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From Idea to Final Draft: How to Increase Your Writing Productivity

Bakari Chavanu 10-07-2014

You don’t have to be Stephen King to be a productive writer. Using the right applications and writing tips, you can get more writing done with less frustration, and finish what you start.


I’m not going to pretend that writing is easy and doesn’t require experience and skill. But if you’re not taking advantage of all the tools at your disposal or taking on-board the writing habits of professional writers; your writing productivity may not be as efficient as it could be.

Different writing projects require different approaches, but the following tips and resources apply to nearly all projects.

Keep a Notebook

Many writers have ideas about what they’re going to write before they begin a writing project. If you write blog posts, student essays, reports and more on a regular basis, get into the habit of keeping a notebook to jot down ideas – be it paper, digital or both.

As a Mac user, I use a several digital notebooks How & Why I Use 5 Digital Notebooks to Stay Productive I use five different notebooks. Why? Because each has a distinct purpose or feature that helps me stay productive. Read More on my Mac and iOS devices, and I use them for gathering ideas and other content for current writing projects. The Windows version of OneNote 10 Awesome OneNote Tips You Should Be Using All the Time Microsoft OneNote is just as good as Evernote. OneNote is the digital equivalent of a binder, giving you more organizational control. We show you effective note-taking tweaks you'll love. Read More can be used for the same purposes.

Though it’s a significant investment, the pen and paper writing tool Livescribe 3 Livescribe 3 Smartpen Review and Giveaway Who doesn't want a Livescribe smartpen? Whether you're a student, a journalist, attend meetings a lot, or just need to easily record writing and audio, you can make good use of a smartpen. Read More  is useful for handwriting notes that arethen automatically archived in the Livescribe app or Evernote. Livescribe can also convert your written text into digital text, so it’s searchable. I sometimes use Livescribe when I don’t feel like typing, but when I want to quickly jot down notes and review them them on my computer via my Evernote account.


Keeping notes is a part of the prewriting process that can provide big boosts to your productivity and really kickstart your writing project.

Bookmark Research

As you research your project, you need a method for bookmarking and managing your resources. Evernote’s web clipper service Evernote's New Web Clipper Is The Ultimate Content Saving Tool Evernote's Web Clipper isn't new. But if you haven't heard, or perhaps didn't like the Evernote clipper in the past, this is the right time to look into it again. Read More allows for annotating and bookmarking webpages to a designated notebook, so it’s all in one place when you need it.

7 Highligher

Another online bookmarking and annotation tool called Diigo Use Diigo To Help Write Your Next College Essay or Term Paper Read More can also be used and accessed from any browser. With Diigo you can highlight webpages and review your highlights and notes in your Diigo account. Similarly, you can use PDF readers like iAnnotate for iOS iAnnotate: The Best iPad App for Annotating PDFs and Word Documents When it comes to annotating and reviewing PDF documents on the iPad, iAnnotate PDF ($9.99) is my go-to solution. If there's an option to download a .MOBI or .EPUB ebook or .PDF version of a... Read More  or GoodReader for the iPad GoodReader 4 For iOS Provides Even More Tools for Reading & Annotating Documents GoodReader has been called the Swiss Army knife for reading, marking up, and managing PDFs, and with the release of GoodReader 4 as a separate app it's time to ask: is it worth buying again? Read More  (shown below) to read, annotate, and manage documents, and even export all your highlights and notes for your project into a separate document.



Outline Your Project

Creating an outline of your writing project is the best way to see if you know enough about your subject, and to organize the structure of your blog post, report, or story. By planning the direction of your writing project using an outline, you will be able to write with more confidence and focus.

For long writing projects, I use OmniOutliner for the Mac Brainstorm, Manage & Present Outlines With Style Using OmniOutliner 4 If you want to go beyond old school methods or limited Microsoft Word outlines and save time in the process, OmniGroup's OmniOutliner takes creating outlines to another level. Read More . OmniOutliner isn’t a cheap solution, but it includes very handy outline templates and other features for writing and getting the most control over your outline. The less expensive Cloud Outliner Create, Organize & Share Outlines Using Cloud Outliner For iOS & Mac Outlines are useful for completing writing projects, taking class notes, brainstorming ideas and creating agendas for important meetings. Cloud Outliner is designed to make outlines even better. Read More is another Mac solution that also integrates with Evernote. Outlines can also be useful brainstorming tools.



