Archive Monthly Archives: March 2015

Writing Software: The Ultimate Resource List for Book Writing Programs

Plenty of published authors can, and are happy to, write their novels on manual typewriters, dictaphones, or generalist word processors like Microsoft Word. But ever since the desktop publishing revolution (which began, it is said, in 1983 with Type Processor One), some authors of fiction have wondered if tools specifically for them might not be possible.

These were the authors who used rushes or carefully cross-referenced notebooks, or card-indexes. These were the authors who were already using systems of their own devising to manage their ideas, inspiration, structure, character and plot. And that was most authors.

You might think a great author can just sit down in front of a virgin page and spew out a masterpiece, but that is at best a romantic oversimplification. The best authors spend a lot of time thinking, and the best ideas need to be written down, and related ideas need to be kept together.

Author Software

Fortunately, writing fiction usually starts out as a secondary activity – even if it’s the one you wanted to do all along. It’s fortunate because many very creative people have day jobs that don’t serve as sufficient outlet for their creativity, and some of them are computer programmers.

So some of them set out to write software for fiction writers.

At least, that’s the convenient fairytale that most of them would like you to accept. In many cases, it’s really true. But in a great many cases, the long established habit of exploiting authors’ hopes, ignorance and wishful thinking has given rise to software that is designed not to be what authors need, but what salesmen think authors will want to buy.

That’s a caveat for you, though. I’m not going to tell you in so many words which of the software on this list fit into the latter category. But I think I’m going to tell you enough that you will be able to identify when you are tempted to buy because you hope it will make writing easier or you hope it will make your writing better or you hope it will make you write more. What you should be doing is identifying the software that corresponds to your creative process, which leads neatly to my first and most important advice for choosing author software:

Use a general word processor until you have written at least two books.

During your first books you will discover your process, and only then is it meaningful or useful to spend money on software. Do so beforehand, and all you’re doing is narrowing your creative scope. But I’ll come to that.

I’ve taught a lot of people to use computers, software, processes and systems in various past careers. The single common factor is that it is easy to learn a tool for a job when you know the job. There’s little point reading any further if you haven’t already written your first book.

Inclusion Criteria

Disclosure: Please note that there is exactly one affiliate link among the software in this write-up, because there is only one product we’re comfortable endorsing based on our experience. At no additional cost to you, we receive a small commission if you decide to purchase through us, and we only recommend doing so if you’ve met the criteria we’ve detailed in this post.

To determine what to include in this comparison, I’ve had to establish inclusion and exclusion criteria, since there’s a lot of software out there that could be used by writers for writing fiction.

The criteria I’ve used are as follows:

  1. The software must be advertised as being intended for writing novels. It need not be exclusively for it, but the developer has intentionally included tools or features for fiction writers. For this reason, FinalDraft is excluded as it is for screenwriters.
  2. It must be a final, stable release not an “open beta” or similar. Ongoing plugin development, occasional bug fixes, are acceptable.
  3. It must run on Microsoft Windows Vista or later, in 32 bit or 64 bit architecture. There is some excellent software out there that is exclusively for Mac, Android or Linux, but very little that is available for Windows cannot also be run on other platforms.
  4. The software must have a working demo. A video or slideshow is not a demo. A freeware “lite” version is not a demo. A demo is either a complete version with a time-limited license (typically a 30 day trial) or a complete version with non-unique but critical functions disabled (typically save and export functions).Here’s where I’m going to be harsh. The following remarks are addressed to the software publishers. If you don’t have a working demo, I conclude one or more of the following:
    • The software is not being developed or offered as a serious business proposition.
    • You don’t want me to see it before I part with my money – in other words, you’re either incompetent or trying to scam me.
    • You have not been able to integrate off-the-shelf DRM – or couldn’t be bothered – either way you aren’t thorough enough for me to have confidence in your development capabilities.

    Dramatica’s Outline 4D is excluded because there is no free demo. But it’s probably for the best.

If you would like your software to feature on a future revision of this comparison, don’t bother sending me a free copy. My clients and readers are your potential customers. Make a demo version for them.

