Which Application Should I Use to Write my Novel?
I am often asked, "What is the best software or application to use for writing a novel?" The answer, unfortunately, is not as simple as it should be.
In this post, I will detail my experience with various word processing programs that I used while writing the manuscript for my debut novel, Lord of the Clouds.
I will cover the pros, cons, and quirks of Microsoft Word, Scrivener by Literature and Latte, Google Docs, Adobe's InDesign, Google Keep (a note app), and good ol' pen & paper. I hope that by detailing my process and pitfalls while working on my book, you will be able to learn from my experience and find the best tool for you!
It may surprise you to learn that when I started writing Lord of the Clouds, I did not know right away that I was creating a full-length novel. The overarching premise of what became the book came to me over a decade ago. I squirreled the idea away in my mind; I had always kicked it around in my head, imagining it as an art installation, a movie, or some sort of digital media work, but it had not yet occurred to me that it would be a novel.
After going through an unexpected and painful personal experience, I began questioning a lot of things in my life. One day as I was cleaning out a filing cabinet, I dug up some forgotten short stories I had written many years ago. Short stories I had written purely for my own amusement and shared with only a handful of close friends. As I was nostalgically reading over these dusty stories, the premise for Lord of the Clouds popped back into my head. On March 31st, 2019, I reached for that trusty staple MS Word and began typing. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or where I was going with it; I just knew I was enjoying the cathartic process of storytelling.
As a child of the 90's I grew up using Word, writing book reports, and school papers. Though I am certainly not a master of the tool, I am very comfortable with it. I assume most people have also used MS Word at some point or another. So at the start, Word seemed like the logical go-to for writing my story.
As the narrative grew along with the page count, I began to feel that Word wasn't cutting the mustard. When I reached around the one hundred page mark I felt that the program began to lag and slow down some. I also found it difficult to navigate through the document as the chapter count increased (an issue I could have solved if I had used Word's built-in style-headers, which I should have been doing all along. More on that later).
Lastly, I found that Word was not conducive to "experimentation" while writing. Often times as I write, I might end up with four or five different versions of the same paragraph or scene, while trying to feel out what serves the story best. In Word, there is not really a good way to swap, move, or keep track of these various versions and experimentations of individual paragraphs and scenes without the manuscript becoming muddied. The only solution I found was to keep the alternative versions in comments tagged along with the manuscript, this is less than ideal.
MS Word Pros
Industry-standard application / Widely used
Many useful features like "Track Changes", and "Comments"
Familiarity of use
MS Word Cons
Expensive if you don't already own it.
Limited License (I could not install word on my other mac without an additional license purchase😠).
Difficult to experiment without muddying the main manuscript.
General use word processor. Not geared towards novel writing.
Cannot export as typical eBook formats like Mobi and ePub
Growing dissatisfied with Word, I read many articles and blogs on the best tools for writing novels. Again and Again, I came across people recommending Scrivener, a software application specifically designed for novels, manuscripts, screenplays, and other long-format writing. Contrast this with MS Word, a multi-purpose word processor meant for everything from creating business reports to holiday letters. A tool geared specifically towards writing a novel seemed like exactly what I needed.
For the affordable price of 49 dollars, Scrivener is an absolute steal. The application took some getting used to and had a small learning curve. Though it comes with default projects, templates, and examples to get you started, as well as many online tutorials.
The main draw of Scrivener is that you can slice your monolithic manuscript into individual "documents" or "sections" that are all easily navigated through a hierarchal side panel UI. This addressed the "experimentation" issue with Word that I mentioned earlier. I could now keep my various versions of a specific scene or paragraph in their own nested sections within a chapter, easily move their order around, edit them, view them side-by-side, etc...
Another nice feature of Scrivener is that it has a "trash" folder within each project. So when I was pretty sure I had gotten the scene the way I wanted it, I could delete the alternate versions, yet still, refer back to them or restore them if need be. You can also title your various sections and sub-sections to make it easier to find the part of a chapter that you are looking for as you edit and write. See below:
Switching from Word to Scrivener mid-writing was definitely a pain-point though. Scrivener allows you to import documents from other formats such as .doc or .rtf, however, it will not break the manuscript up into its individual sections. The only way I found to do this was a manual process in which I had to copy and paste each chapter into its own section in the hierarchy, then split each chapter's scenes into sub-sections, again by copying and pasting. This manual process did lead to a few errors, such as duplicated paragraphs( that I, fortunately, caught while proofreading).
