How to blog better with just a few writing tools

Oh, lists! We all love them. Especially the ones that offer loads of new free apps to make our lives easier.

And there are loads out there aimed at bloggers. Like The 34 Best Tools for Improving Your Writing Skills from HubSpot, or 39 Blogging Tools to Help You Work Faster & Write Better from Buffer.

But when you're starting out, you don't want 39 options. You want to start with a few that work. And you also want to know how to weave these various writing tools into a good workflow.

So, here's a much shorter list of writing tools that will help you blog better and faster.

This is the toolkit I use every day, whether I'm writing for my own blog or freelancing for other people. And it works wonders for all your writing: reports, proposals and design docs, as well as blog posts.

What writing tools do you need?

Before we dig into the toolbox, let's look at the steps involved in writing a blog post, and how writing tools can help.

Pick an idea. Creativity might be 99% perspiration, but you need some inspiration to get you started. You might write about your own experiences or topics you know your readers care about. I try to balance the two. If it's all about me, it's not going to be useful to readers. If I only wrote about things that interested my readers rather than me, I'd find it hard to keep going. I write ideas for posts in my notebook, as they occur to me, and then add them to a master list as part of my weekly review.

Do the research. Before I start writing, I have a poke around the internet to see what others have written. It helps to make sure I'm adding to the discussion on a topic rather than duplicating other people's ideas. I collect notes and links as I go - links to other relevant articles help your search rankings as well as your readers.

Choose keywords. I write because I like to write. But it's kind of depressing to write stuff that no one reads, so I do pay attention to keywords. That is, the words people type into Google that lead them to see my posts. If you're blogging for any marketing-related purpose, then it helps to choose keywords that will help you get in front of your readers. Then, later on, tweak your wording, so it's clear to Google what your post is about. This is a step where specialist tools help a lot.

Outlining and drafting. Once I have an idea of what I want to write, I smash out a first draft. This is often quite rough, just bullet points or notes on things to fill out later. If I'm writing for someone else, I'll almost certainly do a rough draft. This lets the client check I've interpreted their idea correctly. I'll then fill the rough draft out into a full article, ready for polishing. What you need here is a tool you enjoy using, because this is the longest step in the process.

Editing. I can cut anyone else's copy with ease. My own stuff? Not so much. I need help applying the red pen to make my posts easier and quicker to read. And the more I use my favourite editor, the less time this step takes. I've pretty much broken my addiction to 5 line sentences now.

Spelling and grammar. Typing errors and misplaced apostrophes are embarrassing. Some mistakes will sneak through to publication, but I use a proofing tool to remove as many as I can.

Search optimisation. That means tweaking the article to make the most of the keywords I chose earlier. I'm not a massive search nerd, but some things are easy to get right - so long as I'm reminded to do them. I'm usually dashing for publication at this point in the process, so a checklist is vital.

Layout and publish. Publishing tools like Word or Squarespace are too cumbersome for writing. So I use one editor for all my text and then transfer the finished copy into the publishing tool as a final step.

Now we have an idea of the process, what writing tools do I use to make things easier?

Ideas and research: Apple Notes

Or any digital notebook that works for you. I used to use Evernote, and I've worked with people who swear by OneNote or Keep.

I'm currently favouring Notes because it works well in my all-Apple ecosystem. But so long as your notebook allows you to make notes and save links, you'll be fine.

I use digital notes to capture ideas for future posts, sweeping them onto a master list at the end of the week. I also use Notes when I'm developing an article. I might sketch the outline, write snippets or possible headlines, and save links to related articles.

Keywords and search optimisation: WebTextTool

I used to try and do keyword research on the cheap, trawling through Google AdWords and figuring things out for myself. That's a clunky way to go about SEO, especially if you aren't using AdWords for advertising.

WebTextTool makes this step much more manageable. It checks your keyword idea and returns a colour coded report, with volume, competition and total score. It also suggests a list of related keywords that might work better.