Author Software Features

To get to grips with the information below, you’ll need to understand what I mean by the basic features offered in author software. In my research I’ve discovered that the features can be grouped conveniently, as follows:

Type – I’ve assigned a broad type to each product, which might help you in your approach to the choice, based on your own creative process.

  • Structural – aims to provide organization to your writing process
  • Focused – aims to provide a distraction-free writing environment
  • Didactic – aims to teach you how to write a novel

Structure type – a visual tree is given, usually in a vertical panel on the left, usually resembling the folder tree you see in Windows® explorer when you search for files on your computer. There are three basic types of structural feature available:

  1. Document Structure – the software provides a “map” or outline of your book, at varying levels, including Book, Act, chapter, scene, section, etc.
  2. Story Structure – the software provides a tree view divided into story features, so you can group information on characters, locations, items, events.
  3. Free – you decide what to call the elements in the structure, and how they relate to each other. This way you can combine any of the other two.

Productivity Tools – some software includes real-time word count, either visible all the time or autohiding while you type. Others provide writing session timers, word count target tracking, etc.

User Interface flexibility – many, though not all, can be customized to show you only what you want to see. One of my most frequent complaints about the software I have researched has been that the default interface is busy and cluttered. Some of the products on offer can be customized to show only what you want to see while you are typing. I’ve rated this at three levels:

  1. Basic – screen fonts can be adjusted; panels can be resized.
  2. Full – in addition to basic, panels can be hidden and/or moved, toolbars and menus hidden or customized.
  3. Layout saving – the ultimate in user interface features; set up the layout for drafting, save it; set it up for planning or brainstorming, save it; set it up for editing, save it. Use hotkeys to switch between layouts.

Creativity Tools – many of these products offer built-in tools for making suggestions or prompting your imagination, from random character-name generators to story prompts. I’ll be trying not to comment on their usefulness.

Learning Tools – many products are marketed as being able to teach you to write fiction. I will comment on this. There are two types: those that provide advice on creative writing, and those that take you through a complete process.

Footprint – this is an indication of the size, power and efficiency of the software. The first number is the download size. The second is the amount of memory (RAM) used by the program when it is loaded (but no file is open). If these numbers mean nothing to you then ignore them.

I haven’t compared built-in reference tools (dictionary, thesaurus, etc.) because anything beyond spell-checking should be a link to an online service. A built in thesaurus or dictionary would be a pointless waste of space.

Software Comparisons

Scrivener
Type – Structural
Structure – Free
Productivity Tools – No
Interface Flexibility – Layout Saving
Creativity Tools – Yes
Learning Tools – No
Footprint – 83MB / 36MB
Price (USD) – 40



Writer’s Cafe
Type – Structural
Structure – Special*
Productivity Tools – Yes
Interface Flexibility – Special*
Creativity Tools – Yes
Learning Tools – Advice
Footprint – 19MB / 16MB
Price (USD) – 40



yWriter
Type – Structural
Structure – Document
Productivity Tools – Yes
Interface Flexibility – Basic
Creativity Tools – No
Learning Tools – No
Footprint – 2MB / 17MB
Price (USD) – Free



Write It Now
Type – Structural
Structure – Story
Productivity Tools – Yes
Interface Flexibility – Basic
Creativity Tools – Yes
Learning Tools – No
Footprint – 33MB / 78MB
Price (USD) – 59.95



ZenWriter
Type – Focused
Structure – N/A
Productivity Tools – No
Interface Flexibility – None
Creativity Tools – No
Learning Tools – No
Footprint – 62MB / 16MB
Price (USD) – 17.50



StoryWeaver
Type – Didactic
Structure – Story
Productivity Tools – No
Interface Flexibility – None
Creativity Tools – Yes
Learning Tools – Process
Footprint – 1.4MB / 4.3MB
Price (USD) – 29.95



Dramatica Pro
Type – Didactic
Structure – N/A
Productivity Tools – N/A
Interface Flexibility – N/A
Creativity Tools – Yes
Learning Tools – Process
Footprint – 10MB / 2.5MB
Price (USD) – 99.95



