With the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) having kicked off, I was having a discussion on Twitter the other night about writing software, and especially freeware that is useful for writers.
On both sides, commercial and freeware, there are excellent programs available. Premium commercial programs like Scrivener provide a lot of features for writers, and over time has made improvements, both in the program and in response to feedback from those using the program.
Now if you are of the mind that free programs are free because they are limited and of little use and believe in clichés like “You get what you pay for”, well for one clichés are for people who don’t like to think for themselves and let others do their thinking for them, and if you are of such a mind you are obviously too limited in your thinking to continue reading this article.
Free and paid software both exist for the same reason: someone needed a program to perform a certain function, or set of functions, on a computer. Additionally, a lot of programs have come out of the limitations of included programs in Microsoft’s Windows*, and have sought to improve upon those basic programs.
*Being a Windows user myself, I am concentrating on freeware for Windows as I do not have any way to test and use programs on other OSes.
Some programs independently developed can be commercially viable, and such programs come with a fee if the developer or company which owns it deems to do so. Many freeware programs are developed independently, though some are commercial programs which have been released as freeware. Those which are developed independently are often more niche specific in their functions as they were developed often by someone needing those particular functions; though there are many freeware programs which offer an incredible number of features that compare with commercial programs.
Programs I am including here do not require Java or .Net in order to run or your computer. If you have Windows Vista and above, .Net is included with it, but with XP and below it has to be installed and sometimes the install is buggy. Java is just slow, kind of like trying to walk an elephant through mud. I prefer something which will work on Windows computers without having to download addons or slowing down a computer. There are two exceptions I have made in the list where the same program is available in two varieties and where there are two similar programs.
Text Editors and Basic Word Processors
In looking at freeware for writers, it makes sense to start off with programs which meet the most basic need of a writer: text editing and word processing.
Akelpad is seemingly a simple text editor, and no doubt it is that, but it has some built in features such as an always on top option that keeps it on top of other windows (i.e. active) so that it does not disappear when using other programs. This feature makes it handy if you are doing research for an article or story, and would like to keep your notepad handy, like it should be, in order to take notes.
Akelpad also does not include a lot of junk in the top menu bar, though you can include more junk with plugins. What this means is that you can resize the window to almost as small as you would like to have it to keep it at hand for notetaking without it getting in the way of whatever else you are doing.
It does have various plugins available, most of which are included in the basic download anyway, offering additional features like multi-document interface (MDI), allowing you to have several working windows, text areas, in the program at the same time, and other useful plugins including a spellchecker.
Additionally Akelpad does have a portable version which you can get from their website as an archive version which you can unzip, or you can get a portable apps installer version from the Portable Apps website.
QT Writer Express is my preferred writing tool. It has a clean and simple interface with the tools you need easily available on the left side panel. You can easily change font, alignment (no, I don’t mean lawful good and chaotic evil :p ), zoom, and it has a handy word counter so you can keep up with your word count as you type.
As I get older, being able to clearly see what I am typing is a help in preventing typos and dropped words. And even if you are not getting older and/or have clear vision, the text you type can be made to appear so clean and legible, and so easily, that QT Writer Express makes it a pleasure to write.
QT Writer Express is also a portable app. The program is in a zip file, and you can either unzip it to your hard drive to install it*, or unzip it to a USB thumb flash pen drive to carry it with you.
*If you’re not that familiar with installing portable apps, just right click on the zip file you downloaded and choose to unzip it to a folder of the same name as the file (it will create the folder, you’re not looking for one with that name). Then copy (right click and choose copy) that folder you just unzipped, and paste it (right click and choose paste) in the program files folder on your hard drive under c: in windows explorer. For portable use, just follow the same steps, but you’re just pasting the folder to the USB drive.
Atlantis Nova is another favorite of mine. This is an older freeware program that is a small download; being an older program, I don’t know how well this works on 64-bit Windows as I use Windows XP myself.
