Dedicated Writing Apps
What constitutes the best app for any given writer depends on the writer's process, the genre they write in, what style of app helps them be productive, and what they need to do with the finished work. The best app for a documentary filmmaker who is writing and shooting her own material, for example, isn't also going to be the best app for a novelist who is still looking for an agent.
Some writers like to work without distraction, turning off their Wi-Fi, closing all unnecessary apps, and moving into a full window view of only their writing program with few formatting bells and whistles to divert their attention. Other writers need to move quickly between their work in progress and reference material, like notes about characters in development or plot points. Still others need special formatting, whether it's for posting directly to a blog or sending out a screenplay to a specific studio.
With a wide variety of interface design and functionality, apps for writers cater to all these different needs and many others.
Priced for the Starving Artist (Mostly)
Apps for writers tend to be less expensive than other kinds of software. With few exceptions, they're sold on a one-time fee basis, rather than as a subscription. The least expensive writing apps cost only around $10. The best and most capable apps cost more, running about $45 to $60.
When an idea strikes, many writers want to be able to jot it down or add it into their ongoing work immediately. To do that, they likely need a companion mobile app to go along with their desktop software. As you may have noticed from the chart above, support for mobile apps isn't particularly strong in the writing category. A good number of companies that make apps for writers do sell companion iOS apps, but the mobile apps are often more expensive than consumers are used to paying. To get over that price hurdle, I recommend thinking of the mobile app and desktop app as a bundle, which suddenly makes the price seem much more reasonable. A $20 mobile app sounds fantastically expensive. A $65 combo deal for a mobile app and desktop software doesn't sound too bad, though.
What's the Best Screenwriting Software?
Two apps on this list have a price that stands out, and they're both software for screenwriting. The first is Final Draft, which sells for $249.99. Final Draft is professional screenwriting software, and it's considered the industry standard. With each purchase of Final Draft, you can use the app on two computers, and it's compatible with both Windows and macOS. Final Draft has many specialized tools for screenwriters, most notably its specialized screenplay formatting. It even has specific templates for individual movie studios.
The other outlier is Adobe Story, another leader in screenplay writing software, whose $9.99 price tag is a recurring subscription fee. Story is also included with a full Creative Cloud membership. Story is unusual because it's not just writing software. It is designed to give writers, producers, and directors room to make notes about the actual production of a script. You can add detailed shot notes, information about shooting locations, and even generate a production schedule based on all the metadata associated with each scene. Adobe Story is also compatible with Adobe Premiere, so after the footage has been shot, you can pipe in the script to run alongside the video, helping the editors get to the final product.
Alternatives to Microsoft Word
Why would a writer use a dedicated writing app instead of Microsoft Word (or Google Docs, Apple Pages, or any other typical word processor)? There's no reason you can't use any of those apps, but they don't have many of the special features you get from apps that are specific to writers.
Fiction writers, book authors, and screenplay writers often change the order or scenes, sections, and chapters. That's easy to do when an app is designed with the right drag-and-drop tools to help you keep it all organized. It also helps if, when you move parts around, the footnotes and endnotes accordingly renumber. Apps that are designed specifically for professional writing projects already have solutions to these sorts of issues included.
Another feature that office apps typically don't have is a writing target. It's common for professional writers to have a word or page count goal for the day, and to strive to consistently meet it. So while Word, Google Docs, and Pages all have word count features, they don't have the same options for setting goals and tracking over time that you can often find in writers' apps.
Some writers need to keep exhaustive notes regarding plot points and characters, and possibly even visual references, such as an image of a shoot location or faces that inspire characters. The best writers' apps include tools that make it easy to see reference material and notes whenever the writer needs, and then get back to writing quickly.
Finally, the word processors in suites are generally heavy duty apps that can do everything from formatting and footnoting to headers, footers, and special pagination. That's handy for many kinds of business and academic writing, but for the average creative writer, all this may well be not only overkill, but also distracting enough to be a detraction.
What's the Best Distraction-Free Writing App?
Writers who find themselves in the less-is-more camp will want a writing app that strips away anything that could possibly be the least little bit distracting. Distraction-free writing apps are a dime a dozen. The trick is to find one that also offers the tools you need when you need them. In other words, the best distraction-free writing app will hide the tools you need until the appropriate time, rather than omitting them altogether.
