What’s not to love about free writer tools?
For starters, even if you prefer to write rough drafts in longhand—pen and paper—all writers eventually need word processing software of some kind.
Sure, MS Word is the standard. But if a yearly subscription for Microsoft 365 puts a dent in your budget—or you just don’t like it—you have alternatives. Plus, if you need more than just basic word processing, there are loads of options.
And many are free.
That’s right, free. And I’m talking about high-quality free tools with no strings attached and no obligation to buy a paid version if one is available.
Here are some free and low-cost tools that I currently use or have used in the past. I’ve also included a couple I’ve tried that just aren’t my thing, but friends love them and reviews are great.
Free tools for writing
1. OpenOffice Writer
I’ve been using OpenOffice on and off for years. It’s the equivalent of MS Office (Microsoft 365) except it’s 100% free and compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux.
Note: Writer is the OpenOffice word processing program (like Word) though many people refer to Writer as OpenOffice, which is an entire suite of tools.
From the OpenOffice information and download site:
Writer has everything you would expect from a modern, fully equipped word processor. It is simple enough for a quick memo, yet powerful enough to create complete books with contents, diagrams, indexes, etc. You’re free to concentrate on your ideas while Writer makes them look great.
OpenOffice Writer does everything MS Word does for most users (I’m sure power users are aware of differences). You can even save documents as .doc and .docx files for MS Word plus XML and other options. It’s downloadable and completely free.
2. Google Docs
I use Google Docs regularly for editing clients who want easy access without passing a document back and forth on email. It’s also great for beta-reading exchanges and other sharing situations. And since it’s cloud-based, you don’t have to worry about downloading corrupted files.
I also use Google Docs to back up work like novel drafts.
It’s totally free, it works with Mac, Windows, Linux, and Chrome operating systems, and for average users, it’s just as good as Word.
One concern, though, is that you can’t access Google Docs if you lose your internet connection (during a storm, for example). But the program saves changes as they’re made, so there’s no worry about lost work.
Here’s an excellent comparison between MS Word and Docs.
To get started, you need a free Google account (if you use Gmail, you already have an account). Sign up here.
I think of yWriter as a scaled-down, simpler version of Scrivener (below). The functionality is a few steps above MS Word, of course, but it doesn’t offer the breadth of features that Scrivener does. And that’s fine for novelists who just need to stay organized.
One feature of yWriter that differs from Scrivener is that it’s set up to focus on scenes as well as chapters. It also saves previous versions automatically, so comparing is easy.
The program is a completely free download available for Windows only. And the cool thing is that it’s designed by an author who knows what writers need. Learn more here.
If you’re just embarking on your first novel, a program like yWriter may seem like overkill. I mean, all you have to do is type everything into a word processor! Sure, but wait until you hit 20,000 words, with missing scenes and chapters, notes all over your desk, characters and locations and plot points you’ve just added and which need to be referenced earlier … it becomes a real struggle. Now imagine that same novel at 40,000 or 80,000 words! No wonder most first-time writers give up.
Scrivener is not free, but it’s amazingly low-priced and offers a free trial for both novelists and non-fiction book writers. And if you’re a NaNoWriMo winner, you get 50% off (20% for participants).
I’ve used Scrivener since the early days, and it has far more than I need to put a novel together. And even if you’re a “pantser” and hate outlining, you can use the outlining features after your rough draft is complete to check your timeline, flow, pacing, character arcs, consistency, and much more.
It’s flexible, and you can use Scrivener in a way that works best for you. I don’t use the corkboard, for example. But who knows? Maybe I will some day.
Versions are available for both Mac and Windows, with minor differences for each.
The trial is exactly the same as the full version, except that it will only last for 30 days of use. (This means that if you use it every day, it will stop working after 30 days, but if you use it only every other day, it will last for 60 days.) This gives you plenty of time to get to know Scrivener and decide if it’s the writing app for you.
By the way, NaNoWriMo winners and participants get discounts on much more.
