In a world of free online word processors, it’s easy to forget that dedicated writing applications exist. Google Docs can process your keystrokes, but for almost anything else, it’s lackluster. A dedicated word processor can still help you format what you’re writing, organize your ideas and export it for professional purposes.
We tracked down the best writing software for novelists, screenwriters and journalists to bring you a comprehensive guide to what you should be using. We found the best software in each category, as well as runner-ups if you need more options. There’s also a section at the end for tools that all writers should try.
The best software for you can differ based on your use case. We’ve divided our guide into four sections so you can find the best tools for what you want to do. There’s some crosstalk between the sections, too, so we recommend reading through the novelist section even if you’re, for example, a screenwriter.
There are tools that all writers should use that we didn’t want to shoehorn into any section, though. No matter what you’re writing, it’s important to create a copy of it with an online backup service, such as Backblaze, which ranked second in our best online backup services guide. You can see why in our Backblaze review.
If you’re unfamiliar, that is a principle of the 3-2-1 backup rule, which says you should keep three copies of your data — two stored locally on different storage types and one backed up to the cloud. There are variations, such as storing one locally, one in cloud storage and one off-site, but the principle is the same. You don’t want to lose the hard work you put in to your writing.
Choosing the Best Writing Software
Our application choices boiled down to three key factors: power, usability and features. Power was our foremost concern, as declaring software the “best” means it can handle most of what you can throw at it. Final Draft, for example, automatically adheres to industry standard formatting and gives you the necessary tools to put anything in your screenplay.
Power shouldn’t come at the expense of usability, though. Final Draft is the best screenwriting tool available, but its complex interface makes it less attractive if you need distraction-free writing. That said, there was some leeway on this point. As long as the software wasn’t unnecessarily complicated, it was considered.
Features, which included everything from the “Ask the Editor” tool in the AP Stylebook to the consistency reports from ProWritingAid, were last. Anything that piqued our interest or would otherwise be useful during the writing process satisfied this criteria.
For each section, we have a top pick, which we believe offers the best balance of power, usability and features. It’s not the de facto “best” option, though. Because of that, each section also has honorable mentions that have a lot to offer for their niches, but aren’t as balanced as our first choice.
The Best Writing Software for Novelists
Let’s start with the time-honored tradition of fiction writers. After some research, we settled on the following picks.
WriteItNow is designed for novelists. Instead of presenting a word processor and asking you to make sense of it, the program automatically organizes your notes, chapters and background information into a single file. Whenever you want to work on your novel, it’s all in one place.
Everything you write is organized into a chapter or scene, the latter being a smaller piece that makes up your chapters. You don’t have to use that approach, but it is effective. WriteItNow shows a hierarchy of chapters and the scenes that make them up, meaning you can write your story piecemeal to ensure that each scene has a narrative arc.
There are other benefits to adding scenes to your story. At the beginning of writing, you’ll be asked to create a scene summary that includes characters, events, locations and props in the scene. WriteItNow uses that information to organize scenes in the storyline editor.
The storyline editor is a fantastic tool for visualizing how your novel is progressing. WriteItNow shows all props, characters, locations and events and ties them to the scenes in which they’re featured. In addition to visualizing the logical flow of your novel, the storyline editor can also help you spot continuity errors.
While that is the main tool for visualizing the flow of your novel, WriteItNow can generate other charts. For example, you can tie images to character files and use those images in a relationships chart. Depending on the relationships, WriteItNow can also show a conflict chart, so you can see how the conflict ebbs and flows throughout your story.
On the technical end, WriteItNow can generate a readability analysis, an event chart, a storyboard and an event summary. Each of those is broken down by chapter and scene, providing multiple ways to see your story from a bird’s eye view.
The best part about those features is that they live under one umbrella. You don’t need to save files for characters, storyboards, etc. Rather, WriteItNow handles the dirty work, so you only need to open a single file.
It’s cheap, too. You can download a demo of WriteItNow and use it as much as you like, but you won’t be able to save documents. When you decide to upgrade, all you’ll have to do is purchase the $59.95 unlock code to start saving everything you’ve worked on.
Scrivener is a popular app for novelists, with writers, such as Neil Cross, Karen Traviss and Marc Goodman, being outspoken supporters of it. Like WriteItNow, Scrivener has a lot of tools for seeing your novel from a broad point of view, but it puts them in the background. As the marketing material says, Scrivener lets you write your novel “your way.”
That starts in the planning stages. Scrivener includes corkboard and outliner tools for visualizing how your story is progressing. The corkboard is basically a storyboard page where you can attach note cards and see how they tie together. That said, the cards are tied to sections in your novel. If you move a card, that will be reflected in the novel.
