A Good Sharp Pencil on Frugal Guidance 2

Every writer has a personal way of writing and a specific set of tools he or she feels more comfortable with. Since I often blog about writing and creativity, I probably experiment more than most, but I have a set of standard writing tools that I keep coming back too. I’m always curious about the tools that make others productive. These are mine. (You can share your favorites below, too.)

My Office Suites

My choice of office software is LibreOffice. But I mostly use only two modules in it: Writer (for writing, of course) and Calc (the spreadsheet tool). I started using it a few years ago as a one-month test, to see if I’d like it over my old version of Office. I never went back, and LibreOffice has definitely improved since then.

This is not the only office suite on my computer, though. I still have Microsoft Office 2007 just in case I need it for working with a corporate client.

Is LibreOffice 2016 as good as Microsoft Office 2007? See last summer’s article, The New LibreOffice 5.0 – a Writer’s Perspective

I also have the German-crafted SoftMaker Office 2012. It’s a good multi-lingual office suite, but I mostly just look at it wistfully, wondering if I should invest the time to get comfortable with it.

I keep the latest version of Apache OpenOffice, too, but mostly just to compare with LibreOffice. The project is now mostly inactive and LibreOffice has many more updated features.

I like LibreOffice. I like free open cross-platform software. If I did lots of presentations, though, I might switch to Microsoft Office or learn SoftMaker Office because I never could figure out how to make LibreOffice’s presentations work. If I had to do serious database work, I’d probably use MS Access. If I needed to collaborate online, I’d probably use Google Drive or Zoho Writer.

My Creative Writing Tool – FocusWriter

My beef with LibreOffice, Word and other office software is that they complicate the simple act of writing. From a UX standpoint, there are too many distractions. From an artist’s perspective, they are also a bit ugly and not very customizable in appearance.

Think of when you write in a paper notebook. There are no menus, no sidebars, no popups or reminders. It’s quiet and peaceful (well, depending on the environment). The interface couldn’t be simpler: a supply of paper and your favorite pen or pencil. I think that’s what a good writing tool should emulate and that’s what FocusWriter offers. You may prefer other tools for editing or formatting or writing HTML or printing or publishing or collaborating. There are many choices. But all that happens after writing.

That’s why, when I discovered zenware tools a few years ago, I tried several, including FocusWriter, and I keep coming back to it. It’s highly customizable. I can select a calming background, and I just write. It hides all the menus and other folderol until I want them.

To explain, when you write in FocusWriter there is a writing pane and a background image that hides most of the rest of the screen’s distractions. You can have an interactive spell-checker, or turn it off. There’s an option for old-fashioned typewriter sounds, but I don’t use it.

The FocusWriter screen.

The FocusWriter screen.

But when you point at the top of the screen, the menus and a customizable tool bar appear. A scene list pops out of the left if you need it for longer works. You can keep several articles open at the same time. Point at the bottom of the screen and taps pop up to switch between them. You can use a timer and the program tracks your daily word count, too.

The Disappearing Menu and Toolbar

The Disappearing Menu and Toolbar

There are plugin background images to select your own inspirational backgrounds. Or just use a plain solid color. You can customize fonts, sizes, and colors and the size of the writing space to your liking. Once you’ve customized it the way you like, forget about it all and just write.

Other Zenware / Minimalist Writing Tools

If you are interested in simpler writing tools, my list of zenware writing tools is, possibly, the most complete on the web. See Zenware for Writers, part 2.

My Typing Assistant – Phrase Express

Phrase Express is a text expander tool. (Type a shortcut and it automatically enters longer text.) It’s also a macro tool. It is also a clipboard manager that allows me to collect a pile of clippings at a time. It corrects my common typos. It speeds up my HTML and CSS coding. I use it to enter those odd letters and figures you only type once in a blue moon. You can create popups to select special bits of text or odd symbols.

If there was one piece of writing software I wouldn’t give up until you pry it out of my cold dead hands, it’s Phrase Express.

It’s like the glossary/abbreviation replacement tool in LibreOffice or Word, only it works in every desktop application and online. But it’s more. I want to write about using it, but I keep learning new things it can do. There are simpler, one-trick solutions for text expanders, clipboard managers, and simple macros, but this is the only tool I know that combines all of them (at least in Windows).

