10 Ways Free iPhone Apps Supercharge Writers

by | Apr 16, 2012

Back when I was growing up, science fiction was full of wonders that seemed impossible at the time. One that fascinated me was the “personal communicator,” like those used by Captain Kirk on Star Trek.

These amazing devices would allow you to communicate wirelessly with other people and retrieve information from a vast compendium located, well, somewhere else.

Just a dream? The promise of the mobile communicator had to wait until the advent of the cell phone. Even then, and even though the Motorola flip phones of a few years ago looked suspiciously like the communicator carried by Captain Kirk and his crewmates, it still wasn’t enough.

We really entered the era of robust mobile communication with the arrival of the iPhone a few years ago. Now, whether you use Apple or Android, the smartphone in your purse or pocket has gone way beyond the imagination of the Star Trek writers of 40 years ago.

I was reminded of this because, as the smartphone—in my case, the iPhone—has become more widespread and more matter-of-fact, it has also found a home with lots of different kinds of people besides the early adopters, tech heads and business users who usually make up the early audience for a lot of technology.

As a writer, I’ve found the smartphone becoming a more and more important tool for my work.

Here are 10 ways I’m using my “mobile communicator” to help with my writing, blogging and other creative tasks. Each of these has become part of my daily work life. Maybe they’ll work for you, too.

(In this list I’ve included only functions you can get from the free apps that come with your phone, or with apps that are free, so if you already own an iPhone, these won’t cost you a cent.)

author platformUse Voice memo recorder:

  • Capture ideas while in transit, even where you can’t write anything down.
    How many ideas have you lost because you had them while you were on your way somewhere and simply couldn’t write them down? I know this happens to me all the time, especially with ideas for blog posts. There I am, driving across the Golden Gate Bridge when a great premise for a post pops into my head. By the time I get home I’ve thought about 200 other subjects and the idea is long gone.
    That’s where the voice recorder comes in. Just talk your idea into your phone, retrieve it later.
  • Capture information from sources by simply identifying them and asking them to speak into the phone
    Talking to someone at a party when they tell you they’ve found a piece of information you’ve been looking for? You can’t get out your notepad without looking a bit dorky, can you? Just get out your phone instead and have the person talk to it. You’ll have all the information you need when you get home.

author platformUse Evernote:

  • Organize text notes, audio files, photos, screenshots, images of documents, and just about anything else into searchable, sharable databases that stay synchronized across all platforms.
    I don’t think it’s possible to explore all the ways Evernote can be used. If you’re working on a project with collaborators, set up a shared folder and just drop your files, notes, expenses, maps or whatever else you can think of for use by everyone with access to the same folder. I’m quite sure I use Evernote more than any single application and I just keep finding new ways to make use of this incredible tool.

author platformUse Camera:

  • Grab photos of scenes for research projects
    This happens to me all the time, and has been the genesis of many blog posts. Out for a Sunday stroll, I happened on lots of casewrap books, a type of binding I had been wanting to write about. Took lots of photos and ended up using them in a subsequent article.
  • Photograph documents, artifacts, or other objects you need a record of later
    This is handy for remembering stuff later. I’ve photographed fonts found on menus, design ideas from store displays, interesting ways of dealing with bar codes by taking snaps of the backs of books in bookstores, landscapes that I wanted to describe later… you get the idea.
  • Video interview subjects on site
    If you’ve used the iPhone’s camera for video, you know it’s a capable performer once you get used to it. Last year, researching a blog post, I interviewed a series of young self-publishers at an event at their school. With a little editing, these short videos worked just fine. But you can also interview people you are researching, and nothing will refresh your memory better than a video, even if it’s only a minute or two long.

author platformUse Dropbox:

  • Maintain folders for writing and research that you can access from any connected device, including phone
    Dropbox brought the idea of cloud storage to lots of people for the first time with its incredible ease of use. You can install the program on your iPhone, iPad and desktop computers. Even better, many programs are now explicitly support Dropbox, allowing you simple access to your files from within the application. I use this for my iA Writer and MindJet MindManager files, making sure I always have backups and can access them from any connected device.
  • Share selected documents with others on your research or publishing team
    Like Evernote, Dropbox allows you to set some folders as shared, and use them for collaboration with fellow team members. For instance, when entries come in for our monthly eBook Cover Design Awards, all the images and entry text is stored in a shared Dropbox folder so they are available to both of us who work on the posts. If a file is replaced, all folders are automatically updated. Don’t you love that?

author platformUse Maps:

  • Get details on locations anywhere in the world
    This is an awesome research tool, right in your pocket or purse. Sure, there are great apps for world facts and travel info, but even with the Maps app that came with your phone you can find out the location of the Hotel Mercure in downtown Budapest, Hungary, or that the name of that street that runs behind the Eiffel Tower in Paris is the Av. Gustave Eiffel.

author platformUse Clock:

  • Track multiple time zones for overseas contacts and business operations
    I don’t know about you, but it’s become a habit to always ask contacts what time zone they’re in, since our online connections are so seamless and fluid we can forget that others may be thousands of miles away. Especially when setting up phone calls, Skype sessions, interviews and other time-sensitive appointments, having a handy way to find out what time it is in Sydney, Australia, for instance, has never been easier. In fact, it used to be hard to figure out what day it was in Sydney until I got my iPhone. Now, it’s set up as a preset in the World Clock section of the Clock App, 2 clicks away.

Each of these 10 ways to use your smartphone can make you a more efficient researcher, a more organized writer and a more flexible blogger. And they only use the apps already on your phone or apps free for the download.

