Writing tools – an overview


Using the right tools is essential to any profession. Writing doesn’t require much in that area, you can use a stick to write on an empty stretch of beach if you like. However, there’s not enough beach around to write that epic Fantasy novel, so you’ll probably want to use more convenient writing tools. Let’s have a look at what is out there.

Basic text editors

You don’t need fancy layouts, a selection of fonts, or advanced cross-references to write. You can just fire up your basic text editor and go. Under Windows you have the famous Notepad, and Linux and OSX also have built-in editors. Then there’s Vi, Emacs, or a ton of other alternatives you can download. No fuss, no distractions, just plain text.

Simple text editors have the advantage that you’re not tempted by the rest of the universe. It’s just you and the words.

There are some disadvantages. You have no layout options at all. Sometimes, you want to emphasize something using cursive text, or center a paragraph of text. That’s not possible in Notepad. Spell checking is also a problem. Sometimes you can configure it, sometimes you can’t. That doesn’t have to be a problem, a writer needs to be able to spell without help, but it saves you time finding the typos by hand.

Rich text editors

Beyond the basic text editor is the rich text editor. Everybody uses Microsoft Word these days, although in the distant past we swore by WordPerfect. LibreOffice and OpenOffice are open-source alternatives to Word, both forked from the same roots at Sun Microsystems. I won’t go into details about the reason of the fork, or the differences between the two; for most users LibreOffice and OpenOffice will feel identical.

Personally, I find everything I dislike about Word is also in LibreOffice/OpenOffice, and there are some extra inconveniences to boot. The reason I use it is that I find Microsoft Word too expensive, dislike the business practices of Microsoft that make it so expensive, and finally, LibreOffice/OpenOffice works on Linux.

Writing in a rich text editor allows you a bit more freedom to do at least some layouting. I like it that sentences don’t cover the entire width of the screen, because that gives me a better feel of how they’ll look in a finished work.

There is a caveat, of course. When I started out, I used to spend a lot of time on the front page of my story, and the font, and the headers. As my writing got better and I got more focused, I stopped doing that. It didn’t improve my writing. If was shit before I fiddled with the layout, and it was still shit after, only shit in a nice font. In the end, it’s about the writing.

Structured text editors

One of the things you can do in Word and LibreOffice, but not well, is add a structure to a document. Most people who’ve worked a while with Word know that you should never set the markup of your headings directly, but instead you should select a ‘style’ such as ‘Heading 1’. This allows Word to create automated Tables of Contents, and allows quick updating of how all headings look.

You can go one step further and structure your entire text using a tool like LaTeX. Instead of setting a style like ‘heading 1’ in a menu, you add special tags to your text that specifies the function of the text, like ‘/heading 1’. Confused? Okay, here’s an example I blatantly copied from the LaTeX site:

\title{Cartesian closed categories and the price of eggs}
\author{Jane Doe}
\date{September 1994}
   Hello world!

The structured code of text above defines a document of type article, with author Jane Doe, written in September 1994, with a title ‘Hello World!’.

The idea behind this is to completely separate the markup/layout from the semantics of the text. You can then use a separate program to compile this structured text to a nicely layed out document. This is done by applying specific markup to all ‘maketitle’ parts of the document, and all ‘footnotes’, etc. It’s like what does live on screen, only in two steps, and with less Word ‘magic’ involved. For all you web developers out there, this concept is similar to CSS being used to layout HTML.

The advantage of this approach is that you only have to worry about the text and the semantic meaning of the text and can fiddle with the layout later. For a story, this might be overkill, but for scientific articles, and thesis papers, this is very useful.

Integrated Development Environments

My day job is developing software. As a software engineer, you usually use an ‘Integrated Development Environment’. That’s a tool that helps you not only to edit a single file containing programming code, but also helps you organize those files and compile them to a working program. There is an equivalent to this in writing tools.

The king of this field is Scrivener, which is the IDE for writing, at least until something better comes along. Scrivener allows you to set up a writing project, organizing your different scenes, chapters, and notes. I personally love it.

At first glance, you might wonder if you need this. Well, maybe you don’t, but maybe you do. I started out writing my novel ‘the Thousand Sails of Elysium’ in LibreOffice, then switched to Scrivener part of the way through. Before that, I had my main Word file in a folder on my computer, with several subdirectories of additional background files, pictures, and research. When I transferred it to Scrivener I was able to combine all of it into one project. I find this very valuable.

Scrivener allows you to quickly access your notes and research, and perform text searches on them, making it easier to keep them in sync with your story. Also, you can easily keep all your scenes in separate files, each with attached notes, which are then combined by Scrivener to a Word file, OpenOffice file, Epub, Mobi, or PDF, changing to manuscript format when needed. This alone is a very useful feature for editing.


There are a lot of tools out there for writing, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Depending on your tastes, and desired level of automation, you can go from plain text editors to Integrated Writing Environment.

Remember, always find your own process. There is no magic bullet or one-size-fits-all solution. Look at all the options and choose the one best for you.

Happy writing.


Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands