Which Software Is Best for Authors – Part 1

author software questions keyboard-824309_640Newbies to the wonderful world of indie publishing can be forgiven their bewilderment at the range of software options out there for our use. The thing is, some programs work better than others for our purposes, and some don’t really have any use for us at all.

The minions sat around the gruel cauldron recently and discussed what’s out there – the good, the bad, and the ugly. We came up with so many options that I’m going to split this into two posts. Today, I’ll talk about project planning and writing software, including a couple of options for people who don’t have access to Microsoft Office.

1.  Microsoft Word – The gold standard of word processing software, for good or ill.

  • Pros: It’s ubiquitous, and if you learn Styles, you can set-and-forget your document formatting, saving you time when you’re ready to publish. And no matter which program you use to create your manuscript, you will most likely have to convert it to a Word doc eventually.
  • Cons: Cost. This is going to be true of all of the MS Office programs. Office has recently gone to a subscription model, whereby you’re always using the most recent version of the software (regardless of whether it’s a buggy new release), but you pay an annual fee for the privilege. Cloud storage for your documents is included in the price, but you can get that other ways for free (see Google Drive below). And Word has other issues: it’s not the most intuitive program ever, and it does way more than a fiction writer will ever need.
  • Best for: Project planning (outlining), writing, formatting.

2. Scrivener – Lots of writers swear by this program, which rolls planning, formatting, and word processing functions into a single package.

  • Pros: Scrivener allows you to save research, ideas, and to-do lists in one place, then helps you organize your project, and finally, gives you a window to write in, right alongside your outline. The virtual corkboard lets you move story elements around. Templates are included for fiction, nonfiction, and even scripts.
  • Cons: As with any multi-feature software program, there’s a learning curve to figure out how to adapt the features to the way you work. Scrivener is relatively cheap – the list price is $40 (and NaNoWriMo winners get a coupon for 50% off) – but most PCs come with Microsoft Office. Do you really need to spend extra money for a program that does basically the same things Word and OneNote do? And you may still need to export your Scrivener file to Word for final formatting.
  • Best for: Project planning (notes and outlining), writing, some formatting.

3. Microsoft OneNote – A virtual notebook.

  • Pros: It’s ridiculously easy to use. Click anywhere on the page and start typing. You can copy stuff from the web and paste it on a page, and OneNote will add a link-back in case you need to find it again. You can also embed links in your notebook to other Microsoft Office documents.
  • Cons: Again, the cost.
  • Best for: Project planning.

4. Microsoft Visio – Not part of the Office software suite, but a useful program for your planning process.

  • Pros: If you need to create a timeline, a family tree, or a flowchart, or figure out the layout of a house or office, Visio is an excellent tool.
  • Cons: It ain’t cheap. Visio retails for $299.99. (The only reason I have it is because my day-job employer has a deal with Microsoft; it’s worth checking to see whether you can get Office cheaply through your workplace.) There’s an alternative called Lucidchart that’s free to folks who don’t use it very often. Unfortunately, that’s all I know about it.
  • Best for: Project planning.

5. LibreOffice – Open-source software designed as a free alternative to Microsoft Office. LibreOffice is more or less the successor to OpenOffice, which you may have heard of.

  • Pros: Does almost everything Microsoft Office products do, for free. LibreOffice’s sub-programs include Writer (their answer to Word), Calc (Excel), Impress (PowerPoint), Draw (a vector-graphics program similar to Visio), Math (for creating and testing mathematical formulae), and Base (Microsoft Access).
  • Cons: PC Magazine dings it for its “outdated and inconsistent interface” and “confusing menu options.” Documents are saved in LibreOffice’s native open format, but you can convert them to other formats so that the rest of the world can use them.
  • Best for: People who don’t want to be beholden to Microsoft in any way, shape, or form.

6. Google Drive – Google’s free, cloud-based office suite that you can also use on your PC.

  • Pros: The apps – Docs (Word), Sheets (Excel), and Slides (Powerpoint) – and your first 15 GB of online storage are free. Because it’s cloud-based, you can access your files anywhere.
  • Cons: Google Drive apps use proprietary file formats. If you write your novel on Google Drive, you’ll have to convert it to a Word file in order to upload it to KDP or Smashwords.
  • Best for: People who want access to their documents anywhere and everywhere.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten several programs – including Apple’s answer to Microsoft Office, and WordPerfect (yes! It does still exist!). Feel free to add comments about those, or others, below.

Next week I’ll talk about other helpful and not-so-helpful programs for the indie author.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

52 thoughts on “Which Software Is Best for Authors – Part 1”

  1. If you use Ma, it’s worth looking at Ulysses. It’s sort of a “Scrivener Light” word processing program, very writing-organization focused. Has apps for Mac and iPad which integrate seamlessly (and autosave to your iCloud storage automatically!).