Once you've chosen your keyword(s), the editor helps you optimise your post. It has a checklist of what you need to do and ticks off each step as you edit your work. For instance, it counts how many times you use the keyword in body copy and headings, turning green when you've added it enough.

The free plan allows one page, and 10 keyword searches a month. That's plenty when you're starting out with your blog. I used to recycle the same page for every post, changing the keyword each time.

Outlining and drafting: Ulysses

I do most of my writing in Markdown syntax. This is a way of formatting text independently of any specific tool. You add headings, bold, italics and links with keystrokes: # for headings, * for italics, ** for bold, etc.

I find Markdown editors help me write faster because they reduce distractions - like spending ages fiddling with your heading styles or bullet options. They also help you work with different editing tools. If you write in Word, you will tend to rely on Word's built-in spelling and grammar checkers. There are better ones on the market, and it's easier to move text in and out of proofing tools if you use Markdown in your primary editor.

You can also use one tool to write, regardless of where your articles end up. It's easy to copy your work to your chosen publishing tool at the end of the processes. For my own blog on Squarespace, I can paste Markdown text straight into the editor - complete with links and headings. Or I can copy the Markdown as HTML or Word, for clients who publish on other platforms.

There are loads of Markdown editors out there. Many are free, and most are pretty inexpensive. You may already have one: if you use something like BBEdit or SublimeText to edit code, you can use it for Markdown too.

I like Ulysses, which is not free. It has some great features. You can export to Word, PDF or HTML using a style sheet. This means you don't have to format everything by hand. You can also paste text in and convert it to Markdown from a variety of formats. And it syncs with my iPad for writing on the road. Ulysses is £4.49 a month, and it's also included in the Setapp subscription - which is $9.99/month and 50% off with an educational discount. Bargain!

Editing: Hemingway

This post from CoSchedule reiterates some sound advice: keep your sentences short and your paragraphs shorter. You might be writing about the most complicated thing in the world: gravitational waves, say, or A/B testing. Doesn't matter. Your job as a writer is to make your work easy for your audience to read and understand.

Hemingway is your best friend here. It highlights all your wordy sentences, unnecessary adverbs and pretentious synonyms. It also suggests a reading difficulty score, word counts and likely reading times so you can tailor your writing to your target audience. The online app is free; a desktop version is available for $19.99.

Tip: to transfer text into Hemingway for editing, copy it out of your editor as Markdown. That makes sure all the #, ** and [] stay in your text, so it's still formatted right when you paste it into the next tool - or back where it came from.

Spelling and grammar: Grammarly

Grammarly is a browser extension and app. Even in the free version, it's way smarter than the spellchecker in Word. As well as underlining mistakes, it offers advice on what the problem is and how to fix it. So you learn to write better over time.

The premium version checks for more subtle grammar issues. It flags up overused words and allows you to switch between different tones of voice. You can also check for plagiarism.

How my writing tools fit together

This isn't an exact process. It varies depending on the type of post and who I'm writing for. I sometimes add in extra tools. For instance, if my wrists are sore I'll use Nebo for drafting. But generally it goes something like this:

  • Research in Notes, saving links as I go.
  • Start the post in WebTextTool to identify keywords. (Blog posts only)
  • Draft in Ulysses.
  • Copy as Markdown, and paste into Hemingway for editing.
  • Copy from Hemingway to the Grammarly app, for spelling and grammar.
  • Copy back to Ulysses, pasting as Markdown to save the 'authorised version'.
  • Copy and paste as HTML to WebTextTool for SEO checks. Then copy and paste as HTML back to Ulysses. (Blog posts only)

Finally, we're ready to publish. If it's a post for me, I copy as Markdown and paste into Squarespace. If it's for someone else, I export from Ulysses to Word or PDF or whatever they asked for.

What are your favourite writing tools? If there's something new that you think I should try, do let me know!

Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and download or buy the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use myself and believe will add value to my readers.