The bane of indies, is it not? A lot of us don’t have a ready stream of cash we can dish out for apps and ads, especially early in our careers. We struggle to do everything–write, edit, design, market.
Fortunately, it’s easier now than ever to create and publish our own books. If we don’t have the funds for a Fiver designer, that’s fine! We can do it all on our own.
Is it easy to do everything? Nope. It’s an investment in time and effort, often for little immediate return. Learning new things can be rewarding, though! And skills developed through the process can help with future writing goals.
Lucky us, there are several apps we can use that will help us create, despite limited budgets. This post focuses on writing and editing software; in separate posts, I’ll cover design software for things like book covers and ads, and formating/publishing software.
When I started writing, I hand-wrote my docs or used my mother’s very old typewriter, because I was eleven and computers were expensive AF. Things have progressed to the point that some apps are free, cloud-based, and accessed from your phone. Quite the change, in a couple of decades. I’m listing a few apps below for writers on a budget.
One caveat: I don’t own a Mac. I’m not a fan of the price tag attached to Apple devices; I use Windows (primarily because I game; otherwise, I’d probably be a Linux user) and Android. So my personal experience with software specifically designed for a Mac is nil (and Vellum is waaay out of reach for a writer on a budget anyway). Therefore, you’ll need to go elsewhere for info on Apple Pages or Vellum.
Another caveat: I’m a dark fantasy writer, and so this post is directed towards fiction writers. Of course, the software listed works for both fic and non-fic. 😊
Google Docs is a free writing app that a lot of authors use. Since MS Word became a pay-to-use app instead of something that just came with Windows, people have been searching for another free writing software. Google Docs came around at the right time to take advantage.
Yes, you can write an entire novel in Google Docs. It has a straightforward interface that is familiar to anyone who has used Word. You can jump in and begin to write, or take the time to plan and create a table of contents for chapters. Automatic saves to the cloud make certain you don’t have to worry about losing a day’s worth of work if the internet connection goes down and you forgot to save. It provides an easy way to share your document with others.
You can export as a PDF or epub, which are the standard formats for ebooks. Kindle Direct Publishing no longer uses Mobipocket for fiction ebooks, but epubs, so that ability is important.
You can use Google Docs on Windows, Android, and Apple products, though you need 3rd party add-ons to access it with Linux.
Libre Office forked from Open Office ten years ago, and it’s been full-steam ahead ever since. It’s a full-fledged office suite and is available in 119 languages and on every platform. Everything you can do in MS Word you can do in Libre Office–and it has the ability to export to PDF and epub. It doesn’t have native cloud access, so you need a cloud-based service like Microsoft OneDrive or Dropbox, and save the docs there.
If you’re familiar with MS Word, it shouldn’t take long to get up to speed with Libre Office.
Scrivener is a must-have for some authors. It lets you keep notes, research and writing all in one handy place. It’s specifically designed for novel writing, too. It’s a one-time price of $49, so may not be an option for writers on a very limited budget, but it’s far cheaper than a Microsoft Office yearly sub.
I many respects, I consider Scrivener an Apple app; Scrivener 3 has been around for years for MacOS and iOS, but only available for Windows starting this September (2021)–and which still lacks features found in the Mac version. There is no Android version, so if an Android tablet or phone is the primary way you work on your writing, you need to find another app.
How does Scrivener work? Ha! That’s the problem with the program. It has a high learning curve. You will need to watch YouTube videos or read articles about features and how to navigate within the program to produce the best manuscript possible. Once you have it down, though, Scrivener is an indispensable writing tool by authors, for authors.
There are other ways to write your book. Reedsy has a free writing tool that you access from a browser. It lets you write, typeset your work, and export it as an epub. You need to create an account with them, but if you need a free way to write (or a free way to upload your doc and produce an epub), you can check them out. Reedsy boasts that it provides distraction-free writing, which is the selling point of another app, FocusWriter. If you spend a bit too much time looking at Twitter, FocusWriter provides an environment that lets you get down to writing by hiding other apps. It comes in Linux and Windows versions–sorry Macs 😢
There are other browser-based writing apps, where all your content is stored on their site (Novlr), but I’m not a fan of these. Monthly fees put them out of range of small budgets, and if you want a hard drive backup, you need to find another option.
