The writer’s toolbox — choosing the right writing apps

For most beginning writers, a simple word processor will meet their needs. In fact, beware of spending too much time learning how to use more complicated apps. First, establish a strong writing practice. After you’re in a groove, you can investigate how to hone your writing process — including through more advanced apps.

Let’s take a look at a few writing apps that may meet your needs.

The classic workhorses: Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, Google Docs, and LibreOffice

These four word processors all offer the same core features. You can type and format text and then save and print files. There’s also a built-in spellchecker. Each app has features that set it apart from the others, but if you’re writing fiction, they all meet the writer’s basic needs. Which one you choose depends partly on your computer’s operating system.

The open source LibreOffice offers a suite of apps for free.

I have a Windows computer.

  • Microsoft Word — an Office 365 subscription usually costs money
  • Google Docs — free via a browser
  • LibreOffice — open-source and free

I have an Apple device.

  • Apple Pages — free with your Apple account
  • Microsoft Word — an Office 365 subscription costs money
  • Google Docs — free via a browser
  • LibreOffice — open-source and free

I use Linux on my computer.

  • Google Docs — free via a browser
  • LibreOffice — open-source and free
  • Word and Pages also have browser versions

I’ve used all four apps at various times, and with different computers. They all work well. Yet, LibreOffice has had some stability problems in the past. Google Docs, I’ve heard from other writers, can get iffy with large books (the trick there is to break your big manuscript into smaller bits — for example, a Google Doc for each chapter).

Word is the industry standard, and if you expect to send your manuscript to editors or agents, they will likely expect a Word file. Google Docs, LibreOffice, and Apple Pages will all create a Word file for you, but keep in mind that any time you export to a different file format, you run the risk of introducing formatting issues.

The next level: Ulysses and Scrivener

Compared with the apps above, Ulysses and Scrivener offer more features for organizing your writing. But while Scrivener’s strength lies in its complexity, Ulysses’ lies in its simplicity.

Ulysses works as a word processor and note-taking app, though unfortunately only on Apple devices.

Ulysses, which is only available on Apple devices, provides a distraction-free environment. In contrast to Microsoft Word and its kin, the interface is clean and simple. With a simple swipe, you can clear away navigation menus, so all you see is the writing field.

Ulysses also uses what’s called Markdown. It’s a simplified code language that allows you to format text directly on the page. This means you don’t need a big ribbon menu with commands. Also, even if you copy-paste the text to another app where the formatting is stripped, the code ensures the formatting isn’t lost. This may sound complicated, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes easy. Plus, Ulysses relies on the usual shortcut keys of italicizing, bolding, etc., so you’ll probably never write the code, anyway.

Ulysses’ navigation with drag-and-drop “groups” makes organizing your novel easy. It serves as both a word processor and a note-taking app. And its goal-tracking provides handy stats on your writing progress. Finally, when you’re done, you can export files to many formats, including Word, PDF, and ebook (or connect your account to your blog and publish a post directly).

Ulysses has excellent support and also a large community of users who create free templates.

Scrivener is recommended by many writers, though it comes with a steep learning curve.

Scrivener is the most powerful of all the apps. It’s often recommended as the best option for writers, and understandably so. Scrivener, which was built specifically for writers, provides an impressive range of features — from a corkboard for plotting to formatting tools for your final manuscript. A distraction-free function removes the rather cluttered interface, so you can focus on drafting. There are ways to track your goals and writing history. There are also templates with pre-populated sections for e.g., fiction vs. non-fiction. And because so many writers use Scrivener, you can find others who have created their own templates that you can buy or download for free.

The downside to Scrivener’s wealth of features? Complexity. Learning how to use the app can take time. Some find it daunting. But there are plenty of tutorials out there, so if you have the time and interest, you can find all the information you need.

Note-taking for writers: Microsoft OneNote, Apple Notes, Google Keep, Evernote

Note-taking apps can be your best friend as you sit at your desk or on the go. Let’s say you’re waiting in line at the supermarket. Daydreaming, you realize how your hero will succeed at the story’s climax. You open your phone’s note-taking app and, hey presto, add your thoughts.

