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Episode 4

What Tools Do You Use to Write Your Books?

I hope that you might find this article useful if you're planning on writing a book or your own, or simply enjoyable if you're curious about writers' habits (as I am).

I write two different sorts of books; narratives about adventures I have been on, and books that require me thinking up ideas then writing them down.

The first category of books begin with a journey. And all good journeys begin with a map. Even though I increasingly use digital maps for my trips, I still prefer planning on paper so that I can visualise, annotate and scribble as I plan.    

Out on the trip I write as much as I can in my notebook, ranging from facts and figures, a chronology of what's happened, my thoughts and feelings, and ephemera of bits and bobs I've seen along the way such as a notice for a lost cat or a newspaper headline.

I have no desire to go digital for this phase. Phones smash, notebooks bend. 

I also collect 'stuff' along the way - leaflets, postcards, things that will jog my memory when I come to writing it all down.  (Here, by the way, is a lovely Twitter thread about people's notebooks.)

Once I'm home from the trip I type up all my diaries. 

It is a bit laborious but combines the twin jobs of getting the rough skeleton of a narrative written (the very hardest part of writing books) and also giving my brain its first opportunity to begin thinking about the journey as a single entity, an artefact, a possible story, rather than the million living moments it was whilst I was out there in the wind and the rain, hungry or lost or putting up the tent.

From this point on all of my books are written in a similar way.

This involves...

  • My Shed
  • A homemade writing desk
  • Lots of books to give me ideas and cross-pollinate
  • Macbook Pro, printer, and back up with Time Machine, an external hard drive, and a fortnightly back up on a hard drive that lives in my jeans drawer not my shed
  • Three dirty tea and coffee mugs
  • A digital radio
  • Scrivener Brain Dumps

I write all my books in Scrivener. It's similar to Word except that it is really easy to shuffle chapters around, chop and change, go back through your revisions and so on.

I begin a new folder for every chapter and scribble down as much as I can, regardless of how rubbish it might turn out to be. One of the keys to turning a blank page into hundreds of pages is giving yourself permission to write "shitty first drafts".

I also chop up the typed diary entries and paste them into the appropriate chapters.

I realise this is veering into a "how to edit a book" response, so I'll leave that aside and stick to the tools I use.

  • Notebook and Pen

I definitely feel more cleverer and well inspired to write proper good stuff when I have a fresh Moleskine notebook and a smooth black Uniball pen.

  • Mind Maps

I often sketch out elaborate mind maps to help unpick ideas.

  • Digital Notes

I have always emailed myself thoughts and To Do lists. But these days I use the Simplenote app on my phone. It syncs automatically on my computer. Every time I open a new browser tab my list of Simplenote notes appears as my home page. 

  • Post-It Notes

All hail to the humble post-it note for the hyperactive but disorganised mind!

  • Huge long blank rolls of paper and loads of coloured pens
  • Whiteboard
  • Music

I listen to BBC 6Music in the mornings unless I really need to concentrate, in which case I play classical music on Spotify. At 1pm I switch to BBC Radio 3 for the rest of the day unless I need to perk myself up, in which case I find something loud and fast on Spotify.

  • Tea and Coffee

I drink faaar too much tea and coffee, probably five cups in a day. 

I vary between drinking Yorkshire Tea and Explorer Coffee made with an Aeropress (no cleaning required).

The one health upside is that I need to go for a pee / quick break every hour and so can do some pull ups behind my shed.

And that's about all I need to write a book. This stuff plus the two most important tools, which, of course, are simply time and persistence.

Today's Quick Practical Q&A

  • Q: Can you recommend a good online bikepacking forum that I could check out?
  • A: is the best resource I know.
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If you've enjoyed this article, you might also be interested in some other things that I do:

🚪 The Doorstep Mile - a newsletter to help you live more adventurously every day.
⌂ Shouting from the Shed - an occasional newsletter of things I find interesting.
🎧 Living Adventurously - my podcast.
📕 Read one of my books.
☕️ If you'd like to support this newsletter you can buy me a [virtual] cup of coffee to help fuel the work. Thank you!
Alastair Humphreys

Apt 19020, Chynoweth House, Trevissome Park, Truro, Cornwall
United Kingdom

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