I like having Atlantis Nova on my computer because it uses very low resources and starts almost instantly; it’s not going to drag your computer down, and is ideal if you have a tendency to keep several programs running as it will still run very well on a slow computer.
Even with its small size and speed, Atlantis Nova is loaded with many features that make this a more than capable word processor. It saves your documents as RTF (rich text files), but RTF files, though not as full featured as DOC files, can be read and formatted properly by any word processor making it an ideal format, and my preferred format for this reason, to share your files with others without having to worry about compatibility issues.
Full Featured Word Processors and Office Suites
Although the above text editors and word processors offer the basic needs of many writers who are primarily interested in writing content, there are writers who need additional capabilities such as text areas, images, columns, PDF capabilities and other advanced features akin to being able to create magazine like pages. These word processors offer advanced features and some are part of office suites offering many of the tools an advanced office suite like Microsoft Office offers, but at no charge.
Softmaker Office 2008 is the Cadillac of what will be seen here for free. Yes, it includes spreadsheet (Excel) and presentation (PowerPoint) software, but its TextMaker word processor (Word compatible) is the focus here and is every bit as capable as Microsoft Word and other commercial word processors.
Softmaker Office 2008 is an older version which the company makes available for free, and completely free without any BS or limitations. You do need to register your email address to get an unlock code that will make the software fully functional, and you will very occasionally, like once a month at most, get a promotion email, but that’s it.
AbiWord has been a freeware word processor offering many of the features of a commercial word processor for many years now. Though it has been used by many as is still popular, it seems like development has come to a crawl or complete stop.
AbiWord is a fast running piece of software. In the past I have found it to be a buggy install on some computers, but that has been the minority of times. If, however, you do have any difficulties with running AbiWord, sometimes an older version will work; older versions of AbiWord can be found on OldApps.com.
SSuite WordGraph is available separately or as part of several office suites from Van Loo Software. As a word processor it offers graphics, tables, PDF creation and other features comparable with commercial software.
What I personally don’t like about it is it sets your RTF file association to use WordGraph as its default program. Now if you do not use another program specifically for RTF files like I do, then this will not be a problem, and it is the only bug which keeps me from using it, so aside from that it is a fine piece of software, especially that you get so much functionality for free.
Van Loo Software specializes in making free office software and suites which require no .Net, No Java, or have any other specialized and resource robbing requirements. The previously mentioned QT Writer Express is by Van Loo and they have many other programs and several office suites, including portable office suites, at their SSuite Office Software website.
Novel and Story Writing Software
Yes, there is professional software like Scrivener for novel writing, but freeware? These are specialized programs designed for writers specifically for the purpose of organizing your fiction.
yWriter was designed by a writer who is also a software designer. He used it for his own novel writing, designing it for his own needs, and has made it available for free to other writers who may find it useful.
yWriter is a combination of a word processor and an organizer. It allows you to outline and work on your novel by chapter and scene. You can build chapters by populating them with characters, locations, content and more, allowing you to work on them individually while maintaining your continuity.
This is the one exception I am making in including a program which requires .Net on your computer in order to run, but there is an exception to that as well.
yWriter5 requires Windows Vista or above to run without any additional software, and Vista and above come with the .Net runtimes necessary for the program to run. Windows XP and below requires that you download and install the .Net runtimes for Windows (the link is on the site) in order to run it.
yWriter4 is a previous version of yWriter which does not require .Net in order to run. It is a Visual Basic program with the necessary runtimes included, and will run on any version of Windows from 95 up.
PlotCraft is another novel writing software which works differently from yWriter in it is a general database application for ideas. You select categories for your ideas and group those ideas together. Although not as seemingly organized for novel writing as yWriter, it offers a good way to store ideas and categorize them, then be able to form them into works rather than making separate notes and forgetting about them.