Free Writer Tools for Brainstorming
This free, online mind mapping tool can help you brainstorm any writing project, from a high school research paper to the next bestselling novel or non-fiction book. You can even use it to collaborate with other writers.
It’s a great way to generate and organize ideas, especially if you’re a visual thinker. Stuck in the middle of your story? Use Mindmeister to connect the dots and break through writer’s block as you examine relationships between characters or envision what happens next just by moving text bubbles around. Check it out.
Explore more free mind mapping options here: The Best Free and Open Source MIndmapping Software.
Tools for Editing
6. Hemingway Editor
The online version of the Hemingway Editor is 100% free and worth a try.
Here’s how it works. Click “Write” in the upper right corner. Delete the existing text and paste your own writing in the text box. Then click “Edit.”
On the right, you’ll see your text’s readability level and highlighted issues such as adverb overuse, complicated sentences, passive voice, and more. It even offers standard editing tools like italics, bold, and paragraph styles which are useful for bloggers.
I don’t recommend composing in the text box since there’s no login or storage, and a sudden glitch could make you lose your work. Play it safe, and copy and paste from your original instead.
There’s a low-priced paid version, too, which I haven’t tried although I’ve seen rave reviews. Is it worth it? That’s for you to decide. It’s limited compared to others like ProWritingAid, but it’s inexpensive.
If the issues Hemingway covers are exactly what you need (I think it will help almost anyone), then it might be a great choice for you.
I love ProWritingAid (PWA). That surprises me since I’ve always believed that no computerized wizardry can replace a human editor. And I still hold to that.
However, PWA comes close. The thing is, writers—especially beginning writers—must learn what PWA can teach. You can’t just say, “Lah-de-dah” and accept the changes PWA recommends. It’s more of a coach, not a human editor, and your writing won’t improve if you use it without thinking (it might even be worse).
From the ProWritingAid site:
The free ProWritingAid online editing tool allows you to upload your documents and access more than 20 in-depth writing reports, which will help you improve the strength and clarity of your texts quickly and easily.
You can use the online Web Editor for an unlimited time, or sign up for a free, limited trial of the premium software integration (the image above is the toolbar from my MS Word integration).
The price of a yearly subscription is reasonable, but it’s a little high by the month or a lifetime purchase (when we’re talking about free or low-cost). How you use it—the free Web Editor, a free software trial, or paid—depends on your needs and budget.
Image editing and graphics tools
GIMP stands for “GNU’s Not Linux” Image Manipulation Program. Don’t worry about the tech-speak; it just means it runs on Windows, macOS, Linux, and other operating systems, unlike most software that’s designed for one OS or another (Windows or Mac, for example).
If you’re somewhat experienced with image editing or comfortable with Photoshop or Pixelmator for Mac*, you can get up to speed with Gimp quickly. However, if you’re a beginner, Paint.net might be easier.
Experts say Photoshop has features that GIMP lacks, but the average user will never notice. I’ve been using it for over 10 years after using Photoshop, and although the interface is a little different, it’s great. I’ve created most of the graphics on this site with Gimp, and I even create book covers with it.
There’s not much you can’t do with GIMP, and the best part is that it’s free.
*PixelmatorPro for Mac is fabulous and easy for basics and advanced effects. There’s a free trial version or paid (totally reasonable). I used it for a few years and will again if I ever fix my old iMac.
I used Canva for a couple of years as a free subscriber, but I wasn’t impressed—at first.
Then I poked around a bit, and I realized I could save huge chunks of time creating perfectly sized social media posts, logos, infographics, business cards, and so much more. It’s perfect for creating simple graphics for book launches, contests, and general marketing.
With the free version, you get
- 8,000+ free templates
- 100+ design types (social media posts, presentations, letters, and more)
- Hundreds of thousands of free photos and graphics
You can even create a virtual background for Zoom with the recommended dimensions. It’s easy whether you use one of the Canva templates or your own photo.
You can also try the Pro Version free for 30 days.
Free Blogging Tools
10. The Hubspot Blog Ideas Generator
With the Hubspot Blog Ideas Generator, you can plug in a few keywords and get a year’s worth of blog topic ideas in headline format. You can view 250 at a time on the site or download them as a spreadsheet.