What do I use?
Glad you asked! I have thousands of pages written in MS Word, the product of years and years of work, and stored in Dropbox. It’s simpler to use Word as my primary writing tool because I have so many documents in the format, though I despise it with a passion. I really, really should find another writing app, and while I’ve tried out several alternatives, I haven’t decided on one yet. I may never switch; I use Jutoh to format my manuscripts, and it easily imports .docx files (discussing publishing software is or another post!).
I also use World Anvil’s Manuscripts. It’s a Master+ Guild Feature, and at $58 a year sub, it’s pricy for those on a budget. (Disclosure: I’m a Sage, which is their professional tier. I LOVE WORLD ANVIL and wallow in the fact I can have a world site and host extraneous content like short stories in the same place).
Manuscripts is another no-distraction writing experience. It has limited formatting; this is by design. Frankly, if you are looking to create an ebook, limited is better. The fancy stuff you see in print editions doesn’t work well for ebooks in their current incarnation (and screaming at the industry is not going to change this. I know. I’ve tried. I STILL can’t believe e-readers can’t handle .png transparency in an epub. Really? What year are we in?). If you want more extensive formatting, you can use the Export to HTML button, then copy and paste it into your program of choice, including Word, LibreOffice, Pages, Google Docs, etc., and continue from there.
Manuscripts is a two-for; you can use it to write, but also publish your manuscript on World Anvil. I run my Lapis of Nicodem serial there. World Anvil has 1.5 million users (and growing!), so there isn’t a lack of people taking a peek at my work. I’ve gotten more exposure there than through paid ads on Amazon for my Wellspring Dragons series. If I wanted to, I could even use it to monetize my serial (I don’t, but if I wanted to grant exclusive access to content from Patreon or KoFi, I could).
Next Stop: Editing
This, more than anything, is the bane of indie writing. I say this because it is the primary way for trolls to tear down an author and pretend they’re doing it for the writer’s, and readers’, own good. Too many authors use it as a hammer to bludgeon other authors, nit-picking things they think are wrong (not necessarily true) and making asses of themselves, apparently in the hopes of driving a potential rival from the scene.
Yeah, I’m not a big fan of people who think spellcheck/grammar editing is the end-all be-all of writing. It isn’t. Good editing means nothing if the story is crap, and bragging of correct spelling will never make a boring tale exciting. Editing comes from a set of rules literary people developed to make writing easier to read–and those standards don’t necessarily agree with each other (We have MLA and APA and the Chicago Style and on and on). They don’t necessarily agree with how people actually speak and communicate, either. It leads to things like the fight about where to place commas. There isn’t a universal one-way to use them. There never will be. I run ProWritingAid and Grammarly, and they don’t agree about where commas go, which means the people who wrote them don’t agree where commas go. As long as a reader understands the sentence, why insist on your way or the highway?
Yes, I have seen writers leave writing because of harassment over editing–especially writers on a small budget who can’t afford a human editor. What a great way to keep the industry clean of all the unwanted voices, eh? Prey on people who already have confidence issues due to lack of resources, and drive home that they aren’t wanted in the vaunted halls of publishing. If you notice, the trolls never offer advice on how to solve the problems they believe destroy a story, they just bitch and moan and shred. Worthless, the lot of them (yep, looking at you Goodreads, a service that helped made it acceptable to openly denigrate authors for laughs).
That being said, editing is important. It’s how you get your manuscript ready for readers. If your work has every other word misspelled, readers will reconsider your investment and interest in what you produce, and not pick up another thing you write. What do you do, if you don’t have the funds for a human editor? Check the list below!
Oh! and the list relates to spelling, grammar and the like. Software is not going to highlight your plot holes for you. If you need developmental editing or fact-checking, you’re going to need to find a human for that.
I had not heard of beta readers until I became an indie; beta copies, sure, but not readers. They are readers you ask to preview your manuscript, usually for a free copy in return. While there are services that can hook authors up with beta readers, be aware that they are also used by scam artists to steal your work (a member of the Facebook groups I’m in had a trilogy recently stolen through the beta readers service she used; the scammers put her work up on Amazon, without even bothering to change her name). Many authors use their social media accounts to ask for beta readers from known fans.
