As a writing teacher, I’m always on the lookout for tools to help my students and I get rare results. These tools might enhance my students’ focus, help us write with more clarity, or pinpoint mistakes that we can’t see in our early drafts.
Honestly, I’m a little bit Amish in my habits. That means I ruthlessly cut out newfangled technology which doesn’t necessarily add value. There are thousands of apps which promise to enhance productivity, but really just give you another way to waste time fiddling with your iPhone settings. It’s a time-cost-to-benefit situation.
This probably explains why I dislike Grammarly. I’ve tried a hundred times, but still haven’t found it useful for anything other than highlighting the mistakes that Gmail and Word find anyway.
The same goes for the proliferation of AI-driven essay editors that have appeared lately. I’ve tried them all, but most seem to guide you toward writing like a middling freshman Computer Science student. (Which is to say: poorly.)
That said, there are a few tools available online which I am very enthusiastic about. Below you’ll find one web app, one mobile phone app, and one old-fashion written guide. Each of them, in my opinion, are absolute game-changers for anyone who wants earn super-elite grades, and produce the kind of writing that makes people say: “holy crap, this student is a genius.”
“Hemingway App makes your writing bold and clear.” It says so right there on the website!
I can’t emphasize enough how valuable Hemingway is. Unlike apps like Grammarly, Hemingway doesn’t give you “correct” answers. It doesn’t pinpoint mistakes and say: “You should’ve done this instead!” I admit, that’s nice sometimes. But it doesn’t make you a better writer. It only makes you write “like Grammarly.” Hemingway, instead…
“…is like a spellchecker, but for style. It makes sure that your reader will focus on your message, not your prose.
Too often, our words are like our thoughts — innumerable and disorganized. Almost any bit of writing could use some cutting. Less is more, etc.
So, the Hemingway Editor will highlight (in yellow and red) where your writing is too dense. Try removing needless words or splitting the sentence into two. Your readers will thank you.”
This is what I love about Hemingway: by not telling you exactly which words to use, it actually pinpoints more complex issues in your writing, forces you to think about them, and thus, makes you a better writer. It’s not as easy as Grammarly. (You still have to think for yourself.) But it will help you get better grades, and provides a whole bunch of interesting data points on your writing as well.
Oh, and did I mention it’s completely free?
A few years ago, I was eating fajitas with one of my best friends. He’s a philologist (he translates dead languages), and at the time he was finishing his dissertation at Princeton. Curiously, we’re both musicians. As we munched away on our tortillas, we discussed how the mental tasks of writing, translating, and practicing jazz are remarkably similar. All require extended bouts of pure, undistracted, laser-like focus. You can’t have your blinking iPhone anywhere nearby. You have to tune out the whole world.
“Listen,” I told him. “You’ve got to download this app called Brain.FM. I’ve used it while writing every day for the last three years. Minimum four hours a day. It’s unbelievable.”
When I explained that Brain.FM uses weird, AI-driven music to enhance your focus, my friend just rolled his eyes. How can some fancy music app help the ivory tower residents who are already doing the most intense intellectual work in the world?
I admit, I understood his skepticism. I’m no fan of productivity apps and tricks. So, I let it go. Even though Brain.FM changed my own life, I figured he was right.
Two weeks later, my friend emailed me.
“Holy crap, Jordan. You weren’t lying about Brain.FM. Half the people in my department are using it now!”
Trust me: Brain.FM is the truth. You fire it up, put in your AirPods, and within a few minutes you’ll be focusing like Einstein on an Adderall binge (without the nasty side effects).
The full version isn’t free, but at $7 a month or $50 a year, it’s an absolute steal. The subscription is necessary. It allows you use the app offline, in airplane mode, which is a requirement for anyone trying to do real intellectual work.
Best of all, Brain.FM plays your chosen focus-enhancing music in 30-, 60-, 90-, or 120-minute intervals. Perfect for those of us who know the transcendent power of Time Blocking or Pomodoro Technique.
The good Dr. Peterson is a Canadian psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto. If you haven’t heard of him already, he earned renown in the last few years as a bit of a no-nonsense (and controversial) public intellectual. Yet, we aren’t interested in public intellectualism. We’re only interested in private intellectualism…otherwise known as “writing.”
Some time ago, Dr. Peterson released this Google Doc essay-writing guide which, I believe, was intended for his own undergraduate and graduate students.
And let me tell you, it’s a marvel.
More than a guide to writing A+ papers, it’s a deep, meaningful lesson in how our writing is inextricably linked to the quality of our thinking.
“The primary reason to write an essay,” it states: “is so that the writer can formulate and organize an informed, coherent and sophisticated set of ideas about something important.”
It goes on to make this compelling argument:
“Consider your success over the course of a lifetime. Here is something to think about: the person who can formulate and communicate the best argument almost always wins. If you want a job, you have to make a case for yourself. If you want a raise, you have to convince someone that you deserve it. If you are trying to convince someone of the validity of your idea, you have to debate its merits successfully, particularly if there are others with other competing ideas.”
Can you see how this is relevant for students applying to graduate programs?
Honestly, I could spend an entire semester teaching that document. If every student read this, practiced it in undergrad, and then read Structure Is Magic, my work would be complete.
Dr. Peterson recently announced that his team will soon release an app based on this essay-writing guide. I for one can’t wait to see it. Until then, any students interested in communicating clearly (and earning A+ grades and publishing papers) would do well to avail themselves of this guide.
Hemingway App – Free
Brain.FM – $7/month
Honestly, if you’ve got a high school education, I think these four tools are all you need to become a truly world-class writer. They’ll teach you to write clearly and persuasively, and ingrain good focus and study habits that will launch you into deeply meaningful intellectual work.
Use them and use them well.