26 terrific—and free—tools to help you write smarter

From managing time to streamlining text, these apps and programs can help writers turn a blank screen into fluid prose. (OK, having talent IS a prerequisite.) See which would help you.

Do you ever feel that there’s just not enough time in your day to accomplish everything you have to—especially the writing?

Almost every writer feels this way at some point. The good news is that there are lots of tools, tricks and techniques that can help you do your job better and faster—and don’t cost a cent.

Here are my favorites:

Get help for writing better.

1. Hemingway App: This is one of the most useful pieces of software I’ve ever discovered. I use it every day and teach it in just about every workshop I lead. Read about it briefly here, or just give it a whirl. (You don’t have to buy the desktop version. You can use it for free online.)

Begin by clicking on the box saying “write” (top right), and enter your text onto the screen. Then, hit the “edit” button (also top right), and the software will color-code your sentences. Yellow means they’re a little bit hard to read. Red means they’re very hard to read. Purple refers to unnecessarily complex words or phrases. Blue means you’ve used an adverb. Green means you’ve resorted to passive voice.

Then, edit to eliminate the color. Even better, the software tells you what grade level your writing achieves. Be aware that the goal is not to hit grade 12 or higher. Readable writing usually clocks in at grade 7 to 9.

2. Readability stats: Just copy and paste your writing into the blank box on this page, and hit “process text” to see the results. This software might seem like a waste of time after the Hemingway app, but even though it doesn’t have all the jazzy colors, it’s still handy, because it tells you the average length of sentences in your writing. (It’s the sixth item in the list of numbers.) I aim to keep my average between 14 and 18 words. This is the only software I know of that tells me whether I’ve done that. Much like the Hemingway app, it also tells me the grade level I achieve, but because of the importance of sentence length, I use this no-cost tool, too.

3. Headline analyzer: This software aims to help you create better headlines. It’s simple to use. Just enter your current headline in the text box. It will give you a score from 0 to 100, analyzing your effort based on letter count, word count and types of words (common, uncommon, emotional, powerful.) You don’t have to sign in or create an account. Just type your headline in the box to use it at no charge.

4. Just not sorry: Cyrus Innovation CEO Tami Reese created this Gmail plug-in to highlight words and phrases that can undermine your email messages. (Examples: sorry, think, actually, just.) It runs like a spellchecker, highlighting these troublesome words and giving you the chance to delete them.

[FREE DOWNLOAD: 10 punctuation essentials]

5. IBM Watson tone analyzer: This software uses linguistic analysis to detect emotional tones in your writing style and then highlights these words in different colors. Pink shows vocabulary the software deems to be cheerful; green, analytical; blue, agreeable; and red, angry. This would be a useful tool for anyone who struggles with tone, especially in emails.

6. Cambridge English: Designed for people who speak English as a second language, this gratis program analyzes your text for its clarity in English. The program will assign you a score according to the Cambridge standard, which runs from A1 (the lowest) to C2 (the highest). Separate tabs provide feedback on errors and on sentence construction.

Manage your time more effectively; don’t forget things.

7. Pomodoro technique: This doesn’t involve any gear or software (except a timer or a stopwatch). It’s a habit, and it’s one of the best I’ve ever learned. Designed by an Italian inventor, the Pomodoro requires you to focus, intently-some might say obsessively-on one task, without allowing any interruptions for 25 minutes. Do this, and you’ll find yourself becoming far more productive. It’s spectacularly helpful with writing.

8. Free timers: I haven’t been able to find a no-cost digital timer that does exactly what I want (calculates time while making a tick-tock sound) so I’ve bought called Action Enforcer (Mac only). If you’re happy with a silent timer, however, there’s a long list of no-charge ones here, for PCs. Here’s one that will work on the Mac. If you meditate, here’s a list of great meditation timers you can download or stream.

9. Instant boss (PC only): The application helps you to work a certain amount of time (you choose how long), then get a break. When break time is over, Instant Boss tells you to “get back to work!”

