Writers tend to make a very big deal of their tools, whether those tools are delicate pens or ancient typewriters. Increasingly, though, they'll talk about their software. Even the most genteel literary event can soon devolve into a fist-fight between fans of Scrivener and Ulysses (both of which cost around £27, US$40, AU$50).
Microsoft Word is the default tool for many writers, but a subscription to Office 365 costs £59.99/US$69.99/AU$89 per year for one user – pretty steep if you only need the word processing element.
There's often a better option for those of us starving in garrets: free software. Come with us as we discover the best free apps to turn your writing talent into something tangible.
Keep your mind on your work with the best free app for writers
Blocks all distractions
Timers and alarms
Available for Linux, Windows and macOS, FocusWriter is designed to eliminate distractions so you can actually get on with the job of writing. To that effect it enables you to hide other apps, customize the way your text appears on screen and keep track of your progress. If you're feeling particularly old-school you can even add typewriter sound effects.
FocusWriter isn't for everyone – it's not the right tool for going back through and editing your work – but it's a lovely little app with a very modest footprint that stops you keeping an eye on Twitter all day.
A text editor that cuts down on distractions, not features
Handy keyboard shortcuts
Only works with TXT files
We're big fans of Markdown, the text-editing language that enables you to format, annotate, classify and link as you type with the minimum of fuss, and the superb WriteMonkey makes good use of it.
This free program delivers an incredibly stripped-down user interface that's considerably more powerful than it looks. There's an excellent outliner, automatic syntax highlighting and file organisation, and although markdown takes a bit of getting used to, you'll be very glad you made the effort.
Once you've mastered WriteMonkey, you can use it to create blog posts, print publications and anything else that needs words in it.
3. LibreOffice Writer
A fully-featured free alternative to Microsoft Word
Excellent format compatibility
Document template galleries
Support for plugins
LibreOffice is a free, open source alternative to Microsoft Office, and that means its word processing app, Writer, has many of the power features of Word without the accompanying price tag.
One of its most useful features is the LibreOffice Template Center, where you'll find templates for all kinds of content.
If you're interested in more full office suites, see our guide to the best free office software.
Create great-looking magazines and books without InDesign
Professional-level print design tools
If your words' appearance is as important as their meaning, give Scribus a go: it's a free, highly-rated desktop publishing application for Linux, OS X and Windows that's suitable for producing entire magazines.
It's been kicking around – and regularly updated – since 2001, and while it's a little tricky to use at first, it offers professional-grade publishing with layered, multi-page documents and good colour management support. If you've ever used Adobe InDesign, you'll find the similarity striking. If you can use one, you'll pick up the other in seconds.
We wouldn't want to lay out a 400-page book in it (though that's quite possible), but for shorter works it's ideal.
Organize your ideas and defeat writer's block before it can strike
Supports complex diagrams
Looks a little old-fashioned
Here's another app for writers that isn't strictly for putting your words on the screen: Freemind is all about mind mapping, and it enables you to record all the leaps and bounds your imagination makes whether you're plotting a potboiler or trying to organize complex threads of an investigation.
Freemind isn't something we'd necessarily recommend for mind mapping beginners – it looks a bit like a desktop publishing app having some kind of breakdown – but if you're an experienced intellectual explorer it's a lot tidier than a wall full of index cards and sticky notes.
- We’ve uncovered the best cheap laptops you can buy on a writer’s budget
The New Year has arrived, and all around the world people have been making resolutions that are set to be broken by February. If you’ve sworn to visit the gym more or watch television less, then I’m afraid I can’t help you, but if you’re an author who swore that this is the year you’ll finally get serious about your magnum opus, you’re in luck.
A change in behavior is always helped by a change in venue, so in this article, I’ll be showcasing 6 pieces of writing software that could help improve your writing behavior in 2016. While traditional word processors do the basic job of letting you put words on the page, writing a book is a unique endeavor that can be made much easier with its own set of tools.
Whether this will be your first time using dedicated writing software, a chance to buckle down and write more, or you just want to try the best of what the market has to offer, this one is for you. But if I’m going to be making recommendations, first I have to clear up what a piece of great writing software can offer its user.
What do authors need from their software?
I’ve already said that word processors do the basic job of letting writers compose their stories. With that understood, every piece of writing software can be judged by how it improves on that experience. No writing software has yet invented the wheel, so your primary focus when choosing the software for you is deciding which advantages will help your writing style. Don’t be blinded by long lists of features or technical specs: software features only matter if they’re something you’re going to use.
That’s why writing software tends to offer improvements that fall into one of three groups:
Programs like Microsoft Word are designed to be used for every kind of writing task, which means they specialize in none. In contrast, writing software is designed around easier creative writing. This might mean designing the writing interface to be as simple and distraction-free as possible, or allowing you to collect all your materials in one program. It might mean helping you to place chapter markers, automatically creating a contents page, or presenting notes in a particularly helpful way.
