Writers’ Software and Writing Tools

Sometimes the software you have on your computer just does not cut it. For example, when you start writing a book, a novel, a thesis for your PhD or any other structured document. Sometime, you may want to collect ideas, snippets of information in a kind of a scrap book and sort out the proper sequence of chapters, text and references later. Indeed, there are plenty of programs out there, all somehow good and all somehow missing one or the other feature. The bottom line is: The best software is the one which allows you to complete the job as fast and as effortless as possible. Because the working styles of people are different as are the requirements for various tasks, there is no one-fits-all program.

Here is my experience which I would like to share with you:

The All-Arounder

LibreOffice Writer: (free, open source) Still my favorite of all word processor, – not only because it is free. I have written several books with hundreds of pages and dozens of embedded pictures with LibreOffice, some even with A3 page sizes. I like the flexibility in formatting, the spelling corrector which works in hundreds of languages, direct export to PDF (and ePub, with a plug-in) and many other aspects. It can read and write docx-files. Even stone-age-old WordPerfect files can be opened in LibreOffice. I like that all formatting and language instructions, even the fonts, stay with the document and are included in the document file (given the right ‘save’-settings). If you are writing scientific text with a lot of literature references, you will like that LibreOffice has a connector to Zotero, one of the best(and free!) literature and reference management software.

Like for MS-Word, there are thousands of free templates (mostly in docx format) on the Internet which can be imported also into LibreOffice. This is nice for pre-formatted CVs, newsletters or scientific documents. The only thing I am missing in LibreOffice is the ability to structure the text with an outliner, the ability to change around chapters and so forth. It is possible (with sub-documents) but still somewhat cumbersome.

Of course, there is always MS-Word. Mature and very functional and costs money (a couple of US$/months upwards, depending on configuration). Been there, done it. Not much to say about it. Yet, personally I prefer LibreOffice.

So looked around and tested other programs, some free, some to buy. Interestingly, more than half of these programs are for the Mac. As it seems, the Mac is the tool for the “creative” people. I don’t have a Mac, nor any Linux machine, so my review is based only on programs that run on Windows-10.

The Outliners

Scrivener: (US$ 45.-) A writers’ program that uses sections (called scenes, paragraphs, etc.) to structure the document. It comes with a number of format presets (scientific paper, novel, BBC screen play, etc.). It exports to PDF, docx, odt and a number of other useful formats. The main drawback is the spelling corrector. It just sucks if you use any other language than English. The corrector is very limited and the ability to keep, edit and move a personal dictionary is cryptic (meaning: I did not find it). A customized dictionary is important if you are writing scientific texts with loads of terminology (“Eryngium amethystinum“). Links (like to a literature reference) are fumbly and not really transparent. Installation as “portable” software (i.e. on an USB stick) is possible, but all the presets (format instructions, etc.) stay on the local machine and not with the project files. Despite many shortcoming, it is the program I am using at the moment.

Cherry Tree: (free) is similar to Scrivener but without any fancy formatting options. Cherry Tree is actually made for people writing computer code or collecting material for a project. But it is surprisingly useful and flexible (supports internal and external links, accepts graphics, etc.). The content of a project is written to (SqLite-) database and it makes automatic back-ups of this database.

DramaQueen (free basic version and ‘pro’-versions to purchase). This is a program designed to produce scripts formatted screen plays and novels. It has the usual features of text, character and location database, supports tags and hyperlinks. Even the free version is very functional and offers most of the necessary and useful features. The spelling corrector is limited to only a few languages but for these languages is superior to Scrivener or Cherry Tree. On the downside, it cannot import odt-text files (from OpenOffice or the more evolved LibreOffice), which is not a serious problem, there is a workaround using doc or docx file formats. My advice: Before you buy anything, try out the free version of DramaQueen.

The useful ones

These two programs are for authors who want to write a novel, a screen play but are also useful for scientific writing.

Patchwork (€ 98.-, € 133.- with the Duden dictionary) : Patchwork is similar in purpose and functionality to Papyrus Author (below), but in German with a German interface. Nice, and based on the price, a strong competitor to Papyrus Author. It is ultracomplete, and also includes style and grammar editing, truly useful! If you need to use a certain feature, it is probably there – but difficult to find. This is the downside, the interface is cluttered and not intuitive. There is all sorts of learning material, but it takes some time to become productive.

