Better than Microsoft Word
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$54).
Word is the default tool for many writers, but the latest version – Microsoft Word 2016 – will set you back £109.99 (US$109.99, AU$149) for the non-commercial edition. That’s almost as much as the full Microsoft Office 2016 suite, and a hefty price for cash-strapped wordsmiths.
There’s often a better option for those of us starving in garrets: free apps. Come with us as we discover the best free apps to turn your talent into something tangible.
Block out distractions and get on with some serious writing
Available for Linux, Windows and OS X, 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.
A text editor that cuts down on distractions, not features
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.
Scriptwriting made simple – ideal for solo writers or small teams
Hollywood scriptwriters swear by the famous Final Draft software, but if you’re yet to sell a script then you might prefer an option that doesn’t cost any money. Say hello to Celtx, an online scriptwriting platform that’s designed for small creative teams and includes a solo screenwriting package – all for the excellent price of zero.
You don’t get the extensive collaboration tools of the paid-for products, but for straightforward scriptwriting it’s well worth a look before considering a scriptwriting tool that costs real money. Take a look at Trelby too – more on that in a moment.
4. LibreOffice Writer
A fully-featured alternative to Microsoft Word, completely free
LibreOffice is a free, open source alternative to Microsoft Office, and that means its Writer word processing app has many of the power features of Microsoft 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 Microsoft Office alternatives.
Designed specifically for creating your own ebooks ready to publish online
Many writing apps concentrate on print, but of course we’re Kindle kids now and many authors publish direct to ebooks. There are lots of ways to do that, including exporting from your favourite word processor, but Sigil is designed specifically for ebook editing; it isn’t something that’s been bolted onto an existing print-focused app.
It offers WYSIWYG editing, runs on Windows, Mac and (some) Linux, enables you to check imported documents against the EPUB standard and can sort out formatting and fix your editing too. It’s also expandable via plugins to add even more features.
A powerful multi-platform screenwriting tool for budding playwrights
Trelby is available for Windows and for Linux, and it offers a very powerful screenwriting tool for free. It enforces standardized layouts, includes a character name database to avoid calling your hero Shooty McShootface, imports and exports in all the formats you could need, and has a built-in PDF generator
You can compare different versions of the same script, create scene, location, character and dialog reports, and work in draft, WYSIWYG or fullscreen mode to suit the way you work. Don’t even think about buying Final Draft without checking Trelby out first.
Write and design great-looking magazines and books
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 capable of producing entire magazines (a little like a cut-down version of Adobe InDesign).
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.
We wouldn’t want to make a 400-page book in it, but for shorter works it’s very clever.
A streamlined text editor in your web browser
In addition to paid-for desktop software for Mac and Windows, Hemingway is available as a free web app. It’s well worth bookmarking: it’s designed to highlight long, complex sentences and common grammatical errors, and its use of colours makes it abundantly clear how clear or otherwise your text has become.
It’ll spot excessive use of unnecessary adverbs, and it can ensure that instances of the passive voice have been marked to alert you to their use. Hemingway is a really good tool for anyone who needs to communicate with maximum clarity. And we deliberately wrote this paragraph this way to annoy it.
Gather ideas together throughout the day so they’re ready to use later
Evernote isn’t much cop as a writing app, but it’s an absolutely superb research tool. We’ve used to organise all kinds of content including old photos of locations, snippets of overheard dialog, PDFs of scanned documents and all the little ideas that pop up when we’re out and about.
The basic Evernote app is free on Windows, Mac and mobile and offers cross-platform syncing and up to 60MB of new uploads per month; if that’s not enough the Plus service is a very reasonable £19.99 (about US$28.95, AU$39.95) per year.
Don’t forget about other note-taking apps either: Microsoft’s free OneNote is superb, and if you’re a Mac/iOS fan Apple’s Notes app is handy to have, especially when you can get Siri to add notes for you.
Organise your ideas and defeat writer’s block before it can strike
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 organise complex threads of an investigation.
It’s not 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.
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