WriteMonkey
Type – Focused
Structure – N/A
Productivity Tools – No*
Interface Flexibility – None
Creativity Tools – No
Learning Tools – No
Footprint – 9MB / 110MB
Price (USD) – Donationware



PageFour
Type – Structural
Structure – Free
Productivity Tools – No
Interface Flexibility – Full
Creativity Tools – No
Learning Tools – No
Footprint – 4MB / 4MB
Price (USD) – Free*



FocusWriter
Type – Focused
Structure – N/A
Productivity Tools – Yes
Interface Flexibility – None
Creativity Tools – No
Learning Tools – No
Footprint – 33MB / 47MB
Price (USD) – Free



WriteWay Pro
Type – Structural
Structure – Story
Productivity Tools – Yes
Interface Flexibility – Full
Creativity Tools – No
Learning Tools – No
Footprint – 23MB / 10MB
Price (USD) – 35



Q10
Type – Focused
Structure – N/A
Productivity Tools – Yes
Interface Flexibility – None
Creativity Tools – No
Learning Tools – No
Footprint – 0.4MB / 4MB
Price (USD) – Free


Special Mentions

I discovered the following products in the course of my research, but they’re excluded from the table above because they aren’t strictly software for writing novels – but you might well want to use them during your creative or publication process.

Sigil – EPub Software

Intended for creating, converting and editing manuscripts directly in the EPUB format. Impressively powerful and simple.

Microsoft OneNote (Microsoft Office) – Text/Mixed Media Mindmapping

OneNote is a more textual paradigm than classic “brainstorming” or “mindmapping” applications that are more visual and spatial. I don’t use it myself as I’m almost exclusively spatial (I literally see stories as multidimensional shapes), but if you are more textual than spatial when you’re inventing, this is a powerful and effective tool for associating ideas. Like everything from MS, it’s a little over-featured.

SmartEdit – Statistics Based Self-Editing

SmartEdit provides statistics based self editing, which you can use to identify and target stylistic issues. If you are a bit of a stats geek, you will be able to improve your style, to a limited extent, by getting an overall view of the way you use language. I particularly like the “Monitored Words” feature, where you can input your list of warning words – or if you prefer, my list – words that are often an indication of poor style and other problems.

Analysis

This part is given in a particular order. It’s grouped by general type, and my preferred product in the category is placed last.

Didactic Software – Didactic software hopes to teach you a novel writing process that you can then either apply in some other software or apply in the software itself.

Dramatica – StoryWeaver and Dramatica Pro are both based on the Dramatica story process, which is a technique or process for building stories from the ground up. I should say before I go any further that whatever my evaluation of the story, I think that this approach is the wrong way to learn to write stories, so if you have never written before, do not go anywhere near these products.

Dramatica Pro might be worthwhile for formula pulp genre fiction – and there’s a good living to be had writing it – but you should already have a good understanding of how to produce pulp genre fiction to a formula before you start looking for software for it.

  • Technical – Dramatica Pro was the ONLY demo I tried whose installer (the program that installs the software on your computer) actually checked the correct registry key to determine where to install the programs files. This is an excellent indication that the development team behind this product is excellent. In addition, the software’s footprint (the resources it takes up on your computer) is surprisingly small.
  • Look and feel – The interface is old, and the icons painfully ugly to look at. It feels neither slick nor unobtrusive, and in general has a 1990s C++ feel to it. I’d prefer something with a little more character.
  • Use – Dramatica Pro is easy to use and easy to learn. The interface is self explanatory, and the designers were not afraid to give full, detailed descriptions of features and functions.
  • Manuals and Help – Help files are written in Windows Help Format, which is discontinued, so if you use Vista or later, you will have to download the Windows Help Format viewer. Do this and you will find help files that are thorough, clear, but not very detailed.

Focused Software – Focused software attempts to provide a distraction-free writing environment. All the products in this category load up in full screen mode, hiding everything on your computer including the task bar.