This was a good thing though really, as it forced me to think where the scenes within my chapters started and ended, something I had not given any thought to yet. (It should be noted that you do not have to do this, you can keep your entire text in a single document should you choose).
I have to admit, I found my lack of familiarity with the tool frustrating. Though this is more on me and not on Scrivener. I was deep into writing/production mode and not learning mode when I made the switch from MS Word. I found myself becoming very irritated when I would have to stop to Google how to do something in Scrivener. For Example, it was not obvious to me how to create the chapter headings. To do so, you must first create an empty document and name it with the title of the chapter, then place all of the content of the chapter as sub-documents.
Learning curve aside, there are some great features of Scrivener, such as the Binder, which allows you to store images, links, notes, whatever, all within your project, without being included in the final output. I liked this feature a lot as I am always saving reference images, articles, etc... Had I started the project in Scrivener from the get-go, I would have used this feature a lot more. There are also many ways you can view your manuscript sections, such as the Corkboard, making it easy to find a workflow that fits your writing style.
There's so much more you can do that I am not covering here such as creating character and location sheets, automatically including front and back matter, writing a synopsis for each document or section in your project, setting writing targets, tons of organizational tools, and so on. Scrivener really is a fully-featured word processing beast.
Scrivener allows you to compile your manuscript into many different formats, such as draft manuscripts, various paperback sizes, and even script or screenplay. When you compile your project Scrivener does all the formatting for you. The output file can be saved in any industry-standard file type, including PDF, .doc, ePub, and Mobi. I have to admit, the first time I compiled my work into a paperback format, it was a very exciting moment to see the text start to look like a real book.
However, I wish there was a feature to bulk select/deselect which sections will be included in the final output. There were times in the writing process that I wanted to compile and export a single chapter to send to someone for feedback. To do so I had to individually check/uncheck each section that I wanted to include or exclude, this was a minor thing but definitely annoying when you have over one hundred sections to check or uncheck.
All in all, I felt that Scrivener delivered on what it promised for an incredibly fair price, is great for organizing your manuscript, and has a lot of features I still need to learn about. I would definitely consider using it again for my next writing project.
If you are interested in Scrivener you can learn more here:
Specifically geared for writing novels and other long-format media.
Features and tools like the Binder, and Corkboard, not available in MS Word.
Sections and sub-documents allow for easy reorganization, navigation, and experimenting with alternate drafts of a scene, paragraph, or chapter.
Good support and forums.
Not quite an industry standard.
Some minor annoyances and missing features.
Not cloud synced.
As the manuscript for Lord of the Clouds neared completion, I felt that I needed to hire an editor to polish the work and make it across the finish line. (I will cover in another article if hiring an editor is right for you.)
The entire text at this point was all in Scrivener. The editor I hired did not own Scrivener; though she knew of the program, she was not very familiar with its user interface. It was her suggestion that we use Google Docs for the editing process. If you are not aware of Google Docs, it is a free, web-based word processor available to anyone with a Gmail or Google account.
The biggest advantage of Google Docs is that it automatically saves and syncs whatever you are working on to the cloud. You can access your up-to-date manuscript from anywhere that you have a web browser and internet (note: offline work is also possible). Additionally, multiple people can simultaneously write, edit, and comment on the same document, all in real-time. I cannot overstate how useful this feature is for the editing process. My editor could make comments and corrections which I could respond to, make changes, and integrate her suggestions in real-time, all without the need to save multiple files and send them back and forth via email, dropbox, or something similar. This was a huge boon and greatly streamlined the editing process.
I had used Google Docs many times in the past for little things here and there; why I did not start with it as my writing application of choice, I am not entirely sure. In some sense, I thought of Docs as a less fully-featured version of Word. Since I already owned Word and was very familiar with it, I initially dismissed Docs as a viable option.
So once again I found myself switching word processing apps. Getting my Scrivener manuscript into google docs was a bit of a pain to format without it looking like garbage. In retrospect, I should have exported my manuscript from Scrivener in MS Word's .doc format and uploaded that to Google Docs. Google Docs can convert Word files straight into its own native format. For whatever reason, I did not think of doing that at the time and ended up once again copying and pasting each section into my newly created Google Doc.
The manuscript uploaded to Google Docs, the rest of the editing process went smoothly. My Google Doc became the authoritative copy of the work. The ability to respond to comments and edits in real-time, and be able to access the text and write from anywhere, including my phone was incredibly useful.
