On text editors and word processors

What software do you use to write your fiction? The chances are that you’re using Microsoft Word, OpenOffice, or Apple Pages — a word processor.

Word processors offer convenient WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) environments to write in. People often find it reassuring to know that the words appearing on their screens will look exactly the same when they’re printed out. Word processors also tend to come loaded with features (mostly aimed at people working in offices).

One of the benefits of using a word processor is seeing the actual pages and being able to quickly gauge word counts and work levels from the number of pages (instead of word counts). The problem with word processors is that they can seem bloated and over-complicated when it comes to writing fiction, which only needs a modicum of basic formatting.

So-called minimalist text editors, especially ones using Markdown, have become increasingly popular with writers. They remove the need to style and format the text as the draft is being written. The formatting is left to the export phase. This can result in a simpler draft writing experience.


Word processors

Microsoft Word

Microsoft World is a word processor. It offers the standard WYSIWYG page view. A subscription to Microsoft 365 comes with 1 terabyte of One Drive cloud storage, plus other Office programs like PowerPoint and Excel.

The Word file format is the industry standard file format for submitting manuscripts to agents and publishers. Word has a useful outline view to help structure a novel and to check individual chapter word counts. Both the macOS and Windows versions have a distraction free setting which hides most of the interface from view. The spellcheck is one of the most up-to-date.

Platforms: Android, iOS, macOS, Windows.

Apache OpenOffice

Apache OpenOffice is a free office productivity suite, which includes a word processor. It’s more clunky than Word or Pages, but it gets the job done, and it’s free.

Platforms: Linux, macOS, Windows.

Pages

Pages is the free word processor that comes with Apple devices. It is slightly nicer to use than Word, because it’s less complicated. Word’s outline view is more powerful making it easier to check chapter-by-chapter word counts. The macOS spellcheck in Pages is good, but not quite as up-to-date with new words as Microsoft Word.

Platforms: iOS, macOS.

Scrivener

Scrivener is a halfway house between a pure word processor and a text editor. The result is a bit like Microsoft Word for writers. It’s a powerful app that offers a lot of customisation, brilliant document navigation and document structuring options. It’s a good choice for writing complicated documents, especially if you want to include research notes and illustrations. On the downside, the editor interface feels unnecessarily complicated.

Platforms: iOS, macOS, Windows (Beta version)


Text editors

Ulysses

Ulysses is a markdown text editor with a clean interface and a useful document navigation sidebar or ‘sheets’ to organise the structure (scenes or chapters) of a novel.

The ‘sheets’ sidebar and document management makes it possible to manage documents / files from within the app. I also like the app’s ability to split ‘sheets’ where the cursor is, or to merge multiple sheets together.

The app has become more complicated over time, adding features and making design choices to attract a wider range of users, while also probably losing some existing ones who prefer a simpler app. It has some quirks, which you may like or find annoying, especially in the over-designed way that it handles some basic feature like backup and displaying an always visible word count if you want one.

Platforms: iOS, macOS.

Highland 2

Highland 2 is another Markdown text editor. Unlike Ulysses it stays more purist to the Markdown philosophy. As well as prose, Highland 2 is also designed for writing screenplays.

Highland 2 is an equivalent to Ulysses (like Ulysses it has its own file format extension), but it comes at writing and organising text from a slightly different angle. It doesn’t have the built-in file management that Ulysses offers (but its relative simplicity can be viewed as a positive, depending how you think about it). It also doesn’t have some Ulysses’ annoying quirks and design choices.

It would be nice to split and merge files from within Highland 2 (which Ulysses can do). It does have paragraph numbering, which I find really useful these days, and the abaility to drag and drop multiple files (chapters) into the app to create a larger, single document. The backup system on Highland 2 is much simpler than Ulysses. It simply saves files every 15 minutes to a designated folder in the .highland format as well as the text as a .md file. It is a simple solution that most writers are likely to prefer. Highland 2 is a good compromise between simplicity and features.

Platforms: macOS.

iA Writer

iA Writer is more stripped-down than Ulysses or Highland 2. You can’t change the built-in font (it’s a nice font), but that will be a deal-breaker for many people.

It doesn’t have quite the same built-in file management capabilities as Ulysses, but it does offer document (file) management from within the app. It has some interesting language / prose style checking features.

Unlike Ulysses (which automatically re-names files / ‘sheets’ when the main document heading is changed), iA Writer uses the traditional method of having fixed file names. It also uses the standard .txt file format. That’s a minor technical point but something that some people will prefer.

Platforms: Android, iOS, macOS, Windows.

Byword

Byword is a very simple macOS Markdown text editor. The macOS version doesn’t come with an in-app document navigation sidebar like some other apps, so it won’t suit people who are looking for that. It is wonderfully simple, and the app is very reasonably priced. It does not have any unique features, but it’s really nicely designed and easy to use. It was one of the first minimalist markdown editors for macOS.

Platforms: iOS, macOS.

FocusWriter

Focus Writer is a useful text editor for Windows and Linux. Out of the box the thematic template isn’t particularly appealing, but it can be customised with very little effort. It’s donation-ware.

Platforms: Windows, Linux.