Which Apps For Writing A Book?

Adam Cairns
4 min readJun 30, 2019

‘Which apps for writing a novel?’ was one of the first search queries I ran when starting my novel By Virtue Fall. Trouble is, all the time you spend testing out the different options is time you’re not spending writing your book. So I’m sharing my setup in the hope it might save you some time.

The Criteria

1. Storyboard of Corkboard

Writing a novel isn’t like writing other documents. You don’t always start at the beginning and novels have scenes which may move around later. A good novel-writing app has to display your scenes and make it easy to move them around.

2. Good Sync To a Timeline App

I am writing a novel with a complex timeline. Keeping all the dates straight means I use a time-line app (Aeon). If I change timings in Aeon, it would be useful to sync across to my writing app — and vice versa.

3 Ability to Store Notes and Other Research

I don’t want to keep jumping out of my writing app every time I need to fact check or refer to my notes.

4 Distraction Free Mode

When I’m writing I like to be distraction free with only the cursor and a blank page.

5 Ability to Compile Into Different Formats

I might want to compile my finished book to a variety of different formats including for example a word document, PDF or eReader.

6 Character and Scene Template

Keeping track of characters and their little foibles and recording key location details helps ensure you don’t make gaffes/create inconsistencies.

7 Name Generator

The ability to create name options for a new character is another handy capability. I don’t want to leave the app when writing as that opens the door to distraction.

8 Ability to Sync Across Devices

I mostly work on my MacBook but will also use an iPad when travelling. I want to be sure I’m, working on the latest version of my manuscript.

9 Backup Built In

I don’t want to lose my hard work. Ever. The option to back up automatically is essential.

10 Native App

There are a ton of good online apps out there. I just don’t enjoy working on them, so my app of choice has to offer a native application.

11 Spell Checker and Other Grammatical Aids

Again, I want to limit my time outside of the app. The more speller and grammar aids built in, the better.

The Options

When I apply these criteria I’m left with three options — not all apps meet all the criteria.

Ulysses stands apart as the best distraction free writing experience IMHO. I like the fact I can tweak the way it looks using themes. I use Cursor Console which is a good colour scheme for writing because it minimises glare.

Ulysses allows you to create folders and sub-folders in the side panel. You can move those around too, so it’s easy to re-order them.

Bear and Ulysses are similar in the way they work — but Ulysses has the more complete writing solution.

Scrivener and Write It Now offer very similar capabilities. They are ‘full-service’ apps, meaning that you can use them to store research, make notes, record character and location details and much else beside.

Of the two I think Scrivener has the edge. It syncs with Aeon so I can maintain my timeline easily. Scrivener also has an integration with Pro Writing Aid which I use to check my grammar and readability.

My Setup

My setup has undergone several iterations. It now works exactly the way I like to work. Your needs may differ, but here’s what I do.

I use Ulysses for the writing part. I just love the simplicity of the app and the way it looks and works. I realise that Scrivener has a distraction free mode and that I can tweak it — I just enjoy writing in Ulysses.

There is a second reason which is that by using Scrivener then pasting text into Scrivener I have another line of defence in cases something goes wrong. I always have two versions — one in Ulysses and the second in Scrivener. All I have to remember is to always work in Ulysses then paste my new text into Scrivener.

This means I use Scrivener as an editing suite — moving scenes around and cross-checking with reference material. Ulysses is where I write.

It’s strange how being attached to an app can create additional work. But there it is — that’s what I do and it work for me.

My Workflow

As I mentioned, I use Pro Writing Aid, so that’s an intermediate step between Ulysses and Scrivener. Here’s my workflow in full:

Write in Ulysses -> copy to Pro Writing Aid and adjust ->paste back to Ulysses -> paste into Scrivener.

I have my timeline setup in Aeon. When I have moved the text of a scene into Scrivener, I adjust the metadata and then that will sync back to Aeon. I can look there to make sure my dates aren’t off.

Filing Research

I collect key pieces of research that I will refer to frequently in Scrivener. For the rest — of which there’s a ton — I maintain inside DevonThink. I use the Professional version which is a fantastic tool that helps me keep everything straight.

Which Apps For Writing A Novel?

Now it’s your turn. What’s your novel writing setup and why?

Originally published at https://adamcairns.co.uk on June 30, 2019.



Adam Cairns

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