Betas can do things like point out plot holes, highlight parts that are confusing, and the like. For a free copy of the book, not a bad deal, if you can get them to write up what they thought and send it to you (people may agree to be beta readers for you, but a return of info is not guaranteed).
The free version of Grammarly provides a grammar, spelling and punctuation check. You can integrate it with Word, Google Docs, Chrome, and many other programs. I found that I need to run it in Word, then copy and paste the doc into its web-based version, because the integrated version in Word and the version living in the cloud catch different spelling errors (why???).
If you want more, like sentence re-write help, the paid version is a yearly subscription starting at $12 a month (but, if you’re like many writers, you only pay for a one-month sub to edit your work, then don’t renew. In that case, you’re paying much more).
ProWritingAid has the reputation of being the writer’s editing program. The free version is web-based and, in addition to grammar and spellcheck, offers rewrite suggestions and a few reports about issues like passive voice and adverb use. They have far more reports for the paid version, which goes on sale every so often (like November, when celebrating NaNoWriMo).
If you want integration with programs like Word, you need the premium version.
I run the free version of Grammarly and the paid version of ProWritingAid in Word. Having two ways instead of one looking for spelling errors is nice. For writers on a budget, it’s annoying to copy and past small snippets into Grammarly and ProWritingAid’s free web app, but it will help catch pesky errors you might not have noticed otherwise.
The Hemmingway app is $19.99, a steal when it comes to editing software. It’s not a spellcheck program, but highlights things like long sentences, passive voice, and adverbs. It’s another distraction-free writing app, if you wish to use it in that way, and will export text to Word, a PDF, or a WordPress blog. Considering the price of premium Grammarly, ProWritingAid and AutoCrit, if you need more than a spell check, it’s not a bad program to get.
I use Autocrit to double up on what ProWritingAid reports have. Again, the programs can catch different errors because they look at manuscripts slightly differently.
Autocrit’s free version is pretty nice. It runs reports for things like passive voice, adverbs, repetition. There is no integrated version; all use is in the browser-based app. There are limits to the amount of text it can adequately scan at one time (same goes for Grammarly and ProWritingAid), so you’ll be uploading chapters instead of an entire work. That being said, there is no lifetime word limit, which is nice.
You can type your book directly into Autocrit if you like. I prefer a dedicated writing software, myself.
Read Out Loud
OK, so this isn’t software, but you’ll be amazed at how many mistakes you catch when you read your work out loud. Divide your manuscript into small chunks (10 to 15 minutes) and then take a break. You don’t want to go on autopilot while you’re speaking, after all. If you do, you might say what should be written, and not what actually is.
There are free versions of most of the popular spellcheck/grammar apps. Use them all, combined with beta readers. It can get a bit tedious, but if you are working within the constraints of a very small budget, this is a good way to edit your work without the input of an editor you can’t afford.
And realize, editors are using the same programs, and running your work through all of them. Software may not compete with humans when it comes to noting consistency in a character’s eye color, but it finds spelling and grammar errors, uses of passive voice and the like, far faster than any person can.
All editing is time-consuming and frustrating. We’re lucky we have free versions of software that can make it simpler for us indies.
And Another Thing…
Many apps have discounts for authors who participate in events like NaNoWriMo. Those discounts might make them affordable enough for budget-tight writers to purchase. NaNoWriMo offers can really help a writer. I was able to get Sage-level at World Anvil due to NaNoWriMo participation. ProWritingAid is half-off its lifetime sub, Kahana is free. There are a ton more discounts for various apps and services.
There are also Black Friday sales and such. If you look around, and sometimes wait, software that is initially out-of-reach might fit into your budget.
It isn’t easy being an indie author on a tight or non-existent budget (that was me, for years and years). It isn’t easy navigating the critics who are looking for an excuse to tear you apart. But we indies have important things to say, too.
My next Writing on a Budget post will focus on graphics apps for cover designs and ads, and if that doesn’t run too long, I’ll include book design apps as well.