10. Buffer: Twitter can be an enormous time-suck. I keep a tight box around it by scheduling my tweets in advance, using Buffer, a tool recommended by my webmaster. There’s no cost as long as you don’t schedule any more posts than 10 per day. (A limit I’m all too happy to abide by.) It’s super easy to use and automatically shortens long URLs for you. I usually have Buffer running so it saves me time to use it whenever I have to shorten something.

11. Wunderlist: My son told me about Wunderlist, and I use it every day. It’s my main tool for managing my to-do list. I especially love that it’s web-based, which means I can look at it on any computer, anywhere, with a password to ensure my privacy. I appreciate that my entries disappear until they day they are due.

12. Toodledo: Similar to Wunderlist, this enables you to make custom lists, create structured outlines and view tasks on a calendar.

13. 42 goals: This software tracks your daily goals and logs your activities. It enables you to track just about anything you like, no matter how inane (e.g., how many times you sneeze per day). The data you collect are displayed in the style you specify, such as a bar graph or a pie chart. (A paid version offers additional options.)

14. Daytum: This helps you collect, categorize and communicate any and all of your data. For example, you might track how much exercise you get, how much water you drink or how many words you write.

15. Pester me: A type of to-do management software, this no-charge service emails you with reminders that you set for yourself. For example, if I wanted to remember a friend’s birthday on Oct. 29, I would set a message to arrive in my inbox a few days beforehand to afford me time to get a card. The program sends emails at 6 a.m. Pacific time on the specified day.

16. Adblock plus: Save time—and prevent aggravation—by surfing the web without the annoying ads.

Stay organized.

17. Feedly: I follow roughly 80 blogs, which could suck up an awful lot of time, but thanks to Feedly, it doesn’t. This wonderful no-cost app allows me to “subscribe” to as many blogs as I want and read them all in one place. Typically, I read for 30 minutes to an hour, once a week, but if I’m out of town on holiday, Feedly keeps it all collected and waiting for me.

18. Kabanflow: This no-cost project management software allows you to work in a team with your colleagues, collaborate in real time, divide tasks into subtasks and analyze your processes. It even allows tracking with the Pomodoro method. (A paid premium version is available.)

Use these tech tools.

19. Pingdom website speed test: Readers want your website to load quickly. If it doesn’t, they’re likely to go elsewhere. Keep an eye on the speed of your site by testing it with this app every week. You should aim for a load speed of two seconds or less on every page. (Test at least five of them.) If you don’t get that result, then click on the “Recommendations” tab and talk your IT department or webmaster for advice.

20. Pablo: Allows you to put text (or a logo) on a photo, quickly and easily without the hassle or expense of PhotoShop. Just choose the size you want your photo to be from the right-hand sidebar (select tall, square or wide). Then, upload your image from the left-hand sidebar and click on the text to customize your own words. When you’re finished you can either share your image to Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest or Buffer or download your image for use in your blog.

Create good habits.

21. Habitforge: A habit-forming tool designed around accountability that includes daily check-ins and progress reports.

22. Stickk: A goal-setting platform, Stickk was designed by behavioral economists at Yale University. It aims to improve your chances of success by using incentives and accountability.

Improve your focus.

23. FocusWriter: This blocks out everything on your screen except for the words you type on a clean, gray background. Even so, it allows you to use spellcheck and a word count. You can also set a daily writing goal (either word count or writing time), and every time you hit a key, you get a typewriter-like sound. (Available for both Macs and PCs.)

24. Zenpen: Write while blocking out distractions-and yet retain the ability to use bold, italics and hyperlinks.

25. Self-Control (Macs) or Freedom (PCs): If you are wasting endless hours on Twitter or Facebook when you should be writing, one of these could be just the app you need. Set it for two hours, and your browser will behave as if it’s offline for that time. A computer reboot will not help. (Although you can whitelist or blacklist certain sites.)

26. Turn off your email and your cellphone: This will cost you nothing and is probably the best trick of all for improving your writing. Did you know that researchers have found that just hearing our cellphones beep or buzz can hurt our productivity? So does simply seeing the number of emails our inbox has collected—even if we’re not checking them. Do yourself a favor: Write without distraction.

These apps or tips all come without your having to spend a dime. As Carl Rogers put it: “With the price of life these days, you’ve got to get everything for free you can.”

A version of this article originally appeared on the Publication Coach blog.

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