Free tools for freelancers

There’s a culture of free on the Internet, and it’s spawned plenty of really useful stuff for freelance writers. Here’s a quick list of no-charge tools that can supplement the software you pay for – and in many cases, replace it entirely.

While many of these products come in paid “business-use” versions, the free versions are often sophisticated enough for business use.

Office productivity

Word processing, spreadsheets, presentation software – these are the core of Microsoft Office and its market-leading Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

Here’s a little secret: what matters aren’t the software titles themselves as much as the document formats they generate (.doc, .xls, .ppt). Other software packages let you both open such documents and save your own work in these formats, so compatibility isn’t a problem.

Options: OpenOffice.org and Lotus Symphony both install on your computer. For people who prefer to work off the Web, check out Google Docs and Zoho.

Email applications

Microsoft Outlook is best known as an email tool. If you don’t have it, though, fret not. Modern operating systems include email clients like Outlook Express and Mail. You can also download programs like Mozilla Thunderbird and Eudora.

If you get your own “branded” email (e.g. GivenName@BusinessName.com), your ISP likely offers a web client as well, much like the one available for Gmail, Yahoo Mail and other mail providers.

Personal information manager (PIM)

Outlook is far more than just email. Calendars, contact lists, tasks lists and so forth help writers keep track of essential business details.

Anybody can download desktop software for Palm organizers – you don’t have to own a PDA to do this – and use it as a desktop PIM.

Free online calendars are no less sophisticated, and keeping them online means that you can share them with other people. Not surprisingly, Google’s Calendar is popular, but you can find calendars from competing online services.

Dictionaries & thesauruses

Sure, you have these on the bookshelf, but sometimes it’s handy to have a system-wide dictionary on your computer in addition to the one in your word processor.

WordWeb, a free Windows download, puts a calendar in the Windows “tray” – the bottom right corner of the Windows screen. Macs ship with a system-wide dictionary – you can even type the word you want to check in Spotlight and the Mac returns a definition in its search results.

Accumulating research

It’s handy to cram notes from the web into folders on your hard drive. If you’d rather keep them online or share them easily among computers, check out Evernote instead.

Mind mapping

Few brainstorming tools are as effective as mind maps. I still sometimes write mine on paper, but Freemind, a Java application (which works on both Windows and Mac), lets me easily redraw and reorder associations, then export them to a text format that I can paste into a word processor. Voilà – instant framework for an article.

Online document collaboration

Gone are the days of version-tracking headaches. Instead of emailing documents back and forth for revision, you can now post documents on the web, make them available to multiple collaborators and track changes as they’re made.

Wikis are perfectly suited to the task – there are free versions available – as are online productivity suites like Google Docs.

PDF generators

Portable Document Format is an open standard that many software developers, like those behind OpenOffice.org, now incorporate into their products.

On the Mac, the Print dialog offers a PDF creation option that can print a document. To get the same feature in Windows, simply download and install a tool like CutePDF

Research tools

Chances are you already know about Wikipedia as a starting point for research – the list of references at the end of an entry are where you most likely want to go.

Looking for back issues of periodicals? Check your local library’s web site first. It may offer a portal to archives that you would otherwise have to pay to see – all for the price of a library card.

Finally, HelpAReporter.com can be a gold mine if you need interview subjects for your work. A word of advice: phrase your requests carefully to limit the types of replies you get. Otherwise you may find your inbox inundated with “tangentially” related offers from multitudes of PR firms.

Addition: Microsoft as innovator

After I wrote and posted this article, somebody Tweeted this link about five cool-sounding Microsoft free apps, including online ofice productivity, storage, synchronization and more. Check it out

Need more stuff?

Google rarely fails to find software, but you can search specific “collections” of software like VersionTracker.com and Download.com.

Mac and Windows Vista users get to browse widgets and gadgets (respectively) for dictionaries, Wikipedia and Google tools, currency and metric converters and tons more useful stuff.

Finally, Windows users may want to make a daily pilgrimage to GiveawayOfTheDay.com. Every 24 hours, a different, paid program is available for free from the site.

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