Being a Productive Writer and Winning NaNoWriMo – Tools That Can Help

It’s that time of year!

No, not Hallowe’en. Not Bonfire Night. Not the run-up to Thanksgiving, or even Christmas.

It’s October. Which means writers all over the world are getting ready for NaNoWriMo.

If you haven’t heard of NaNoWriMo, it’s an initiative designed to encourage people to write a novel (or more accurately, to write 50,000 words) in the month of November each year.

I’m not sure why November was picked, or the 50k word recommendation, but I do know that it always helps motivate me during November.

Every year I sign up, post my word count each day, and celebrate or commiserate with friends who are going through it too.

I don’t take it too seriously – I don’t write every single day (Sunday is family time for me). And I don’t buy any of the merchandise that Nano ‘winners’ (i.e. people who’ve hit the 50k mark) are entitled to.

But it’s a bit of fun, it brings us solitary writers together into a community activity, and it helps me focus.

This time around I’m going to be writing a dystopian thriller. Although to be honest with the way the world seems to be going right now, it could end up being a documentary.

But anyway…

If you’d like to do NaNoWriMo, it pays to prepare. I’m going to be writing a few posts this month on how you can do that, but I thought I’d kick off with some recommendations for tools I use to help me be a productive writer.

(I write four books a year: for some people that’s slow, but for others it’s productive. That’s for you to judge.)

So without any further ado, here is my list of recommended tools for being a productive writer. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments – I’m always open to new resources.


Scrivener is to my mind the very best piece of software out there for writing long works. So if you’re writing a novel, nonfiction book, play, textbook, or anything else longer than an essay or short story, I believe it can help.

Scrivener writing tool

The aspect of Scrivener that I find most useful is the fact that my novels are split up into chapters, and that I can treat those chapters almost as if they were separate files.

I can drag them around if I want to reorder them. I can track the status of them individually. I can save metadata to them such as which characters are in the scene and what location it takes place in. Very useful if you change something about a character and want to find all the spots in the novel where you need to make edits.

You can see something of the structure from this screengrab, which is of one of my novels, Sea of Lies. It also shows how I use color coding and metadata to help me manage my WIP.

Editing a novel in Scrivener

And even better, Scrivener has a thirty day trial that isn’t for thirty days chronologically – it’s for thirty days of use. So if you write once a week, your free trial is for thirty weeks.

Give it a try – it could change your writing life.


I’ve tried a lot of task management apps in my time. I’ve used Trello, Slack, Reminders, Asana, and plenty more whose names I don’t remember.

If most of those names mean nothing to you, you’re lucky. It takes a long time to test out a task management app, time wasted if it’s not right for you.

ClickUp is massively flexible and powerful, even on the free plan (which I’m on). I use it to manage tasks for my day job, my writing, and my writing business.

It has multiple views – lists, calendars, blocks and more. You can add custom fields to it to store data about your tasks that you need. You can embed documents, collaborate with colleagues – loads.

One of my favorite aspects is the calendar view, which I use to see what writing projects I’ve got coming up.

Clickup Calendar view - great for writing projects

If you get a premium plan, you can make this even more powerful by adding Gantt charts, but so far I haven’t found the need.


Do you easily get distracted from writing? Do you go online to do a bit of research and then get sucked into checking Facebook?

Freedom can help you focus. Use it to turn off websites that you specify at times that you specify. Even if you’re tempted to just have a quick peek at Twitter, you can’t.

Freedom app

Social media is designed to be addictive, and Freedom can help you quit.


This may be just me, but I find it difficult to focus when I know I’ve got emails that need to be dealt with.

If that means nothing to you, or you use a different computer for email and writing, just skip right past this section. But if you’re like me, you might find Boomerang useful.

Boomerang for gmail

It lets you boomerang an email so it disappears from your inbox and then comes back at a time you specify – for me, it’s tomorrow morning, when I’m doing my admin.

I use it for:

  • putting off emails that don’t need to be replied to right now.
  • scheduling emails with links or content (e.g. newsletters like this) that I know I have a time slot I can read them in.
  • scheduling emails with links to articles or videos I want to consume later.
  • boomeranging an email I want to follow up on later with an update or to chase it.

Boomerang is free for up to 10 boomerangs a month, and if you want more (I do) you have to pay.


OK, so if your writing isn’t at the stage where you need to set up your own business, this won’t be relevant to you.

