It took me over three years to write my book, a measly 52k word memoir. (since it was a memoir – I kind of knew the story already. I am in awe of fiction authors who can make stories up out of thin air!)
It took me so long for a variety of reasons. First, I am EXCELLENT at procrastination. I should teach a course. Also, like that cute little dog in Pixar’s “Up” I simply cannot resist a “squirrel!” in the form of a great internet sports article or some other click bait.
Also, towards the end of the “shitty first draft” stage and during my initial attempt at an edit, I struggled with Mac Pages and MS Word trying to move things around, view chapters, and reorganize my work.
Plus, I shouldn’t forget the days– especially my overly optimistic “work on the weekend” days– when I would have rather clean toilets than sit at the computer and put words down.
Does any of this sound familiar? I’d bet my house that it does…
Things improved greatly when I discovered a writing program that was made for writers, not office workers or students, and found some concentration inducing software.
I wonder now, how long my book would have taken?
All of these, and my interest in helping people avoid the mistakes I made, are the reason for this pretty lengthy blog post. I want to provide you with actionable software tools that will help you write better, more often, and more easily (if that’s really a thing!)
Finally, while I tried to make this list exhaustive, I’m sure I missed some programs. Please let me know in the comments section what I missed- I will try to check those out and provide an update to this list.
Off we go!
Scrivener is one of the most popular pieces of software for writers out there. It can be a bit confusing because it doesn’t resemble MS Word or other word processors and it has so many features. But there are courses just for it as well as many helpful youtube videos. However, the available tutorial within Scrivener is also quite helpful for basic and advanced tasks.
Scrivener calls itself a complete writing studio specifically for long-form texts like novels and scripts that “makes all of the tools you have scattered around your desk available in one location.
Scrivener allows you to view your work in the “binder” along the left side of the document- an organizational tree that enables you to break the document down, view research materials and reorder the document by dragging and dropping.
For non-fiction writers Scrivener lets you view multiple documents at one time and write in a separate pane alongside them.
One of the software’s specialized features is called “Scrivenings.” It is explained here from the website:
Scrivener’s innovative “Scrivenings” mode allows you to move smoothly between editing your document one piece at a time or together as a whole. It’s up to you how small—or large—you want to make the individual sections of your manuscript: novelists can write each scene in a separate document or whole chapters as one; scriptwriters can work scene-by-scene or act-by-act; academics can break down their ideas into individual arguments. However finely you break up your work, Scrivenings mode allows you to collect the constituent components into a single editor, so that you can edit them as though they were all part of one document: in Scrivener, you’re only ever a click away from seeing the forest or the trees.
I initially chose Scrivener for my own project for what I now think are two of its best features:
Organizing and editing are a breeze using the cork board feature that allows you to see snapshots of chapters and rearrange them and if necessary, break them into smaller pieces and then rearrange them.
I used this feature extensively when I had to do a massive edit that not only addressed content, but chronology and flow. Trying to do this in MS Word was giving me a heart attack, but with Scrivener I could view the document in a way that made sense. Here is a screenshot of the cork board:
The second feature is its awesome compile feature that allows you to put all of the parts of your manuscript together seamlessly as well as format them and send them to multiple exports like the Kindle format, epub, word docs or pdfs.
Take a look at how many exports are available:
I used Scrivener along with a ready made book template from The Book Designer to compile and format my book for print. It was not incredibly easy but not incredibly difficult- even for a tech-challenged baby boomer like me 😳
WriteitNow appears to have a lot in common with Scrivener. It is a full-service writing program that allows you to use a story board, develop characters, as well as track cliche use among other things.
The storyline editor allows you to track who does what, where, and when, once you supply the relevant information in the scene summary editor. It also features a Thesaurus, a spell checker and readability editor. Also, there is a separate “idea generator” that helps you to generate ideas based on a type of action:
And- this feature is really interesting: you can apply a Myers Briggs personality type in the character development module. It then gives you a description of the character based on what you choose:
Finally- it can supply you with a character’s “headshot” so you can visualize whom you are writing about:
WriteitNow also features writing targets that you can set for yourself. You can export as Word doc as well as epub.
The website does appear cheaper and a bit less polished than Scrivener. But it does look to be relatively easy to use (but then again I am versed in Scrivener.) It took me about a half an hour to do these simple things that I show in these screenshots, but the initial project was already started in the sample editor.