    Its my go-to software right now if I’m not using Word. I still use Word to clean documents up and for edits (because almost all editors use Word). But for day to day typing, Ulysses is great. Has everything I actually use from Scrivener without all the extra stuff getting in my way.

  2. Thanks for the info about Office’s new pricing policy. Photoshop has gone the same way, and I can’t afford that either. Who needs the latest version (full of bugs, as you say)?
    Unfortunately, I’m rather fond of Word. It only took me 4 hours to completely reformat “Mountains of Mischief” from paperback to Smashwords-ready, and it got approved first time through.
    I’ll have to rush out and buy one of the last home computer-based versions of Office, I guess.

    1. It seems anyone not wedded to Adobe’s Creative Suite (ie, basing their work in InDesign) is abandoning Photoshop. I’m trying to find a good alternative, but so far none of them do it all in one package. Anyone know of anything for the Mac that comes close?

      1. Not really, no. Photoshop remains the software used by virtually all image professionals. Amateurs have jumped ship to cheaper products, but pros were already shelling out money on a new version every couple of years, so $120 a year isn’t really an increase in cost.

        Adobe’s sute was never really intended for the hobby user. When the EU ruled that all software was able to be resold, Microsoft, Adobe, and other companies moved to subscriptions models to prevent their products from being resold. So now, pros use Adobe, but most other people don’t.

  3. A very good overview. I’m old-school (I started out as a typesetter, and old habits are very hard to ditch). It’s Quark all the way for me – yes, even for writing in! I just never took the time to learn how to do the intricacies of formatting in Word and since it went over to a subscription model, I guess I never will.
    Apple’s answer to MSW is Pages, and it’s a decent program for making notes in, but I’m not sure I’d want to try wrestling a properly formatted book out of it.
    Quark does have a steep learning curve, and it’s probably over-the-top for doing text-only books in, but I love all that power!!

        1. lol – I never used Quark because it looked way too complicated and hard. I did use InDesign though, back in about 2004-5. Now with ebooks, I’m not sure what I’d use it for. 🙁

  4. Good summary, Lynne. I use Google Drive to write and then MS Word to format the documents. I wish we could get away from that subscription model, but I don’t really know any other software I can use to make the transfer to ebook formatting work. I like the suggestions the Smashwords Style guide has, which are all MS Word-based. Though, I’ve not tried converting LibreOffice files. Do you know if conversions work about the same (via Calibre, Amazon or the distributors[Smashwords, D2D])?

    1. I know there’s a learning curve with writing software like Scrivener and StoryBox [the one I use], but one huge advantage is that at the end, it can create a variety of file formats for you, without any effort at all.

      StoryBox will publish to epub, mobi and rtf so pretty much everything is covered. Plus, as dedicated writing software, it actually makes writing easier. I’m a pantster by nature but StoryBox helps me organize my writing into something that approaches ‘order’. The biggest advantage though is that restructuring the storyline is as easy as moving digital ‘cards’ around. Plus, writing in scenes has reduce my waffle by at least 90%.

      I literally could not go back to Word. It’s business software, first and foremost. 🙁

    2. No idea, RJ, and I’m afraid to try. I heard this weekend that in terms of WordPerfect, you can convert to Word pretty well, but you get hash if you try to convert a WP-to-Word doc back to WP.

    1. Oh! I tried out yWriter before I found StoryBox. From memory its a good program, but I think I found it a bit too regimented. With StoryBox I can switch distracting elements off with a simple click.

  5. I split the cost of the office subscription three ways with family. Thiey have it set up so you can get five different installs and the one drive storage jumps up to 1 terabyte for everyone who has an account in the subscription.

  6. First, let me say thank you for writing this article. And second, permit me to ask, “Why is Windows the only operating system you even consider?” I currently operate a Mac and while it is possible to run the Microsoft products on it using a virtual machine, I’d rather not. Scrivener, because it has a version for Mac (which is actually FAR superior to the one they produced for the PC – and yes, I have used both and that judgment does not carry Mac-bias genes; it is based in features and functionality). The Mac word processing programs available other than Scrivener are not to my taste as I was spoiled by MS Word. Because I used to train users, I know my way around it rather well, and miss it a lot. Before MS decided we should all be annual prisoners, I refused to use anything else, even though over the years I have taught about ten different word-processing programs. I haven’t used anything built for Linux, and would love a run down on what’s out there. I understand that Android is heading toward Laptop Town and might even visit Desktopville, and quite possibly some of the other smartphone OS are too. That would mean even more options for writers.

    The point of this comment is to remind everyone that there is more to the technology world than the elephant in Seattle. Leaving that info totally unacknowledged in the stepchild’s corner is a bit of a disservice to indie writers who really want independence. It rather limits their freedom not to know what the options not offered by Gates & Co include.

