I once asked a photographer the best camera to use. Before he shared his opinion, he said a common answer to that question is, “The best camera is the one you have with you.”
In other words, it doesn’t matter how fancy your equipment is if, at the moment a hawk lands on a fence post next to you, your Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is sitting in the trunk of your car. At that moment, you slowly lift up your smartphone and, as quietly as possible, snap the photo with the equipment you have on hand.
I think we should view our writing tools the same way. It doesn’t matter if a program installed on your desktop computer at home is loaded with bells and whistles, if inspiration hits while you’re on vacation. If you’re in the mountains with an extra two hours to write, that fancy program back home isn’t going to do you much good. Instead, grab a notebook and pen and capture those thoughts with what you have on hand.
Don’t Wait for Ideal Circumstances
The other day I was trying to prepare notes for a podcast episode I needed to record, edit, and prep for release the next day. I was running behind, so I grabbed my cheap bluetooth keyboard purchased online for something like 15 bucks, and while my mom was getting physical therapy, I paired the keyboard with my Samsung phone, opened up Google Keep, which is a free note-taking app, and tapped out a draft.
In just those few minutes, I was able to slam out a sloppy copy and store it in a program I could open on my laptop at home. I didn’t wait until I had time and atmosphere or access to a robust program like Scrivener. I used what I’d shoved into my tote bag.
Sure, it’s easier to use my setup at home, but I had a deadline. If I’d waited, I wouldn’t have finished on time. Just a smartphone and a tiny keyboard got the job done.
So let me run through the tools I use for various scenarios. Your life might be more predictable, scheduled, and localized than mine; if so, so you could pick just one combination and use it at all times in your main workspace. But take note of an inexpensive, flexible, mobile option, as well, because you never know—you might get the idea of a lifetime on a cross-country road trip.
Writing Tools for When I’m On the Go
Smartphone + Bluetooth Keyboard + Evernote or Google Keep
Writers need not be tied to a desk to get the work done. Although I frequently tote my laptop around to access all my files and programs, I'm beginning to use this cheap bluetooth keyboard more often. Coupled with my phone, this lightweight option works well to tap out drafts of short-form projects wherever I find myself.
The leanest system I’ve used so far is pairing my inexpensive bluetooth keyboard with my Android smartphone. Even though I usually travel with my laptop, sometimes it’s handy to pull out the smaller, subtler combination.
My keyboard is a ULAK brand purchased through Amazon, but the exact model is no longer available (comparable brands can be found with other companies).
I bought a travel case for the keyboard with a zippered side pocket where I could store extra batteries. Happily, I could slip the phone itself in that pouch, too, for a lightweight grab-and-go writing system. With this simple setup, I can type up notes as I think of them; write journal entries; compose drafts of short pieces like blog posts, poems, essays, or podcast episodes; and preserve notes from books, magazines, and online articles I read.
An important element in this system for me is the app. I want to input the text into an app that syncs with all my devices, so that when I do get back to my desktop computer or laptop, I’ll be able to find the draft and use it to craft a final version. I can be offline while typing my draft, and when I get to WiFi, the system logs on and updates.
For this, I’ve used Google Keep and Evernote, both of which are accessible when I open my laptop later.
Smartphone + Tablet (Kindle Fire) + Evernote or Google Keep
A variation on that leanest option is to substitute a tablet for the smartphone. The biggest advantage of this switch is screen size. If I need to do something more involved than write a draft, like prep a post for WordPress, for example, having a bit more screen to view a bit more content as I work is nice. I use a Kindle Fire. If I found myself relying on it more, I’d probably look into a tablet with more capacity, but this has done the job.
The rest of the setup remains the same, working offline or in the cloud using an app that will be accessible on my computer later.
Bullet Journal (or Bujo)
The bullet journal is another nice option. I’m listing this among the apps and technology because it’s a great writing tool. You could argue it’s the leanest system of all in that no batteries are required, no WiFi is needed, and it’s probably more compact than a smartphone and bluetooth keyboard.
One drawback is that when I write in a journal, I still have to transfer any notes or drafts into something on my computer, which makes for a two-step process.
Also, if I lost the journal, all my notes would be gone. Using an app, the content is saved as long as I log onto the Internet. I can lose my tablet or phone, which would be a huge disappointment and issue, of course, but the content I’ve spent time developing should remain safe and accessible in the cloud.
