Saturday 8 June 2019

Writers’ Questions: What writing software should I use?

I’ve been blogging about books written or set in the nineteenth century for the last six years, but, in 2020, my own historical novel will be published by Atria Books (more on this here). Writing a novel can be a lonely process so in my series, Writers’ Questions, I’m sharing thoughts and advice about the writing and publication process. Today I tackle a common question from beginners: where should a writer, well, write?

Pen and Paper

Pros: Going old school provides some advantages. A notebook is cheap, light and portable and scribbling in one will make you look at least ten times more interesting. What’s more, this is a good way to avoid the distractions that may come when working on an internet-connected device. For writers who are constantly editing and reediting and so struggle to create forward momentum, a notebook can also work wonders. There’s only so many times you can edit on a physical page.

Cons: Danger! Your work won’t be backed up. And, if your handwriting is anywhere near as bad as mine, you won’t be able to read it. Also, whether you’re planning to self-publish or go traditional, you’ll have to type up your manuscript eventually.

Microsoft Word (or other word processor)

Pros: While Word costs money, you probably have it on your computer already. And, when it comes time to publish and/or find a literary agent, you’ll need it anyway as it’s most common to send a .doc or .docx file. Microsoft Word is easy to use, and has all the necessary built-in features.

Cons: You might not notice this until your manuscript grows to over 100 pages but massive Word files often lag, making them hard to work in when you’re skipping around a manuscript. Consider keeping separate chapter files before combining later or using the bookmarks feature for a built-in guide. Ultimately, Word is a versatile program, designed for all sorts of writing (just look at the available templates), so you’re not going to find features useful to fiction writers as the default.

Google Docs

Pros: Free with real-time backups and anywhere access, there’s a lot to love about Google Docs. They can also be useful for getting feedback or for collaborative writing if that’s your jam.

Cons: You’ll have to export as another format when it comes time to submit. And a lot of my criticisms of Word hold true here—expect lagging on huge files and a lack of fiction-specific features. Working in Google Docs while connected to the internet could also lead to distraction, so close your other tabs to focus.


Pros: Scrivener is the Holy Grail for novelists, designed with our specific needs in mind. Set word count targets, reorder or navigate between chapters with ease, and create character profiles, setting documents, outlining notecards and more. There’s also an automatic way to backup to the cloud. As a historical novelist I especially love using Scrivener as a central research depository, so I can jump between notes, images and my manuscript itself in seconds.

Cons: There’s a one-time price tag (around $50) and a learning curve as you discover how Scrivener can work best for you. As with Google Docs, you will have to export to another format eventually. And, while Scrivener is the best software I’ve used for dealing with lengthy manuscripts, it can get slow if you’re including images. I would also caution against Scrivener if you have symptoms of ‘World Builder disease’—if you’re penning character profiles and drawing fantasy maps when you should be writing chapters this will only add to your problem.

My Process

So what do I use? I’ve found that composing in Scrivener before switching to Word when it comes time to share with critique partners and beta readers is the way to go. But ultimately writing is writing wherever you do it. Sometimes I’ve sent emails to myself, often I’ve written a few lines of dialogue in the ‘Notes’ section of my phone, and at times I’ve strayed onto the back of receipts or lightly used napkins. Whatever inspires you to write the most is the right program for you.

Laptop? Notebook? Typewriter? I’d love to hear where you’re bringing your stories to life. Let me know—below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And stay tuned for more posts in my Writers’ Questions series!


  1. Still learning Scrivner.
    Mostly I start handwritten and then type to avoid distractions.