I currently use Phrase Express as a free app. If I ever make any money from my blogging, I’d happily pay the $50 upgrade for professional use – not to increase the features, but just to say thanks.

My HTML and CSS Editor – NotePad++

I use NotePad++. It’s a wonderful text editor. It’s free, open source software. I’ve customized how it highlights HTML and CSS code and it always works fine. There’s still a lot I can learn about using it.

On my iPad, I use Textastic.

My Notebook Application

No equivocation here. I use Evernote for all my digital notebooking needs, particularly for saving info for research for my blogs (Frugal Guidance 2 and, now, on Woodwind5.com, my woodwind quintet site).

My Evernote folders have multiplied since I started using it in 2009. I need to simplify. Fortunately, Evernote’s search is very good, as is its web clipper. I now try to tag everything when I add new clips.

I’m on a premium trial plan and may pay after the trial just to keep on submitting notes via email. I’m still angry at Evernote for discontinuing support of Clearly, but it still works so far. I’m waiting to see if they make any further changes that make me want to switch to OneNote.

Yes, I have OneNote, too, but I rarely use it because if I used both I’d never remember which notes are in which program. (I had that problem when I switched from OneNote to Evernote.) If I ever need to switch back to Microsoft Office, I might also switch to OneNote as well. (I think of Office as a nice, but expensive, add-on to OneNote. In fact, I think OneNote is a superior composition tool to Word.)

Mind Mapping Software

If I need to brainstorm ideas for a blog post or another project or just get organized, I use MindMaple Pro on my PC, or iThoughtsHD on my iPad. If you are not familiar with mind mapping software, think of freeform outlining with the addition of graphics, attachments, and flexible weblike linkage. See Why Mind Mapping is for You for a better explanation.

My Browser

My main browser is Google’s Chrome. I’ve heavily customized it for my blog writing, my research, my reference resources, and my HTML and CSS study and use. Most other people probably keep a few favorite website links in their customizable toolbar. I keep stuffed folders of website links all the way across and into the drop-down menu. Yes I’m a link hog.

If I didn’t use Chrome, I’d use Firefox. I used to switch between them regularly, but I’m stuck in Chrome for now for the plugins.

I keep Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera and Microsoft Edge on my PC for checking how my websites look in the different browsers, since I use a lot of custom CSS these days.

My Blogging Software

Not a big secret, you’re looking at it. It’s WordPress. Love the platform. Hate the editor for HTML and general writing, though. I wish you could customize the CSS for individual posts. I love the plugins and the themes and the controls, in general.

My Screenshot Tool

Greenshot is my screenshot maker of choice. You can edit and notate your clips before saving them, too. It’s free open source software. I use it to help create my How To articles and collect artwork to paste into Evernote for future use.

My All-Purpose Graphics Viewer

If I need to browse my photos, other graphics, or figure out which format any kind of graphic is in, I use IrfanView. It’s a Swiss Army Knife of a program that can open almost any file with a graphic in it. You can translate between formats and it will run many Photoshop plugins if you don’t have Photoshop. Irfan recently came out with a 64-bit version that is even zippier. It’s free, too.

If you do a lot of work with image files in Windows, you should keep Irfanview in your toolkit.

My Photo Editor

I use Photoshop CC. It’s worth the subscription cost. I learned Photoshop on a Mac ages ago, but I never could afford to switch to the PC version until they went to the subscription model.

I’ve also used the free GIMP (the worst-named, best-featured free graphics software around) and Paint.net, but Photoshop’s adjustment layers are worth the money to me. Plus the training available online and in books is invaluable.

My favorite Photoshop Plugins are from Topaz Labs. I use them regularly to make photos pop, to clean noisy images, to make them look like hand-made artwork or antique photos, and much more. (See the title photo.) They make great creativity tools when I need them.

Online Reference Tools

The Free Dictionary logo

The top link in my Reference folder in Chrome is The Free Dictionary. Why this? Because it opens quickly and doesn’t load a bunch of ads when I want to check a spelling, get a definition, or look up a synonym. It’s main resource is the American Heritage Dictionary, which is my favorite paper dictionary, but it also checks definitions from other dictionaries, too.

