With NaNoWriMo on the horizon, many bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young things are planning to write their books – as well as wondering how they’re going to write them.
So, what is the best software to write a novel on? What writing software do published authors use? I’ve seen these questions asked by many of my peers over the years. In my own opinion, there is no One Magic Program To Rule Them All. Individual preference is the biggest factor when it comes to drafting, refining, formatting and publishing a book. George R.R Martin famously uses the ancient DOS program WordStar. Other writers, like Stephen King, often draft parts of their novels by hand.
You probably don’t have a DOS machine from the 80’s, but fortunately, there are heaps of software programs for writers. The following is a list of my favorite writing software and software programs that come recommended by my writer mates from around the web.
My opinion is that good old fashioned pen and paper is hard to beat for notes, sketching, and ideas. However, there’s definitely contenders for those who don’t like handwriting.
Focuswriter (all platforms, including Linux)
Focuswriter is my personal favorite digital drafting tool. I do my first drafts by hand, and ‘type in’ with this program. It is an easy-to-use, reliable and attractive program which offers a full-screen/distraction-free writing environment. You can easily customize font, background, formatting and text area width, as well as set word count or duration goals. It’s also free, or you can donate to the program author.
Download FocusWriter here: https://gottcode.org/focuswriter/
WriteRoom (Mac) and Byword (Mac)
These are Mac-specific ‘distraction-free’ writing tools. WriteRoom is very similar to FocusWriter. It is fairly basic full-screen/distraction-free writing software that allows for quicker and more focused drafting. Byword is a bit more fancy and supports Markdown. It features Mac keyboard shortcuts, word counters with live updates, and syncing across devices. I’m a PC boy, so I’ve never used them. I’ve heard they’re good.
Download WriteRoom here: https://www.hogbaysoftware.com/products/writeroom
Download Byword here: https://bywordapp.com/
Write or Die
Most programs rely on your innate sense of self-discipline to be effective. Write or Die bribes, punishes or rewards you to write. It offers a ‘punishment’ mode that will play horrible sounds and images, a ‘stimulus’ mode to woo you into writing for longer, and a ‘kamikaze’ mode that will actually start unwriting your words if you take a break or stop. Pretty intense, but a lot of NaNos swear by it.
Write or Die is a bit like a steampunk writer’s tomato timer, except that instead of getting a neutral ring every 20 minutes, you get kittens and purring as your reward, or alarms and spiders as punishment. As writing programs go, this one looks and feels a bit like a slot machine. As I said, some people love it. If you find discipline to be a problem and also enjoy a bit of competition, it might be right up your alley. You can try it for free, but the full version costs $20 USD.
Download Write or Die here: https://writeordie.com/
WikidPad is a free desktop wiki program that lets you build indexes of ‘pages’ that interlink. It is my absolute favorite program for building series bibles and reference documents for worldbuilding. It’s free, small, fast, and very easy to set up, though there is a bit of a learning curve to figure out how to properly link pages and make the most out of WikidPad’s features. I adore it, because it wholesale gratifies my inner nerd.
Download WikidPad here: https://wikidpad.sourceforge.net/
Compiling, revising, and structuring
Scrivener is THE writer’s software, in many ways. It is honestly suitable for any stage of the writing process, but I find that it excels at sorting out messy first drafts. This is the program to get your book into shape.
Scrivener has so many features that it is hard to list them all. A corkboard with index cards, individual chapters, dual windows (so you can look at an old draft and revise a new draft in another panel), chapter management, editing tools, story generation tools, formatting and draft compiling, backup and draft management… this baby has everything. Because of this, it also has quite a learning curve – but if you want to run with the pros, Scrivener is probably your best bet.
Scrivener only costs $40 USD, and there is often a discount on this for NaNoWriMo winners every year. There’s a 30-day free trial period and lots of testimonials from published authors who wrote their books (in whole or in part) in Scrivener.
If you’re on the fence about Scrivener, my advice is to go for it. It’s better and cheaper than Office, and you can use it for more than just novel writing. I use it for essays, research compilation, freelance work… the lot. If you want a free alternative, LibreOffice or OpenOffice are your best bets.
LibreOffice (and OpenOffice) are both very similar programs. They work somewhat like older Windows XP-style versions of Microsoft Office, before Microsoft got carried away with ribbon navigation and fancy-schmancy XML. It’s free, comprehensive, and doesn’t have many bells and whistles. Its files are also highly compatible with Microsoft Office programs. Given that Microsoft Office is standard in the publishing industry, it’s good to have some assurance that your manuscript will look the same on the Penguin Acquisitions Editor’s screen as it does on yours.
Download LibreOffice here: httpss://www.libreoffice.org/download/libreoffice-fresh/
Save the Cat! Story Structure Software
The late Blake Snyder’s ‘Save the Cat!’ series is to screenwriting what Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ is for novelists: an absolute treasure trove of information, hacks and advice on how to write a screenplay or movie script. Much of the advice in Save the Cat! is also applicable to authors writing books, especially if you’re just starting out and wondering how to write a novel.
The company that Blake started now publishes writing software based on Save the Cat!, which retails for $99.95 on their website. I have never tried it, but if you’re a fan of the books and want to pump out commercial novels or screenplays, it could be everything you ever wanted.
Buy Save the Cat! here: https://store.savethecat.com/products/save-the-cat-story-structure-software-3-0-download
Another reasonably pricey bit of software, Snowflake Pro is based on Randy Ingermanson’s ‘Snowflake Method’ of novel planning and writing. It is probably most suited to die-hard plotters – not so much for pantsing.
Buy Snowflake Pro here: https://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/product/snowflake-pro-software/
There’s not really any good comprehensive editing software out there, I’m afraid. The grammar checkers in Word and LibreOffice are about the best you’re going to find for copy editing.
I tried Grammarly and was not impressed. It is barely better than Microsoft’s grammar tool in Word. One program that does deserve a mention is the Hemmingway App (https://www.hemingwayapp.com/). Hemingway is an automated grammar checker which looks for a few specific problems: run-on sentences, passive voice, complex or obscure words, and adverbs.
However, Hemingway has some serious limitations. It cannot recognize rhetorical devices, for example. It will mark up good sentences that sound beautiful to the ear as being ‘too complex’, and it will falsely identify passive voice. It will point out every adverb you use, but it can’t recognize ‘weak’ words like ‘might’, ‘could’ and ‘should’. For example, the sentences below are from some terrible roleplaying I saw, but they pass Hemingway’s ‘tests’:
If you recognize the limitations of this app and use it carefully, Hemingway can be useful at the copy editing stage of writing. It’s possibly even more useful for non-fiction, where short sentences and clarity are both desirable.
I hope this helps you navigate the world of writing software, and if you know of any other good programs, email me and I can add them to the list. If you found this post useful, please share it around.
Also, if you happen to be writing a novel, stay tuned for Fix Your Damn Book! A guide on self-editing for authors which I hope to release for Christmas 2015. Fix Your Damn Book! is a quick and dirty guide to all parts of the editing process, from getting in the right psychological frame of mind to assessing your work, through to the management of beta-readers and how to get the best out of your own author voice. To keep up to date with production and sign up as a beta-reader, join the mailing list by clicking here.