The Top Five Writing Tools: Cheap and Free Computer Programs to Maximize Your Writing

[box]I may be wrong, but I’m confident this is the longest title we’ve had on the show to date. Ah, specificity. If you couldn’t tell from the title, Steve and I spend this week discussing computer programs to help maximize your writing. You may listen to the episode below, or download the file here. And, as always, you can find us on Stitcher:


tools1. FOCUS WRITER: Steve used to make use of Focus Writer extensively. It’s website describes the program as “a simple, distraction-free writing environment. It utilizes a hide-away interface that you access by moving your mouse to the edges of the screen, allowing the program to have a familiar look and feel to it while still getting out of the way so that you can immerse yourself in your work. It’s available for Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X.” An interesting note: the program has no text-formatting options. You can’t use bold or italics or underlines, etc. The idea is simply to put words on page, and it wants to streamline that process for you as much as possible. However, it does have a few bells and whistles that help maximize your writing potential, including timers and alarms, daily goals, customizable themes (pick your own background!), document statistics, and tabbed documents. The nicest part of Focus Writer? It’s free.

2. DROPBOX and/or GOOGLE DRIVE and/or SKYDRIVE: If you’ve been writing for very long, you’ve probably lost a critical file at some point or another. Steve learned the hard way that cloud storage is vital to a writer. Each of these programs have easy-to-download software that puts an additional folder in your “My Documents” files. Whatever you save in that folder will automatically upload to the cloud. Each has free options or pay options. Dropbox gives you two gigabytes of storage free; Skydrive gives you five, and Google Drive gives you … wait for it … fifteen gigabytes of free cloud storage! Plus, you can download apps for iOS and Android devices, so you have access to your writing anywhere you go. Nice touch.

3. EVERNOTE: Evernote allows for easy synchronization between devices (iPad, phone, cloud, etc.). It allows you to track notes and ideas and compile world-building documents with the actual text of your novel. Steve likes to use it to develop stories ideas within the Evernote environment, including character descriptions and profiles and pictures, research articles, etc. It’s a freemium program, meaning they have a limited free program, and a more extensive program for $5/month or $45 a year.

4. GANTTER: Gantter is a free project management program for Google Chrome. Most people use it for business purposes, but you can use it to create characters and scenes and timelines. Each character can be input as a resource and assigned to various scenes (which you enter as “tasks”), and you can even assign durations of scenes. This way, if you have three characters in a scene that will cover a week’s worth of time, and then you try to begin a scene with one of those characters in a different place, Gantter will notify you of a conflict. This resource works well for all you meticulous outliners.

5. MICROSOFT EXCEL or Other Spreadsheet Software: Sure, it’s not free (the office suite can actually be rather pricey), but there are similar free options available (see LibreOffice and OpenOffice). And while most writers wouldn’t consider a spreadsheet as a writing tool, it can actually be very useful for outlining. I finished my first novel thanks to a meticulous outline I created in Excel. I even included character profiles on each sheet in a workbook. It made for easy reference, and helped keep me focused on the task at hand. I actually utilized Excel to outline my first novel (which, by the way, was terrible). You can see the basic idea by downloading this file here. Fair warning: it’s atrocious, and you should in no way judge my writing or my novels on the horribleness (if that’s even a word) of the file. It’s used only for a reference.


Scrivener for Windows is a software utilized by several writers. Though it lacks much of the formatting functionality of Microsoft Word, it makes up for what it lacks with very useful tools. Scrivener allows you to keep several different files together and order them in folders. It compiles the files you want (chapters, scenes, etc.) into a formatted Microsoft Word format. This allows you to write non-chronologically, or chronologically, and very easily click and drag scenes to the proper places. The full program is only $40, and it comes with a whole suite of very useful bells and whistles. If you want to know more about the program (I highly recommend it), check out their website, or this awesome video by my good friend Yuvi Zalkow (fair warning–Yuvi is very funny, but sometimes uses colorful language). I also need to apologize to Yuvi for butchering his last name on the podcast. Ignorance is a very ugly thing. Also, while we’re talking about Yuvi and his awesomeness, check out his podcast The Creative Turn (which contains colorful language and nuanced insights into humanity).

FreeMind, as its name might suggest, is a free program to “mind-map.” It allows you to brainstorm in such a way that you can organize your ideas into something cohesive. It’s also great to use to help develop figurative language. Take a common word, then mind-map as many other connected words as you can, then repeat for each of those words. The further you go, the more connections you make, which will help you find unique, surprising, memorable descriptions.

Snowflake Pro is a little pricier. For about $100, this program will take you through pre-writing strategies and help you outline your plot and characters. You have to put in a ton of work on the front end, but it makes the writing process much faster, and cuts out time on the back end. Find out more on their website.

Dramatica is also about $100. It’s like Snowflake Pro in the sense that it asks you to invest time in pre-writing strategies. It asks a series of guided questions about your project, and eventually takes your answers and molds them into a workable outline that will allow you to write what you want to write and accomplish all your writing goals. It can even produce a proposal for you project. If you’re looking to start your novel tomorrow, this won’t work well for you. But if you want to spend a few weeks planning, this is a fantastic option.

Did we leave anything out? What programs do you use? Let us know–we’d love to hear what you think.

8 thoughts on “The Top Five Writing Tools: Cheap and Free Computer Programs to Maximize Your Writing”

  • I personally don’t like to use computer programs when i write. I feel like it takes away the effect that real writting has on me. When I write it is to calm myself and get my thoughts together and using a computer just doesn’t do that for me.

  • I’m not a fan of things like mind maps. I tried using it for government and it was a little helpful for studying but when I write a story it needs to just flow on paper for me at least.

  • Personally i think all of these could be helpful tools but some more than others personally i like the Evernote. having multiple devices especially a mobile if i have an idea it would be nice to be able to transfer instead of rewriting everything.

  • I’m a big fan of computer programs that help you only because if anyone should help me i think it should be a real person this way i can ask questions. This is the reason why i don’t like online schooling. Also when i type on microscope it catches my spelling mistakes but it doesn’t catch my grammar mistakes.

  • If i continue writing i will most likely continue to use windows,im considering checking out the others,it will probably help when im creating a timeline or plot sequence.

  • I prefer to handwrite rather than use the computer. I feel like I can catch my grammar mistakes better when I handwritten, but if I had to choose I’d use Microsoft.

  • I prefer to handwrite than use computer because I don’t have to worry where keyboard letters are at and I can catch my grammar errors easily, but if I had to chose I’d say I like using Microsoft.

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