First thing: It doesn’t matter
I’m going to preface this post by stating the obvious:
When it comes to writing, there is no correct way to do it.
Want to use a 6B pencil on Post-It notes? Go for it.
Keep notes in a Moleskine? Sure.
Write the whole thing in Microsoft Word? People have.
Hell, George R. R. Martin writes in dos. (Not recommended.)
So, find what works for you. Just know that Microsoft Word has been superseded by many great apps that are designed for novel writing, rather than office documents.
Second thing: It does matter
Hang on, aren’t you contradicting yourself there?
Yes. Here’s why: The world is complicated.
As I mentioned at the end of the last section, there is now a plethora of writing apps, from simple notetakers, to full-blown novel writing software that typesets your book, thanks your agent, and collects your royalty cheques.
Well, maybe not quite, but there is software out there that is designed to do some very clever things, that will help the process in very helpful ways.
I used Scrivener for a long time, as it’s great, but wanted to get more into plotting, so got Plottr, which is also good at what it does, and then used World Anvil for my world building. That seemed to be a decent solution until I found Campfire, which does at least 90% of those three under one roof.
Here’s a rundown of what I’m using/have used:
I’d looked at a few online-based writing apps and Campfire won out on features, and due to having a free version.
Campfire Write is the current version of campfire. You can access your projects via the web, or an iPhone app (no iPad app currently and no timeline for one,) and there’s a desktop Mac app that you can use offline, which will sync whenever you are online.
The main idea in Campfire is modules. There are modules for your manuscript, characters, items, plot, species, locations, languages, systems, relationships, religions… and a ton more.
Most of these modules are populated with windowed sections for different types of information, and you can add new ones with even more. Some of these have tickboxes to add any number of things, and you can always add a simple text box to write anything else you can’t already find.
For example, in the character module there are additions for MBTI types, astrological signs, physical attributes and anything else you can think of. If you love getting into the minutiae of your characters, you’ll find plenty to keep you occupied here. Just remember to actually write the book.
The plot module allows you to add multiple timelines with cards and link them however you wish. The relationships module allows you to pick from characters in your characters module and mind map the connections between them. The systems module allows you to do the same but with anything, allowing you to explore hierarchical or non-linear arrangements from governments to… whatever.
The languages module allows you to construct an entire conlang with prompts and assistance. There’s a module for items, such as relics, rare names weapons or whatever else your heart desires. There’s an encyclopaedia you can use to build your world.
Campfire tracks all your entries and if you type one in the manuscript, Campfire highlights it. Hover over the word and a pop-up gives you some basic info. Click it, and you get all the info in a sidebar.
You can add notes, annotations and call up any info you need while writing. Forgotten that character’s eye colour? A quick click has the info in sight. Priceless.
Campfire isn’t perfect, but it is very fully featured, (I’ve barely scratched the surface,) and there is a free version with limits on most of the modules—ten characters, two religions, a limit on words in the manuscript etc.
When you decide to upgrade though, Campfire shines again, with the ability to subscribe monthly, annually, or just buy modules outright. So you could buy the manuscript and characters modules but ignore the rest of your story doesn’t need much world building or is set on Earth, or whatever combinations of modules you need. There are sales of 2-3 modules fairly often too, so sign up for emails from them if you plan to upgrade.
For myself, I got a few modules in a sale that I bought outright, and then just took the plunge a few months later and bought everything. I think all told, it cost me about £350 or so. Not chump change, but now I’m set for life with a system I like, and I will get all updates going forward.
There are inbuilt themes to change the look of things, and I believe you can download community ones.
There’s also an active community, loads of tutorial videos and blog posts, and you can share your writing online in the Campfire community to get some beta readers and feedback—or you can forgive this entirely and keep your work private, which might be crucial for some.
Chances are, if you’ve done any writing, you’ve probably heard of Scrivener. I’ve been using it to write short stories and other novel attempts since v1. I’m a big fan. We’re now on v3 & it just keeps getting better.