Ease-of-use is easy to overlook, but it’s often one of the major driving forces in which writing software is attractive to authors. It’s the digital equivalent of finding somewhere quiet to work or the best way to organize your notes.
Editing is a vital part of writing, but there’s a whole slew of mistakes that stand between ‘technically incorrect’ and ‘ready to publish’. Word processors will tell you if you’ve used incorrect grammar or punctuation, but writing software is capable of picking up on things like passive verbs, over-description, and recurring phrases.
Creative writing requires a keener eye than is needed for projects like essays or shopping lists, and writing software ups its game to catch the errors that will lose you readers.
By their nature, extra features are difficult to define. They’re options like Word’s ‘Thesaurus’ which you’ll never have to use as part of the software, but which can offer extra value if they fit into your style of writing. These may include a character creator, twist generator, or custom storyboard creation. It’s here that identifying what you really want is vital – don’t judge extra features by how many are included but by how useful they sound to your way of writing.
Writing software you should try
Now that you’re thinking about the aspects of writing software that could do the most for your work, it’s time to talk about what’s on the market. Remember, though, that it’s about finding the best fit, and that might mean shopping around. If a piece of writing software has a free trial, or a free-to-use version, then it’s almost always worth seeing if it’s the right fit for you.
SmartEdit is a way to adjust your word processor to make it more of a creative writing tool. It’s a small step, ideal for those who don’t want a big change or are worried about learning to use a new piece of software.
SmartEdit is an add-on that can be applied to Microsoft Word, adding features that mostly fall within the school of ‘Advanced Editing’. For a start, it flags repeated adverbs and phrases, keeping a count to alert author of overuse or problematic repetition. It also enhances Word’s error-checking facilities to pick up on inconsistent, rather than just incorrect, punctuation and grammar. SmartEdit doesn’t quite offer the same breadth of features as independent writing software, but the image below reveals capabilities that will stop dedicated writers in their tracks.
SmartEdit will even pick up on clichés, foreign phrases and (if asked) profanity, giving you a more complete idea of your story as a whole. Many writers work page by page and find it difficult to identify or fix errors that occur over long distance, and SmartEdit is a great way to arm yourself against such issues. Small step though it is, for many authors it will be ideal.
You can find out more about SmartEdit here.
Scrivener is a name you might know (Scrivener review), but it has to be included on this list because it remains one of the best-loved programs for creative writing. Like any dedicated writing software, Scrivener offers advanced editing and some valuable extra features, but its true strength lies in its ease-of-use.
Where Scrivener shines is in gathering all the material an author could need in one place. Notes, images and web pages can be stored, and displayed, alongside each other, with the program recognizing that they’re all part of a single project. That means incredibly varied options for displaying and utilizing notes. For authors who are used to opening five programs to see everything they need – losing each behind the other as they try to make disparate file types work together – this has been an incredible boon.
Scrivener is the proverbial ‘one-stop-shop’ with David Hewson (author of The Garden of Evil and Solstice) stating that:
‘the more I use it, the more I realize it can replace every other application I’ve adopted over the years for writing books.’
That’s the charm of Scrivener in a nutshell – it gives authors the freedom to optimize their digital workspace. This includes a cork board feature for visual storage, automatically saving previous drafts so they’re never permanently lost, and adding documents to multiple ‘collections’ for a more useful way of referencing files, but the main selling point is that you won’t have to open another piece of software while you’re writing.
Buy (or trial) Scrivener here.
WriteItNow is a rising star, combining Scrivener’s ease-of-use and organizational abilities with a host of compelling extra features. One of the most attention-grabbing is their character tab, which allows incredibly detailed character building. This includes the ability to give character traits and behaviors numerical values, encouraging consistency and helping authors develop compelling character arcs. It even allows you to download name sets depending on locations and time periods, and will choose an appropriate character name based on the author’s parameters.
Similar functions are available for adding notes and tracking timelines – the ‘events graph’ feature even allows you to view different strands of the plot as they’re experienced by different characters.
The thesaurus function is extensive, and includes relevant quotes, rhymes and Encyclopedia articles to give you options as you write. Perhaps most important of all, it can export files in RTF, PDF, HTML and EPUB, as well as to Microsoft Word. That makes it easy to repurpose your work, with only a few steps between a document your friends can print out and one you can view on an eReader.
You can find out more about WriteItNow here.
It’s important to start by saying that Sigil isn’t for everyone. Its main selling point is that it allows you to work directly into .EPUB format. That means that your work appears on the page pretty much exactly as it will on an ereader such as the Kindle or Kobo.
