I have been writing for a long time, and I know how important it is to find the right tools to not only help you get the work done but also find tools that get out of your way when you need to focus on the grind. The last thing you want to deal with a laggy word processor or worry about is a subscription fee to your favourite plotting software.
If you are just starting out, it is that much more important to stick to a budget – it can be hard to justify spending money when your writing doesn’t make you any, or when you don’t know your process and don’t want to waste money on an app that won’t work for you.
I think it’s important to support the tools we use when we are in a position to do so, but sometimes free is necessary. Thankfully, these days we are spoiled for choice about the kinds of apps we can use to make our lives and our writing that much more organized, and free basic plans are commonplace. You can try new tools without the risk, and upgrade when you are ready to do so.
As a writer on a budget, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find tools that worked for me, and I thought I would share my favourites. Every tool and app listed here is free to use or has a free plan that is robust enough to actually be useful.
Every single one of them I use personally or I have used in the past, and so they are all apps I can confidently recommend. I am pretty firmly entrenched in the Android and Windows ecosystems at the moment, and while I’m sure there are plenty of great iOS apps out there, I am not familiar with them, and I simply can’t in good conscience recommend something I don’t use. That being said, almost everything on this list is also available for Apple, so you can give them a try if you’re interested.
Good For: Outlining, Editing, Task management, Organizing Notes
First off, I’m going to come clean and say that I am a hardcore fan of Notion, and I use it every single day for pretty much everything. I’m quite familiar with what it is and isn’t capable of at this point, and I think it can be extremely helpful to any writers who need help getting their life in order.
Notion is a project management and note-taking software, but with a little time and ingenuity, it can become whatever you need it to be. The app employs powerful databases that take a variety of forms, and you can turn them into task managers, world bibles, writing trackers, and so much more. Databases are also perfect for outlining your scenes because it’s so easy to move them around in the gallery layout.
You can also leave comments on each Notion page, much like in a normal word processor, which can be extremely useful when you’re editing.
I used Notion to create my own custom Writing Dashboard, a hub where I can organize all of my writing in one place. If you want to know more about what went into it, check out this post.
There are many things the app excels at, but it isn’t perfect. If you want to know if Notion is a good fit for you, I’d check out my post highlighting the pros and cons to help you make an informed decision. You can also check out my resource library if you want to try one of my many Notion templates and give the app a try for yourself.
- Can be completely customized to your needs
- Databases are a powerful tool for organizing your writing
- Can take time to set up
- No offline mode
Good For: Drafting, Editing
There are many editing apps out there, and I will mention a couple in this post, but the first one I ever found (and one of my favourites) is Hemmingway.
Hemmingway is an easy-to-use, browser-based editor that will highlight potential problems, such as adverb usage, passive voice, and run-on sentences. You can write in the app itself, or you can copy and paste your text when you’re ready to edit.
A lot of online editors focus more on spelling and grammar, which are necessary, but Hemmingway takes it a step further and helps you improve your writing style and sentence structure.
It’s free to use, though you can purchase the desktop app at a very reasonable price. The desktop editor in particular can also become an excellent distraction-free word processor if you want to keep your writing and editing eggs in one basket.
- Clean layout, easy-to-use UI
- Great for removing passive voice and improving readability
- Export function is limited to the paid desktop software
Good For: Editing
The one everyone knows about, but not without good reason. Grammarly is extremely easy to use, and invaluable for cleaning up your writing. You can install the extension on your browser, and Grammarly will scan as you write and pick up any errors. it checks for grammar and spelling issues, as well as clarity, tone, and consistency of style.
You can copy your text into the Grammarly editor or upload it to the website, make any necessary changes and download the newly edited document. Alternatively, you can do as I have and keep the Grammarly edits visible in one window, and go through your original document in another, marking off the changes as you make them.
It’s free and easy to use, and a great place to get started with online editors, but it bears mentioning that it can make mistakes though they are typically few and far between. The AI is very good at what it does, but it’s not perfect, so use your best judgement when you run your work through it.
- Extremely thorough online editing app
- Provides context for all prompt changes to help you improve your writing
- Some features locked behind a paid plan
- The AI is not perfect, occasional errors should be expected
Good For: Staying focused
If you struggle to stay off your phone when you should be working, or if you enjoy focused bursts of work with the Pomodoro method, then I strongly recommend you check out the Forest App. The Forest app is a super simple productivity tool that prompts you to ‘plant’ a tree which will grow over a specified time, anywhere from 10 minutes to 2 hours.
During this time a tree will grow and be added to your ‘forest’, but if you open up social media or any other unapproved apps, your tree will die, and you’ll be stuck with that dead tree in your forest forever more.
Otherwise, it’s time to focus, and you will get a push notification when your tree has finished growing. You can also have ambient soundscapes playing while your phone is off-limits as well. It’s a fun and cute way of game-ifying your productivity, which is especially effective for people who like that sort of thing.
As you build your forest you accumulate coins which you can then use to purchase new trees, and you can tag each timed session to indicate the type of work you are doing. I like to assign a tree to each tag, so I can see at a glance when I look at my forest how much time I spent on one thing versus another.
