The Writer’s Toolkit

Philip White

What makes a successful writer? Talent? Certainly. Knowledge of and passion for one’s subject? Absolutely. The ability to find a market for your wares? No doubt.

Yet without the proper tools, a writer, like any craftsperson, will face serious difficulties.

The best communicators through the ages have turned to the latest innovations to help them eke out words and a living. The Roman orator and statesman Cicero relied on his Tiro’s invention of tablet-based shorthand (no, not an iPad 2!), a Royal Quiet Deluxe portable typewriter was Hemingway’s weapon of choice, and Raymond Chandler used a Dictaphone for the first drafts of his screenplays.

In the past few years I—a Twitter-averse, text message-avoiding, Facebook-shunning curmudgeon—have forced myself to find tools that eliminate paper-shuffling inefficiency and allow me to record late night thoughts that invariably evade me the next morning. (Putting such things out of reach of my four-year-old son, Johnny, and his two-year-old brother, Harry, was also a good move). So, here goes with my list of treasured tech tools, which see a lot more use than my dust-collecting hammer, screwdriver or pliers.

Speech Recognition Software + Mic Winston Churchill tormented many a secretary with late-night transcribing duties and, while she’d make a fine scribe, I doubt my good lady wife, Nicole, would care to record my nocturnal babble. So, I turned to technology—namely, a wireless, Bluetooth-compatible microphone and a copy of Dragon Naturally Speaking. When my mother first purchased its predecessor, Dragon Dictate (complete with a very poorly designed dragon logo), some 15 years ago, this was a crude, ineffective technology that required more coaching than a preening, high-strung NFL wide receiver. Now, it’s quick, user-friendly, and mostly accurate. Although you can’t eliminate the occasional hilarious gaffe—I don’t think Joe Stalin would’ve cared for what my speech recognition software calls him.

Tablet + Stylus We’ve moved on a little since the aforementioned Tironian notes were in their heyday, but the concept is similar—take a stylus and mark semi-intelligible scribble on a tablet. Now, I know there are a lot of Apple fanboys and girls who will want to string me up for saying this, but, despite its numerous merits, the iPad is not the best thing for the job. That honor goes to the HTC Flyer, whose seven-inch form and handy “Magic Pen” make on-the-go note taking a cinch. The real power is the wireless synch with Evernote, which runs OCR on your notes so you can find certain words later with a full content search from any device. And if it can read my scrawl, it can read anything. Another bonus is the ability to highlight and annotate within e-books downloaded from the Kobo store—as close to marking up a real paper and glue copy as you can get on a slab of aluminum and plastic. Yes, having to pay extra for the stylus at Best Buy is a fine example of tech company money grabbing, but to me, at least, it was worth it.

Olympus Phone Call Recording Thingy OK, before you think I’m going all 1984 here, I try to tell interviewees that I am going to record our conversation lest they outpace my makeshift shorthand. The technology here is simple: a tiny microphone that sits in my ear and records both sides of any phone conversation on my voice recorder. Just like the NSA (totally kidding, noble overlords). I then connect the recorder via a USB cable and rip the file right into iTunes. Love this gizmo, except the droning of my own voice. (Who, except talk show hosts, politicians, and Charlie Sheen actually likes to hear themselves talk?) There has to be something similar for the iPhone, iPad, iWhatever, too, Applenistas.

How about you, dear readers? Do you have any tech toys/tools that you’d find it hard to live and write without?