Do you have any tips that really help you as a writer you’d like to share? I’d love to hear about them, so leave a note in the comments.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Sue Ransom

    I used the notes function on my phone to write an entire novel – 90K words. If it hadn’t been for the phone I wouldn’t have got the publishing contract for that and two follow-on books, with more in the pipeline. Those first books are now in the shops all over the world. Long live the smartphone!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Holy cow! At least on your Blackberry you’ve got that keyboard, but you also must have a lot of patience, Sue. I clicked over and saw the photo of you on the train, very entertaining. And yes, long live the smartphone! Thanks for posting.

  2. Laura E. Kelly

    Hi. A writer friend of mine is looking for a good way to collaborate with some people on his next book. The group emails have become unwieldy, so he’s looking for a way for people to easily share ideas/links/docs and build on ideas. I was interested to read about all the good things that people are saying about Evernote. Do you think it could be used for the above collaborative purpose, or do you think a private FB or LinkedIn groups is more appropriate? (Sorry—off the iPhone topic a little but I couldn’t find a search bar to search for Evernote on your site.)

    • Joel Friedlander

      Laura, Evernote has pretty robust collaboration tools and I would explore them since they are designed for the purpose and you can attach all kinds of files and control who has access. Good luck and if you find a really great solution, let us know!

  3. Richard Beckham II

    Thanks for the tips! I tend to stick with Notes, the camera, and voice memos–which can be good to capture interesting conversations you may or may not be a part of. Once you get talking about the Cloud, I take a step back and maybe take out a notepad.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Richard. More and more software and utilities are moving to “cloud” storage and retreival, it may soon be unavoidable. I haven’t had any problems with the many cloud-based services I use, and absolutely rely on the syncing functions of Dropbox and Evernote, they seem to me to be ultra-reliable (so far!).

  4. Khaalidah

    This is an endlessly useful post. So are the comments with other suggested applications for that matter. Thanks.
    I use Dropbox and I enjoy the security of knowing that I won’t loose whatever I’m working on and that I can access my documents wherever I am.

  5. Turndog Millionaire

    I’m not sure what i would do if i didn’t have my iphone. My life is built around Evernote, I use Dropbox alot, and I’m starting to use Dragon Dictation a little too.

    I also love Zite and Pulse to keep me up to date with Blogs, and Read it later (now called Pocket) to read things later when i have my time (or possibly no wifi or 3g)

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

  6. London Crockett

    Hi Joel, for writing, Evernote is definitely my number one app. I’d pay for it if I ever managed to exceed my data limits. One aspect you missed in your description was the way it ties into other applications. I use it with Curio for outlining, thinking, structuring, etc. The two together are a mighty tool (Curio, however, is a Mac desktop only product, I think—can’t imagine a phone version).

    I use HootSuite on the phone, since TweetDeck is unreliable on the iPhone.

    I have DropBox on my phone, but I’m thinking of deleting it. I never find myself using it there (although I use it on the desktop constantly for design projects) and I can synch my Pages files via iCloud.

    The one non–writing-specific app I use that I suggest to everyone I know is 1Password. It costs $30, but ensures all of your passwords are secure, along with any secure notes you might need. It’s far better than having to remember secure passwords or—worse—using a handful of easy-to-remember, but crackable passwords.

    Oh, and I almost forgot that essential task app: Reminders. I don’t use it for writing, but for groceries, bills, and little tasks, its amazing.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Interesting, London. I haven’t used Curio, so I don’t know it, but I’m aware that there are lots of programs that integrate with Evernote now, and that just makes it more useful.

      Dropbox is very handy on my phone because I throw documents like driving directions, login information and other stuff I might need when mobile, and I can always get them from Dropbox.

      I’m also a 1Password user, it’s quite good. I don’t use Reminders, although i tried it, I prefer either making entries in Evernote or, for alarms, using iCal. Thanks for all the input.

  7. roemer mcphee

    Joel, Jo Rowling is self-pubbing, and she could bail Alice Munro out of all of her bad investments! Product is 98% of this question about the future of publishing, and distribution methods, and names of publishing houses, are the other 2%. Bad product will never sell, and good product might not always get to market, but it is the only thing that will sell.

    Roemer McPhee

  8. Joe O.

    Hi, great post! I use Plain Text to edit text files in Dropbox on the iPhone. I use Carbonite on my PC, and the Carbonite app works well on the iPhone to access all my documents. Unlike Dropbox, Carbonite lets me run a backup without limits. I’m an avid reader. Current events help generate new ideas for plots, and I have recently found ezFeeds to be a superb choice for following you and other writers and news organizations. OneNote is also a good alternative to EverNote if it’s already installed on your PC as part of the Office suite. By the way, thanks for not using CAPTCHA on your site!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks for the additions, Joe, going to check out ezFeeds, sounds interesting.

  9. James


    Good ones. I’ve tried Evernote, but I’m always looking for ways to have less accounts open, so I switched to Notesy. I wrote about my own mobile writing workflow recently, covering some of the tools and idea you mentioned:

    Right now, I’m trying an app called DropVox that stores your voice memos in DropBox-so far, I like it:

    Like you, I have an iPad, so I don’t need a Kindle for anything at all, really.

  10. Joanna Penn

    I’m an iPhone junkie! The apps I use that are writing/entrepreneur related are:
    * Kindle – for syncing and reading on the go – plus checking my own book formatting is correct
    * Twitter – for networking with you and others, Joel :)
    * Dragon Dictation for voice to text for ideas that I then email to myself
    * Notes – which I use a lot for sending emails to myself with ideas and also reminders To Do
    * Camera – as above, I often snap pics and then use the Flickr app to upload for Creative Commons to share. Images for the blog + book covers and other writing related things.
    Technology in general has seriously changed our lives as authors.

    Thanks, Joanna

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hey, thanks Joanna,

      I haven’t tried Dragon Dictation, that’s a great idea. But don’t you use Evernote for notes?



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