Appily Writing

Thursday, June 1, 2017
Cory Zanoni

An introduction to apps and software for writers by Cory Zanoni.

Is something missing in your writing life?

Are you sick of looking at Microsoft Word? Fortunately, we live in a world of software and apps and there’s one for writing that’s just perfect for you. But with so many options available it can be hard to find the kind of writing software you need. Let’s look at some options, but before we do, know this: the best writing tool is the one you’re using. If that’s a smartphone with a notes app, great. A notebook and pen? Get scribbling. (Try Muji’s A5 notebooks – they’re great.) Better gear can make your writing experience more pleasant but that only works if you’re already writing.

If you’re committed to finding something new and digital to help your writing, start by deciding what you’d like to accomplish. There are three rough categories we can look into:

  1. Large projects
  2. Distraction-free writing
  3. Fun stuff

Keep your goals in mind as you read this and you’ll find the right tool for your job in no time.

Large projects

Trying to wrangle a large writing project? These pieces of software will help keep you on track.

Scrivener (Windows, macOS, iOS)

Scrivener is a fan favourite. It offers just about everything you could ask for in a writing application. It features tools for research (including an option to embed other files, such as images), outlining, file organisation, screenwriting, drafting, writing goals and more. It even has a ‘corkboard’ you can pin digital index cards to. It endeavours to be your ‘complete writing studio’ and, in many ways, it accomplishes that goal. The downside to that is complexity.

Once you master its tools you’ll have some nifty stuff at your fingertips. For example, those index cards? Each one represents a document in your project. You could, say, make each chapter in your novel one card. You suddenly have a bird’s eye view of your work you can move around and re-order on your corkboard.

Some clever exporting options mean that, when it’s time to bring your work together, Scrivener will collate your discrete files and provide everything in one document.

There’s a lot happening with Scrivener. Watch some of its introductory videos online and try its free trial. It’s not the most intuitive piece of user interface (UI) design but it may be worth the effort.

Ulysses (macOS, iOS)

Full disclosure: I adore Ulysses. To me, it’s the ideal marriage of simplicity and features to help you organise your writing.

Ulysses takes a similar approach to project management as Scrivener but simplifies things. You can group your work into projects and make each chapter its own file. Add in subgroups for your research or planning and you’re good to go. Like Scrivener, Ulysses lets you attach images or other files so you have everything you need. You can tag each file with keywords to make them easy to find and filter.

However, Ulysses just plain doesn’t have the feature set of Scrivener. It lacks the largescale view of a project offered by Scrivener’s corkboard and it doesn’t support script formatting. Ulysses is a more focused offering.

And focus is its best feature. It even provides a view option that highlights the line, sentence or paragraph you’re working on and dims the rest of your text. It makes it easy to stay focused on what you’re doing.

Quick and simple writing

Maybe you don’t need a full suite of writing features. Maybe you just want something simple you can use to get some work down without distractions.

iA Writer (macOS, iOS, Android)

iA Writer is the reason I got into writing software. It has a lot to answer for. It’s also one of the nicest things around if you’re looking for distraction-free writing.

Writer takes away all the things you can fiddle with instead of writing and just leaves you with your words. There’s only one font option. There aren’t any menu bars to get lost in. You just have to write.

The main selling point here, beyond the pleasant writing environment, are focus mode, its sentence highlighter and its syntax breakdown.

Focus mode keeps your cursor in the centre of the screen so it’s always at your attention. The sentence highlighter functions identically to Ulysses’ feature (although Writer did it first). Writer’s syntax breakdown highlights things like adverbs, nouns and adjectives, making it easy for you to get a high level look at what you’re writing and how you’re writing it.

A few others

There’s nothing quite like iA Writer available on Windows but Write! has a lot of the same features in a less stylish package. If you want the syntax analysis without installing anything, there’s Hemingway App—that’ll highlight long sentences and other elements of style, too.

If you want a minimalist writing experience that leans into the ‘experience’ side of things, there’s Omm Writer (Windows, macOS, iPad). Omm Writer creates an environment for you with attractive backgrounds and custom soundtracks designed to hold your attention. It wants to be meditative. Personally, I find it a bit gimmicky. But gimmicks can be fun, can’t they?

Fun stuff

Let’s round off this list with a few fun web-based writing tools.

Written? Kitten! – Set a word goal and, every time you hit that goal, delivers you a picture of a kitten, puppy or bunny (your choice). What more do you need?
The Most Dangerous Writing App – You set a time period you want to spend writing. If you stop typing during that time, the app will delete everything you’ve written. Write or Die 2 does something similar but adds more options and a minimum words per minute option.
Ilys – Silence that inner editor of yours. Tell Ilys how many words you want to write and get to work. The kicker? You won’t be able to see anything you’ve written, except for the last letter you typed, until you reach that goal. Ilys comes with a monthly subscription fee but there’s a free trial too.
Get writing – The kind of digital tool that’s right for you depends entirely on the problems you’re trying to solve. Something like Scrivener is perfect for managing a large project, but if you’re just kind of bored, you’ll want Written? Kitten! or something along those lines.

And remember that these are all writing tools. There are limits to what they can accomplish. A writing app that limits distractions can’t replace personal discipline, for example.

The world of writing software is worth exploring. Just keep your goals and the limitations of software in mind before you start doing so – all of them.


About Cory Zanoni

Cory Zanoni spends too much time thinking about digital things. He spends his days writing for State Library Victoria’s online channels. He co-hosts the ‘Press X to Something’ podcast on the side.


This article was originally published in The Victorian Writer.