When Julie Andrews sang to the von Trapp children about her favorite things, she mentioned whiskers on kittens and brown paper packages tied up with strings. Not me. I’m all digital. My favorite things are great websites and cool tools for writers.
Here are seven of the best:
1) Want to know the grade level of your writing? I’m obsessed with readability statistics, and although they can be activated in MS Word (check your help menu for directions), you can just as easily bookmark this free Online Utility and get all your stories rated here. This site is better than the Word version, because it tracks five different indices (Word restricts itself to the Flesch Kincaid) so you can see how your writing ranks in a number of measures. Gunning Fog and SMOG are usually the most stringent. You know you should be aiming at grades seven to nine, right? This is not because your readers are stupid; it’s because they’re busy and distracted.
2) How effective is your website? If you’re really interested in numbers, you can have a piece of free software rank your website—or, even more fun, someone else’s—at the Website Grader. Just type in the URL of the site you want to evaluate, and you’ll get a “grade.” Just as if you were in school, this one is calculated out of 100. (I’m thrilled that my site ranked at 91 percent!)
3) Do you frequently repeat yourself? Maybe you’re a vice president who sees everything as a “challenge.” Or perhaps you’re a teenager who describes all experiences as either “awesome” or “lame.” Or possibly you’re a marketing guru who can’t stop using the phrase “value proposition” (ugh). Well, you’re all equal before the calculating eyes of the Wordcounter. This handy paste-and-see website ranks the words you’ve used most frequently in any text you’ve written.
4) Need a synonym stat, pronto, quickly, or without delay? You can’t go wrong if you buy or subscribe to the Visual Thesaurus. This nifty little bit of software will sit on your hard drive and help you find better words almost instantly. Just type a word or phrase into the search box, and—voilà!—a starburst will explode on your screen, displaying all the synonyms. (There’s a free demonstration offered on the site.) You can buy the software outright for $39.95 or get a year’s subscription for $19.95. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that I write a monthly column for VT, but I get no royalty or commission if you decide to buy or subscribe to the software.)
5) Need to deliver large files? As a publication coach who frequently sends large email files back and forth to graphic designers and clients, I often exceed the file size permitted by my server. Instead of tearing out my hair, I turn to You Send It, a “drop box” service that allows you to send files of up to 100 MB without paying a cent. You’ll need to register; just choose the “lite” (free) version.
6) Have you ever called an about-face a 360-degree turn? Save yourself from future embarrassment by exploring Common Errors in English. This alphabetical and amazingly long list, produced by a professor of English at Washington State University, reveals many fascinating facts about our language. For example, did you know that “daring-do” should be spelled “derring-do”? And that “to table” something in the U.K. means to put it up for discussion, while in the U.S. it means the opposite? It’s lots of fun exploring this site.
7) Desperate to force yourself to write? My all-time favorite tool for writers, Write Or Die, has been created by a man who calls himself Dr. Wicked. With good reason! Go to his site, and enter how many words you want to write; then give yourself a time limit. Then choose your consequences (I always stick with “normal”) and your grace period (I choose “strict”). Once you’ve made your selection, you’ll be given a blank screen.
Start writing, but if you stop for more than a second or two your screen will start to change from buff colored to pink. Keep stalling, and the pink will deepen until it’s finally an embarrassed red. After about 10 seconds of inactivity, a horrible noise will sound. Sometimes it’s a car alarm, at other times an unhappy baby, on still other occasions, bad ‘70s disco music. Highly motivating.