Author Life,  Medium,  Writing

Is Novel Writing Software Worth It?

As a pantser who is wholly (and woefully) unorganized, I say yes

If you’ve been in the writing world for long, you’ve probably heard about the various writing software out there that is tailored specifically to writers. Long gone are the days of writing a novel in Microsoft Word alone (well, those days aren’t gone for everyone.)

I first heard about writing software — the most infamous one of them all, I suppose, Scrivener — when I attended my first writing conference in 2015 (which seems like about a million years ago now, but that’s beside the point.) Since then, I have learned that there is a multitude of software options out there for story planning, story organization, and manuscript polishing, all tailored specifically to writers who write a lot of words and need software to help them organize said words.

If you’re not familiar, software like Scrivener (or Plottr, or Fictionary, or Vellum, just to name a few) helps you organize your story into scenes and chapters as you write. It makes switching between different parts of your manuscript as simple as a single click as opposed to scrolling through over a hundred pages in a Google or Word Doc, and in some cases (depending on the software) even helps you look for plot holes and maintain a consistent voice/writing style throughout your book.

I’ve started using one such software for the first time recently, and what I thought would be a fruitless experiment has actually turned into an amazing collaboration between me and a digital tool that I foresee using on all of my future manuscripts.

If you’re not sure what these different software options are all about, but are curious about the pros and cons of using one yourself, read on for my pros and cons now that I am a convert.

The pros of using a writing software

1. They’re built specifically for writing a novel

There are a lot of word processing programs out there (Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Pages, etc.), but the difference between those and any of the aforementioned novel writing programs out there is the specific design for writing a book. Those word processing programs are great for writing short stories, essays, reports, resumes, and a variety of other documents, but they aren’t specifically set up for pages and pages of words (150+ pages in most cases.) Do they work for that volume of words anyway? Yes, but once you get past a certain word/page count your manuscript can get a little unwieldy. These programs are specifically designed to help with that.

2. They help massively with editing

What do you have to do after writing your 150+ page manuscript? You’ve got to edit it. And editing is a lot more overwhelming (at least for me) when I’m looking at a never-ending stream of pages rather than a nice clickable directory along the side of my manuscript. The program I’ve been using (which is Fictionary — I’ll get to the specifics of this program a little later) also has certain things to look out for while editing on the micro-level as well as an overall story map of your story as a whole. It’s helped me to stay on track as I’ve been going through the editing process page after page.

3. They aid in manuscript formatting

If you are planning on submitting your manuscript to editors and agents (which we all are at some point, right?), these programs can help get your pages all ready to go. For most of these programs, you can start writing in them from scratch or import a finished manuscript. Either way, once it’s in the program, you can fiddle with how it will be exported once you’re finally done with editing all those jazzy words into a neat little document to throw out into the world.

4. There are different types, so you can find what you specifically are looking for

Some writers might want a web-based program. Some might want software they can download onto their computer like with Microsoft Word. Some writers might be looking for help with specific editing tasks or wanting a program that can help them draft fast from scratch. Each program has its benefits and drawbacks. As I mentioned, I’ve been trying out Fictionary. I love it — mainly because it’s web-based and is tailored to help with editing in particular. I work on a couple of different computers and my iPad, depending on the day, so it’s nice to be able to log into the program wherever I’m at. And the editing checklist (of sorts) that is included with Fictionary has helped me identify where my strengths and weaknesses are in each individual scene, so I can easily go back and fill in holes or fortify flimsy spots.

The cons of using software specifically for writing

1. They’re not exactly cheap

The thing about these types of software is that they’re not free. Then again, most word processing software isn’t free, though there are some options that are (Google Docs and Pages, for example.) Most of these software companies charge you for their product — it’s how they make their money. The payment set up varies; some charge a monthly fee, some have a flat rate to install the software on one computer, some allow for multiple licenses — it all really depends on the program. If you want to purchase Scrivener, it’s about $50 to install the program on one computer. For Fictionary, it’s a monthly fee (either $20 if you pay month to month or at a discount if you pay a lump sum for one year.) All the programs I’ve mentioned don’t come free, unfortunately, so there’s a cost analysis every writer needs to complete before deciding on the route they want to take.

2. No single software does everything

If you’re looking for software to create ebooks, Vellum is one of the top choices out there. But if you’re just looking for manuscript formatting and an easier way to edit, maybe Scrivener is a more appropriate choice. What if you’re looking for both? Different programs are going to be better for different things (and different books), so finding what you need isn’t necessarily going to be easy (or cheap, going back to point one of this cons section.)

3. They simply won’t work for everyone

I didn’t even think of this con until I was talking to one of my writing friends. She really wanted to find software that would work better for her than your average word processing program, but was having a hard time because none of the options out there seemed to fit her writing style. As she put it, she writes in a circular style, not linearly, and most of the software she was testing out assumed writers would write chronologically — from chapter one to chapter fifty-three without jumping around or changing the order of scenes. I write in a straight line, I guess, if we are to use her analogy, so that wasn’t a problem for me. But we all write differently, and all the various writing programs out there won’t necessarily take that into account.

4. They have bugs and glitches just like any other software

Most of these writing programs haven’t been around nearly as long as Microsoft Word, and even Word still has some bugs occasionally. So it’s no surprise that sometimes Fictionary freezes up when I’m switching between scenes, or that any of the other programs I’ve mentioned might glitch unexpectedly. These programs are incredibly useful, but they’re not perfect — just like virtually every software or app out there. If that’s going to bother you as you write or edit, then sticking to a simpler word processing software might be your best bet.

So, should you use a writing software developed for novel writing?

It depends on what you’re looking for. I have really liked Fictionary so far, but I don’t have a lot of experience with other writing programs. I know many published novelists who sing the praises of Scrivener, but there are just as many (like my circular writing friend) who despise the software. If you need a bit of help organizing your editing and writing, a software specifically designed to do that definitely won’t hurt — I know it’s helped this unorganized pantser. But remember, books have been written for hundreds of years without even the use of a computer. Some of the best books ever written were written with pen and paper before being sent off to a letterpress. You don’t need fancy writing software to write a novel, but it doesn’t hurt to consider your options now that there are so many tools on the market to help us all become better writers, one word at a time.

Previously published in The Writing Cooperative

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