The outliner works in a similar way, but shows you everything, instead of just the synopsis of a scene or chapter. You’d use the corkboard to get a broad view of your novel and the outliner to see fine details about when and where things happen in the story. As in the corkboard, you can drag around different sections.
While writing, you can take advantage of Scrivener’s multiple screen modes. For example, if you’re writing a scene based on an actual location, you can drag an image into the window and view it next to your manuscript. If you need fewer distractions, you can switch to full-screen mode by using one of Scrivener’s color presets or a background image of your choosing.
Scrivener’s focus is customizability, and that’s a double-edged sword. You can do almost anything in it, from researching an academic paper to crafting a screenplay. The tools are there, you just have to make sense of them.
Though it’s a superior tool in terms of power and flexibility, Scrivener makes our honorable mentions list for novelists because it doesn’t put all its eggs into one basket. It’s not an inferior tool to WriteItNow — quite the opposite, actually — but it doesn’t have as strong a focus on novelists.
It’s cheaper, though. You can try Scrivener for 30 days on macOS, Windows or iOS, after which you’ll need to purchase a license for $45. The trial is interesting because it only counts the days you use it. For example, if you used the software three days a week, the trial would last 10 weeks.
An oldie but a goodie, Microsoft Word is still an excellent choice for writing your novel. Though it lacks the outlining features of Scrivener and WriteItNow, it is the most widely used word processor on the market, and there are a few practical, if not obvious, reasons for using it.
Word has the editing features of Google Docs without the formatting hangups. Proofreaders or editors can make changes to your Word file without making them permanent. Using the “track changes” feature, you can view all suggested edits and decide whether to accept or reject them.
Though that seems like a minor upside, it has huge implications in a professional environment. The Word file format, .docx, is accepted in almost every word processing application. No matter who you need to send your work to, you can be sure that they’ll be able to open it and that the formatting will stay intact.
Word is usable for writing, but it leaves a lot to be desired compared to Scrivener and WriteItNow. The best case scenario would be to use one of those tools to outline and write your novel, then port it to Word for formatting, editing and distribution.
The Best Writing Software for Screenwriters
For those looking to get their work onto the silver screen, there are some very specific pieces of software.
Final Draft is the industry standard software for screenwriting. It handles the complicated screenplay formatting with ease and comes with a slew of features for planning your script before you start writing.
Final Draft 11 came out last year, with new features like Night Mode, image support and real-time collaboration. Older features are still present, though, most notably Beat Board, where you can organize your story beats as if they were pinned to a corkboard. That is a classic way to plot a script and having it in the same interface that you’re typing in speeds up workflow.
Beats can be further organized using the Story Map. You can use it to outline acts, scenes and sequences and get a high-level view of how your story is developing before a single keystroke. It’s also helpful to reference your Story Map during writing to make sure you’re developing scenes in an organic way.
Final Draft has other tools for writing. You can use real-time collaboration to invite other Final Draft users to work on your script and a dedicated chat box allows you to bounce ideas off one another.
You can store alternate dialogue in Final Draft, as well. That is especially helpful in the early stages of writing when characters may not be fully developed. Storing a few ideas keeps the conversation consistent and allows an easy way to switch up how a character says something.
Final Draft includes over 100 templates, ranging from movies scripts to graphic novels, a formatting assistant and SmartType, which is a quick way to fill in characters names in repetitive dialogue.
Final Draft reigns supreme in features. That said, it struggles in ease of use, especially compared to Fade In, one of our honorable mentions. There’s a lot going on from index cards to the Beat Board, so it’s easy to get lost in the preparation and never start writing.
At $250, it comes with a hefty price tag, too. Even so, it’s the industry standard screenwriting software and agencies have become accustomed to seeing scripts formatted with it. The program was used for Scarface, Lost, Back to the Future, Mad Men and more. If you’re serious about screenwriting, Final Draft is the tool for you.
Fade In takes the focus off features and concentrates on writing. It has a simple interface, blacked out in the back, so you can block out distractions and work on your story. That said, it does have features for planning and overseeing your screenplay.
Unlike Final Draft, Fade In supports multiple file formats, namely Final Draft (.fdx) and .pdf. It also supports importing and exporting to Scrivener, Adobe Story and Celtx. If you’re coming from another software or want to make sure you send a script in the correct format, Fade In has you covered.
That said, it’s the choice software for screenwriters like Rian Johnson (Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi) because of its excellent usability. Fade In allows you to focus on your writing, putting away index cards, beats and notes in favor of a streamlined interface.