WriteMonkey – WriteMonkey is open source. It has the same aims as the other software in this group, but is designed so that people can program plugins for it.

It is free for all basic uses – if you want to use plugins or premium features you make a donation. There are a number of additional features such as navigation by bookmark that will please novelists. WriteMonkey also has several export formats including Markdown.

  • Technical – Has no installer, which means it can be run from a USB stick. File size is very small but it reserves so much RAM that I wonder if there isn’t a bug.
  • Look and feel – I immediately changed the default colors to something calmer. It is very plain, which is as advertised.
  • Use – There are actually quite a lot of features, all hidden while you’re working but accessible very quickly from a right click. It is easy to work out and easy to customize.
  • Manuals and help – Hardly necessary.

FocusWriter – “Trope Namer” FocusWriter is actually quite full featured, but autohides its interface. You find a menu by moving the mouse to the top of the screen, a status bar at the bottom, an outline on the left and scrollbar on the right.

  • Technical – Impressive performance with very large text files.
  • Look and feel – Very customizable. The screenshot shows the default design.
  • Use – Simple, but see below.
  • Manuals and help – I found myself looking for help on a couple of the features. I could not find any documentation, neither within the software, nor online.

Q10 – This is the focused writing software with the least features. Nonetheless I was slightly annoyed at having to display the (very minimal) help screen in order to find out how to quit the program! Includes timer and word count target tools.

  • Technical – I can’t fault it. Truly impressively tiny, efficient and fast, and copes with a massive text dump as well as any behemoth. (Better, actually, as it doesn’t have to paginate!)
  • Look and feel – Very basic. In the screenshot I customized it to something more appealing than the default. But you can choose whatever font, color and background you fancy.
  • Use – Apart from needing to press F1 frequently while learning the commands, I have no complaints.
  • Manuals and help – No manuals needed, but the help screen is necessary for about 20 minutes.

ZenWriter – The menus and word count autohide while you are typing. The picture is a screenshot of the whole screen while not typing.

  • Technical – Footprint seems improbably large for a product whose unique selling point is how featureless it is.
  • Look and feel – Once you’ve turned off the annoying typewriter sound effects and ambient music, this feels amazingly simple. There is only one menu, visible all the time as just a few commands down the righthand side. You can customize the background image but even when you do, it’s shown partially faded out.
  • Use – Simple and intuitive. Obvious even.
  • Manuals and help – Hardly necessary.

Overall, I preferred ZenWriter, and will probably be using it for first drafts in the future. I love the simplicity of the menu, and the auto-hiding of everything but the text while you type, but showing it as soon as you move the mouse is genius.

Structured Software – So to the biggest category. Products in this category provide the most fully featured writing environment, without actively trying to teach you any novel writing technique.

At their most guiding, they invite you to use a pre-established structure derived from the main categories of story feature recognised in academic critical theory – plot, character, event, location, item, and so on. At their most flexible, they can be entirely adapted to your approach to writing.

Many also provide productivity tools.

Writer’s Cafe – Writer’s cafe aims to go way beyond providing tailored software for writers. It attempts – in my view with ambition way beyond what is remotely sensible – to provide a complete writer’s environment: a desktop within a desktop.

Arranged and presented as a desktop, it has clickable icons, but also sidebars for quick access both to your computer’s file system and a sizeable reference library. Within its desktop it has a whole range of applications, all of which are intended to help you both with your creative process, your organization and productivity, and the act of writing itself.

What I find curious is that it does not provide a combined text editor-story structure application, which is what everything else in this category does. However it bypasses the need for this by providing a system for defining groups of applications and file locations that you can open when you start a work session.

My broad conclusion, notwithstanding the obvious quality of everything that it does provide, is that it is more that you could possibly need, and more besides. I think it answers a lot of questions that most writers wouldn’t ever need ask, let alone think of asking.

