The best free software for writers 2016

If you're an aspiring novelist, this free software will help you commit your ideas to the page

The best free software for writers

Writers tend to make a very big deal of their tools, whether those tools are delicate pens or ancient typewriters. Increasingly, though, they'll talk about their software. Even the most genteel literary event can soon devolve into a fist-fight between fans of Scrivener and Ulysses (both of which cost around £27, US$40, AU$50).

Word is the default tool for many writers, but the latest version – Microsoft Word 2016 – will set you back £109.99 (US$109.99, AU$149) for the non-commercial edition. That's almost as much as the full Microsoft Office 2016 suite, and a hefty price for cash-strapped wordsmiths.

There's often a better option for those of us starving in garrets: free apps. Come with us as we discover the best free apps to turn your talent into something tangible.

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Download FocusWriter free

FocusWriter's extremely pared-back design might not appeal to everyone, but it removes all possible distractions

1. FocusWriter

Download FocusWriter free

Block out distractions and get on with some serious work with the best free program for writers

Available for Linux, Windows and OS X, FocusWriter is designed to eliminate distractions so you can actually get on with the job of writing. To that effect it enables you to hide other apps, customize the way your text appears on screen and keep track of your progress. If you're feeling particularly old-school you can even add typewriter sound effects.

It isn't for everyone - it looks pretty daft on a 27-inch monitor, for example - but it's a lovely little app with a very modest footprint that stops you keeping an eye on Twitter all day.

Download here: FocusWriter

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Download WriteMonkey free

WriteMonkey is a streamlined text editor, but still packs all the features you'll need

2. WriteMonkey

Download WriteMonkey free

A text editor that cuts down on distractions, not features, helping you work more efficiently

We're big fans of Markdown, the text-editing language that enables you to format, annotate, classify and link as you type with the minimum of fuss, and the superb WriteMonkey makes good use of it.

This free program delivers an incredibly stripped-down user interface that's considerably more powerful than it looks. There's an excellent outliner, automatic syntax highlighting and file organisation, and although markdown takes a bit of getting used to, you'll be very glad you made the effort.

Once you've mastered it, you can use it to create blog posts, print publications and anything else that needs words in it.

Download here: WriteMonkey

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Download Celtx free

Celtx is an excellent free alternative to premium scriptwriting software Final Draft

3. Celtx

Download Celtx free now

Celtx is ideal for solo writers or small teams who don't need the power of Final Draft

Hollywood scriptwriters swear by the famous Final Draft software, but if you're yet to sell a script then you might prefer an option that doesn't cost any money. Say hello to Celtx, an online scriptwriting platform that's designed for small creative teams and includes a solo screenwriting package - all for the excellent price of zero.

You don't get the extensive collaboration tools of the paid-for products, but for straightforward scriptwriting it's well worth a look before considering a scriptwriting tool that costs real money. Take a look at Trelby too - more on that in a moment.

Download here: Celtx

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Download LibreOffice Writer

Writer is part of the open source LibreOffice suite, and packs almost all the features you'd expect to find in a premium word processing program

4. LibreOffice Writer

Download LibreOffice Writer free

A fully-featured alternative to Microsoft Word, completely free. Part of the superb LibreOffice suite

LibreOffice is a free, open source alternative to Microsoft Office, and that means its Writer word processing app has many of the power features of Microsoft Word without the accompanying price tag.

One of its most useful features is the LibreOffice Template Center, where you'll find templates for all kinds of content.

If you're interested in more full office suites, see our guide to the best free office software.

Download here: LibreOffice Writer

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Download Sigil free

Create your own ebooks with Sigil, which exports documents in EPUB format

5. Sigil

Download Sigil free

Designed specifically for creating your own ebooks and getting them ready to publish online

Many writing apps concentrate on print, but of course we're Kindle kids now and many authors publish direct to ebooks. There are lots of ways to do that, including exporting from your favourite word processor, but Sigil is designed specifically for ebook editing; it isn't something that's been bolted onto an existing print-focused app.