    1. JK, we would love for you to write a guest post about programs for platforms other than Microsoft. If you’re interested, please let me know and I’ll get you our guest post guidelines.

    2. Stepchild? 😉 Heck, for every Windows computing device in the world, I think there are at least 100 Apple ones… Windows is the minority platform these days (looking at all personal computing devices – phone, tablet, and laptop). And it’s obvious why. Apple products are designed to operate together, so the work you do on an iPad works seamlessly when you swap to the laptop and vice versa. Windows is starting to catch up there – the new Surfaces are quite cool – but Apple still dominates this game.

      There’s a reason why Scrivener is an Apple product first, and the Windows version was an afterthought that still lacks many features. Most writers don’t use Windows; that’s been true for years now.

    3. (shrug) I highlighted Windows programs because I’m a PC dinosaur. As Kat said, somebody should write us a similar rundown for Apple products (she said, commenting via her iPhone).

  7. There is a great program for writers called Writer’s Café. Far less complicated than Scrivener and it works on Windows, Mac and Linux.
    I practically live inside it…

  8. Wow, I must be in the dark ages because I still use OpenOffice. It’s always done everything I’ve needed: Formatting eBooks, Createspace books, etc. There are still a number of useful plug-ins: PDF converter, ePUB converter, and even a comprehensive word count/use tool.

    I might have to look into LibreOffice in case Windows 10 kicks OpenOffice to the curb (I’ve thus far resisted moving to Win10).

    Anyway, thanks for the list. Very helpful, and I look forward to Part-2.

    1. Check out Libre Office; it’s Open Office but actually being updated regularly… 😉 When the company organizing Open Office was bought, most of the core crew working on the program were concerned support would vanish, so they forked Open Office, created Libre Office, and kept working on it there. Much more stable.

      1. I was going to mention Open Office as a Word alternative, but someone above did so and included more than I know. As for Photoshop, several years ago I needed to make a map for one of my books. Photoshop was a little pricey for that, so I went with GIMP. It was free and there were a decent number of tutorials and such available for making maps with it. Things may have changed in the last two years, but if you’re on a budget GIMP might be a viable alternative for you.

        1. GIMP is definitely a good Photoshop alternative. I used it for professional computer game art for a few years. It’s not as powerful or as feature rich as Photoshop, but it’s much better than most of the cheap/free alternatives.

  9. Wow, Lynne, thank you for this great post! I really do need to get out more. I had never heard of the switch to subscriptions. I’ll be looking for some other software now just in case my ancient Word for Mac program ever plotzes. (It’s part of the MS Office suite for Mac.) Many thanks to you and all the commenters who are recommending more stuff I’ve never heard of but might need!

    Also, I never did understand Styles, but now I have the link to your nifty article on that, as well!

    Looking forward to Part 2. 🙂

      1. Thanks, Lynne!

        Btw, the hubs said this subscription switch thing is called SAAS – Software As A Service, which may now be Software As A Subscription. Beginning around 2010, it was mostly for expensive business applications, but now it’s trickled down.

    1. That’s another program I was unaware of, Lisa. Part two is going to focus on other-than-writing programs, unfortunately. It sounds like we need a separate post on all these fiction-writing programs.

  10. Or you can just buy the non-commercial version of Word for £79 or the commerical version for £99 and get it for life or possess an old Windows OS with it already built-in.

  11. 2nd OneNote. If you don’t want to pay, or don’t want to use Microsoft’s web interface, look into using EverNote – it offers much the same functionality.

    Love just throwing loads of information into OneNote, kind of like a virtual scrapbook – story ideas, pictures, titles, research etc.

  12. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Microsoft make the standalone version of OneNote *free* about a year or so ago?

    I love OneNote but have switched to Scrivener because of some of its extra features. Both handle multiple writing projects well. I got Scrivener for half price ($20) through NaNoWriMo, but if OneNote is still free, that’s obviously a huge plus/pro in its favor.

  13. What about Kingsoft Writer, part of Kingsoft Office? The group is a reliable free clone of MS Office (the old menu style).

  14. Wordslingr is also a good solution. It is like a combination between Scrivener and Google Docs, allowing you to organize your novel and publish it to multiple formats ala Scrivener, but also keep your work online, backed up, and constantly synchronized across multiple authors and editors.


  15. My blog sucks, I may find time to do something, someday.

    Anyway! I posted the Software tidbit on Google + just now!

    I truly love this Indie Site and look forward to starting Flash Fiction. (Send help, just in case.)


    lvb / Dorie ( Like Dorie, from Finding Nemo. Get to know me better … and you’ll see why family and friends call me Dorie.)

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