Write Now uses a “tree” organizational set-up like Scrivener.
Pro-Writing Aid: E
PWA is a robust manuscript editing platform. It is free with an optional upgrade that allows you to access more features and reports as well as edit a greater quantity of your manuscript and make the tool available not just from its website in your browser, but also in Google docs (if you’re a mac user) or in MS Word if you’re a pc user. (There’s also a desktop app for mac users.)
It is the only software that integrates with MS Word, Open Office, Google Docs, Scrivener and Google Chrome so you can edit wherever you write, without losing your formatting and your precious time.
Here’s what’s included in the premium version from the company’s website:
The premium version of ProWritingAid combines our reports with a powerful document editor and add-ins for other word-processors. This allows you to edit immediately as you go through the analysis report, responding to suggested changes and choosing from a list of replacements for errors. Your improved text can then be easily exported or pasted back into your original writing application.
Premium users also have access to:
* Priority (faster) analysis.
* Microsoft Word add-in – access the ProWritingAid software directly on your own computer (Windows only).
* Google Documents add-on – use ProWritingAid software from anywhere using Google Docs.
* Desktop app – work with Scrivener projects and other file types.
* Chrome extension – bring the power of ProWritingAid to Gmail and other websites in your browser.
* WordPress plugin – bring the power of ProWritingAid into the world’s most popular blogging platform.
* Writemonkey plugin – access the ProWritingAid software within this popular stripped down writing interface.
* Additional reports: Corporate Wording, Pronouns, and more.
* Personalize your reports.
* Create your own rules and/or House Style.
I was curious about using the Free Version so, for kicks, I uploaded the Bliss version of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address for it to analyze. Below is a summary of what the program found:
As you can see it is a comprehensive analysis. I was curious as well about readability so I clicked on that report and here’s Honest Abe’s score:
Quoll Writer: W/E/P
Quoll Writer is a completely free, windows-only writing, editing, and publishing software program. After playing around with it, it appears to be a stripped-downs version of Scrivener, offering quite a few of Scrivener’s features in a less glossy, more minimalist dashboard. (It is free after all!)
Quoll Writer (QW) has a similar left-hand tree structured organizational window that offers a snapshot of your project and uses tabs to make management easier.
Like other programs it allows you areas to create characters, items, and scene locations, as well as research for your work. You can move chapters around, use the idea board to organize thoughts and ideas, as well as see where “assets” area mentioned.
As far as editing is concerned, QW has a “problem finder” to identify issues with your writing and a spell checker and synonym lookup, a word count to keep track of your progress and readability indices.
It also can export/publish your work, but this is limited to epub, docx, pdf and html.
SmaertEdit is a windows only “first pass” editing tool that sits inside MS word or available as a stand alone program. It is an editing aid- not a replacement for human editing.
It runs a series of 20 individual checks to highlight areas that you might want to look at. From the website:
These checks include: highlighting repeated phrases and words, producing a list of every adverb used, flagging possible misused or misspelled words such as “complement” instead of “compliment”.
SmartEdit also examines your sentence structures: highlighting common phrases you use to begin sentences, monitoring sentence length, as well as flagging possibly incorrect punctuation, such as multiple exclamation marks (“!!!?”), or inconsistent use of smart quotes and straight quotes.
It does not tell you to remove things or when\ther your work is good or bad. However, in my experience (and my own quirky writing style) it might suggest things as to grammar that you actually had intended so you need to feel confident in your craft and make changes only that you really agree with.
Sigil: E P
Sigil is a multi-platform EPUB ebook editor (think Word or LibreOffice but specific for EPUB ebooks.)
Sigil is so limiting in the sense that it is simply an editor for use in Epub language I am not spending any time on it here. The reason is other programs with more robust features can also publish to epub and do not limit you to just epub. Despite the fact that it is free open source I don’t think that makes up for its shortcomings.
Like Scrivener and Writeitnow, Writeway uses a tree organizational structure on the left-hand side of the program to organize your document. Like Scrivener it features research folders, cork board features, and writing goals. And, like Writitnow it features a character development section:
It also allows you to export export in multiple formats including for Kindle and Nook. It doesn’t appear to be as polished as Scrivener, but it is updated regularly with new features and is a bit cheaper. It also features a 30 day free trial.