Specialized and Useful Freeware for Writers
Spellcheckers are useful because, well, let’s face it, we’re not always as good of spellers as we are writers, and we do make mistakes, which spellcheckers help to prevent. Spellcheckers are for those who don’t have a spellchecker included with their text editor, word processor, or other programs and about any program which has a clipboard function. tinySpell is a lightweight program that you can keep running, and even set to run with Windows on start up, running from the taskbar, that monitors the programs you use and alerts you on suspected misspellings. SSuite SpellChecker is more manual than tinySpell and does offer suggestions, especially helpful if you just have an idea of the word you’re trying to spell, or are simply way off on your spelling.
Note Organizers are definitely handy for writers. They can be looked upon like a combination card file or even filing cabinet for your ideas, with the advantage of a built-in text editor so you can write notes directly into the program. minipad2 is a favorite of mine as it can be configured to have what seems like indefinite tabs and sub-tabs, and can be used for different stories or even for novel writing by assigning tabs to individual chapters, scenes, characters and more. Notebox Disorganizer is somewhere between minipad2 and the aforementioned PlotCraft by allowing you to create categories, individual notes applied to categories, connect notes, and keep everything in a convenient and abbreviated view. Both minipad2 and Notebox Disorganizer are portable apps and can be installed on your hard drive or on a USB drive.
StoryBoard is exactly that, a storyboard program where you can write and sort text boxes on a virtual storyboard like sorting index cards on a bulletin board. StoryBoard is old software requiring Visual Basic runtimes which are included with it. On Windows 2000 and above it will require two installs; the first being an install of the runtimes, then a restart before you can install the program. Text Block Writer is a newer program similar to StoryBoard which does require Windows Vista or above, or Microsoft .Net to be installed on XP or lower in order to work.
TreeSheets is an amazing free program which is called free form data organization software by its developer. It is part organizer, spreadsheet, mind mapper, and notebook which you can organize as fits your needs. It is not bloated nor does it require specialized runtimes like every other mind mapper program, and this one is better organized. I only found this just a few days ago as a result of the conversation I had about freeware for writers and a random search and am very happy to have found such a program, and even freeware at that.
Repetition Detector is a program I have not tried yet, but it looks like it could be of use to a writer, and could perhaps be of use to me someday. It offers a single but useful feature in checking the repetitiveness of the words in your writing and listing the top 50 most used words. For someone who is concerned they may be using words too repetitively, this could be very useful.
Distraction Free Writing works for some writers. Although I prefer having my controls and menu visible, anything which helps a writer keep their flow without distracting them is of prime importance. Distraction free text editors and word processors are designed to have one thing on the computer screen, and that is a writing area and nothing or little more than that; rather like turning the computer screen into a blank piece if paper with just your words on them. Both FocusWriter and Q10 are available for desktop installation and as a portable app to be carried on a USB drive with FocusWriter having options such as including a background for inspiration while Q10 is fast and light. CreaWriter offers the ability to use your own picture for a background, vary the text area, and even have ambient sounds, offering a lot of customization options, though it runs more slowly that the previous two programs.
Yadabyte Portables has several freeware programs available including a notetaking app and, most of note for this article, a dictionary. The Yadabyte Dictionary can be used as a portable app or put on your hard drive. The dictionary comes with 145,000 definitions as well synonyms, and its speed and compact interface make it ideal for a handy quick reference that is not going to get in the way. If you have problems with the website loading, here are alternative links for Yadabyte Dictionary and Yadabyte Notes.
Cybia Utility Apps are small and useful apps primary designed for notetaking and organization AlphaPad is almost like an alphabetical phone index, but designed for notes, not phone numbers. PasteBoard is a multi-page clipboard or notepad for taking notes and keeping them separate, while Jot-a-Lot is like PasteBoard with a file browser added. Yes, this is the same Cybia which makes many wonderful and free Photoshop plugins.
What I have included in the above list is certainly not all inclusive. For the most part I have used or tried the programs included with very few exceptions. I am not trying to list every freeware available which a writer could possibly use as I would still be searching and it would be a huge list. What I have listed, or tried to list, are the more useful programs I have found which cover a broad spectrum of functionality for writers. Feel free to leave a comment about this, or add you own programs in the comment which you have found.