  • Technical – Truly impressive technically. It packs a lot of functionality into a very small space.
  • Look and feel – Cosily recent; this is Vista generation graphics (though it doesn’t use Windows Aero). The latest version dates from 2014 but it doesn’t pander to the current fashion for dominant colours, rounded everything or flat everything.
  • Use – If you find it well adapted to your working habits, you will not find it difficult to learn. It’s really very straightforward.
  • Manuals and help – Help is provided through the “Bookshelf” panel which seems to have the old Windows Help Format embedded in it, which is very sensible since it means you don’t have to download it separately. Help for using the software is not very detailed but doesn’t need to be. In any case it’s clear and well written. The same panel includes all sorts of useful information about writing, and prompts and startpoints for creative thinking, all written by novelist Harriet Smart. It’s a bit of a time sink, but that’s more a compliment than a criticism!

yWriter – yWriter is software from the pen of novelist Simon Haynes, who is also a prolific programmer. As software designed and written by an author of 11 published novels, it is likely to suit the creative process of many writers. It combines a simple text editor with a structured environment that is essentially a relational database that can be organized by chapter, character, scene, location, item, etc. I have no hesitation in recommending it.

  • Technical – Tiny, very fast. All indications of a solid and stable piece of software.
  • Look and feel – For me, it feels cluttered, in spite of the minimal graphics. I feel like the main interface is crowded out with tabs and panels, and the text editing window is just as bad.
  • Use – With a little clicking about, I quickly found my way around it.
  • Manuals and help – There is an online Wiki which is eye-wateringly horrible to look at, but very detailed and thorough.

Write It Now – This one almost won the prize for the worst installer. It didn’t even try to find the correct install location and didn’t attempt to explain why it needed two install locations.

This has a lot in common, on the face of it, with yWriter; it is a similar database-like writing organizer with a separate text editor, but lacks yWriter’s conspicuous technical skill and design focus. When you open the “full screen text editor” it is set to the dimensions of your desktop.

If like me you have more than one screen, instead of maximizing in the primary monitor, it comes up twice as wide as the screen. You can’t maximize it! You have to redimension it manually. The text editor also doesn’t have the convenient next-scene/previous-scene buttons that the more cluttered (but better) yWriter has.

Whereas yWriter only has chapters (and ‘information’) in its left-hand structure panel, Write It Now includes all the story features too. I’m not sure if this is a blessing or a curse – I suspect it may depend on your process.

It has a “reading age” estimator and a word frequency stats. Those are nice features if you like to use statistics as part of your self-editing.

  • Technical – I was instantly put off by the installer, but apart from that it is stable and quick.
  • Look and feel – When you load it up the first time, it is horribly cluttered with ugly and unnecessary icons on everything. Fortunately the interface is very customizable, and the screenshot shows what you can do with a bit of tweaking.
  • Use – After my whiny preamble you’d be forgiven for expecting more abuse, but actually it’s pretty easy to learn and to use, and almost all the features are quick and work well. It’s very intuitive.
  • Manuals and help – There a big, detailed help section. Very well organized and easy to find what you’re looking for. The explanations are clear, and there are plenty of screenshots, too.

PageFour – Unlike yWriter and Write It Now (but like Scrivener), PageFour does not use a database approach. Instead, you can organize your chapters and notes into a folder structure of your choosing.

This means there’s no limit to how you define story features; no limit to how you subdivide your story. In addition, the structure organizer has a level above manuscript, which means you can jump between books, and define any number of separate notebooks.

I can see big advantages in this for series authors, where you might have more than one of the next books in development, and ideas that are global to the whole series.

PageFour is loosely tied in to SmartEdit (see above) in that it has a couple of statistical tools built in, and a menu from which you can open SmartEdit (provided you’ve bought it!) and instantly analyze the book you’re working on.

  • Technical – No complaints here.
  • Look and feel – With a shortcut key, you can hide everything except the text editor and the menu bar. It’s style is nothing recent (I’d guess that it was originally developed for Windows XP) but it doesn’t feel ugly or cluttered.
  • Use – Very straightforward.
  • Manuals and help – The help menu links directly to some very thorough and detailed online help. The explanations are, if anything, a little wordy.