Bibisco is a free W/E/P software application. My mac didn’t allow it to download (even with their tutorials oh how to override the mac’s security ) so I was unable to actually play around with this software but it appears to have similar w/e/p tools as some of the other platforms: organize chapters and revisions, create extensive character outlines, see how characters are distributed throughout your work, create your manuscripts structure and settings, as well as export your finished draft.
Indeed it appears that Bibisco’s specialty is assisting you in character development.
Below are some screenshots from bibisco showing character distribution novel architecture and characters:
Writer bills itself as the “internet typewriter” and it’s basic version is free the you can access via its website or as a browser plugin. The free version features a distraction free layout- just you and the display and the keyboard with no fonts, bold or italics.
It saves your writing automatically and is available offline. Should you choose to upgrade to the pro feature it includes these items:
It’s not for everybody, but if you’re looking for just a place to write- with no distractions it might be for you..
WriteRoom is for mac users and is very similar to writer. It is a full screen writing environment so you can focus on your work. It doesn’t do page layouts, but does count your words and autosaves your work.
Omni Outliner is Specific for Apple Products- whether the mac or ios versions for the iPad and iPhone. This is really a slick looking product with some caveats:
It appears to excel in creating, brainstorming, and organizing ideas- hence the name outliner. There are full editing features in the writing pane, drag and drop for simply reorganizing and restructuturing products and a full screen mode for writing without disturbances.
Here are my objections: It is pretty pricey for what you get. While it touts itself as able to organize and write something from an email to a screenplay, I’m not sure I would use it for a large manuscript. And again- it’s only for use on Apple products. However, for organization, if I had the extra $ lying around I might buy it for that. The company’s website has a short video that explains the product and a I’ve included a link to it here:
The Hemingway App is designed to tighten up your prose (and if you’ve ever read anything by Ernest Hemingway, you know how tight his prose was!)
The software highlights wordy sentences as well as pointing out excessive adverb use, passive voice, and dull complicated words.
While I think some of that is indeed necessary, my worry is that it might prompt some writers to sacrifice their unique voice for the sake of arbitrary goals. But, depending on your platform and genre ( some non-fiction or technical writing for example) it might be for you.
It features basic formatting features.
As it publishes directly to WordPress and Medium, it appears that it was intended for bloggers rather than long-form writers but it also does feature exports to text, pdf and word.
Blocksite is a browser extension add-on to help you with procrastination. (It can also help parents block websites or search terms for their kids, but that’s a different subject.)
It’s a very simple plug-in to operate: you simply choose websites that you want blocked, ex Facebook, or even keywords or search terms you want blocked, ex: “NFL Scores.” Then you tell the program when you want the blocking to occur.
During the whole workday? Or just the 2-3 hours you’ve allotted for creative writing? The program takes care of the rest.
Of course, if you’re really a social media junkie and you must check your sites, you can disable the program or use another work around, but for most instances it works. And for myself, I know a random thought leads to a search- which leads to reading an article- or two- or six- which gobbles up time!
If you choose the “uninstall” feature- where you can’t simply remove it, that is “Pro” feature.
(Formerly called Force Draft.) Cold Turkey is a really neat yet really tough (on you) piece of software that forces you to focus on your writing.
Think of it as a drill sergeant.
It works this way: it operates in full screen mode in essence turning your computer into a typewriter and doesn’t let you access anything until you finish your task. The task you set can be a certain number of words written, or a period of time.
As the website says- it won’t quit until you are done – literally will not quit.
It is free for the basic interface, but can be upgraded to include themes, background sounds, and disabling features (things like disabling cut and paste, backspace, etc to encourage you to just write.)
It only saves to plain text, so you then have to export your work to another program to edit.
FocalFilter is a free website blocking tool for Windows that runs with all browsers. You simply install it and then put the websites you want to block into your browser’s address bar. You then set how long you want these to be blocked.
It then blocks those sites, and while it is blocking those sites, you cannot terminate the blocking even by uninstalling the program. ( If you must, you can remove the blocks early by rebooting your computer.
SelfControl is a free app for Macs only that is similar to FocalFilter except that it allows you to block mail servers as well or as the company says “anything else on the internet.”
It also blocks sites according to the time you set- even if you restart your computer or delete the app. Wow- that’s serious!
Anti-Social is another of the blocking programs. It blocks social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and any other sites that you choose to block from 15 minutes to 8 hours. The only way to get around the blocks are to reboot your computer. Available for both Mac and PC.