I do like, however, using a bullet journal to plan out ideas and, well, to think. Pencil or pen on paper seems to tap into a slightly different area of language and ideas, slowing me down, and that can be a huge advantage. Plus, sometimes I just want to stop staring at a screen.
Google Docs (available in the suite of programs in Google Drive)
Google Docs gets a spot under my on-the-go options because I have the app installed on my phone and could use it while typing on a smartphone or Kindle Fire.
I use Google Docs most often for collaboration, and on those occasions I’m generally on my laptop. My coauthor, Charity Singleton Craig, and I used Docs to write On Being a Writer. Each chapter had its own file in a folder. We could write segments at our leisure and Drive saves as you go. We could log on at the same time and discuss how we want to approach a topic. If she had an idea, we could interact on the phone or in person, and I could type it up as she talked and we’d have a draft unfolding in real time.
This is great for client work, as well. Assuming both of us are at a computer and logged onto the Internet, we can open a document and talk about it, taking notes during the discussion as we go.
Like the other programs, Google Docs syncs to all my devices—I can use any computer, phone, or laptop with Internet access can get to Google Drive, open the file, and get to work.
I usually travel with my laptop. It’s a relatively hefty Macbook Pro with a protective case, so when I pull it out and power it up, I’m dealing with my main computer. If I lose it or jostle the hard drive out of commission, I’m sunk.
But I can do everything on it, from typing up a few notes, to composing a rough draft or recording and editing a podcast. When I write on my laptop, I can use any of these apps or programs: Word, Scrivener, Google Keep, Google Docs, or Evernote…whatever makes the most sense given the length and complexity of the project.
So it’s used both on-the-go and at-the-desk, which serves as a nice transition to other tools I use.
At the Desk
Laptop or Desktop Computer + Microsoft Word
Yes, that bloated behemoth that locks up, doesn’t autosave, and bogs down our text with extra code that programs like WordPress have to strip away…I still use it. Microsoft Word. Why? Because many industry professionals still use it. If I have to submit a book proposal or magazine article in Word, it’s easier to start the project in Word and work in Word to the end.
Also, it allows me to have some local content so not everything I write lives in the cloud. I find that comforting. I rely on cloud storage for a lot, but a part of me feels a tad suspicious that the cloud is viewable by any motivated hacker. That’s probably not likely to happen; still, if it’s a Word file on my computer, it seems tucked away and private.
I bought the popular writing software Scrivener on sale on CyberMonday a few years ago and then purchased a course to learn how to use it. My life was complicated at the time, however, and even though the course lessons were short, I didn’t have time to work all the way through it and never did learn all the ins and outs of Scrivener.
I’ve tried several times to hop on and start a project in Scrivener to see if I can figure it out. I can see how useful and powerful it would be for large projects like books or courses, organizing a lot of information and content. And I’m told it works well for preparing books for self-publishing.
I don’t use it as my main word processing app, however, because it just was not intuitive for me. Impatient, I returned to the familiar programs I already know can get the job done. If you have Scrivener and want to learn how it works and use it to write your next book, go for it. Friends and clients report it makes big projects easier to navigate and organize.
But if you don’t have it, don’t worry. You can be a productive, successful writer without investing in it. It’s the writing that makes the writer, not the program. Simply write with what you have.
The best tool for writing depends on your circumstances and project, and often it’s simply the program or app and equipment you have at hand.
If you’re working on a book, Scrivener might be the best tool to use when developing your project, but if you’re sitting on an airplane or enjoying a quiet afternoon on vacation, you might want to type up a chapter in Evernote using a bluetooth keyboard and an iPad. You can always transfer that content to Scrivener later.
If inspiration strikes while you’re falling asleep, jot your ideas on a scratch pad and type them into Word the next morning.
If a phrase grabs you while driving, pull over and scribble it onto the back of an envelope.
It’s fun to hear from other writers about the tools they use, but don’t fret so much about what’s the best choice. Use what you have on hand to capture ideas and drafts. If it helped you write—and if you finished the project—it was the best tool for you.
- Your Writing Platform episode collection
- Travel case for bluetooth keyboard (with zippered poach) (affiliate link)
- Learn more about Scrivener
- ULAK bluetooth keyboard (currently unavailable, but you can see what it looks like)
- Similar keyboard to the one I use (but I can’t vouch for it)
- Kindle Fire (you can increase storage with micro sd card)
- Google Keep
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