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 I use a handful of tools in my daily trade, whether that's Marketing Smartypantsness, Creative Direction, or Wordslinger novel noodling. There are tons of apps and software packages out there to help with just about anything you can think of, but here are a few fall-backs I use, and how I use them. 

Evernote

Oh yes. Probably the second most used tool in my toolbox. When I first started using it back in 2008 I felt overwhelmed by it. It just seemed chaotic. I was worried notes would go in, only to be lost forever. I just couldn't figure out how to use it effectively.

That's because I was thinking about it all wrong.

The strength of Evernote is the "chaos." The way it's set up, it works well when you have tons of notes in lots of folders. It works even better when you take the time to tag notes, adding keywords that can help put the note into various categories. In this way, Evernote works a lot like your brain. All you have to do is recall a related keyword or two (or more) and you can quickly sift through all of the notes with the search tool, sort of the way you can remember the name of a movie or book you read once by thinking about bits and pieces of the story. 

This works because Evernote lets you create relevance for the note. Instead of just being a static list of facts or reminders, notes in Evernote become a network of ideas that you can sift and search based on key ideas.

I use Evernote for everything from tracking and organizing research to actually outlining a book or article. I track meeting notes, write shopping lists for projects, keep lists of books or movies I want to see, note gift ideas for Kara, and a ton of other things. It's also become my default bookmarking tool for the web, allowing me to attach relevant ideas and keywords to the bookmark instead of simply creating a link. This helps me track down pages later, when I have only a vague idea of what was on them.

Microsoft Word

 I would really, truly love to say I use some open source or specialized word processor for my work. I really would. And I've tried for years to transition to software such as OpenOffice, Google Docs, Scrivener, and hundreds of others. Some of them (like Scrivener) are absolutely amazing, and I love using them. But in the end, I always, without fail, come back to Microsoft Word.

Not out of love for the product, per se. Though, I confess, after years of using it and moving with it as it evolved, I know it really well, and can get a lot of functionality out of it. It has its issues, and has caused numerous headaches for me over the years. There are glitches that I just can't seem to figure out, mostly with random formatting malfunctions. But no matter how mad I get at it, I always come back, like a poorly treated dog who still sticks up for his master.

The reason is its universality. 

There are far better word processors in the world, but they do no good whatsoever if everyone outside of your laptop uses something else as a standard. Word is that standard. If you write professionally, and that work has to go to others (and it will), the expectation will always be that your document is coming as a Word doc.

True, every decent word processor can export to Word format. But doing so unfailingly introduces glitches and goofs, generally with formatting. A list of bullets doesn't translate. Fonts don't carry over. Headers are lost. Something. Always something.

So, Word it is. 

But the consolation prize is that Word actually is extremely powerful. As a writing tool, it's on par with everything else you could use. But included in there are tools for formatting, for image handling, for outlining, for notating, for hyperlinking. I have literally written books in Word and sent them fully formatted to a printer, getting professional results.

Can all that be done with other word processing software? Yes. Better in many circumstances. Again, it comes down to "what will others expect or accept?" That printer above? They take ONLY Word documents or PDFs, and if you send a PDF you lose options such as hyperlinking and indexing. 

I expect that this sort of limitation will change, eventually. I expect that Amazon will likely create a tool that artisan publishers can use directly, formatting documents perfectly. Until that happens, Word is my number one go-to tool.

Adobe InDesign

Remember all that formatting stuff above? Now's the part where I tell you to forget it. Yes, Word does let you do that, in a pinch. And I did, at one time, use printers that required it. Now I use printers who are a lot more versatile, and can use a well-designed PDF as well as a Word doc. And for specialized formatting, creating a document that is as professional and polished as anything you could buy from a Barnes & Noble, the tool of choice for this Wordsligner is InDesign. 

There are other layout tools that are impressive in their range of options and capabilities. LaTex is a popular tool for layout, and one you can use for free. And maybe it's because of all the years I worked in the ad agency world that InDesign has become the supreme layout tool in my mind. But after using it for a few years now, I'm convinced it's the most powerful and versatile layout tool on the market.

Some graphic design friends of mine have asked why I don't write directly in InDesign. It's a fair question, and I think it's likely I could write using that as my tool. But honestly, the primary reason I don't is because certain old habits of mine cause chaos when I move to InDesign from Word. Formatting keystrokes, such as CTRL-I for italics, or CTRL-B for bold are mapped to something else entirely. And while I could go through and remap shortcuts ... er ... why would I do that? Word works just fine.