You might need to tweak them a bit, but it’s a sure-fire way to break out of writer’s block or just get some great ideas going. You can even set up a blog post schedule with the ideas you generate.
11. Yoast SEO for Everyone
I’ve been using the free version of Yoast SEO for years. It’s a plug-in for WordPress websites that guides you through all the basic steps of SEO for your blog posts.
Even if you don’t quite understand SEO (search engine optimization) you can trust Yoast with your focus keyphrases and keywords, internal and outbound linking, meta descriptions, Google previews, and much more.
Yoast even checks readability and scores blog posts for passive verbs, transitional phrases, repetitive words, paragraph length, and other elements.
It’s one of the top names in SEO, and while there’s a paid version, the freebie offers all the basics any blogger needs. Check out the features here,
Where you search for free photos and images depends on the type you need. Here are my favorites.
If you need artistic, sometimes quirky high-quality images, Unsplash is probably your best bet. You can find beautiful, original photos for almost any purpose, including blog posts and book covers.
In addition to free images, Pexels offers short videos as well. The quality is high, and although they don’t seem to have the quantity or variety that Unsplash offers, there’s plenty to choose from. In fact, the photo I chose for this blog post is from Pexels.
My trustworthy choice for quality free photos and images has been long been 123RF. They’re charging these days, but plenty of free options are still available. In addition to photos, you’ll find vectors, video clips, and music files, but you’ll have to browse around to find the freebies. Compared to iStock and other paid photo sources, the prices are low.
Two Free Tools that Don’t Have a Category
14. Google Voice
Right now (May 2020), plenty of people, including writers, are struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic. You might have to choose between food, rent or mortgage, electricity, your internet connection, and your phone bill among other expenses. I hope not, but that’s been a reality for many of us.
If that’s you, do you know you can set up a reliable phone number with Google Voice? I set up an account years ago for professional reasons; I didn’t want to give out my “real” phone number for potential clients online.
Turns out I had to use it exclusively for about a month last year when I moved from Florida back to Pennsylvania where my family lives, It’s a mountainous area (think ski country), and my T-Mobile connection was non-existent while I looked for an apartment. But I had an internet connection that gave me something like a landline phone. Better than nothing!
If you have a laptop, a desktop, or other device that can handle audio and voice, and you have an internet connection—BAM! You have a phone. It’s good for texting, voicemail, and it even translates voicemail to text (with occasionally hilarious results). Check it out.
If you’re like me, you don’t spend hours at a time on social media, but you check frequently. Either way, the time suckage adds up. And I’ve been so distracted lately between social and online news sites that I finally installed a site blocker.
StayFocused is as good as any other app I’ve used, like Nanny for Chrome. It depends on how detailed you want to get. I just want to block the danged things!
I’ve given myself 10 minutes total on my laptop (between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m.). I can always get up and check with my phone if I can’t resist, but I never spend much time on a small screen, anyway.
Ta-DAH! I’ve added at least an hour or two of time better spent each day.
And there you have it! What free writer tools or low-cost apps and software do you use? What should I have mentioned?
Photo by Liam Anderson from Pexels
Some links in this article are affiliate links. That means I get a small commission if you purchase via the link. The price doesn’t change; it’s the company’s way of saying “thanks” for mentioning their product.
Love your work, Leah. Improved my writing tremendously. Your guide on literary devices was magical.
Zan Azahiro recently posted…Pauseability & Control
Great! Thanks, and glad to hear it.
i know these tools through you, thank you so much
So I have found that I am in over my head with writing. I have a story to tell that I think will be absolutely fascinating and beneficial to many people. Yes it’s about my life but I do not wish to use real names and places. As a victim of trauma and not a professional writer who do I contact or how could I receive help to get a book written? I’m more than willing to do the writing I just don’t feel qualified and I really need to work with someone. Any suggestions on who I could contact? I see other victims coming out with books about their experiences and I often wonder how did they get us help who did they go to etc. thank you for any ideas you may have