Writing a book isn’t easy. It takes time, dedication, and consistency. Even the most prolific authors struggle now and then with writer’s block or another version of “life getting in the way.” Which is why, at one point or another, we’ve all had the same thought: “There must be a way to make this process easier.”
And that’s how, sooner or later, writers end up going down a software rabbit hole, analyzing the tool that’s right in front of our faces for hours upon hours each day: our word processor. So how do you choose the best word processor for writers?
First, a quick disclaimer. One of the perks of writing is its low barrier to entry. You have all the tools you need to do it, right now. Whether you have a desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone, or occasional access to a library computer, you have everything you need to start writing. Heck, a simple legal pad and pen will do the trick.
But some tools make writing more manageable than others. In this post, we’ll look at the most popular word processors for writers and break down the pros and cons of each.
Some cost money, and others are free. Some come with lots of bells and whistles, and others are bare-bones. Is paid software worth the investment, or should you use a free tool?
Only you can decide which word processor will work best for you. And although some tools can make certain aspects of writing easier, full disclosure: writing will always be hard—at least for most of us. Even the best software in the world can’t create your magnum opus for you. But it can make the process a little easier.
Scrivener is one of the best-known word processors on the market, at least among writers. Unlike more generic tools like MS Word, it was created specifically for writers. Other word processors like Word and Google Docs are used by everyone: students, lawyers, teachers, businesspeople, etc. But Scrivener was created with writers in mind.
So what can it do that other word processors can’t?
- Helps with plotting
- Two outlining features: standard and corkboard
- Easy drag and drop to move sections around
- A collection of templates specific to writers (ex: character, setting, front matter, and back matter)
- A distraction-free full-screen mode
- A side panel to store notes, bookmarked websites, and documents related to your book
The organization is a significant selling point, too. Instead of keeping everything in one giant file (or lots of disjointed smaller files), Scrivener makes it easy to create multiple sub-files to organize and outline a writing project. On the corkboard, you can view chapters or scenes as index cards, making them easy to reorder by dragging and dropping.
Some writers swear Scrivener makes them more productive. (You can create word count goals and track your daily progress to stay on target.) Others simply enjoy transitioning to a tool they don’t use for any other type of work.
However, there are some cons—namely, the learning curve. Any software with a robust suite of tools must be learned, unlike the old standbys you can just pick up and use. If you enjoy learning new software, great! But if feeling your way around a tool will slow you down, Scrivener might be more trouble than it’s worth.
Also, collaboration isn’t easy on Scrivener. Many writers with co-authors will write solo in Scrivener and then use Google Docs for the collaborative portion of a project.
Pros of Scrivener:
- Created for large book-writing projects
- Zoom out for a high-level view of your book’s structure
- Stay productive with project targets and built-in deadlines, plus a pared-down full-screen view for maximum focus
Cons of Scrivener:
- Steep learning curve
- Some features feel overly complicated
- Syncing is via Dropbox, which isn’t seamless
- Tricky to collaborate
Vellum is the priciest word processor on our list, but that’s because it functions more like a word processor and a service rolled into one.
Exporting your word file into ePub format isn’t hard. Scrivener, Word, Pages, and even Google Docs can do it. The problem is, they probably won’t render very well in an e-reader without help. There’s an entire industry based on supporting authors trying to format their ebooks—that’s how difficult it can be to turn a text file into a professional-looking self-published book.
Enter Vellum, which makes beautiful books.
In under an hour, you can get your book ready for the public eye. The previewer tool lets you see how each formatting change or edit will appear on any major e-reader: Kindle, Fire, iPhone, Nook, Kobo, etc. It also has stripped-down, option-based formatting—perfect for designing either ebooks or print books. (Print comes with an upgraded price tag, though.)
Vellum is easy and intuitive to use, especially considering its range. It makes beautiful styling easy and could save you from hiring someone to format your book before publication.
On the con side, there’s the price. Vellum isn’t for the faint of heart. Also, there are limited styles available, so you’re subject to their styling options.