It still allows you to organize index cards and add notes to your script, but doing so is more difficult than it is in Final Draft. The focus on distraction-free writing comes at the cost of features that would otherwise, well, distract from your writing.
Because of that, it’s hard to recommend Fade In to everyone. You’ll either fall in love with the interface and detest working with anything else or find it lacking in navigation to deeper features. Thankfully, you can download an unlimited trial of it for evaluation.
Celtx is a free, online filmmaking tool. We say filmmaking and not screenwriting because Celtx gives you the tools to complete your film through every step of the process. The other tools come at a price, though.
The core of Celtx is its free word processor that’s built for formatting screenplays. The interface is easy to use, but not as attractive as Fade In’s, and the floating toolbar on the right provides a list of features for viewing your screenplay.
You can look through your scenes with the navigation tab, add notes to certain sections and view your catalog of characters. If you’re paying, you’ll also be able to access the other features of Celtx, such as a shot list and breakdown.
The paid features make Celtx stand out. After your draft is done, you can use the toolset to budget, schedule, storyboard and break down your script. It even has an area for managing important contacts and clients that may be vital for production.
Because it’s based online, Celtx can easily be used for collaborations, as well. You can use the “exchange” tab at the top of the interface to connect with other users. There, you can find writers, actors, producers, directors and more, each with ratings based on completed projects.
Celtx is a good free option, but you shouldn’t upgrade to a paid plan unless you’ll use the extra tools. The Full Production bundle will run you $29.99 per month. You could buy Fade In outright for the price of only three months at Celtx.
The Best Writing Software for Journalists
The last group of wordsmiths are people that write up the news for a living. As their needs are very focused, so are their tailor-made programs.
The AP Stylebook has long been the accepted style for English media outlets. In the past, copy editors, writers and others involved in the publication process needed to purchase a hard copy of the stylebook annually to see new entries and revisions.
You can still purchase the hard copy, but the online version is a much more valuable resource. It’s the same price, with the same discount if you set up auto-renewal, but allows you to access the full stylebook on your desktop, laptop, smartphone or tablet.
As an online, living resource, it has advantages over the print version. Subscribers can use the “Ask the Editor” feature, which allows you to search through an archive of questions submitted to AP Stylebook editors. If your question isn’t listed, you can send it directly to the editors.
Other advantages pop up during use. For example, you can search for entries instead of thumbing through pages or use the built-in audio files for hundreds of words to hear how they’re pronounced.
For large media outlets that are looking to outfit their employees with copies of the AP Stylebook, the online resource is the best option. In addition to volume discounts and automatic renewal, you get the ability to create custom entries and add them to the copies on your account.
Finally, the online version of the AP Stylebook is updated throughout the year. You don’t have to wait for the new version to see what the editors are adding or changing. It’s a living document, if you will, ensuring that your publication is adhering to the latest AP guidelines before the next print run.
Ernest Hemingway is one of the most influential writers to ever put pen to paper. The Hemingway App, a browser-based tool, tries to correct flowery writing, checking your copy for the use of adverbs, passive voice, complex phrasing and unnecessarily long sentences. It also shows you the reading level and estimated reading time.
It could fit in to the next section, but it feels more natural for journalists, especially those working for online publications. It doesn’t go in to the mechanics of writing. Instead, it tries to condense what you’re saying for punchier, clearer copy.
Even so, it’s not the first tool to perform that task. The Hemingway App is unique, though, because it allows you to format before editing. While you’ll have to reformat in whatever word processor you’re using, formatting in the app tells it to ignore sentence fragments on bullet points, for example, or disregard complex phrasing in quotes.
The best part about it is that it’s free. You can use the Hemingway App in any browser without the need for local software or a browser extension. It’s a quick way to check your writing before sending it to the masses that we recommend checking out.
Honorable Mention: VPNs
While not writing software per se, a virtual private network is still, technically, software — the application, at least. That’s a loose definition, sure, but a VPN is one of the most important tools for a journalist to use.
If you don’t know, a VPN encrypts your internet traffic, hiding you from government agencies, internet service providers and other lurking eyes that may want to snoop on your data. Your original IP address is replaced with a new one and the connection coming from your computer is secured with high-grade encryption. Essentially, you can go truly incognito online.
While there are multiple methods journalists should use to protect themselves online, we ranked using a VPN first in our online privacy guide for journalists. The fact is journalists are at a higher risk of snooping and cybercrime, so disappearing while doing research is important, especially under risky circumstances.