Usually, publishing your work to an ereader requires you to write the document on one piece of software and then edit on another. Problems can arise, and it takes a lot of effort to get a particular word processor’s formatting to work on an unrelated product. With Sigil, this editing happens as you write. If it can’t be done on an ereader then Sigil won’t allow you to do it.
That’s the part that can rub people the wrong way, and some authors will feel constricted by what Sigil does and doesn’t allow. However, whether you’re using it as your main word processor or to convert an existing document, Sigil is a godsend for self-published authors who want to keep things simple.
In fact once you get to grips with it, Sigil offers a lot more freedom. It spell-checks and has facilities for image insertion and chapter breaks, containing all the necessities of writing software along with its invisible but commendable editing advantages.
Sigil is also alone on this list in being the only program that’s entirelyfree. While it may not be perfect, this combines with its functionality to make it a program every self-published author should check out in 2016.
You can find out more about Sigil here.
WriteWay is another up-and-comer in the writing software world, primarily because it’s continually being updated with new features. WriteWay is a post-Scrivener piece of software, using ease-of-use as a bedrock and striving to set itself apart by adding as much advanced editing and extra features as possible. Its features allow you to plan a story, organize notes, write and edit, format to a range of file types and encourage yourself to keep going by setting writing targets.
It’s not the prettiest writing software on the market but it’s trying to become the best, and it’s worth giving it a try this year to see if it works for you. Like WriteItNow, it allows users to construct databases on characters and locations, but also offers templates and suggestions to stop you getting stuck. It also allows you to format for use on the Kobo and Kindle, track your story via ‘NoteCards’, maintain research folders and track more data than a standard word processor.
Place everything in this article so far in a blender, turn it on, and five minutes later you’ll have WriteWay. That doesn’t mean that it’s the best in every category, but it does offer the best all-round coverage for authors who think that being able to do everything well beats being able to do one thing brilliantly. Happily, the demo version is available for a thirty-day free trial, so you’ve got ample time to figure out if it’s the software of your dreams.
You can find out more about WriteWay here.
ProWritingAid is one of the best editing programmes on the market, and it doesn’t even require a download. Useable through a well-designed and easily navigable website, ProWritingAid allows you to paste or upload your writing for interrogation by its huge battery of tests. Those who think that’s too much work can also employ it as a Word, Google Docs, Scrivener, Chrome or API add-on, adding to their editing tools while preserving their favored writing software.
Conceived in a similar vein to SmartEdit, ProWritingAid will check your work for a laundry list of possible issues. These include useful additions such as checks on ‘sentence length’, ‘clichés and redundancies’, ‘dialogue tags’ and ‘pacing’, as well as more esoteric assessments that seek out ‘corporate wording’, ‘sticky sentences’ and ‘eloquence’. If the program turns up errors you don’t know how to fix, then there’s a ‘Human Editor’ button in the top right, providing an instant means to submit your work for editing by a member of the ProWritingAid team.
It’s difficult to imagine an editing programme that gives authors more to work with than ProWritingAid. Its only drawback is that in a rush to pick out every potential issue, its reports can flag content that would be best left alone. Self-doubting or inexperienced writers might find the suggested changes take more out of their confidence than is added to their work, but those who trust their own conclusions will be in their element.
Like any complex machine, ProWritingAid requires you to learn through use and with reference to its helpful and succinct user manual. What you put in is more than rewarded though, and with its wealth of output and casual interface it’s the kind of software that you try once and use for the rest of your life. That’s an easy theory to test, since ProWritingAid offer a free service to let authors try out their product.
You can read our detailed ProWritingAid review here.
Spoiled for choice
It can be daunting when you first consider utilizing writing software. The market is so packed that you end up more concerned about the features you’re missing than the ones you’re getting. As I mentioned at the start, the only features you need to worry about are the ones you can imagine helping your writing, but even then the answer is almost always to shop around.
Spend a couple of months downloading demos and checking out free trials. It’s likely that your choice won’t come down to a list of stats and features, but to one program that just feels right with the way you work. The only way to find that program is to breeze through ten that don’t work as well.
My final piece of advice would be to turn your search into a writing exercise. Decide to write a certain number of words per piece of software – if you love the software then it’ll be easy, and if not then you’ll write that passage quicker so you can move on. At the end of the day, writing software is just another tool that can help your writing, but it’s nothing next to the outlook you decide to take on your writing behavior.
For more on writing software, check out Why You Should Use Evernote To Write Your Next Book and browse our writing tools archive for great articles like 7 (Free) Online Writing Tools That Will Make You More Productive.
Have you tried any of the software above, or do you have your own recommendation? Let me know in the comments.5 Great Pieces Of Writing Software You Need To TryClick To Tweet