Pros of Vellum:
- Makes formatting and styling easy
- Exports to MOBI
Cons of Vellum:
- Lacks some in-built writing features that authors expect, like a collaboration tool
Microsoft Word: $160 flat fee, or $70/year for Microsoft 365
MS Word is world-famous. You’ve probably used it many times, and if you don’t love it, you likely know it well enough to accept its flaws.
Word boasts many capabilities modern humans have come to rely upon, like a built-in grammar and spell-checker as well as a multitude of formatting and file transfer options. It’s even branched into cloud-based collaboration capabilities to keep pace with Google Docs, though the process doesn’t work nearly as smoothly. Word is the go-to word processor for many of us—and while it isn’t free, it probably came stock with your operating system if you’re on a PC.
However, Word is also the preferred word processor of the business world. Meaning that most of us have used it in our day jobs, or use it today to do non-creative work. Opening up the same tool to work on your novel could make it tough to transition your headspace, as our own Kevin Tumlinson has pointed out. He prefers Scrivener over Word, not because of Word’s functionality, but because it’s so ubiquitous that he finds it hard to get into a writerly frame of mind when he’s using it.
One complaint many authors share is that Word has more features than it needs. It can be tricky to hunt down a relatively simple function, which is why some writers prefer Google Docs, which offers pared-down functionality.
Another con of Word is online use. There is a web-based version and an app, but the lack of functionality in these versions gets frustrating quickly. And if you stick to the desktop version, files can become slow to load as your book grows. Word wasn’t designed for large book projects, either, so you’ll need to develop a naming hierarchy and organizational system on your own.
Pros of Microsoft Word:
- Ubiquitous enough that you probably already know how to use it
- Full-featured Word processor
Cons of Microsoft Word:
- Collaboration tools aren’t as robust as others
- Online and app-based user experience is very limited
- Too full-featured for many
Pages: Free (for iOS users)
Pages is Mac’s answer to Word. Like most Mac software, it’s better than its MS counterpart from a visual standpoint. The templates are prettier and more intuitive to use, the design is simple, and syncing across devices within iCloud is easy.
Feature-wise, Pages sits somewhere on the spectrum between Word and Google Docs. It isn’t quite as robust as Word, but some would call that a good thing. It does more than Google Docs and has similar collaborative functionality. It’s also very ebook friendly, as it comes pre-loaded with artfully designed templates specifically for ebooks and can export to the Apple iPub format (and ePub too, of course).
If you like features but also enjoy writing on an iPad, Pages is probably your best bet. You don’t lose any functionality on the Pages app for iPad the way you do with Word. Pages integrates seamlessly with iCloud and syncs between devices without effort.
Pros of Pages:
- Beautiful templates
- Export directly to iPub
- Great collaboration tool
- Excellent in-app user experience
Cons of Pages:
- Not very accessible to PC users
- Not available on Android
- Exporting to Word can disrupt formatting
Google Docs: Free and device-agnostic
There’s a lot to be said for Google Docs. It’s free, browser-based, and extremely easy to use. The functionality is simple, so don’t look to Google Docs for anything fancy. That said, it has everything you need to simply sit down and write. And because your work is stored exclusively in the cloud (without requiring you to adjust any settings), you never need to worry about losing your writing if your computer is stolen or your hard drive crashes.
But Google Docs is most famous for its online collaboration functionality. Multiple people can work on a document simultaneously, seeing each other’s changes in real time. Google Docs works offline, too, so you can still work on an airplane or anywhere else without connectivity. Next time you’re online, your doc will automatically sync to Google Drive. (Note that collaboration does require an internet connection.)
Another perk of Google Docs is that it works the same on any device: desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone, so you don’t need to relearn where features live—or do without—when you’re traveling.
The limited functionality of Google Docs becomes a con when it’s time to manage formatting, however. There are limited formatting options, none of which are particularly friendly for self-publishing, so you’ll likely need to use another tool before your book is ready to publish (though you can export in ePub format).
Pros of Google Docs:
- The price—it’s free!
- Real-time collaboration
- Suggestion mode
Cons of Google Docs:
- No native functionality for large documents
- Documents can lag as file size grows
- Many features require an internet connection
- Formatting likely requires another tool
That’s it for our rundown of the best word processors for writers. So tell us—what do you use, and why? Do you use a tool that isn’t on the list? Comment below!