Could you do the same with a small notebook and a pen? Absolutely. In fact, going analog can be a healthy choice, given how much time we writers tend to spend staring at a screen.

Evernote works across many kinds of devices.

There’s a plethora of note-taking apps out there. Choose one based on the devices you use and the interface. OneNote, Notes, Keep, and Evernote all look different. The way you organize information differs, too. If you subscribe to Microsoft Office, you’ve probably already got OneNote. If you have an Apple device, you’ll have Notes. With a Google account, you can try out Keep. Evernote works across platforms.

I mentioned Ulysses above as an option for word processing, but you can also use that app for note-taking. Or both.

My advice is to start with a free option, since there are plenty of them out there, and then see what works for you. I use Apple products, and I like the way Notes seamlessly syncs across my devices. I use it for personal notes, as well as note-taking from my reading or podcast-listening. My story planning notes go into Ulysses.

Proofreading software: Grammarly, Hemingway, and ProWritingAid

When you’ve finished a draft and revised it, you may want to share it for feedback. Before you do so, you should run it through proofreading software to catch most of the style and grammar issues. And whether you are submitting to agents/editors in traditional publishing or you’re self-publishing, you’ll need to use proofreading software. In fact, you’ll need to use this software as well as a human proofreader, ideally a professional.

So let’s take a look at three of the most popular proofreading apps out there.

Hemingway App’s online version is free.

Grammarly, Hemingway, and ProWritingAid all do a good job of catching grammar errors and typos. They’ll also provide recommendations for how to fix an error or style issue. But if you run two or more of them on the same text, you may find that they offer slightly different suggestions. Usually, it’s because a style question may not always have a single correct answer. Or the suggestion may be wrong, since these apps can’t always fully comprehend the context you’ve created in your prose. That’s why some authors will use two or more of the services to check their writing. That’s also why your own proofreading skills will matter. When Grammarly, Hemingway, or ProWritingAid recommend a change, you will need to assess whether you agree with that suggestion, or ignore it.

ProWritingAid has the widest range of reports and features, and its recommendations can be tailored to the type of book you have written. Which makes it ideal for novelists. Grammarly seems stronger at online and email copy. Finally, Hemingway has a clean, clear interface — and its online version is entirely free.

My recommendation? Take the three apps for a test drive and see which ones you like (they all have free online versions). Pick a primary proofreading app that you will turn to in most cases, and then a secondary, if you have the appetite and the means, so you can double-check your work.

Choosing the right writing tools for you

In the end, you need to evaluate whether the features and the interfaces of the apps appeal to you. What matters most to you? Distraction-free writing? Collaboration with others? Author-centric features?

As I mentioned above, I work on Apple devices and enjoy using Notes. But my app of preference for my stories is Ulysses. In fact, I use Ulysses to plot, draft, and revise my stories and novels, non-fiction, blog posts, and newsletters. The distraction-free interface helps me focus. I also love how easy it is to organize scenes and chapters, while keeping files for revision notes and my story bible nearby.

Though Word has great features, I can’t stand its interface — to me, it screams “corporate” rather than “creative.” I prefer Apple Pages and Google Docs, but they more or less cover the same ground.

I own Scrivener and have written novels in the app before, but for my purposes, the interface feels too cluttered and complicated, and apart from the wonderful corkboard, I don’t use half the features it offers.

When I’m done with my writing, I run it through Ulysses’ built-in spelling and grammar checker, then ProWritingAid. If I need a Word file, I use Apple Pages to export to DOCX. For formatting the ebook and print editions, I use Vellum, an incredibly useful app for easily creating final files for uploading to bookstores and distributors, though it’s only available on Mac.

My personal preferences are based on many years of writing and testing out apps to see what works for me. Will my current setup stay the same forever? Probably not. As we evolve as writers, our tools may change, too.

But they don’t have to. Many successful authors have stuck with the same tools for decades, some preferring to work in Microsoft Word because that’s their sweet spot. My point is this: The “fancier” writing apps might not be the best for you simply because they have more features.

Try out some apps. See what fits. But don’t sacrifice writing sessions to test apps — then you’re better off using your precious time to write with whatever tools you have at your disposal.

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