s nothing else you can do. You can’t go back, delete, or edit anything until you have reached your word count goal. (There is an “eye” icon you can click to view what you’ve already written, in case you can’t remember the name you gave a character, or if you need to refer to a statistic you’ve typed.)

Ilys tracks your progress, identifying where you excel and where writing output dips. Because many writers profess that consistently writing a set number of words per day (irrespective of quality) is the key to success, Ilys is focused on providing a realm in which to keep on writing.

Everything is autosaved, just in case you accidentally delete something (or change your mind). Your data is stored, encrypted, online, until you’re ready to export your work to a word processing platform for more complex formatting.

Ilys offers a free 3000-word trial; after that, it’s $10.08/month (or 60% off with an annual subscription), and you can find a number of discounts on the web, including via their NaNoWriMo sponsorship offer.

The Most Dangerous Writing App, like Ilys, is web-based, and offers a similar, if potentially-paralyzing, approach to shutting down your inner critic. Instead of focusing on a word count, you set the time frame: 5, 10, 20, 30, 45 or 60 minutes, hit “Start” and commence writing. While you write on the minimalist, unformatted screen, the web app counts your characters, words, and typing speed. If you stop typing for 5 seconds, everything you have written thus far disappears. Once you hit your writing time limit, you can copy and paste (no exporting!) your writing so you can edit and format elsewhere.

The whole concept is to free yourself from constraints and self-doubt by focusing all of your attention on your words. You can write in night mode or go full-screen to hide your desktop, but otherwise, this free web app is all about scaring you into letting the words flow! This is more suitable for Julia Cameron-inspired “morning pages” or following writing prompts than adhering to an outline for a long-form document.

ZenPen is another free, web-based platform. Actually, it’s barely a platform. It’s a bare-boned writing space with no distractions. If you must format, just click on the word or phrase and a tiny pop-up menu appears for bold, italics, quotations or links. Save and download what you create in plain text, Markdown or HTML for editing elsewhere. You may also set a target word count, invert colors to write white on black, and toggle to full screen.

Whether you choose a robust platform to complete your work of a lifetime or just select one of the web apps to free yourself to write without self-criticism, I hope you find a solution that works for you.

In our next NaNoWriMo Monday, we’ll be looking at wide variety of resources to help you organize your actual text and be more productive with your time. We’ll cover everything from proofreading and editing solutions to transcription options, all designed to help you write faster and create clearer communication, whether for your big novel or a workplace memo.


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