Plus, I can very quickly place a Word doc into InDesign with just a couple of clicks. It will even auto-generate new pages to match the length of the Word doc. And if I've used headers and specialized formatting in Word, I can set rules in InDesign that will automatically adjust content, to make it look the way I want.

InDesign is also much better than Word as a tool for eliminating widows and orphans in the text. It's still largely a manual process, but there are dozens of options for adjusting kerning, tracking and line spacing, keeping blocks of text together, and generally just controlling the visual feel of the page.

Adobe isn't known for being kind to independents when it comes to pricing. It's expensive stuff. But it's professional stuff, and knowing how to use it gives you an edge. I've dabbled with other layout tools, but InDesign is my go-to.

Adobe Photoshop

I swear this is not a paid ad for Adobe. But frankly, Photoshop vies with Word as my number one most used tool. I once joked that if it included spell check, I'd write in it. That feature was added a couple of versions back, and though I do sometimes write onscreen copy directly in the file, it's not great for documents. Duh.

What it is great for is a whole range of visual handiness. I use Photoshop to clean up and resize images that may go into a book or article, to create ads, to create covers for my books, to create funny pictures to distract me when I should be doing other work. Photoshop makes it possible to achieve a very professional look and feel for all of my work. People judge books by their covers. Photoshop lets me tell stories visually, which means I can attract the right audience.

I think people don't fully appreciate just how powerful Photoshop really is. Over the years, Adobe has added in tons of features that see little use by most folks, but can be real game changers if you master them. 

I can create vector graphics in Photoshop, just like those you can create in Adobe Illustrator. It's true, Photoshop doesn't do this nearly as well, but in a pinch it's quick and easy to pull off.

I can also do minor video editing in the software, including rotoscoping effects in frame by frame. No real replacement for Premiere or After Effects, but handy for quick and professional-looking work. 

All together now

These are just top-level tools, but they're the most important in my arsenal. Supporting them are other must-have items. My iPhone and MacBook are two things I'd hate to lose. I could work without the, but they make life exponentially easier. 

All together, these tools synthesize into a system. And that system is the real miracle. You can have tons of cool tools, and they may cost a fortune, but if you don't have a workflow in place, a system for using those tools to produce results, they're worthless.

I learned this lesson the hard way when I was running my small production company. At first, I started with a handful of tools I had cobbled together from flea markets and garage sales. I had older stuff, not really much in use in the industry at the time, if it ever was. I didn't have expensive video decks for digitizing tapes. Instead I had video cameras I'd had to repair myself. I didn't have the most current software, but instead made due with old copies given to me by friends or family who had upgraded. In short, I had very little, and managed to scrape by.

When I started making a profit, I started "investing" in new equipment for the business. I bought new cameras, new decks, new software. I bought what I knew was going into much more profitable businesses. The trouble was, those businesses had people who knew how to use all of that, and who were able to get results with it. I had pieces of equipment in my arsenal that I didn't know how to use properly. As a result, I took the simplicity out of my business, and doubled the stress for ever task. 

Eventually i worked it out. If I kept things simple, found a handful of go-to tools that I could use instinctively, I could get better results, faster, than some people with bigger budgets and more toys. And if I needed to get a new tool to improve efficiency, I knew I  had to understand it before I ever invested a dime in it. I would take time to learn it in and out, every chance I got, and determine how it would help my business and me. If it couldn't make things easier, it wasn't worth the investment. Cool costs too much.

I carried all of this over with me when I took on the Creative Director position with Idera, and it's made all the difference. I know the strengths and limitations of the tools at my disposal, and I know how to get the results I need from them. That means I can counsel others, the people who work with me, on how to do the same. We can learn and grow and take on new tools as the need arises. We're flexible and fast, and know how to get more out of less. That's invaluable.

As a novelist, having my go-to tools gives me a huge advantage over other artesian publishers. I don't have to pay for design or layout services, which saves me thousands per book. And because I don't have to pass the work to others first, I can move more quickly from screen to page. 

So what are some of your go-to tools? How do you do the things you do, and have you found ways to make that process fast and inexpensive? I'm always looking for ideas to steal. Er ... incorporate. 


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Kevin Tumlinson is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, and the host of the Wordslinger Podcast. Try three of his best books for free when you download his starter library at kevintumlinson.com/starterlibrary.
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