With that criterion in mind, Ulysses is my favorite distraction-free writing app, and a PCMag Editors' Choice. A well-designed user interface makes Ulysses easy to use and easy on the eyes. It has good tutorials and help menus for newcomers, including a cheat sheet for Markdown language. Markdown is a very lightweight set of codes that can be used instead of the rich formatting options that are common in word processors. If you've ever typed asterisks (*) around a word in a chat app to make it bold, that's similar to Markdown. It's very simple, and takes no time at all to learn, especially when you have a cheat sheet to guide you
The idea behind Markdown is that you can apply basic formatting, like marking titles and subtitles, bold and italic text, without moving your fingers from the keyboard. It's also less distracting than having a panel with 50 alluring typefaces that you're dying to try. Ulysses is only available for Mac and iOS. Windows users might also try yWriter, which PCMag hasn't reviewed yet.
What are the Best Writing Apps for Novelists?
Book authors spend a lot of their time simply organizing their manuscript. Whether it's fiction or nonfiction, the work doesn't always shape up as the author originally intended. Chapters sometimes move. Stories aren't always told in a linear fashion. And scenes sometimes become more effective when their order changes.
To facilitate the shaping of a story in this way, you need a library, or a pane within the writing app showing file folders and their organization. Not all writing apps have one, but Ulysses and Scrivener both do. Scrivener is also a PCMag's Editors' Choice. There are two big differences between Scrivener and Ulysses. One is that Ulysses emphasizes its distraction-free capabilities a lot more than Scrivener does. The other is that Ulysses' interface looks contemporary while Scrivener's seems dated to the early 2000s.
Writing for Medium, WordPress Blogs, and More
Book authors and screenwriters aren't the only type of writers, of course. Many writers create shorter pieces that they publish online directly, without ever passing through the hands of an agent, publisher, or movie producer. If you're publishing on Medium or a WordPress blog, it sure is handy to have a writing app that can export each piece directly to your platform of choice.
Ulysses and iA Writer both have integration options for those two platforms. Like Ulysses, iA Writer is a distraction-free writing app, but it's much more pared down than even Ulysses. It has some neat functions, such as text transclusion, that can be fun to learn for people who think more like programmers than traditional writers. Text transclusion allows you to create a final document of many smaller pieces by, essentially, giving commands about which files to pull together and in what order. "First display the introduction. Next add an image. Then include my argument. Finally, show my author bio." The text of your document could be all of four sentences long, but it might whip together a piece that, when exported, is 25 pages.
Your Writing, Your Choice
Every writer is going to have some unique needs and desires. Do you need an app that works on both Windows and macOS? Is learning a new way to format text a deal-breaker? Does your final submission need to meet industry standards, the way screenplays and teleplays do? The range of software dedicated to writers is impressive. If nothing tickles you fancy from the full reviews that are linked below, you should also read our short synopses of many other apps for writers, as well. Finally, if you decide that a dedicated writing tool just isn't for you, and you'd rather just use a plain old word processor, we've rounded up the top office suites, too.
%displayPrice% at %seller% Final Draft is the software you need if you are in the screenwriting business or aspire to be. It has all the tools you need to get the script right, both from a story perspective and a technical one. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Built with writers in mind, Scrivener has everything you need to research, compose, organize, edit, and finish a piece of writing. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Ulysses is the best, and most beautiful, distraction-free writing app for Mac. It's ideal for writers who prefer a minimal interface and total flexibility in their apps, rather than those who do better with structure and hand-holding. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Screenwriters who not only write but also direct and produce their own work won't find a better outlet for their creativity than Adobe Story. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Storyist packs the power of a full word processor into an app for writers. If you don't get distracted by having too many features, it's an excellent Mac app. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Taking minimalism to the extreme, iA Writer might be the writing app with the fewest built-in distractions, and it's inexpensive, too. But this Mac app is also BYOE: bring your own everything. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% WriteRoom is an inexpensive Mac writing app with a less-is-more approach that helps you focus on your words. It's too bare-bones for book projects or screenplays, but, for shorter works, it can get the job done. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The free writing app yWriter has a stats-heavy, technical feel to it, which is great for writers who crave organization and data about their work. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Minimal writing software Focused is too expensive for what it does. While it's moderately capable, there are plenty of other apps for the Mac that do more for less. Read the full review