The Complete Novel Writing Software Guide

Jean Rostand: Think. Why think? We have computers to do that for us.

Before you even consider taking out your wallets, the first thing you need to decide is whether you need novel writing software at all.

The quick answer is: No, of course you don't!

Stories have been written (and told) for centuries without the benefit of computers, and they will continue to be written without it for centuries to come.

On the other hand (and there's always one of those), good software could well turn out to be one of those things you wonder what you ever did without. Be clear about this, though...

Writer's software will not write a single word of your novel for you.

Computer programs just aren't as clever as us humans, at least not when it comes to creative thinking. But that's a good thing, right?

Imagine if a computer really could produce a novel with minimal input from a human. What would be the point? It would be like having a robot to put together a jigsaw puzzle for you - when doing it yourself is the whole point of jigsaws (and of writing novels).

Fine. So that has dealt with what software can't do. But what can it do? Four things...

  1. It can help you get organized (and stay organized).
  2. It can help you develop a well-structured plot.
  3. It can help you edit your manuscript (correct all the grammar and so on) before publishing it.
  4. It can help with the publishing and marketing of your novel.

Speaking of selling your novel, you'll find an entire course on How to Get Published in the Digital Age in the "VIP Edition" of Novel Writing Help.

Click here to check it out

Before we get started, please understand that I'm not trying to sell you anything in the reviews below. If you see a review for a product online, and then a link pointing to the product on another site, there's a good chance that the reviewer will earn an affiliate commission from the sale (typically 25%). And that puts into question just how seriously you should take the review...

Is this a genuine recommendation? Or is the reviewer exaggerating how indispensable the product is just to earn his cut?

Just so there's no doubt whatsoever, I'm not going to link to anything. If a product I mention sounds like it might be for you, type the product name into a search engine. That way, you can be sure that I'm not trying to persuade you to buy something because I stand to gain 25% of the sale price!

Okay, let's look at the four types of novel writing software one by one...

1. Organizational Writing Software

Writing a novel can sometimes feel like juggling a dozen balls at once...

  • You've got notes on characters and theme and setting.
  • You've got a plot outline – one that you're constantly tweaking and revising as the story takes shape.
  • If you're unfamiliar with your subject matter, you've got reams of research notes.
  • You've got snippets of prose and dialogue that you know will belong somewhere in the novel... though you're not quite sure where

Not having everything in order and to hand can totally destroy the creative process. When you sit down to write a first draft of a chapter, you want as few distractions as possible.

You want to give your inner-artist the peace of mind to be able to just tell the story. Having your inner-assistant fussing around in the background trying to locate the relevant character or research notes can totally kill your inspiration.

Employing a robust filing system can help here. When you want to put your hand on some character notes, you know exactly where to find them.

Organizational writing software is arguably more efficient still. Think of it like a word processor specifically designed for creative writers.

Regular word processors like Microsoft Word or Pages on a Mac are great (I'm using Word right now), but 95% of the features are totally unnecessary for writing fiction...

  • Novelists don't need to add pie charts or tables or images to their manuscripts.
  • They don't need fancy fonts or colored text or word art.
  • Aside from cutting and pasting, spell checking and counting the words, novel writers don't needany fancy features at all.

Word processors for writers help cut down the clutter and the distractions by doing away with everything that is unnecessary. But they really come into their own by adding features that are important to writers – namely, easy access (on the same screen) to all your character notes, setting notes, and so on. They can also be great for changing the order of chapters (and sections within chapters) by simply dragging and dropping.

That said, you can do precisely the same thing with scissors and paste, index cards and the like.

If you want something a bit more 21st century, here are some programs to consider. (I've listed the current prices, which obviously may change. Many come with a free trial, so you can try before you buy.)

  • PageFour (PC only, $39). This is the simplest word processor for writers out there, and that's what makes it so brilliant. You get a word processing screen with no pointless buttons to press and a window on the left to organize your notes. If all you want is an uncomplicated, distraction-free writing environment, check it out.
  • Scrivener (PC and Mac, $45). Not nearly as "uncluttered" as PageFour, but that's not the point. It's the sheer wealth of writer-focused features on Scrivener that make so many writers swear by it. It has a steep learning curve, but the interactive tutorial is fantastic for getting you up to speed. Personally, I never got on with it (too complicated). But I'm pointing it out because it seems I'm very much in the minority.
Also Worth Considering:
  • StoryBlue. Another simple word processor for novelists that won't break the bank. This one also allows you to set word-count targets and keep track of your progress.
  • PowerWriter. This one comes with good reviews, but it looks more complicated than other organizational software. You'll need to set aside a few days to get to grips with it. (There is also a version called "PowerStructure" that includes the story development capabilities that I will talk about below.)
  • Writer's Blocks. If you're a fan of the "index card" method of planning fiction but would prefer to do it on your laptop, this one could be for you. The price seems very steep for what it is, though.

2. Story Development Software

The next variety of software ramps things up a notch by assisting you with creating the characters and writing the plot. More advanced story development software also helps with developing the theme and the "story world" – the setting, in other words.

To be honest, I'd strongly advise you to steer clear of this type of software. Why? Because most programs are just too mechanical. You type a few notes into a box, click a few buttons and – hey presto! – the software delivers a fully outlined plan for a novel, all neatly divided into scenes.