Google Docs Pros
CLOUD SYNCED - write from anywhere you have web access.
Real-time Collaboration. Comment and write in real-time with your editor or other collaborators
Integrates with plugins like Grammarly
Export and Download your work into industry-standard formats like .doc and .rtf
Google Docs Cons
Not quite as fully-featured as Word, missing things like tracking changes and comparing documents.
Auto-saves. There is no way to disable this without downloading your doc and working offline; while writing a draft you may not want your document to be automatically saved
Not specifically designed for writing a novel manuscript
Cannot rename styles (this is minor but annoyed me for a specific reason)
Must have a Google or Gmail account
If Google ever abandons or discontinues Docs (something they have done with less popular products in the past), your work goes with it, if you have not downloaded your manuscript and saved it to your local hard-drive.
I am going to say it; I absolutely hated using InDesign. If you are not familiar with InDesign, the program is meant for book layouts, magazine layouts, and other text-heavy work; it is part of Adobe's Creative Cloud along with Photoshop and Illustrator. InDesign is not explicitly a word processor and I would never recommend using it as such.
For a software application explicitly made for laying out things like novels for print, InDesign is extremely frustrating to use. So why did I use it?
InDesign was a necessary evil to format and layout the finished manuscript for the novel in the exact dimensions, margins, fonts, and style I wanted for the paperback copy of the book. (As a caveat, if you are only planning on publishing an eBook you will not have to deal with InDesign).
It is possible I could have used Scrivener to export my paperback layout, but I wanted a great more deal of control over fonts, headers & footers, margins, chapter headings, section breaks, hyphenations, and spacing. Additionally, at this point the edited authoritative copy of the manuscript was in Google Docs; to go back to scrivener I would have had to go through the process again of breaking every chapter into its scenes and sections. Already familiar with Photoshop and Illustrator, I downloaded InDesign and dove in.
InDesign is a tool that gives you enough rope to hang yourself with. It is clearly a very powerful program with a boat-load of tools and features. However, it felt much more geared towards things like short magazine layouts with a lot of graphics and non-traditional text layouts, than fiction novel layouts.
I exported my Google Doc into a Word file which can be imported into Indesign, First going through the Word doc and making sure all of the Chapter Headings, Chapter start Paragraphs, and Chapter Section paragraphs were well-styled, (more on that later). It is a nice feature of InDesign that it will "auto-flow" your text into text boxes.
Getting the result I wanted however took days of experimenting, reading how-tos on the internet, and scouring over tutorials for the simple information I sought. After many false starts, I (maybe) got the hang of InDesign and got my manuscript into the layout I mostly wanted. I experimented with their "Master pages" feature, paragraph styles, and font styles, useful tools though left something to be desired.
Even then, it was still difficult to do things that seemed like it should be pretty basic.
For example, although InDesign will automatically increment your page numbers in the project by way of using a "special character", the same feature does not exist for chapter numbers, seems like a no-brainer.
The only way to have automatically incrementing chapter numbers is to use their "Book" feature which is just a little UI panel in which you must SPLIT every single chapter of your document into its own separate Word file and then import each into its own separate InDesign project file, which you then add to this "Book UI" panel. Every master-page and paragraph style must also be imported across every single one of these individual InDesign files. With a book 33 chapters long, that's 66 new individual files to now manage. A HUGE amount of monotonous work for a feature that seems like it should be automatic. So what? you may be thinking, just number your chapters manually? I did just that, however, when I decided I wanted to merge a short chapter with another short chapter, I now had to scour the InDesign doc manually renumbering the chapter numbers, an incredibly error-prone process. As a software engineer, I will always prefer an automated process to a manual one.
It would have been nice if InDesign auto-recognized my chapter's starts and ends, and gave me more fine-grain control in regards to say setting up a "Chapter Template". I first went the route of "master pages" thinking this would be akin to templating; I searched and stamped every single chapter start with a master page set-up with a reduced in-size text-box to force the start of the chapter's body text down to about starting 3.5 inches down the page.
This worked with mixed results but was ultimately totally unusable as any additional text added to a preceding chapter, (which happened often), the text of the previous chapter would run down into the text box of the following chapter, due to the auto-flow and linked/un-linked textbox phenomena. Ugh what a dead-ache
I eventually did figure this out with paragraph styles. and an article cited here:
If you need to figure out how to have the opening paragraph of each chapter's body be positioned at a fixed height on the page, follow that guide above; he explains it far better than I could. Thanks, Alan Gilbertson for the tip!