StayFocusd is a free bowser plug-in with an optional donation option if you like the program.
It works a little differently.
You choose the maximum time you are allowed to visit certain sites or pages of sites and once that time has expired, you will not be allowed to visit them again. It is calculated in aggregate for all sites not just time for each, and the time you set cannot be changed once it has expired!
There is also a “nuclear option” that blocks sites independent of the active days or hours you’re working for the time you set. There is no way to cancel this once it is activated, although you can customize it for websites excluding: your allowed ones, all sites, or only sites on your blocked list.
You can also choose when the nuclear option is invoked: immediately, after your other max time has been exceeded, or at a specific time. Serious stuff!
BrainFM is a background noise producing app scientifically designed to produce sounds that allow you to focus, meditate, relax, nap, or sleep. It is designed to have noticeable results in 15 minutes or less. You can also customize what you want to hear by theme (forest sounds, chimes, water sounds, etc.) Also you can set your session to various lengths.
I use this program and love it. I am writing this blog post listening to it, and have shared my subscription with my sons who use it while studying. 😜
Ideally you should use headphones for use, and the company explains why on their website:
“Without headphones you won’t hear the 3D audio enhancements, which are significant to the impact that the sessions are capable of.
With stereo headphones, we can place a sound anywhere in 3D audio space. Behind you, in front of you, below you, around you, etc.
For Focus sessions, we spatially locate all of the sound in front of you – as if the sound were coming from a book you are reading or a central point on the monitor in front of you. It keeps your mind attentive to what it’s looking at. It also places other sounds around you, which helps to drown out background noise.
For Sleep and Relax, it mimics the rocking of a cradle or hammock. This is one of the theories behind why our sleep sessions work so well. The ears have a lot to do with balance.”
It is free for 7 sessions, and then it is a monthly subscription.
FocusWriter is a free interface that basically “takes over” your screen while you are using it so you only see what you are working on. It is available for Linux,Windows, and Mac and has these features:
* TXT, basic RTF, and basic ODT file support
* Timers and alarms
* Daily goals
* Fully customizable themes
* Typewriter sound effects (optional)
* Auto-save (optional)
* Live statistics (optional)
* Spell-checking (optional)
* Multi-document support
* Portable mode (optional)
* Translated into over 20 languages
Here is a screenshot of how your desktop would look with one of their themes while you are using it:
While it is pretty cool, this feature is available in other programs like Scrivener (I use the feature there) and even in MS Word. ( To access it in word just go to: View>Focus )
So if you don’t have access to those programs you might check FocusWriter out.
Keepwriting is a free downloadable word processor for Windows that acts like an old fashioned typewriter. You can’t delete – although you can type over mistakes. The idea is that this will promote creativity, prevent you from endless polishing and get you closer to what Anne Lammott calls that “shitty first draft.”
Here are its features:
* Works like a typewriter (you can write on top of other letters).
* Saves automatically.
* Stable and secure – I am writing my own novel using Keep Writing.
* Fullscreen and normal window modes.
* Export to plain text or HTML for nice-looking printouts.
* Select and copy text.
* Small size single executable file – put it on a USB stick and carry it with you everywhere.
* Real-time word count.
* Configurable – make it look and behave the way you want.
* More features to come.
750 words is an online tool that awards you with points and badges if you write 750 words per day and do it regularly. It is based on the premise that writing is meditative, that free-writing without the worry of formatting can help unlock your writing and make you more creative throughout the day and just helps you flex your wring muscle.
While not specifically for “writers” the benefits are pretty obvious- whether you use it for a project or just to start your writing juices flowing. The site does some other cool things like analyze your moods and mindset while writing based on analysis of the words you write.
It also analyzes how you write those 750 words, time elapsed, most productive periods etc. See the screenshots below:
You can export your work, and with 2 levels of passwords, your work stays private.
Writeordie is a totally fun, if not masochistic, website and downloadable motivational writing program. It is based on the motivational feature that if you don’t write what you yourself put down as goals- number of words in an allotted time, there will be consequences. In this particular iteration, there are 3 consequences:
Stimulus Mode: While you write, you can enjoy pretty backgrounds or soothing sounds. Once you stop and get in danger the background color starts to warn you by turning red and and then the soothing stimulus stops until you proceed again.
Consequence Mode: In this mode once you stop and get into the danger zone, you might get penalized with a blaring horn sound or scolding images.