Papyrus Author: (€ 179.-) Is probably the most evolved program in this class. It comes with a good spelling corrector (“Duden“) and a style checker which is immensely useful to weed out fill words and streamline a text. But it comes at a price. Portable versions delivered on a physical USB-stick are available. The interface is clear and the export options rich in choices.

Of course, there is Google Documents. It’s free, it’s easy – and it is primitive. If your life depends on documents stored in the “cloud”, if you need to cooperate with your co-worker, this is the tool for you. The thing is that Google-Docs want to be compatible with everything (MS-Word, LibreOffice and many others) and this comes at a price: Hyperlinks, formatting instructions, captions and many other details in a structured text can be lost or are not properly represented. If you are making the last edits in your Master thesis, this is not the tool, it will destroy much of your work. However, if you need to write down quickly three pages of new ideas at Starbucks (using any tool, Abdroid tablet, Mac, Windows or Linux laptop, etc.), Google-Docs is a joy.

Schreiblabor: If you don’t want to use or buy the Duden, this is an online alternative for spelling and style correction.

Google Speech Notes: If you can talk faster than you can type (most people are wired like this), try out the Speech Notes. It runs inside the Chrome browser and therefore requires an internet connection. Great stuff and incredibly accurate in many languages. – Must try!

Nice, but….

yWriter (free, donation appreciated): For a moment I thought I had found the thing I was looking for: Database for characters, locations, things, a nice outliner, tags, all sorts of views to summarize what’s going on – all there. But when I tried to cut and paste, it did not work. I tried a number of tricks but I could not find any option to paste text from somewhere else into this nice program. Verdict: Nice but useless because it does not support cut&paste (I still can’t believe it!).

oStorybook (free): Quite nice and complete. It has nearly all the features of Patchwork or Papyrus Author. But it has three major drawbacks: I did not find a spelling corrector. This is not a show stopper, you could still use an external spelling and style editor like Schreiblabor . The second problem is the limited choice of export formats. Only Html, csv, but no PDF, no other formatted export.

Update:  If you are using a high resolution display (higher than 1920 x 1080) the text becomes very small and very hard to read. This comes from the program using Java-JRE and there is no work-around. However, the latest Java-JRE (version 8.u181 and 10.x) seem to solve this problem. The solution is here: https://pivotce.com/2017/12/11/fix-java-applications-for-high-dpi-display/

And there was Adobe Story CC, rock-solid, ultra complete like everything from Adobe. But it was, it’s history. Game over! Adobe have announced that the product will be no longer supported after January 2019 (details here). – Lesson learned: Make sure that your projects can be migrated or continued, even if the software supplier goes out of business, is taken over or just decides not to support any longer.

The Verdict:

There is an incredible number of programs which are meant to help writing stories, novels, screen plays, but also technical documents. Most of them are “good” in their own way, but they are all very different. The few programs I have commented above represent not even a quarter of what is on the market. The key question is which tool is the right one for your purpose?

  • Do you need different languages? Do you work on translations?
  • What is the intended final product? (eBook, PDF, formatted manuscript, etc.?) Do you need a formatted output like for screen play writing?
  • Do you need to include mathematical formulas, pictures, illustrations? (Many programs can do this only very poorly)
  • Some programs allow cloud storage and/or cooperation of various contributors. Do you need this feature?
  • How important are dictionaries, style checkers and language tools (including foreign characters, â,Φ, ü)  for your project?
  • What happens, if you change computers? Are your fonts, the formatting and the language settings preserved?
  • What does it cost? I do not necessarily advocate free and/or open-source software. But I resent the “software as a service” (SOS) business model. For example, Microsoft, Adobe and others offer access to their programs on a monthly basis, often at seemingly reasonable prices. But what happens, if you don’t use the software for some time? – You still have to pay (or leave the subscription). For me, for my lifestyle, these extra months paid are dollars wasted and/or the time to cancel subscriptions and resume later, is just one thing too many to take care of in my life.
  • The GUI: Can you “rip off” the menu and place it on a second screen? (Very helpful, if you have two screens).
  • How does the program store the data? Is one project one contiguous file or a number of different files in a common directory? (Important for back-up).
  • Do you need cloud storage, co-operate with other writers over the Internet or a local network?
  • Do you need a specific output format (eg. LaTeX, MS-Word, ePub)? – Some publishers accept only certain file formats, such as MS-docx, RTF or LaTeX.

Food for thought.