Check out Saikat’s article for other outlining tools for writers 5 Tools For Outlining Ideas For Writers And Artists An outline is nothing but a hierarchical breakdown of what you plan to write or create. Arranged according to levels of importance and flow, and marked by numbers, roman numerals, headings-subheadings, indentations, or any other... Read More , including Microsoft’s ubiquitous OneNote 10 Awesome OneNote Tips You Should Be Using All the Time Microsoft OneNote is just as good as Evernote. OneNote is the digital equivalent of a binder, giving you more organizational control. We show you effective note-taking tweaks you'll love. Read More and WorkFlowy.

Text Expansion Application

Normally when writing a project, you will use similar words and phrases many times. In this case you should consider downloading a text expansion program such as TextExpander for Mac or PhraseExpress for Windows 7 Awesome Uses For PhraseExpress Text Expander In my never-ending quest to find new ways to automate my activities in front of the keyboard, and to shave precious seconds off of my work schedule, I always appreciate new and creative technologies that... Read More .


With these programs you can create short abbreviations that trigger assigned words, phrases, and other snippets when the abbreviation is typed. For example, when I type of the word, “download,” I type the abbreviation, “dl,” and TextExpander types “download” for me. I use hundreds of snippets for typing single letter words and punctuation marks to entire template emails 15 Must-Have Apps for Those Who Spend All Day on a Mac Our list of the best Mac apps already caters to all kinds of users, but today we have a set of apps aimed squarely at those who are glued to their MacBooks and iMacs all... Read More .


Use Voice Dictation

If you’re a relatively slow or clumsy typist like I am, or if you have a handicap makes typing difficult, you might want to try voice-to-text dictation. Nuance’s Dragon Naturally Speaking for Windows, or DragonDictate for Mac How To Dictate Writing On Your Mac: Apple's Dictation vs DragonDictate For a long time if you wanted or needed to use a speech-to-text dictation program on your Mac, your only choices were MacSpeech Dictate (now defunct) and Nuance's DragonDictate. But with the release of Mountain... Read More  are the gold standard in this department. Though these programs might misunderstand what you dictate, they never spell common words incorrectly. If you dictate words clearly, your text input speed can be twice or three times what it is when typing manually.

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Effective voice-to-text dictation is an acquired skill, so practice using the program for several weeks before you need to dictate a writing project. I find text dictation useful for brainstorming ideas, writing emails, and typing forum comments. I also use it for longer writing projects, such as short stories that don’t require me to reference resources as I type.

Note that while text dictation reduces the need to physically type, it may not help you write faster, because you have to think about what you’re going to say before you say it. You will also need to read back over dictated text to check for accuracy.

Build Writing Fluency

If you struggle to write, you probably need to build your writing fluency. This can be done by writing daily in a journal The Beginner's Guide to Digital Journaling  Maintaining a private journal is a great way to build your writing skills, spill out your thoughts, desires, worries, and reflections on paper. The very act of writing itself can often help you think through... Read More or using the distraction-free writing site How To Inspire Yourself To Write At Least 750 Words Per Day Read More .  The latter challenges you to crank out 750 words per day with little regard for proper grammar use or correct spelling. The goal is to build your writing expression skills by using stream of conscious writing.

Writing, like any other skill, requires daily or frequent practice as well as knowledge about what constitutes good writing.

Automatic Spelling Corrections

Mac OS X and Microsoft Word both feature automatic spelling correction. When I’m typing on my Mac, it will often correct typos and misspellings as I type. The feature is enabled in System Preferences > Language & Region > Keyboard Preferences > Text. Enable “Correct spelling automatically.”

Notice also that Mavericks includes a text expansion feature that syncs with iOS devices, but this feature is nowhere near as powerful as TextExpander.

Automatic spelling correction mac

For Windows 8, autocorrect spelling settings are enabled by default; but if yours are turned off, open Settings, and then click on Change PC settings > General, and enable “Autocorrect misspelled words.”

Try Scrivener

For longer writing projects, you can be more productive if you use an application to organize the chapters and sections of your project. Scrivener for the Mac and PC allows for breaking up your writing project Your Guide To Scrivener Read More so you can work sections in any order you want.

Scrivener Binder

Scrivener includes most important features from Microsoft Word and Apple’s Pages, but it is more than a word processor. It includes features for keeping notes, outlining your project, and for importing and bookmarking your research into folders.