Why Scrivener? Well, it offers outline and scene card views; distraction-free writing mode; sections for character and world building, as well as research; and tons more. I’m not going to list more features, head over to Literature and Latte to see more and find out if it’s for you.
Part of its charm is allowing the writer to set up their own folder structures, for easy organisation, but you can also use templates.
I’ve tried other software, but Scrivener tops them all for the actual writing side of things for me.
As an Apple user, I loved that Scrivener was Mac-first, and when they released an iOS version, I was complete.
Mostly used for world building, World Anvil has been around for a while. There’s a very active community with challenges and write-alongs. They have a very active Discord server too.
Initially daunting, due to the vast number of options available, World Anvil excels by giving you prompts and telling you to just fill in what you want. You can publish your world or story on the site, and people can follow it and your progress—or keep it private.
There are plenty of themes to change up the look, and community ones too if I recall correctly. You can also create your own if you know/fell like learning CSS.
If Campfire didn’t exist, I’d still be using WA for my world building.
This was a new addition to my toolset, but a welcome one. Plottr is for plotting your book, unsurprisingly. Yes, you can do similar things in Scrivener with the corkboard and outliner, but I really wanted to separate plotting and writing. Plottr has sections for a card-based timeline with multiple plot lines, which is the main feature I wanted. It also has sections for places and characters, as well as notes. What sealed the deal is that it can export into Scrivener.
Plottr is also available on Mac & iOS, making adding new info as simple as reaching for my phone.
I love writing in Markdown. If you’re writing for the web, it’s a great way to work. Markdown editors are generally quite clean interface-wise, and Markdown syntax is easy to learn. Want an H1 heading? Type a # before your title. Oh wait, that should be H₂? Just add another #.
Lists can be created by adding a * or + for unordered lists, and by beginning and ordered list with “1.” And each time you hit enter, it’ll automate the numbering. Simple.
I’ve tried several Markdown editors, but Ulysses is my favourite. For a while it was Bear, which is one of the prettiest apps I’ve seen, but Ulysses is more feature rich and allows for organisation of ‘sheets’ via folders. And I love me some folder organisation.
My life may be chaos in many ways, but my folder structures are impeccable.
Ulysses also includes word counts, reading time, keywords and automatically creates an outline view, like you can see in the featured image.
I use Ulysses to write notes, scenes and ideas, which if they work, will go into Plottr, and from there, Scrivener.
Ulysses is on all my devices, and syncs via dropbox or iCloud, so adding a quick edit or new note is always easy.
I managed to get a theme which looked like my favourite one from Bear, and Ulysses has a more extensive feature set, including buttons for common Markdown syntax, and being able to publish to WordPress – like I did with this post.
It’s worth noting though that Ulysses is subscription-based.
Some of the other software I’ve tried:
Livingwriter’s killer feature is that when you’ve set up characters or places etc, whenever you begin to type them, it autosuggests them and then links all notes. So, if you start to type a character’s name, it will suggest characters and elements with that starting letter. Select the one you want, and it’ll fill it in and link you to the notes about it. It can also use these links to track which characters are in what scenes, etc.
That’s a great feature, but the rest of the app fell a little flat to me, and Campfire also has this feature.
An iOS app similar to Plottr. Again, available on Mac and iOS, this would be what I would be using if I. Hadn’t found Plottr, which trumped this app with its card timeline view.
The prettiest markdown editor. You can change the look of it via themes. My favourite is ‘Toothpaste’.
Bear also introduced me to Avenir Next, which I will always thank it for. I didn’t think of myself as the sort of person to have a favourite font, but now I have Avenir Next as my default font in Ulysses. (Sorry, Bear!)
Bear has some fantastic features and if Ulysses didn’t exist, this would definitely be my markdown editor of choice.
A fairly barebones markdown editor that introduced me to Markdown, which I’ll always thank it for.
Whatever you use, get writing!