I can't afford much right now, so I am looking for free writing tools that can help me. I already have Microsoft Word, but am looking for something to outline with. I am also interested in anything else to help me or motivate me. I have ADHD and sometimes it's hard to stay on track.

  • 2
    I understand you are asking for free options so I'll offer this just as a comment... I have ADHD too. Scrivener is fantastic for me as it makes it easy to outline the story, work on parts that grab my imagination in the moment and reorganize the parts later on. There's a pretty generous free trial period, you can always export everything to Word if you decide not to purchase it, and it's not terribly expensive as software goes.
    – Eric J.
    Aug 31, 2016 at 16:11
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    Doesn't Word have an outline view? (For plain-text, I use TextWrangler, which is free.) Sep 6, 2016 at 0:32
  • Rethink if you absolutely need free or if reasonably cheap will also do. There are a good number of tools that are not expensive and really a lot better than any of the free options. If you can get a student discount, you can have a great writing tool for the price of one meal.
    – Tom
    May 14, 2017 at 7:46

6 Answers 6


I use paper and pencil for outlining. To be more precise, I use loose sheets of paper and scissors, to cut and rearrange story elements. I later number the paper snippets with a thick black felt pen (so I won't loose their ordering if they get mixed up).

Paper and pencil has several unbeatable advantages to me:

  1. You can order your thoughts any way you like. Most software forces you to order your story elements in a linear fashion, and from top to bottom. That is not how my stories are represented in my mind. I need my story elements to be arranged side by side, from left to right, like a timeline. And I need the option to lay other elements above or below that linear development. There are mindmapping tools that allow this kind of ordering, but:

  2. No matter how many computer screens you have and how large they are, with a long plot and many story elements they will never all be visible and readable at the same time. Either you see the whole mindmap, but then the text is so tiny that you can no longer read it; or you zoom in to read some text, but then the relation to the other parts becomes invisible. In other software the elements of your story will be in different windows, stacked one behind the other.

    On my floor, all my paper snippets are visible at the same time, and bending forward to read something everything else still easily lies within my 160° field of view and the relation between parts is never hidden.

  3. While computer software allows for easy cut-and-paste, it is still extremely cumbersome and slow in relation to just moving paper snippets around.

  4. When I work with pencil and paper, I am offline. Do not underestimate the powerful distraction that a computer connected to the internet poses. Google for this. Most professional writers set up their work space so that they have no internet access. With pencil and paper, you are offline without the need for self-control. There just is no internet. And even if the computer is running next to you, you are not at it and there is some effective obstacle between what you do and where you are and surfing the net.

  5. Finally, I just feel more myself when I work without a computer. There are studies that have shown that writing by hand increases creativity. It has other beneficial effects. Again, google it. For me, my well-being is a good enough indicator: I just feel more happy and relaxed when I do not type into a computer.

But of course I do use a computer and writing software for much of what comes after outlining.

"Writing software" doesn't need any special functionality. Novels have been written by hand and on typewriters for centuries. The less options you have, the more focussed you will be on your writing (especially if you have ADHD and might be tempted to fiddle with layout and such). George R. R. Martin is writing on a DOS plain text editor. It does not show in his novels. Many others use plain text editors (such as Notepad). Personally, while I do use Scrivener to compose my writing, I often use TextWrangler to work on sections that I then copy-paste to Scrivener (and italicize, where appropriate). I wouldn't use Word, as it has too many irrelevant and confusing options for me, but if that's what you have, then use it where I use Scrivener and switch to something better whenever you can afford it.

My workflow looks like this:

  • plot the story using pen and paper (and scissors)
  • walk to the library in the morning and write down ideas in a paper notebook
  • transfer those ideas to a plain text editor and polish and expand them in the process
  • copy-paste to Scrivener and integrate, expand and polish further

That is, my actual writing is done in three "apps": notebook, plain text editor, and writing software. I don't always use them all, and not always in the above order. Sometimes I take notes in a plain text editor on my laptop while on the bus; sometimes I copy ideas from my notebook directly to Scrivener; sometimes I directly write from my head into Scrivener; sometimes I go back to writing into my notebook (or plotting on my paper slips) from typing at the computer.

To explain my workflow:

I use a plain text editor because it is just text and allows me to completely focus on my writing. I use Scrivener, because in the end I want to see the text as it might look like in print, with a nice font and italicized words.

I don't know what you will need for your writing, so just download and try out different apps and see which feel most comfortable and inspiring to you. Most apps have free trial versions, and even paid writing software often is not very expensive. Scrivener costs 40 dollars and has an educational license for 35. TextWrangler (Mac only) is free, for Windows there is Notepad++ (also free).

If you really want free and a great look, then learn some basic HTML, write in Notepad++ and look at the finished text in your web browser. HTML is easy to print or convert to PDF, RTF or any other format, and Word can open HTML and save it to Word format, if you need that. All you need to do is enclose paragraphs in <p>...</p> and italics in <i>...</i> – apart from the header section, which will stay the same in all documents and can be copied from examples on the web, that is all the HTML you need to create good looking documents.


Best is a very relative term because it depends on you. But, some suggestions:

If you want your basic Microsoft Word, go with it. It has an outlining mode which works out pretty well. Plus you can use a ordered or unordered list for most outlines which it handles fairly smoothly. It is also the tool you appear to know, so that's a bonus.

You can also look up Freemind or Freeplane. These are mind mapping tools which are pretty good for outline most novels or concepts. It has a lot of outputs and is relatively easy to use and expand as you go.

You can also consider Evernote or OneNote as possibilities. They are good for gathering information and also building up an outline complete with images. Both are free at lower levels but have premium versions if it works out for you.

I don't use Microsoft Word, but I do most of my outlining in a text editor with Markdown. It works for me, but it very "low tech" as it were.


It depends... Personally, I like to use latex for my word processor. You can use it for free locally or online. With latex you can just type and worry about the formatting later. If you get familiar with the syntax, formatting wouldn't be an issue.


For outlining, WorkFlowy is good for topical focus, tagging, and simplicity.

For writing, Google Docs has an automatic outlining feature based on headings and I also enjoy the built-in speech-to-text capability for when I'm tired of typing then I can speak my story as a means to get content typed up quickly with the intent of going back and reworking into better sentence structure later.


I can suggest some free writing software:

  1. FocusWriter
  2. WriteMonkey
  3. Celtx
  4. LibreOffice Writer
  5. Sigil

You can check them out and choose the one you'll like the most.


I highly recommend oomwriter. It's not free, but it's super cheap at just $8.76, and it's very much worth the expense.

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