Scrivener can increase your writing productivity because it includes tools like full screen, distraction-free typing, and digital index cards for plotting your fictional story, or organizing your non-fiction project. Scrivener even keeps a project file that can hold everything related to your project.

Let Your Project Percolate

Though many people write against deadlines or due dates, you can actually increase your writing productivity by allowing your drafts to percolate. If you give yourself enough time to work on a project, it’s best to write the first drafts very quickly and then come back a few days later and work on a second and third draft. By creating some distance between between the time you start revising drafts, you can see the content with fresh eyes, and better understand how your writing can be improved.

It’s also worth getting into the habit of reading your writing aloud in order to gauge the flow, and to better recognize awkward sentences. You might also want to use the text-to-voice feature on your computer to have your writing read back to you.

Final Thoughts

Writing requires lots of focus, patience and a willingness to critique your content to make it better. When you write, it’s very important to reduce distractions (like television, vocal music, and side conversations) that can get in the way of your writing. Try to write in the mornings or late evenings when your mind may be more focused, and when there are less people around.

Lastly: pay attention to software tools and features that help improve your writing workflow. They can really help.

What helps you increase your writing productivity? Need some inspiration for changing up your workflow? Add your $0.02 in the comments, below.

Explore more about: Blogging, Study Tips, Writing Tips.

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  1. francisco
    August 1, 2014 at 6:26 pm

    I just use Elevatr This app keeps all my ideas on track. I tend to throw away my papers by accident.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      August 4, 2014 at 4:15 am

      Francisco, thanks for letting us know about Elevatr. I'll check it out.

  2. Lisa Santika Onggrid
    July 21, 2014 at 5:13 pm

    Since most have given their software suggestions and I have given my 2cents regarding this topic in previous articles (tldr: try to disconnect from the internet and/or shutdown your computer at the early stages of writing), I'll give something else that works for me: when you feel like nothing can be done anymore, go out and stroll around your neighborhood. Maybe buy some snacks or see what's up with the new building, take the scenery and paint it into your mind. Forget about your writing for a while. Sometimes it's surprising how refreshed I feel when I return to my room to revise the rough draft.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      July 22, 2014 at 5:09 pm

      Lisa, I definitely agree about taking a stroll, visiting the bookstore, or even calling up a friend. Sometimes you just need to shut your mind off the topic for a while. Ideas often to come to me though when I'm taking a shower. It's a space where I'm often most relaxed, and ideas flow through my mind without the distraction of a computer, or tablet in my hand. Thanks for your feedback.

  3. philippe
    July 15, 2014 at 8:26 pm

    Beside Workflowly, there is also Checkvist ( which is a fully keyboard driven outliner.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      July 22, 2014 at 5:04 pm

      Ahh, Philippe, thanks for letting us know about Checkvist. I'll definitely check it out.

  4. Ilirian G
    July 12, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    Good article! Very useful providing a list of several software in writing "business". Thank you for sharing this. Also looking at the comments yes MS Office gets overlooked at times, but still has some good tools there as well. In then end I guess it depends all in what you are familiar with.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      July 22, 2014 at 5:03 pm

      Ilirian, thanks for your feedback. Much appreciated.

  5. Visitor
    July 12, 2014 at 3:22 am

    "Stream of conscious" made me laugh out loud. Perfect example of "little regard for proper grammar use or correct spelling."

    • Bakari Chavanu
      July 21, 2014 at 2:06 am

      Visitor, thanks for catching the mistake. I will see if I can get my editor to update it to "Stream of consciousness." We produce a lot of free content on this site, and unfortunately we don't catch every mistake. So thanks for bringing it out our attention.

  6. Andy
    July 12, 2014 at 12:03 am

    Hi Bakari, Great article. And while I don't disagree with anything you say, I suggest we all remember that writing (usually) isn't so much about using fancy software (what, we can't keep our notes on a page of Word?) as it is about getting off one's butt and actually writing, getting on with it. I'm a copywriter and PR writer, plus e-books and the expected screenplays. All just using Dollar Bill's rather woeful Word. Am well accustomed to absurdly short deadlines which don't give you the luxury of time to fool around. I put my writing notes, copy and paste research bits and pieces into a Word Doc and write with that page open on one side of the screen while writing the draft in another page. I use Scrivener on occasion as Word tends to go all silly if a doc is too long. But all that said, thanks for your insights...every bit helps. And I do realise I'm oversimplifying. Cheers,

    • Bakari Chavanu
      July 12, 2014 at 4:12 am

      Hey Andy, thanks for the feedback, and for letting us know what works best for you. I definitely have to agree with you about "getting off one’s butt and actually writing." I think the challenge is little easier for people like us who actually write for a living. But I must say I would dread having to write without using TextExpander, Keyboard Maestro, and sometimes Dragon Dictate. I've never been a very fast, accurate typist, and those applications help my workflow tremendously. I also use Scrivener a lot for longer projects, but I could work without it if I had to. But again, Andy, thanks for checking out the article, and being a MUO reader.