All the master pages were really useful for was keeping a consistent header and page number at the top.
There were a number of other headaches, gotchas, and downright-dumb things that InDesign did that left me scratching my head. I continually found myself thinking "I just want a simple, consistent multi-chapter book layout, why is this so damn hard."
In the future, I would probably hire a free-lance InDesign expert to do the InDesign layout, depending on time and budget. You can find pretty decent design freelancers on sites like:
Industry-standard print layout tool.
Many tools and options within the app.
Lots of freedom in layout and design.
Interesting features like "Master Pages" and robust "Paragraph Styles" meant to streamline and maintain consistency in your layout.
Powerful search and replace feature, allows you to search on many parameters beyond just the word, such as "Style", formatting, etc..
Overly complicated for what should be a reasonably simple process of laying out a traditional novel.
Seemingly simple features do not exist.
Expensive, requiring a monthly subscription to Adobe.
Though not meant for writing novels, I am including Google Keep here as an honorable mention. Keep is a cloud-based note-taking app that is available completely free. I cannot overstate the importance of having an easy to organize note app or notebook on you at all times during the writing process.
Throughout writing Lord of the Clouds, I would constantly open up Keep to jot down ideas, new plot points, specific phrasings I was working on, etc... when writing on the main manuscript was not an option; when driving in the car and some new important detail struck me I would use Keep while dictating the idea with speech-to-text.
Keep is simple, free, and searchable, additionally, you can apply labels (categories) to each of your notes making searching and organizing that much more efficient. Not too many Pros and Cons here.
Pen & Paper
There's something to be said about writing with pen and paper VS. typing. I feel that the immediacy of writing on paper often helps me capture ideas truer to their form. Though the scribblings are often ugly, underdeveloped, and incomplete, they help to capture the initial impulse of an idea much better than typing into an app, in my opinion.
The bulk of writing for Lord of the Clouds was done in front of a computer with a keyboard; however, throughout the process, I wrote, jotted, and scribbled reams of notes, drafts, and ideas into a graph-lined notebook that I kept on me at all times, (in addition to the use of Keep mentioned above).
As a writer, if you have not already, you must develop the discipline and habit of writing every little idea, turn of phrase, or random scene down, even if you are unsure about it. The low-stakes and free-form expression of scribbling out ideas on paper will often allow the creative process to flow more easily, in my experience. When I found myself stuck on a certain plot point, or unsure where the narrative was going next, I would often walk away from my computer and write in my notebook.
Moreover, being unbounded by the strictures of a computer application allows you to sketch, doodle, draw association webs, timelines etc..Unsure how a character should react to a situation? Sketch the scene out in stick figures and ball-point pen. Have an important location that you want to make sure remains consistent throughout the narrative? Draw a crude map with colored pencils. Trust me! It Works. Additionally, as you work on your manuscript, going back over your hand-written scribblings allows you to see your story from different angles and views. Sketch, scribble, and write EVERYTHING down; you will thank yourself later.
Doing It All Again
When starting on my next novel, here is the process I plan to follow. It is still a toss-up for me as to whether I would start my next manuscript in Scrivener or Google Docs. Scrivener has a lot of features that are great for writing, some that I am sure I haven't even discovered yet; however, the ability to have a synced up-to-date manuscript available from any computer with Docs, is such an appealing feature and hard to turn down. Additionally, Docs integrations with plugins like Grammarly are hugely useful for an independent author.
But for argument's sake let's say this time I start in Scrivener. I would take a lot more advantage of the Binder and character sheets at initial set-up; also I would make sure to employ their styles feature to mark chapter headings, opening paragraphs, and section starts.
Regardless of my choice, the one thing I should have been doing from the get-go is using properly styled Chapter Headers, Chapter Start Paragraphs, and Section Start Paragraphs. The reason for this being that once your final edited draft is done and you get to doing the layout, it is much easier to work with InDesign.
Once happy with my Scriv manuscript, I would employ an editor and move to Docs. From Docs I would export a well-styled final draft (meaning all the headings had their proper style applied); bring that into InDesign, where I would "find and replace" all the named-styles from the draft, with the pretty/formatted paragraph styles I had already set up in the ID file. Then bada-bing bada boom, pretty much done.
I hope you found some of this information useful in choosing which tools to use for writing your next best-seller! Please comment, or contact me if you have any questions or insights of your own.
Don't forget to check out Lord of the Clouds on Amazon!