The best free software for writers 2017

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).

Microsoft Word is the default tool for many writers, but a subscription to Office 365 costs £59.99, US$69.99, AU$89 per year for one user – pretty steep if you only need the word processing element.

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

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Download FocusWriter free

1. FocusWriter

Keep your mind on your work with the best free app for writers

Blocks all distractions
Timers and alarms
Auto-save function
Not suitable for editing

Available for Linux, Windows and macOS, 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.

FocusWriter isn't for everyone – it's not the right tool for going back through and editing your work – but it's a lovely little app with a very modest footprint that stops you keeping an eye on Twitter all day.

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Download WriteMonkey free

2. WriteMonkey

A text editor that cuts down on distractions, not features

Distraction-free interface
Supports markup
Handy keyboard shortcuts
Only works with TXT files

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 WriteMonkey, you can use it to create blog posts, print publications and anything else that needs words in it.

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Download LibreOffice Writer

3. LibreOffice

A fully-featured free alternative to Microsoft Word

Excellent format compatibility
Document template galleries
Support for plugins

LibreOffice is a free, open source alternative to Microsoft Office, and that means its word processing app, Writer, has many of the power features of 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.

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Download Scribus free

4. Scribus

Create great-looking magazines and books without InDesign

Professional-level print design tools
Supports layers
Cross-platform

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 suitable for producing entire magazines.

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. If you've ever used Adobe InDesign, you'll find the similarity striking. If you can use one, you'll pick up the other in seconds.

We wouldn't want to lay out a 400-page book in it (though that's quite possible), but for shorter works it's ideal.

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Download Freemind free

5. Freemind

Organize your ideas and defeat writer's block before it can strike

Very flexible
Supports complex diagrams
Looks a little old-fashioned

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 organize 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.

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