  7. Fred Klein
    July 11, 2014 at 10:36 pm

    Good article! On the PC side of the fence, there's OneNote that I've found great for this type of note-taking and composing. It let's me take clippings - even doing word recognition on a capture. It indexes anything entered, including dictation. AND - it's part of MicroSoft Office - often overlooked by the average Office user. Highly recommended.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      July 11, 2014 at 11:09 pm

      Hey Fred, thanks for the feedback. I have review of OneNote scheduled for MUO. I rather prefer it over Evernote, but it doesn't have the wide integration yet with other apps. However, it feels a lot less cluttered than Evernote.

  8. David Allen Wizardgold
    July 11, 2014 at 8:50 pm

    Good article Bakari.

    Don't forget to add in the Mind Mapping on the iPad or desktop computer as a step before the outlining. I like iThoughts on the iPad. I need the freedom of non linear thinking that is possible with mind mapping.

    For Outlining on the Mac there is an app called Tree which is very good. Much better price than Omni Outliner. Of course you can do some outlining in Scrivener.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      July 11, 2014 at 9:51 pm

      Hey David, awesome suggestions. I should have including at least one mind mapping tool, though I rarely use one. I'll check out Tree as well. Great to get your feedback.

  9. Alan
    July 11, 2014 at 8:12 pm

    I write a monthly magazine column. The built in outliner in MS Office (View/Outline) and Libre Office (View/Navigator/Headings) does away with the need for separate mind mapping tools (which I used to use).

    • Bakari Chavanu
      July 11, 2014 at 8:31 pm

      Alan, thanks for letting us know about those outliner features. It's been a while since I used the outliner in MS Office.

  10. Saikat B
    July 11, 2014 at 7:13 am

    Some good resources here. And a very good post Bakari.

    I feel that an optimized writing process is almost like a ritual. It also helps in some ways to break any Writer's Block.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      July 11, 2014 at 6:11 pm

      Hey Saikat, thanks for the feedback, especially coming from a prolific writer such as yourself.

  11. Bill L
    July 10, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    Two other tools you might try out for breaking up the project into manageable and malleable pieces: yWriter ( is a Windows app built by Simon Haynes, a writer himself. Also, Gingko ( is a web app that functions sort of like a mix between a kanban board and an outliner, allowing you to select segments of your writing in the leftmost column and to expand elements of that in threads across the center and right ones. yWriter5 is free, though you can donate if you like it. Gingko is free for three "trees," and you can subscribe for either $4.99 per month or $39 per year.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      July 10, 2014 at 4:49 pm

      Hey Bill, thanks for those additional resources. Gingko especially looks like a great outlining tool, similar to the old index card method.

    • Tinkicker
      July 12, 2014 at 1:19 am

      Been using yWriter for years and it's a great app! Mr. Haynes has created a gem.

  12. Roman P
    July 10, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    I'd like to mention good free Win outliners:
    KeynoteNF (I use Keynote, its predecessor, since 2003)
    Treepad (for different platforms)

    Also, the mindmapping tools, which can help you to plan and outline your works or projects as well:
    and it's base Freemind
    (at least the last is cross-platform)

    • Bakari Chavanu
      July 10, 2014 at 4:46 pm

      Roman, thanks for the very useful suggestions. I especially think more needs to be written about the mind mapping tools. I don't use them, but I know several writers who do.

    • Gail B
      July 11, 2014 at 2:24 pm

      I use TreeDBNotes (because KeyNote was my original choice and development fell apart for a long time) for the entire project when I write. I keep my outline, research and notes in one tree right next to a second tree that I use to write in. I write fiction primarily so I just use one note per scene and can move them all around in the tree if necessary. I consider it a big step UP from a standard word processor but at the end of the project, I still export my manuscript from TreeDBNotes so that I can put it through a word processor just to check formatting and make certain that it's in a bare-bones format that any other software can import.

      I also use Freeplane/Freemind for brainstorming.