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novel-writing apps

There are a ton of different apps out there purporting to help writers work through the process of planning, drafting, and revising a novel. God knows I have tried out a number of them myself! Obviously, you can just write a novel in an ordinary word processor, or else in a plain text editor with Mark­down for formatting (the latter is what I keep coming back to as the most foolproof way for me to write). But a lot of writers find that a dedicated app helps you to be more organised. In Scrivener, for example, scenes can be represented by index cards with a description; by creating index cards in advance, you can outline chapters you haven’t written yet. Many writing apps also provide some kind of versioning functionality, so you can embark on rewrites with the peace of mind that the old version of a scene or chapter will still be there if you decide you want to go back to it.

A lot of novel-writing apps require payment, either in the form of a one-off price to buy software, or in the form of an ongoing subscription.

  • Scrivener: A very well-established piece of software that’s been around for seemingly forever. Paid software with versions for macOS, iOS and Windows. As mentioned, it has a “corkboard” view with index cards for planning your novel before you write it, which I find very intuitive. Its editor is rich-text, which I find less appealing. It has versioning, but you have to consciously remember to take a “snapshot” before big changes – it doesn’t auto-version.
  • novelWriter(external link): Cross-platform FOSS software which runs on Windows, macOS and Linux. Its editor is Markdown. It saves its files in plaintext on your hard drive, so you can make it a git repository for versioning, but the files don’t get any kinds of logical names or anything. You can’t just open up a pre-existing folder of Markdown files with logical names and start editing it in this app, either.
  • Manuskript(external link): This is also a cross-platform FOSS app. Like Scrivener, it lets you organise your chapter/scenes as index cards with descriptions. However, last time I used it (which was years ago, perhaps in 2017) it was a bit buggy and crashed on me sometimes. It also had a really ugly flat icon theme, which I know is such a petty grievance, but it did bug me, lol.
  • Obsidian with the Longform plugin: With this plugin, you can set a folder of a vault as a Longform project, which gives you some extra features to help manage it as such. My own experience trying to use this was tarnished by Obsidian issues (mainly that syncing via iCloud isn’t 100% reliable, especially the longer a file gets, so when I was working on chapters 10,000 words in length I’d get Chapter (conflicted).md files auto-generated constantly, so every few minutes I’d have to switch to the new conflicted file, copy the text that got deleted from the Chapter.md file, paste it back into Chapter.md again and delete the conflicted file… every few minutes…). If you like Obsidian and your vault doesn’t have annoying sync issues, this may be a good option.
  • Novlr: A web app which has just recently (as of late 2022) come out with a free plan (as opposed to a free trial) which lets you work actively on one novel at a time. I used it for a few months in 2018, and at that time, I felt like it “got out of my way” nicely to write in, but it had very limited organisational features. It did have automatic versioning, though. It was being worked on pretty actively with a public roadmap so it’s probably improved a bit since then. The subscription was pricier than I was really comfortable with (USD$14 per month) and as of late 2022 it’s going up, but at least the free plan exists now.
  • Ulysses(external link): Also usable as a general note-taking app, but a lot of people swear by this as a novel-writing app more specifically, too. It’s an app for macOS and iOS that requires a subscription (US$6/month or US$40/year) to use. Its editor uses Markdown (with some idiosyncratic adjustments, but probably not ones relevant to novel-writing), but it saves all your files in a “black box” database that’s synced over iCloud.
  • Dabble(external link): I know pretty much nothing about this except that it compares itself to Scrivener and is also a paid app that sponsors NaNoWriMo. It seems to be better at the “sync across, and work on, all your devices” thing, and also has features for collaborating with a cowriter. It’s USD$10/month (20% discount if you pay annually), or you can pay USD$499 for a lifetime unlock.
  • bibisco(external link): I tried this out briefly in 2017. It was free, which is a plus, and it had good organisational features. However it was written in Java (never a good start), its editor was rich-text only, it saved everything in its own archive format, had crap export options, and most egregiously, somehow copy-and-paste didn’t work in it. But that was a long time ago, it’s probably improved, haha. It has been developed continuously since then.

Most recently, I’ve been using novelWriter, but also the old-school approach of plain Markdown files in a directory that I operate as a private git repository. In terms of sheer flexibility, nothing beats this approach. I can write on any device, I can switch between Markdown editors on a whim, git means it’s all versioned, and my files are completely my own to do anything with (i.e. I’m not beholden to dodgy export features).

The downside to Markdown files is that you don’t really benefit from the overarching view or the organisational features that a dedicated novel-writing app can provide. Even seeing how many words your entire novel is up to is challenging if you haven’t got it all in a single file! This is why I started using novelWriter, regularly copying and pasting my scenes between the app and my directory of Markdown files.

For outlining, I’ve been using Gingko for years. The cool thing about Gingko is that you get a hierarchy of cards, so my left-most column corresponds to the beats of the Beat Sheet, then I have a middle column for chapters, and a third column for scenes. If I wanted, I could add more columns, like one for a phase outline, or even a fifth to write the novel itself in (Gingko does make it possible to export individual columns, I believe). Cards in Gingko can be formatted with Markdown.

Another app I’ve played around with for “index card”-style planning is SuperNoteCard(external link). As of 2018, I’d have said: It’s pretty flexible; you can assign cards to “categories” (e.g. for whose POV they’re from) and also assign “references”, and those references can be characters, locations, items, events, and “other”. You can also have “references” that aren’t referenced by anything. You can also flag cards with different-coloured flags. You could also use this to write your novel in directly, because the cards have no length limit, and you can open up a full-window rich-text editor to type entire scenes in more comfortably. I’m not sure what limitations there were on use if you wanted to use it for free, but I do have in my notes that it was “kinda necessary” to upgrade to the paid plan to use it effectively. At least in 2018, it cost USD$19 per year.

Another app I’ve toyed with for world-building, rather than outlining, is Notebook.ai(external link). The free plan only lets you plan characters, locations and items, and that in up to 5 universes, while the subscription plan (USD$9/month) lets you plan an unimaginably huge range of things.