It offers WYSIWYG editing, enables you to check imported documents against the EPUB standard, and can sort out formatting and fix your editing. It's also expandable via plugins to add even more features.

Download here: Sigil

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Download Trelby free

Trelby is a free screenwriting tool that makes it easy to track characters, scenes and locations

6. Trelby

Download Trelby free now

A powerful multi-platform screenwriting tool that's a good choice for budding playwrights

Trelby is available for Windows and for Linux, and it offers a very powerful screenwriting tool for free. It enforces standardized layouts, includes a character name database to avoid calling your hero Shooty McShootface, imports and exports in all the formats you could need, and has a built-in PDF generator.

You can compare different versions of the same script, create scene, location, character and dialog reports, and work in draft, WYSIWYG or fullscreen mode to suit the way you work. Don't even think about buying Final Draft without checking Trelby out first.

Download here: Trelby

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Download Scribus free

Scribus is an excellent free alternative to magazine industry standard Adobe Indesign

7. Scribus

Download Scribus free now

Write and design great-looking magazines and books without paying for Adobe creative software

If your words' appearance is as important as their meaning, give Scribus a go: it's a free, highly-rated desktop publishing application for Linux, OS X and Windows that's capable of producing entire magazines (a little like a cut-down version of Adobe InDesign).

It's been kicking around - and regularly updated - since 2001, and while it's a little tricky to use at first it offers professional-grade publishing with layered, multi-page documents and good colour management support.

We wouldn't want to make a 400-page book in it, but for shorter works it's very clever.

Download here: Scribus

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Try Hemingway online

Hemingway is a web-based text editor that highlights possible weaknesses in your writing

8. Hemingway

A streamlined text editor in your web browser - no need to download additional software

In addition to paid-for desktop software for Mac and Windows, Hemingway is available as a free web app. It's well worth bookmarking: it's designed to highlight long, complex sentences and common grammatical errors, and its use of colors makes it abundantly clear how clear or otherwise your text has become.

It'll spot excessive use of unnecessary adverbs, and it can ensure that instances of the passive voice have been marked to alert you to their use. Hemingway is a really good tool for anyone who needs to communicate with maximum clarity. And we deliberately wrote this paragraph this way to annoy it.

Try it online: Hemingway

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Download Evernote free

Evernote isn't a word processor, but it's a great tool for collating ideas and jotting down notes whenever inspiration strikes

9. Evernote

Gather ideas, quotes and images together throughout the day so they're ready to use later

Evernote isn't much cop as a writing app, but it's an absolutely superb research tool. We've used to organise all kinds of content including old photos of locations, snippets of overheard dialog, PDFs of scanned documents and all the little ideas that pop up when we're out and about.

Don't forget about other note-taking apps either: Microsoft's free OneNote is superb, and if you're a Mac/iOS fan Apple's Notes app is handy to have, especially when you can get Siri to add notes for you.

Download here: Evernote

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Download Freemind free

User Freemind to organise your thoughts before you begin writing

10. Freemind

Download Freemind free

Organise your ideas and defeat writer's block before it can strike with a handy mindmap

Here's another app for writers that isn't strictly for putting your words on the screen: Freemind is all about mind mapping, and it enables you to record all the leaps and bounds your imagination makes whether you're plotting a potboiler or trying to organise complex threads of an investigation.

Freemind isn't something we'd necessarily recommend for mind mapping beginners - it looks a bit like a desktop publishing app having some kind of breakdown - but if you're an experienced intellectual explorer it's a lot tidier than a wall full of index cards and sticky notes.

Download here: Freemind

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Contributor

Former lion tamer, Girls Aloud backing dancer and habitual liar Gary Marshall (Twitter, Google+) has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to .net, MacFormat, Tap! and Official Windows Magazine as well as co-writing stacks of how-to tech books. "My job is to cut through the crap," he says. "And there's a lot of crap."