Kamikaze mode: This is the mode that put writeordie on the map. In the old days it used to start deleting what you had typed until you started again! Now, in a bit of a reprieve, it only deletes the vowels from your words (!)
Of course I had to try that and you can see the evidence of the disemvowled words below:
WriteorDie is free to use on the website (just click on the “Try” button) and you can save your work in a downloadable text file. Or you can buy the program for $20.
WrittenKitten! is based on the same premise as WriteorDie, but perhaps not as sinister! WrittenKitten! is a website where you can write (no formatting or anything) and are rewarded with a cute picture of a kitten once you reach your goal.
You can set the goal words as you can see below, and pick whatever picture you want to be rewarded with as long as they are in the Flickr library.
This is obviously a very light motivational writing program but maybe if you need something to spice things up it might be fun to use.
But, there are no export features so be sure to cut and paste your work into another editor.
When I was in college, I couldn’t study well in the library. I needed some background noise. So, I went to the Student Union or the Coffee House. This is exactly the idea behind Coffivity: it is a free website or mobile app that allows you to play background noise that you might find in a Starbucks or a cafe.
It’s really cool and the premium upgrade allows you more options, like being in Paris or maybe a Texas Teahouse. So if you need those kind of sounds to work, you might want to check it out.
Ommwriter is a “writing environment” for mac, pc, and iPad that takes up where Coffivity leaves off- and also takes it in a different direction:
Ommwriter not only offers soothing sounds that were researched scientifically to encourage productivity and promote concentration, but also lets you write on background images that color therapy experts say promote tranquility and promote creativity. Finally there are keystroke sounds that “support your every move on the keyboard.”
The program uses a .txt file format, but you can save to a pdf, and copy and paste your work into your own editor.
Another really cool thing: there is no set price for the program- you pay what you think you got out of it starting at $4.11 and up as long as the number ends in a 1. (it turns out gifts ending in a 1 are auspicious in certain cultures…)
Koala Writer: C
Koala Writer is a free program for macs that is a clone of Ommwriter.
Another Om writing app! This is a free minimalist writing app that appears confusing until you realize that you type directly on the website’s screen. You then can customize fonts and backgrounds by hovering over the logo on the bottom left, and switch to HTML by clicking on the word count at the bottom right.
Here’s what the HTML version looks like:
Everything is auto-saved as you go, and then you can copy and paste your work to your own editor. It’s pretty cool, although I’m not sure it’s applicable for long-form writing.
ZenPen is similar to ompad, but even more minimalist.
WriteMonkey is a free stripped-down “zenware” writing application for PCs. It’s full screen mode is designed to leave you alone, free of distractions. You can see its full features here:
According to one reviewer: “… WriteMonkey actually has rather a lot of features but they are all ones that I really like or need. In fact, WriteMonkey has almost every feature from Scrivener that I require and that from me is high praise indeed …”
IAWriter is a plain text piece of writing software for mac, iOS, and Android. It’s design features a light grey background, monospaced font, and a bright blue cursor. It has multiple features including markdown, a document library, file export and the ability to create custom templates.
However one of the really cool features is its Focus mode. This dims everything on the screen but the current sentence helping you stay in the moment and avoid the temptation to edit.
Calmlywriter appears to feature much that iaWriter does, but it is for web browsers and has a app available for ChromeOS. It too, features distraction free writing, automatically saves your work, has formatting options, smart punctuation a word counter and typewriter sounds.
One thing that I though was cool that I hadn’t seen before is the Dyslexic Mode, which improves readability for users with dyslexia.
WriteBox is a text editor for the web that is super minimalist and appears as a browser or website page. You write in it, and it leaves a cookie in your browser so you can return to your work. You can save to dropbox of Google docs by registering your email.
File contents are stored in your local browser cache. I wouldn’t normally include this since it seems suited more for notes or blog posts, except that it does allow you to return to your work, so conceivably you could write long-form stuff.
WorstDraft is another minimalist word processor that touts itself as important for removing to the two biggest roadblocks for writers: editing and distractions.
As such users are not able to delete anything more that a few of the most recently typed words. Also they cannot access any other apps without first closing WorstDraft. Here’s a screenshot of a project with its rather simple menu:
And there you have it! 34 Tools to help you write, edit, concentrate better, publish easier, or get that precious bit of motivation to keep slogging and keep writing!