WriteWay – I took against WriteWay early on in my test drive. Initially this was because the installer was even worse than Write It Now. Also there were some oddities (and spelling mistakes) on the website, not least of which is the Pro and Demo versions being offered as “electronic download.” Is there another kind?

Once I got it started up, I can tell you, this product has thought of every possible aspect of writing a book and provided a feature for it. But what niggles at me constantly is that a fundamental failure of design has occurred. It’s a common enough error in software design and probably wouldn’t have been a problem if someone (see below) hadn’t known how to avoid it. It’s called false categorization.

It’s when you see different parts of a job as fundamentally different so you build a feature for each one. This means you end up with something feature rich (which salespeople love) but inflexible (which creatives hate). And that is what this is. Inflexible.

If you don’t hold with the prevailing view of what makes up a novel, and believe me I’m here to tell you not to hold with any view of what makes up a novel, then you will find this simple, well thought out, easy to use program deeply frustrating.

  • Technical – In spite of the horrible installer, this a well built, quality product.
  • Look and feel – The logo is horrible – not quite horrid but not far off – but the rest of the interface is refreshingly contemporary after the throwbacks I’ve been staring at for the last week.
  • Use – There’s a lot to like. There’s a single hotkey to switch to full screen editor mode (with BOTH navigation buttons AND formatting). There are basic folder/file icons in the document tree, but you can replace them with custom flags in a colour of your choice. Even character templates are basically free text, which shows that at one point they were tantalizingly close to the right design decision. It’s easy to work out and easy to work with. Just so much more rigid than it needs to be.
  • Manuals and help – The consequence of designing a feature for every category is that you have to have a hefty help file. And it does. And it seems to be detailed and thorough but there’s so much of it, I can’t say for certain.

Scrivener – You could be forgiven for thinking that I’ve been building up to this. That would be because I have.

I had better confess that I have been using Scrivener for nearly two years. It is, I think, a strong indication of just how right Scrivener answers the design questions that I use it not just for writing and for structural editing, but also as a translation organizer.

The power of Scrivener is painfully simple. It’s design takes account of the fact that there is no right way to organize the novel writing process. Once you’ve accepted that, you understand that software for that purpose must adapt to the preferences of the writer and should enable them to customize it to suit their process, and not alter their process to try to fit the software.

Scrivener allows you to adjust it to suit your creative process.

I could take another 1,000 words to tell you all about what makes Scrivener so much better than the competition, but that isn’t the purpose of this article. So I’ll limit myself to 3:

  1. Full Screen Mode is exactly like working in one of the Focused text editors. You press F11 (like on your web browser) and you get…
  2. Split Screen Mode. In the main view, you can have a split screen in the editor panel, so you can display two elements of any kind side by side. The screengrab shows the “corkboard” view, which can be used in several more ways than you are thinking.
  3. File Icons in the tree view stay blank if they contain no text.
  • Technical – I can’t fault it.
  • Look and feel – Very simple. All the screen colours in every part of the screen can be customized. Screen layouts (panel positions, sizes) can be named and saved. You can put a ‘&’ in the name so my usual layout is called “S&tandard”. To selected I press alt+w,l,t.
  • Use – I’m already too accustomed to it to say very much, other than it responds very well to the different demands placed on it by the different uses that I put it to. I use it to collate and compile all the information for my writers guide, which brings together multiple file types, multiple information sources, and I get to define, label and sort them however suits me, during the process.
  • Manuals and help – There is a thorough, detailed interactive tutorial that you can follow the first time you use it, or redo at any time. There are video tutorials via the website. The user manual is a lengthy .PDF format file. It’s very thorough, but even more information is available online through the support pages and user forums.

Conclusion

It seems inevitable that if e-publishing makes writing and publishing accessible for everyone, that software tools for writers will become more common and more developed.

In fact, Scrivener’s obvious strengths notwithstanding, the weak implementation of annotation, collaboration and change tracking (essential for collaborative writing and professional editing), show that software for fiction writers is a category still in its infancy.

Writing is not a solitary activity, and I expect the near future to produce better collaborative tools, better mobile tools, and better networked tools.

Continue reading