Best Novel Writing Software

by | Writing Tools | 13 comments

Over the years I’ve attended numerous workshops and writers’ group meetings. Often the subject of software comes up, especially when we share material for critique. After listening to other writers and experimenting with different applications, here are my conclusions regarding the best novel writing software.

Novel Writing Software Requirements

Before exploring the options, we ought to understand what tasks we expect novel writing software to perform. Here are my personal requirements:

  • Record the words I type
  • Edit (make corrections and changes)
  • Organize (scenes and chapters)
  • Reorganize (move sections around)
  • Format (eventually you will need to properly format your manuscript)
  • Save in a format that can be shared
  • Support tracking changes (needed to receive comments and corrections)

Text Editors

The goal of any writer is to get the words out of your head and onto the page. For this, the most basic text editors will do. If you use Windows, Notepad will work. OSX comes with TextEdit. Linux users can write in vi or even nano. I’ve used all the above, but I don’t recommend these because there are other considerations.

Formatting on text editors is limited or nonexistent. One of the big reasons not to use a text editor is that you will insert extra carriage returns to separate your paragraphs. Those will need to be removed later. Most text editors won’t let you insert page breaks for new chapters and don’t support bold, underlined or italicized characters.

And novels get big, generally somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 words (War and Peace has over half a million), which quickly becomes a nightmare on a text editor.

So, for many reasons, text editors are out.

Word Processors

Word processors are designed to handle large documents like novels. Any good word processor will support the first five requirements. They all support writing, editing, organizing and formatting. It’s the last two requirements that eliminate most word processing programs from my list.

Microsoft Word’s file format has become a de facto standard. If you take part in critique groups (in person or online), the group will most likely specify files to be submitted in MS-Word format (.docx or perhaps .doc). At some point, you will need the assistance of an editor. Every editor I have met insists on receiving manuscripts in MS-Word format.

When editors review your work, they will enable MS-Word’s Track Changes feature. This will record and display their additions, deletions and changes. Plus it allows them to insert comments. Most fellow writers who critique your work will do the same.

Recommended Word Processors

The following word processors meet all of the above requirements:

Microsoft Word
LibreOffice Writer

While both of these applications will perform all of the required tasks. My personal preference is MS-Word. Why? The user interface is cleaner. I find LibreOffice Writer a bit clunky.

Word Processors Not Recommended

There are several others that come close to meeting the requirements. However, I don’t recommend them for the reasons detailed below.

Pages: Apple recently added a Track Changes feature to Pages that they advertise as compatible with MS-Word. However, comments are not supported, which is so important that it renders the feature useless. I’m sure Apple will fix this issue in a later release. However, I also don’t recommend Pages due to the poor ratings in the App Store.  As of this writing, 49% of the users gave it a one-star rating and the customer reviews are filled with complaints from unhappy buyers.

Google Docs: Google has also added a Suggested Changes feature that is compatible with MS-Word. The reason I don’t recommend Google Docs is that when I open any of my manuscripts in Google Docs the formatting gets hosed. Page numbers are lost. Every first line on a new page is indented, even if it is in the middle of a sentence. Right justified headers end up left justified. Another issue is the inability to navigate. There is no document map or navigation pane and no simple way to jump to a specific page. Every file opens on page one and then you have to scroll down to where you left off.

Zoho Writer: This online application can used with files stored in Zoho’s cloud or on Google Drive. It has an MS-Word compatible Track Changes feature. But like Google Docs, it does not display my manuscripts properly. Pages are not numbered correctly. Page breaks are lost. Headers are not right.

Creative Writing Software

Writing a novel is a complicated affair. Plots need to be engineered. Settings need to be imagined and detailed. Characters need to be developed complete with physical features, emotional scars and back stories. And much more…

There is a plethora of software available to assist novelists. I have not used any of these, so I’m not qualified to review them. Novel-writing-help.com has an excellent article on this subject. Literature and Latte covers the subject along with other topics in their Links for Writers page.

Scrivener gets mentioned a lot as a tool for novel-writing, with features to assist writers in nearly every aspect of composing a long story. In a workshop I recently attended, one participant told the group he had been recruited to teach a class on how to use Scrivener and he was struggling to master the software well enough to teach. Several other writers indicated they owned a copy but none of them actively used it. When I asked why not, some had given up before figuring out how to use it, while others had stopped using it because of the complexity. One of the writers recommended watching a set of tutorial videos that covered the details of how to access different features. After listening to the discussion, I concluded that my time would be better spent writing instead of learning to use software.

Other Software I Use in Developing My Novels

Rather that use one piece of software to develop my novels, I use several different applications, for the reasons detailed below.

Plot Planning

Before I start a novel, I develop the plot using PowerPoint. (I used to be a Pantser, but now I’m a Plotter.)

Each scene gets it’s own slide and is sketched out using bullet points. I use the slide sorter to shuffle scenes. When I am happy with the results, I switch to Outline Mode. Then I cut and copy my outline into my manuscript.

You can read more about my process here.

Character Development, Notes and Ideas

I use Evernote for building character profiles and recording notes and new ideas, Why?

  1. It’s easy to use and easy to keep my notes organized.
  2. You can mix all types of content in one note: text, images, documents, PDFs; emails. It even supports audio notes and talk-to-text.
  3. I can access Evernote on my desktop, laptop, tablet and smartphone — and it keeps everything sync’d. So I can easily capture an idea no matter where I am.

Field Research

There are times when I visit a site that where a scene in my novel will take place. I snap photos and record videos on my smartphone to capture the images and my thoughts. I have my photos and videos automatically backed up to Dropbox and/or Google Drive where they are handy when I sit down to write.

Summary

If you are serious about novel-writing, I recommend Microsoft Word to properly format your manuscript and to receive editorial feedback. If cost is an issue for you, then download LibreOffice. It’s free.

These are my thoughts. I welcome yours in the comments below.

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