- You can save specific trees, tags, and times to your favourites for frequently reproduced sessions of work
- You can set a stopwatch instead of a timer if that sort of pressure makes you anxious
- Many features are locked in the premium version including some tree types, phone usage tracking, planting with friends, and an approved apps list
- In-app ads
Good For: Drafting
If you like clean and distraction-free writing software, look no further than Focus Writer. It’s minimal and easy to use, but that doesn’t mean it’s light on features. Everything is neatly tucked away so you can focus on the writing, but you can set timers and writing goals, as well as customize themes to suit the genre you’re currently writing.
Before I purchased Scrivener and invested in an Alphasmart, this was my distraction-free writing tool of choice, and it’s still a great option for any writers on a budget. It’s totally free and available for Windows and Linux.
- Clean, easy-to-use UI
- Lots of features in a small package
- Includes a portable option
Good For: Drafting, Dictation, Organizing Notes
One Note is a free-form note-taking software, that organizes your notes and documents into notebooks, sections, and finally pages. These are excellent for managing your character notes and world-building notes in one place, and you can easily turn pages into chapters, and sections into drafts.
Pages are unique in that they are just very large workspaces as opposed to standard word documents, so you can start writing anywhere on the page, and move things around easily. It also has pretty good dictation built into the app, though it’s not as nuanced as Otter.
And because OneNote is part of the Microsoft suite of apps, you can access it from any device, which is always a nice plus when you want to write on the go.
- Your work is saved to the cloud and accessible from any device
- Dictation is built in and works well
- Graphically heavy pages have long load times
Good For: Dictation
Otter is a voice-to-text app, and a particularly good one if dictation is something you are new to. I’ve started using it myself to alleviate some of the wrist pain I’ve been experiencing from too many days spent typing at my computer. They have a browser version if you have a microphone hooked up to your computer, but you can just as easily use your phone.
Just start the recording and start talking. Dictation takes some getting used to, but the app is quite good at naturally picking up the nuance of speech so I don’t have to say “period” out loud every time I reach the end of a sentence. It’s also surprisingly accurate – more accurate than I expected it to be having used other dictation software in the past and found them lacking.
It’s not perfect, so you will need to run it through some rounds of editing to catch any errors, but it saves a lot of time. I will say that English is my native tongue – I do not know how well the app fares when dealing with accents (or other languages, for that matter!).
NOTE: At the end of September 2022, Otter’s basic plan is dropping the allotted transcription minutes from 600 to 300. Thus far, my average is about 100 words per minute, dropping the approximate words I could dictate per month from 60k to 30k. Unfortunately, this means Otter is not likely to become your primary source for drafting, but it can be great when you’re on the go, or if you need a break from the computer.
- A clean and easy-to-use UI
- Highly accurate speech-to-text
- For extended use, you will have to purchase a plan
- Not a lot of supported export apps.
Good For: Drafting, Editing
This is another one that people will undoubtedly have heard of, but just in case there are any who haven’t yet, I figured it bore mentioning. Google Docs is an online word processor, and it’s a pretty robust one. It’s great for any who are starting out, as it is easy to use, and reminiscent of Microsoft Word but without the price tag. It’s also available as an app so you can write, edit, and otherwise access your documents from any device.
You can also collaborate with others in the same document, which can be useful in a variety of ways. With shared documents, you could co-write a book or outline with another author, or create duplicate documents to share with editors and beta readers.
What it does, it does well, though I would note that extremely long documents will make the app run slow. If you plan to write an entire draft of a novel in Google Docs, I strongly recommend you split it up into chapters.
- Your work is saved to the cloud and accessible from any device
- Can work offline
- Allows for collaborative work in a single document
- Long documents will get laggy
Good For: Outlining, Task management
Trello is a Kanban-style app that works great for organizing thoughts and ideas. Typically, kanban boards have three categories for dividing your tasks – to do, doing, and done, but Trello allows you to set up as many of these categories (or “boards”) as you like. You can label each board after an act and list out all of the scenes, or turn each book in a series into its own board and list out the chapters. You can also create boards for character information or world-building questions.
The app is clean and super easy to use compared to something like Notion which may take more of a grind to set up. If you learn a few hotkeys you can rapidly add entries, and it’s just as easy to use in the browser as it is in the mobile app. For each card, you can add labels to further break down the boards, due dates, checklists, images and more.
If you work with a co-writer you can add collaborators to the board so you can both work within the same space and access the same information.
And organizing your note and drafts is only one way you can use Trello. You can also set it up as a task management system, not unlike the Kanban system it was designed after, to keep you on track or manage any of the other myriad things you need to do as a writer.
- You can add to the functionality with integrations like Dropbox, Google Calendar, or Mailchimp
- Easy to use app lets you plot on the go
- Free plan is limited to only 10 boards per workspace
- Larger workspaces will involve a lot of scrolling on smaller screens
What Are Some of Your Favourite Apps?
What apps do you use on a regular basis that you would recommend? Do you use any of the ones I listed here? What are some of the free tools and apps you couldn’t live without? Let me know in the comments below!