Authors write novels all year long. But November marks National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo, a time when amateurs and pros alike strive to finally put their ideas on paper. Feeling daunted by the idea of writing a book in a month? Technology can help.
We’ve collected the best programs for getting your literary masterpiece out of your head and down in black and white. While we’re focusing on computer applications (assuming you’d prefer to tap out your carefully crafted sentences on a proper keyboard), for both Windows and macOS, many of our picks come with phone apps as well.
What’s left to say about the definitive word processing app? Although Microsoft Word was once in danger of becoming stodgy and outdated, in recent years, Microsoft updated it to look much more fresh and modern. In addition to the clean, elegant interface, you get just about every feature you could possibly want from a word processor.
Recent versions of the software have added extra collaboration features to help you share your work with friends, as well as options for more advanced layouts. What’s more, after a sluggish start, Microsoft has created very capable mobile apps—so you can tinker with your novel on tablets or phones as well as computers. And improved syncing across multiple devices means you can access your work from just about anywhere. You can even try the processor out as a free online application.
Unlike many word processors, Ulysses prioritizes a clean and pleasingly minimal interface. Rather than showing cluttered menus or toolbars, it puts the focus on the words on the page. In fact, the app doesn’t include any of the usual formatting tools: Instead, you create headings, bold text, and so on through the Markdown annotation standard (for example, ## precedes a heading).
Some of the app’s nice touches include a typewriter mode, where the line you’re working on stays fixed in the center of the screen, and a writing goals option, which tracks your progress as you put together your novel. Because it’s also available on mobile, you can easily manage and sync documents across macOS and iOS. One of the only downsides: You can’t use it on any non-Apple hardware.
If you’re seeking the best free, open-source alternative to Microsoft Office, you need LibreOffice. Beyond word processing, it also offers spreadsheet and presentation tools, making it a fully-fledged office suite.
The word processor component—Writer—gives you a variety of useful tools: multiple layouts, tons of formatting options, word counting, spell checking, a variety of import and export options, proofing tools, and more. Like with Word, an AutoCorrect ability lets you fix mistakes as you type them. However, as an open-source project supported by volunteers, LibreOffice doesn’t quite match the specs and polish of Word. Still, it’s a pleasure to use and won’t cost you a penny.
Scrivener aims to serve serious writers, not just people composing letters to the bank or putting together yard-sale flyers. To that end, it provides extra features for managing long documents, and helps you organize the chapters, plotlines, characters, and general structure of your novel.
For example, with Scrivener, you can view your research and notes alongside the actual manuscript, and you can break up the text however you like. It acts more like a complete project manager for the whole novel-writing process. You can also fine-tune all kinds of formatting options, including headers, footers, and footnotes. This extended level of control continues when you’re ready to export your work: Scrivener supports all the popular formats, including PDF and Microsoft Word.
Most of the benefits of the Google Docs word processor come from its status as a web app. You can use it wherever you find a browser, including on a Chromebook; it will sync your novel across every machine you log into; and your work will save automatically. If your laptop falls under a bus, this won’t destroy your novel: Just log into a new computer and carry on.
Another plus is that Google constantly updates the Google Docs software, so you’ll always have access to the latest version. That said, the app doesn’t have quite as many layout and formatting options as some of the other programs here. But the basics—including support for tables, images, and spell checking—are all present and correct.
iA Writer is the complete opposite of notes-heavy Scrivener: It strips away everything but the text itself, letting you focus on the words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters while keeping other distractions to a minimum. As with Ulysses, you type simple Markdown codes to format your text, and you can incorporate images and simple tables too.
Despite the simplicity of its interface, iA Writer offers many of the same benefits that more complex word processors do. You can install it on multiple devices, allowing everything to sync seamlessly; take advantage of a neat and tidy document manager; and export files as PDF, HTML, and Word formats, among others. iA Writer will even highlight superfluous adjectives, weak verbs, repetitive nouns, and false conjunctions, so you can get feedback on your writing style while you type.
Working on a MacBook or iPad? Unless you need a Windows desktop app or Android support, the free Pages program is an obvious choice, offering all the usual Apple polish and finesse. Even Windows users can enjoy the more basic version available through iCloud online. Thanks to iCloud, everything syncs quickly and easily across devices.
Pages tries to be a little more user-friendly than Word, keeping on-screen controls and menus to a minimum until you actually need to use something. At the same time, it doesn’t have quite as many advanced layout options as Word does, such as the ability to send text flowing in multiple directions. But for most people, Apple’s software will meet all your needs.
Last but not least, Byword is another minimalistic writing app in the vein of Ulysses or iA Writer. Again, you format with Markdown codes, which means you get an uncluttered interface that lets you focus on your text. And that stylish-looking interface really is the main selling point of Byword. You won’t see a huge number of features, although you do get some neat extras such as real-time word counts, but your text will look great.
Everything saves instantly and syncs across devices, so you can stop worrying and just concentrate on writing. Finally, when it’s time to share your work, you can post your writing straight to the web or export it to a number of commonly-used formats, including HTML, PDF, and rich text. In the cons column, this straightforward app will only work in the Apple ecosystem.