In theory, if you’re hoping to write that novel you’ve been thinking about for years, then you could just launch your favourite word processor and start typing.
In practice, it’s not that simple. You’ll need to prepare first, take notes and organise your ideas.
It takes time and effort to make sure your work is properly structured. And an editor you’ll use to produce a letter, say, almost certainly isn’t the best choice for a big writing project – opting for a more specialist tool could make a real difference to your productivity.
Don’t give up just yet, though, this isn’t as bad as it seems. There are plenty of excellent free tools to help simplify the mechanics of the writing process. And choosing the right ones will leave you free to focus on what really matters: bringing your ideas to life.
1. LibreOffice Writer
Every writer needs a good word processor for at least some tasks, and LibreOffice has one of the best free offerings around.
Auto-completion, auto-formatting and the spell checker work as you write, delivering great results with minimal hassle.
If you need a little more then it’s easy to extend your document with embedded images, footnotes and endnotes, indexes, bibliographies and more. It’s straightforward to export your work as a PDF file, ready to share with others.
And this is all presented in a familiar, Word 2007-style interface. You’ll feel at home right away.
TheSage is a very powerful dictionary and thesaurus and a stack of useful features.
For example, a one-click lookup in most applicatons will get you a definition, an example sentence, a pronuciation guide (with matching audio to hear it spoken out loud), and any synonyms, hypernyms, hyponyms and meronyms.
You don’t know how to spell a word? No problem, TheSage will offer Google-like alternatives if you get something wrong.
All your searches are stored in a history list for easy reference later. There’s also an anagram solver. And the program can even run web searches on your term at Wikipedia, Wiktionary and Google.
Ideal for e-book authors, Sigil is a capable EPUB editor with a stack of essential features.
If you’re new to e-books then you’ll appreciate the WSIWYG Book view, for instance, which works much like any other editor. But experienced users can fine tune their project by directly tweaking EPUB code.
A powerful search tool helps you to update text and formatting; tools to create a table of contents and index give your project a professional touch; and the bundled FlightCrew EPUB validator checks that your book conforms to the EPUB standards.
TreeSheets is an interesting note-taking program which takes an unusual approach to organising your ideas.
It works a little like a spreadsheet, but each cell can contain lots of data, images, formatted text and more.
So you might have a list of items, each of which contains contains further tables and images, creating something like an outliner tool with an extra dimension.
The TreeSheets interface is a little unconventional, and that will put plenty of people off. If you like the basic idea, though, it’s well worth persevering, as once you’ve mastered the basics the program is a great way to record and arrange your thoughts.
You’ve busy on an important project, and need to look something up. You turn to the web, of course – but your internet connection is down. So now what?
If you’ve installed and set up Kiwix beforehand then this doesn’t have to be a disaster. That’s because the program allows you to download huge amounts of content – like all the text of Wikipedia pages (though no images) – for viewing offline.
You’ll need to be patient at first, because these are big downloads (5-10GB). And they’re only updated every year or so. But the files will also be easily accessible, whatever the state of your internet connection, and that could be really useful.
Storybook is a versatile tool which aims to help you properly structure a novel, screenplay or other complex written work.
You’ll start by creating strands, one for each plotline. These have multiple scenes, telling your story. Each scene will be set in a defined location, with your choice of characters or items. And you can add, edit or rearrange any of this whenever you like.
While this sounds like a lot of work, it does help you to visualise and better understand your story. It’s easy to discover and fix problems. And the option to organise your scenes into chapters should help when you move on to writing the book.
Fully understanding your topic is a vital part of any writing project, and that’s where wikidPad can help. The program is a personal wiki, an interesting offline tool which helps you to link your ideas, and it’s surprisingly easy to use.
If you’ve just realised Steven Spielberg has to be covered in your piece, for instance, just type his name as one word, in mixed case – StevenSpielberg – and wikidPad will automatically turn your word into a link. Double-click this link at any time to create a Spielberg page, then repeat the process elsewhere to quickly build your own document outline.
The program can do much more, too – download it and see for yourself. (Please note, though, if you get an error message when launching the program then you should try running it as an administrator.)
Most editors have a cluttered interface, packed with buttons and toolbars – but FocusWriter is different. Launch it and the program gets rid of all distractions by clearing the screen entirely, so you can concentrate on your writing.
Move your mouse cursor to the top of the screen, though, and menus appear with the usual editing basics: text formatting, search and replace, alignment, indents, spell check and so on.
Extra options include the ability to set yourself a daily goal (work for an hour, say, or write a certain number of words), while the program status bar shows you how close you are to achieving this.
If you need real editing power, then, FocusWriter won’t be for you. But if you just need to write, and will sort out all the layout complexities later, its distraction-free approach could help. (Q10 [http://www.baara.com/q10] is another good example, while Writer [http://writer.bighugelabs.com] is an online equivalent.)
YWriter5 is a small but very comprehensive tool which helps you to plan your novel.
Set up your various deadlines, for instance, and the program’s Work Schedule report will let you know how much you’ll have to do, each day, to finish on time.
Enter your characters, locations and items and you can freely organise them into scenes.
Put these in the right order and you’ll have a basic outline for the book, but you’re still free to change anything you like. So you can move a scene back a chapter, drop one character, add someone else, whatever you like.
And if you decide you’re going in the wrong direction, no problem – yWriter5 keeps all your previous scenes, and you can review or restore them as required.
If there’s one essential research and note tool for writers (and everyone else, really), it has to be Evernote.
The program allows you to create detailed notes, with formatting and images, and save them to your online account.
You can also record web content: URLs, a snippet of text, a full page. And it’s just as easy to include images and attach files.
Evernote runs on just about every platform there is – Windows, Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone and more – and can be used from a browser for everyone else.
You can even share your notes with others, perfect if you’re collaborating on a big project.