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Novel Writing Software: the tools you really need

If you are going to write a novel, you need novel writing software. Unless you’re one of those crazy people who writes in crayon. But then you wouldn’t be here would you?

I’m a commercially published author, so I’ve been through the process of writing a novel and found the novel writing software that works for me. I’ve written a prizewinning alternate history novel using this setup, as well as dozens of short stories. That’s well over two hundred thousand words.

So, here’s a list of all the novel writing software I use.

By the way: Most of these tools are either free or cheap, these recommendations are all tools I really use, and I’m getting no kickbacks for recommending them.

Novel writing software: the first draft

For writing a first draft of your story, a minimal word processor helps you focus on the words themselves without any worrying about formatting, layout and all those squiggly lines that you get in Microsoft Word. They tend to have next to no options or extra features, so you don’t spend your time fiddling and instead get on with writing.

iA Writer/ZenWriter

I use iA Writer on my Macbook for primary writing. i.e. for writing the first draft of each chapter. I sometimes use Zenwriter which is similar to iA Writer but for Windows. iA Writer is also available for iPad and iPhone. I also own the iPhone version of iA Writer, but I rarely use it as the screen and the virtual keyboard are too small for serious writing.

One tip for using these distraction free word processors is to turn even spell checking off so you are completely undistracted and can concentrate on getting your ideas down. It’s much more efficient to stay in the writing zone until you finish a draft and then fix all the typos in one go.

iA Writer is available here .

ZenWriter is available here .

Writing Tips: Novel Writing Software

Novel writing software: editing

Microsoft Word

The writers I know almost all use Microsoft Word (with some using free equivalents like Open Office). Most agents and publishers expect submissions in Microsoft Word (.doc or .docx) format too, so you are going to need something that can at least save in that format.

Word 2010 on Windows is ideal for pulling chapters together and editing them. It was perfect for me once I customised the ribbon to only contain the features I use, like word count. I use Full Screen Reading mode a lot because then I can see two pages at once, and it has fewer distractions when I’m editing.

I also have Word 2011 on my MacBook but only use it when I need to. I find it less good than Word 2010 on Windows because you can’t customise the ribbon – I ended up turning it off. Once I did that, and particularly after the latest update that enables proper full screen in OS X Lion, I found it tolerable.

Visual Thesaurus

One thing that we all sometimes need to do is find the exact right word. Built in thesauruses are okay most of the time, but for a really in-depth exploration of the precise word I’m looking for I use Visual Thesaurus.

Visual Thesaurus is available here.

Novel writing software: feedback

Pro Writing Aid

Critique software automatically scans your work for writing that, though grammatically correct, might be poor style. For example:

  • Too many adverbs
  • Overused words
  • Repeated words and phrases
  • Clichés
  • Over-complex words and excessively long sentences
  • Vague words and homonyms
  • Alliteration

I use Pro Writing Aid, and find the ‘repeated words’ and the ‘vague words’ reports particularly useful. I paid for the pro version because it integrates into Microsoft Word well, but there’s a web-based free version too.

Pro Writing Aid is available here.

You Write On

Critique sites usually work on a reciprocal basis: you review someone else’s work and get credits that mean that other people review your work.

I’ve used You Write On for testing/honing the opening chapters of a novel and whole short stories. I recommend it though with some caveats, see my article on  getting feedback on your novel  for tips on how best to use critique software and critique sites to improve your writing.

You Write On is here.

Software for cover art

If you are planning on self-publishing your novel then as well as novel writing software, you are going to need software for producing cover art. Self-publishing platforms give you the option for a template-generated cover, but your book will look more professional if you do your own.

iPiccy and Pixlr

These are both free and easy to use image editing programs I use them for experimenting with book covers.

iPiccy is here and Pixlr is here.


GIMP is a free alternative to Photoshop. Photoshop itself is great, but it’s simply too expensive for the amount of use I’d get out of it. I use GIMP for creating book covers when iPiccy or Pixlr aren’t powerful enough.

GIMP is available here.

Publishing software – Kindle

If you are self-publishing, then once you have used the novel writing software above to get the novel written and edited, and the graphical software to produce a cover, you’ll want to get the book on to Amazon’s website. The way to do this is using Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). Of course, Amazon provide all the tools you need for free.

Kindle Direct Publishing

I explain how to use Kindle Direct Publishing to get your novel available on Amazon in How to Self Publish on Kindle in Three Easy Steps.

When you follow that process, one thing you’ll need to do is upload the book to Amazon. It is possible to send Word documents direct to KDP, and I know a lot of people use that option, but be aware the formatting is far from ideal if you do.

If you want a really professional looking job then you can convert your book to Kindle’s HTML format yourself. I found the easiest solution was to use Komodo Edit to convert the Microsoft Word document into Kindle specific html.

Komodo Edit is here.

Kindle Previewer

Kindle previewer is a Kindle emulator that you can use to check how your book will look on various types of Kindle. What I have found is that if you aren’t careful then your book can look good on one type of Kindle but terrible on another. Kindle Previewer allows you to quickly switch between Kindle versions and see how the book will look on each type.

Kindle Previewer is here.

Publishing software – paperback

It’s much more satisfying to hold your finished book in your hands than it is to look at it on a screen. So, you’ll want to produce a paperback as well as a Kindle version. The easiest option is Createspace, which is also from Amazon and, again, free.

I explain how to use Createspace to get your paperback available on Amazon in How to Self Publish on Createspace the Easy Way.

Novel writing software: research/planning/backups


I use Excel spreadsheets for planning and keeping track of progress on the chapters of the book. I include things like:

  • Word counts (planned and real)
  • The title of the chapter
  • A one sentence summary of the chapter
  • Who the point of view character is.
  • How the chapter ends.
  • What the conflict in the chapter is.


Evernote is a kind of scrapbook, it’s useful for clipping inspirational photos, notes about characters, scene ideas, scraps of dialogue, etc.

Evernote is here.  It’s free but with a premium version.


Backing up your work is vital. If you have more than one computer, keeping them synchronised can save a lot of trouble. I use Dropbox to do that.

If you have an Internet connection then as soon as you save a document Dropbox automatically uploads it. It also keeps backups of old version for when you have a disaster.

Dropbox is here. Again, it’s free but with a premium version.

What about specialist novel writing software?

There are various ‘all-in-one’ novel writing software packages for authors. Scrivener is popular, but there are several others too.

If you’re the kind of writer who likes to write scenes, character biographies and fragments of plot on index cards they might be worth looking at. I’ve tried several of these ‘all-in-one’ novel writing software packages though, and I don’t think they are worth the money over the tools in the list above. Also, individual novel writing software tools tend to be more flexible and you can try different packages to find the ones that suit you perfectly.

One free ‘all-in-one’ package is YWriter, which is available  here.

It Works!

So, there we are: all the novel writing software you really need, from the first draft to your book being on Amazon. And as most of them are free we haven’t even had to spend much money!

I used all these tools when I was writing my novel  A Kill in the Morning.  After it was shortlisted for the Terry Pratchett Prize, I sold  A Kill in the Morning  to major publishers, Transworld. So they did the job!

Read the opening of A Kill in the Morning  by clicking  here  or on the cover:
A Kill in the Morning by Graeme Shimmin

Now, no more excuses, get the software downloaded and get on with writing!

Agree? Disagree?

If you have suggestions for other novel writing software I might find useful, please  email me. Otherwise, please feel free to share the article using the but­tons below.

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