If I’m in less of a hurry, I like Merriam-Webster online. If I want to return to British roots, I’ll check the Oxford Dictionaries

My go-to online encyclopedia is no surprise, Wikipedia. When my ship comes in, I may subscribe to Encyclopedia Britannica, the online version of the New Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and the online Chicago Manual of Style.

Grammar Girl is usually my first resource for grammar questions. I could spend hours going through Bartleby.com for all kinds of reference tools and just browsing.

Image Resources

As a bargain-basement blogger, I like to use old line-art images and classic photos when I can. I often use my own photography for newer topics. My favorite online source for public domain photos is the Library of Congress website (loc.gov – easy to remember, too). I also learned how to use Google Image Search with Gutenberg.org and their public domain books. I’ve also used FreeDigitalPhotos.net and subscribe to a couple of services that send free images every seven to ten days.

Pen and Paper

I’ve tried using software calendars, appointment tools, diary software, and other digital planners, but I keep going back to paper planners, currently FranklinCovey’s Monticello themed planners.

I need to improve my daily use, but digital hasn’t helped much except, occasionally, Google Calendar.

I also keep a pocket-sized notebook with me at all times. I’ve used a variety of pens, including relearning fountain pens, but I keep a Pentel EnerGel pen with me so I can always jot something down in my notebook if I am suddenly inspired.

My Workflow


Some of my ideas come when writing comments in discussion groups, particularly for LinkedIn posts.

Sometimes I’ll just start writing in my notebook (the paper one). If it’s something I need to research, I keep copies of other articles or notes in Evernote.

Sometimes I’ll use my mind-mapping software to organize my thoughts, especially if it’s a series of articles about a topic.

When I’m ready to write, I’ll often open up FocusWriter on my laptop and keep notes in the background or on my second screen. (Full disclosure: in the past six months I’ve also drafted articles in LibreOffice, Scrivener, Evernote and Notepad++, especially if I’m reviewing that particular application. I keep coming back to FocusWriter. It’s nice having a specific tool just for drafting.

My Creative Quartet

My favorite quartet of programs for writing is: FocusWriter + Evernote + PhraseExpress + one of my mind mapping programs. Evernote for research, mind mapping for organization, FocusWriter for drafting the text, and Phrase Express to get it on the “page” more quickly. I often combine at least three of them in creating any given post.

I thought Scrivener would be an additional arrow in my quiver when I bought it a month or two ago, but I haven’t been able to work it comfortably into my workflow yet. With my Quartet, most of the attractive features of Scrivener are already available elsewhere. If I start creating books on top of blog posts, that might change.


I got through grad school, in part, working as a professional typist. I’m most comfortable using a full-sized keyboard. I splurged a little bit on a wireless Logitech keyboard which I can put on my lap and prop up against the desk. It keeps my hands in a much more comfortable position to type and works much better than my laptop keyboard. I just need to charge it once every few weeks.

I often have Chrome open for reference or for checking dictionaries, answering a quick grammar question, or to check a fact or number in Wikipedia while I’m writing.


After I draft a post, I’ll usually proofread it to death on screen. Then print it out to proof again away from the computer. When I’m ready, I copy and paste it into Notepad++ and finish the HTML. I also use Notepad++ and my browsers to test custom CSS I want to add to the blog (like dropcaps, highlighting, pullquotes, grouping credits and the like).

Finally, I copy that and paste it into WordPress. By this time, if I haven’t already selected some good graphics, I go into panic mode and search online for free public domain images or a few photo sites. Or I’ll search through my own photo collection. I generally work on images, crop, reduce the size for the blog and create JPEGs in Photoshop.

Once it’s all in WordPress, I do another round of editing and fine-tuning there, finish my SEO editing, and hit Publish. Then I collapse.

Your Turn

Those are my fave tools. Which writing tools do you use? Which ones should I try? Tell us in the comments.


Title photo is “A Good Sharp Pencil” by the author, Andrew Brandt. Edited in Photoshop and “antiqued” in Topaz Labs BW Effects.

The FocusWriter screen shots are by the author. The background theme is “Beach Stairs” from 8x10Gallery.com.

The logo for Phrase Express is from their website.

The logo for The Free Dictionary is from their site.

For more info on non-standard writing tools, see my Frugal Guidance 2 article:
Writing without a Word Processor.

Frugal Guidance 2 - http://andybrandt531.com