The Freelance Writing Trenches: Tools and Gadgets

Thursday, March 22, 2012
I like writing because it's low-tech. Technically, all you need to call yourself a writer is something to write with, something to write on, and a bit of imagination.There's something simple and elegant about needing nothing more than a pen and pad of paper to go about your daily work.

But in classic, "If you a give a mouse a cookie (then he'll want a glass of milk)" style, if you want to be a freelance writer, you'll need a few more items at your disposal beyond a notebook and pen. I know, I know. Rude.

While writers are notorious tech-phobes and pretty staunchly opposed to change  -- why else do we writers make a big fuss about self-publishing and ebooks? -- if you're want to compete in the 21st century writing markets, you're going to have to keep up with the times to a certain extent. The other day I read a freelance writing article (which I now can't find to link up) that said something along the lines of "Sure, you can not have a computer and be a freelance writer, but see how well that goes when someone says 'email that to me' and the best you can do is crumble up a piece of paper and throw it across the room." 

Here's my low-tech list of the bare necessities you'll need as a freelance writer:
(I bet you have most or all of these already.) 
  • A computer, preferably a laptop, that isn't terrible prone to the "blue screen of death."
  • A word processing program - Microsoft Word seems to be what most editors use.
  • An internet connection - for your email, website, and social media platform
  • Email - for contacting editors and submitting pieces 
  • A phone - for interviews
  • An invoicing system - like Quickbooks
  • A decent camera - you'll greatly increase your earning potential if you can provide decent photos with your articles. I just have basic Canon point and shoot camera which works well enough for what I need it to do, but I'd like to save up for a DSLR camera to up the quality of my photos a little bit. 
If you want to get all fancy, you could get printer too. I have a printer/scanner/copier combo which I use to print out contracts, scan clips for my portfolio, and, well, make copies. And don't forget to have a good amount of office supplies laid in: pens, notebooks, printing paper, ink, Post-Its, etc.

While I'm a fan of keeping it simple, I have to admit my arsenal of freelance writing tools got a little high-tech recently when I was given a Livescribe Echo Smartpen.
What's a Smartpen? It's a pen with a built-in recording device that works with special dotted paper. At the bottom of each page of Smartpen paper is a set of controls. To record audio with the pen, you just turn the pen on and with the tip of your pen, tap the record control at the bottom of the paper. The pen records until you hit the stop control and during the recording session you can scribble notes on the paper.

After you're finished recording, you can tap any of the notes you wrote during the recording and the pen will starting playing the audio that was recorded at the exact time you wrote the note. You can load all of the recordings onto your computer and computer program even captures a digital image of the page you wrote on during the recording.   The pen is a little bulky, but that's easily overlooked since the pen is basically magic.

My dad discovered the Smartpen when he read James Fallow's review of it in The Atlantic back in 2009  and what's good enough for James Fallows is good enough for this hard-hitting rural journalist. Although I do the majority of my interviews over the phone, this little pen will be a great aid when I do in-person interviews. I simply can't take notes as quickly as people talk and as a result, the quotes I use in most of my articles are pretty heavily edited by my memory.

While to date, I've stayed true to the general gist of what a person said in my article quotations, it's been extremely difficult to do a true word for word quotation unless you've recorded the interview, which I'm pretty psyched about my new Smartpen. No need to futz around trying to find the spot like I'd have to if I'd use a tape recorder or digital recorder to capture the interview audio; with the Smartpen I can just write something like "interesting" or "important" on the page when the interviewee says something meaningful and when I'm back in my office I just tap the word I wrote on the page and bingo, the audio starts playing right to the quote I wanted to use in the article.

The pen charges by being hooked up to a computer USB port and the battery and memory should be able to hand a full day of recording. Since most of the interviews I do are only about an hour long, that's plenty of recording time for me!

A writer really needs very few tools and gadgets to success. But sometimes, something as simple as just getting a little more high-tech about that pad of paper and pen we're using can make our low-tech careers   just a little easier.

Do you have any must have writing tools?

 Disclosure: I was in no way compensated for my review of the Livescribe Echo Smartpen. I'm just an enthusiastic consumer excited to have found a product that makes my writing life more efficient! 


  1. I've recently written a few articles for the twin cities daily planet, and that smart pen would really come in handy during interviews! Nice idea!

  2. I am no writer. Your article made me want one. No need here, but a big big want. SIGH.

  3. Holy crap, that SmartPen sounds awesome. I'm a horrible note-taker during interviews, and though I do have a small recording device, it seems to eat up batteries pretty quickly. The couple times I've used it have been in loud places, and it was such a pain transcribing the interviews later.

    Oh, another must-have tool for over-the-phone interviews: You're welcome. It's free, the program calls you, then the interviewee, and records the whole thing. The file is available for playback and download on the site, and you can add notes as you go. I was a little nervous doing it for the first time, because I was worried it wouldn't work, and I hardly took any notes. Works great, though. It's an amazing thing to have considering most interviews I do are over the phone.


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