Journalists shouldn’t settle for just any VPN, though. The best free VPN providers, while a great value, don’t offer enough protection and middle-of-the-road providers like PIA use lackluster encryption, though you can increase PIA’s security, as you can read in our Private Internet Access review.
Most of the best VPN providers will work well, but we recommend going further and choosing a provider from our best VPN services for China guide. If the Chinese anti-privacy claws can’t crack those tunnels, no one can.
Fortunately, one provider ranks first in both cases: ExpressVPN. It is the fastest VPN provider we’ve tested, in addition to being the most secure. Whether you’re connecting to the dark web for a scoop or just trying to stream UK Netflix — it won our best VPN for Netflix guide, too — ExpressVPN is the premier option.
You can learn more about how the service works and how to sign up in our ExpressVPN review.
Proofreading, Editing and Other Writing Tools
A habit of writing and revising is the best editing tool, but there are programs that can make your life easier. Here are some writing tools that you may find useful before and after you type a keystroke.
ProWritingAid is the best tool for proofreading and editing on the market. It integrates with major word processors, including Word, Google Docs, Scrivener and OpenOffice. The paid version is a pretty penny, but you can edit up to 500 words at a time for free using ProWritingAid’s online checker.
After checking a document, ProWritingAid generates 20 reports. There’s a general analysis, such as style and grammar, but it has unique reports, as well. Our favorite reports are sticky sentence, which weeds out glue words (the 200 or so most common English words), and consistency, which makes sure you are consistent in spelling, capitalization and punctuation.
You can read about the different reports ProWritingAid generates here.
It comes at a hefty price, though. A Premium subscription runs $50 per year, and that’s the only way to access ProWritingAid’s integrations with other apps. Plagiarism checks aren’t included either. Those will run you $1 per.
Still, ProWritingAid stands apart from an option such as Grammarly — which we’ll discuss next — because of its third-party integrations. It also freely hands out its web API, so other apps can use it down the line.
Grammarly has declined as the de facto proofreading tool after revoking support for Google Docs. Still, it’s a quick way to check your grammar, style and spelling in your browser or on your desktop.
In your browser is a bit disingenuous, though. When it works, it’s nice to have, but it’s flaky at times. The best use case is to install the local application for Microsoft Word and do your proofing there or copy your text in to the application.
It isn’t a magic serum for your copy, though. Grammarly, as the name suggests, is best at correcting your grammar, not at editing your work. The free version is basically a souped-up spell check that corrects things such as passive voice, improper punctuation and run-on sentences.
The Premium version can do a lot more, including enhanced vocabulary checks, more detailed grammar and context checks and genre-specific style recommendations. Premium even comes with a plagiarism detector that checks your copy against over 16 billion web pages, which is particularly useful for students.
That seems like the most natural home for Grammarly. Students who are still gaining their writing bearings will find it an irreplaceable tool for doing a final check before turning in papers. Professionals, on the other hand, may find some use for it, but not enough to justify the price.
Infuriatingly, Mindnode is only available for macOS and iOS. It’s a web-making tool that allows you to organize high-level thoughts for crafting a story or writing a paper. There are Windows alternatives, but none that handle the sporadic nature of creating a story web with the same grace.
As you’re brainstorming, you can quickly add entries to your web. You’ll right-click to add main nodes. From there, simply clicking near a main node will create a line and entry tied to it. There are no toolbars or menus to worry about. As quickly as you can type, you can get your ideas on the virtual page.
Nodes aren’t just for text entry, either. You can drag and drop files, images or links from your desktop or browser into Mindnode and it will attach it to the main node you’re working on. You can even drag long-form notes into the interface and attach them to entries. That functionality works well with Evernote, our first pick for the best note-taking apps (read our Evernote review).
There will be a central theme to your web and you can drag nodes to that theme to see how everything connects. Mindnode allows you to continue branching paths, too, so you can always add more detail to a particular section.
Once you’ve finished your outline, you can set certain sections as “tasks.” Doing so will allow you to export the items you’ve selected to to-do apps such as Things, OmniFocus or Reminders. You can also sync or export the entire outline to many formats, including FreeMind and OPML.
Writers have a lot of tools at their disposal and we only covered a fraction of the options in our list. Though we believe our picks are the best for their respective categories, you may fare better with another tool if the features line up with what you’re trying to accomplish.
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Even so, if you’re unclear where you should start, sticking with our picks is your best bet. WriteItNow is a tailor-made tool for novelists, Fade In is the industry standard screenwriting software and the AP Stylebook is a must for journalists.
Are there writing apps that we missed? Let us know what you’re using in the comments below and, as always, thanks for reading.