But if you’re making money from your writing, or even if you aren’t yet but you expect to (e.g. you’re querying agents or preparing your book for publication), you need to track your expenses.

Every trip you take for research. Every train journey to your writing group. Every book you read (yes, really).

All these things are tax deductible in the UK, and may be elsewhere. And QuickBooks will automatically monitor them for you.

Quickbooks accounting

I used to keep all my receipts then put them all in a spreadsheet during one long and tortuous week each year when my accountant was breathing down my neck and the tax deadline was looming. Now I just export a report from QuickBooks and send it to him. And I can track my expenses and my earnings from my books on an ongoing basis.

QuickBooks doesn’t have a free plan, but for me, the time it saves is worth the money.

(Note: I know there are lots of accounting programs and systems out there. This one is the best value for money for me, but might not be right for you, so take the time to check a few out. The principle of saving time still applies.)


We all need different things to write. Some of us need absolute quiet, others thrive in the hubbub of a coffee shop.

For me, it’s noise cancelling earbuds and my writing playlist in Spotify. (Feel free to have a listen and use it if you like it).

I’m not sure if the music itself has any intrinsic qualities that help me write – but I do think that my brain has become attuned to it. When I hear the opening notes of Clair de Lune, I expect to be writing.

It helps me focus – and if you’re going to write 50k words in a month, focus is crucial.

(What music or sounds do you write to? Tell me in the comments!)


For every project I start, I buy a new notebook.

I’m a notebook addict, so I love getting new ones. They help me to keep everything in one place, and to know where to come back to if I want to revisit that project or that story world in the future.

I tend to use A5 Moleskines, as they’re easy to carry around with me, but I know it’s a matter of personal preference.


When I’m editing (not strictly a November activity, I know), I use a LOT of post-its.

I like to get proof copies of my books printed and write all over those when I’m editing. And I make judicious use of post-its.

Post its in a proof copy of a novel

I use them to mark the key plot points and twists. And for each book, I have a color coded system of other things that I want to mark. So for a character-driven novel I might mark the pages where character development is happening. For a comedy I’ll mark the funny bits.

I also use them to make notes on what needs to be added to a book, and pop those notes into the right spot.

And for some books, I’ve used them for plotting, writing out each beat on a post-it note and then organizing them in an order that works.

Planning a novel with post-its

(Note: you can do this exact same thing in Scrivener’s index card mode, which is what I now use.)

The beauty of using post-its is that you can then stick them into a notebook, or onto a big sheet of paper, and keep them. Then you can refer back to them if you ever need to. I throw away nothing that I generate when I’m writing – you never know when it might come in handy!

The Novel Planning Workbook

Until six months ago, I would use a notebook (and post-its!) to do the plotting for each book. I spent months pulling together a process that would help me develop character, story and plot and turn that into a chapter-by-chapter plan for the novel.

It worked fine. But it did mean making sure I kept that process written down somewhere, and then copying it into every new notebook.

The Novel Planing Workbook Plan and Write Your Book

So I decided to create the Novel Planning Workbook.

It’s a resource designed to help anyone who’s planning a novel. It starts with the big picture – on the first page, you decide on your story premise – and then delves deeper. It switches back and forth between plot development and character development so that you can ensure the two are woven together as you plan.

At the end of it, you create a scene by scene plan for your book.

And if that’s something you want to do for your NaNoWriMo project, you need to get started now!

So those are the tools I use to help me be a more productive writer. I hope you find some of them useful, and that you have a fun October planning your book if you are doing NaNoWriMo.

If you aren’t doing NaNo, then I hope these tools can help you at any time of the year. And tell me your favorites too – I’m always looking for more!

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One response to “Being a Productive Writer and Winning NaNoWriMo – Tools That Can Help”

  1. Ioli says:

    Hello! I really loved your article! I’ve been writing on and off for years but lately, as I grow older and university and work is taking up more and more of my time, it becomes more difficult for me to focus and organise my projects, so I really like your suggestions – I’ve tried out plenty of those already, but not always very successfully. I started using ClickUp – honestly we were looking for a productivity app for the lab where I’m working – but it seemed super useful for me to organise my stories as well, and most of the features I might need are, as you also said, free. Could you share a few tips about ClickUp, how you use it, if you’ve found more features that are helpful in it? Thanks a lot!

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