Which may sound great. But it's edging dangerously close to fiction-written-by-a-robot territory.

Every piece of half-decent fiction ever written breaks the rules in one way or another. But computers can't break rules. They stick to a blueprint and that's what you get – fiction designed by an algorithm.

If you have no intention of learning the rules of how to write fiction (i.e., you just want to crack on with the actual writing and trust your natural storytelling instincts), then I suppose that story development software will at least set you off in the right direction.

Here are some possibilities...

  • NewNovelist. A very popular brand of writing software that guides you through the development of your novel as you write. As with all the products in this section, the literary theory they use is totally compatible with the theory I teach here at Novel Writing Help. The only thing you might have to do is learn a little new terminology.
  • The Marshall Plan Novel Writing Software. This is a more robust version of NewNovelist, in that the software you purchase does a lot more for you - hence the much higher price tag. It comes from a respected writer, but I sense that it's more suitable for developing genre fiction than less-structured mainstream or literary novels.

The next level up is what I'd call "story development software with brains" – in other words, you still get a computer program doing the heavy lifting but, unlike the software above, it doesn't try to cram your story ideas into a one-size-fits-all box.

There's only one contender here: Dramatica Story Expert ($160, for Macs) or Dramatica Pro ($150, the PC version).

Dramatica is not so much a great piece of writing software – though it certainly is – as an entirely new literary theory.

Well, maybe not "entirely new" – it still essentially resembles just about every other storytelling theory ever devised (including all the information you get from me). Nevertheless, it goes pretty deep, meaning there will be a lot of new terminology to learn and plenty of fresh concepts to wrap your head around.

This isn't the place to go into the details of how the software works and what it will do for you as a writer, but you'll get an idea of its scope when I tell you that it comes with the following "accessories"...

  • 4 hours of video explaining how to get the best out of the software.
  • A 400-page theory book. (Or if you're more of a visual type, a 12-hour video course explaining the Dramatica concepts.)
  • Another book containing "tips and tricks" on how to best use the software.
  • Another 14 hours of video shot at a Dramatica seminar (that alone tells you that its developers really aren't messing around!).

Dramatica is a work of genius, and it will undoubtedly help you to write a rich and complex novel. But here's the thing...

You will only get out of the software what you put in to it. And you need to put in one heck of a LOT.

Bottom line? If you relish the prospect of spending hour upon hour studying the theory book and watching all the video demonstrations – not to mention getting to grips with the software itself – go for it. (If I had more time on my hands, I'd love nothing better.)

If you would rather spend those hours working on your novel, stick with the novel writing theory you get from me.

I've spent most of my adult life studying storytelling theory, and the information on this site (and the VIP Edition) is the boiled-down version of everything I've ever learned. Simply put, I've saved you the bother of reading hundreds of novel writing guides (including all the out of print ones) by doing all the hard work for you.

I'm not a genius like the creator of Dramatica. And if using the software appeals to you, I'm certainly not going to talk you out of it. Just understand that there's no need to understand fictional theory to that degree of complexity in order to write great novels.

As a matter of fact, immersing yourself in Dramatica theory could turn out to be an all-consuming task that eats up the next year or two of your life.

If you like the sound of Dramatica but want something a lot simpler, there's a seriously scaled-down version called StoryWeaver ($30). Worth checking out, although it doesn't look like it's been updated in several years.

Bottom line on story development software?

Unless you really can't resist it, give it a miss. You'll ultimately write a better novel by using the software in your head – your brain. And that is free!

3. Proofreading and Editing Software

Like the name implies, this type of software helps you to polish your manuscript before publication – an essential task, whether you plan to self-publish or go down the traditional route.

Now, if you're already a whiz with words and you know every grammatical rule in the book, this probably isn't for you. (You'll have the knowledge to do the editing yourself. And if some of the more obscure rules of grammar slip through the net – who cares, frankly.)

But if grammar isn't your strongest suit and you generally feel that your prose could do with a little (or a lot) more attention, investing in self-editing software could be a smart move.

The main player on the block is Grammarly. Another popular brand is WhiteSmoke. But the software I recommend is AutoCrit. Why? Simply because it is tailor-made for novelists (and therefore includes functions such as a dialogue tag checker).

Another solution, if you don't want to invest in software but do need help with polishing your prose, is to invest in human editing using a service such as Scribendi.

It's not cheap. At the time of writing, line-by-line editing for a 100,000-word novel will set you back the best part of $2,000. But it's worth considering if that figure doesn't make your eyes pop clean out of your head!

4. Publishing and Marketing Software

I'll talk about this in the appropriate sections of the publishing course (in the VIP Edition of the site). Just wanted to make you aware here that various tools do exist to simplify the business side of your writing.

Again, none of these tools is essential. But you may consider them to be a worthwhile investment when we get to them in the course.

Bottom Line on Novel Writing Software?

Like I said, you don't need software of any kind. So if you're unsure, don't buy it. You'll save yourself the money. And more importantly, you'll save the time it takes to learn how to use the software.

If you can see a clear benefit in investing in some of the software discussed above (or the software I'll talk about in the publishing course), go for it. But don't go for it if it's simply a new toy to play with (we're all vulnerable to "shiny red ball" syndrome).

Above all, remember that writing software won't write a single word of your novel for you.