This question is somewhat inspired by Is there a need for better software for writers?

I'm currently using Google Docs for writing, and it's a great tool: simple enough, has some nice features, cloud-based, free, etc. But the question I've mentioned above made me think, what if I could use some super-powers that IDE gives to programmers to help me write? (Yep, I do write code for living as well.)

While there seem to be a lot of writers who want to (or need to) have an advanced map of characters, locations, and events, there are also those who don't. I am a very text-first writer, and I'm comfortable with having the map in my head. The main problem for me (the one that I'm trying to solve) is that I don't always remember what exactly I wrote about my characters, especially about episodic characters. So I need a way to quickly look-up whether some guy has a straight hair or curly, or what colour his eyes are. Stuff like that.

I've tried several different writing tools and none of them has any IDE-ish features that I'd like to have. But maybe it exists and I just can't find it?

So, here's a list of features I need from an IDE:

  • Formatting support (basically RTF level, no need for super-fancy stuff)
  • Some cloudness (either their own, or Google Drive sync)
  • Available for Mac (would be super-cool if also available for Windows)
  • Ability to organize chapters into folders (tree structure)
  • Spell-checker (That's a tough one as I'm writing in Russian and I need a spell-checker for Russian). It might not have its own spell-checker, but it should then allow 3rd-party ones to work with it.
  • Character list
  • IDE-like reference tool (that's actually what gDocs totally lacks)
  • "Find in project" would also be a nice feature, especially if it'd support regExps
  • Should either be free or have a free trial, as I'm not buying a cat in a sac

A bit of explanation of what an 'IDE-like reference tool' is:

  1. It should allow me to quickly create character from selected text. For example, in chapter 1 I have a sentence "Sally Brown, a tall blonde girl, was waiting for her work day to end". I'll select "Sally Brown", press some key combination, and there will be a character creation window or panel, to which I can copy the description).
  2. It should also allow "binding" a character to the selected text. For example, in chapter 2 I have a sentence "Sally stormed into the office and started shouting". Cmd+hover over the word "Sally" and the IDE should suggest something like "Did you mean Sally Brown (tall blonde girl from chapter 1)?")
  3. Once the text is bound to a character, it should be highlighted and I should be able to hover it (or cmd+hover, or cmd+click, or whatever) to see a tooltip or a small window with character info (including chapters where she can be found).

Does something like this exist?

The locked question Is there a special software for writers?) is similar, but it has no details about what writing software can and can't do, and answers provide an unsortable list of distraction-free editors, mind-mapping tools and writing IDEs (for the lack of a better term). This question however is much more specific.

  • 1
    @DJSpicyDeluxe, not exactly. I believe I've tried lots of stuff listed and I haven't find what I need. Scrivener came close, but it has no quick character creation (can only link to an existing character), I haven't found "what chapters is this character in" info, and it doesn't have a spellchecker (maybe it does for English, but for Russian, even mac native checker wasn't working)
    – Alissa
    Commented May 9, 2019 at 23:47
  • 2
    This question is more specific than the other one. For that reason, I don't think it's a duplicate. Commented May 10, 2019 at 23:40
  • 1
    @MonicaCellio, indeed, that's what I've been trying to highlight.
    – Alissa
    Commented May 11, 2019 at 1:03
  • And then you compile and get things like Too many characters. Maximum 256 characters allowed. - or - Unresolved reference to character Sully. Characters must be declared before they are used. :) Not to mention: Syntax error.
    – Zeus
    Commented May 13, 2019 at 0:24
  • ...But the best feature would be: you click Publish... and it's published!
    – Zeus
    Commented May 13, 2019 at 0:27

3 Answers 3


Consider Vim

I believe you can do almost all of this in Vim without too much work if you're willing to get your hands dirty writing mappings and maybe functions in a .vimrc, installing a few plugins, and setting up the folders.

Formatting support (basically RTF level, no need for super-fancy stuff)

You can write in LateX or Markdown or one of the groff formats and convert to RTF, html, pdf, or other formats with relative ease via pandoc. Or vim may support RTF out of the box too, I'm not sure. Groff .ms and markdown are particularly nice because sentences can be on their own lines, so you can version the entire project and view diffs with git really easily.

Some cloudness (either their own, or google-drive sync)

Simple: make an rsync command that syncs the whole project folder to your owncloud or google-drive folder or to an FTP server.

Available for mac (would be super-cool if also available for windows)

Vim, rsync, pandoc, etc. are all available for mac (and can be set up on windows easily now too).

Ability to organize chapters into folders (tree structure) Characters list

I do this myself and there's several ways to do it. You can just manually organize the files in the right folders, or you can have shortcuts that create the file in the right folder. But what I do is use vimwiki which lets you have links from files to other files. So you can put the cursor on a character's name, hit enter twice, and it will create a link to that character and then open the file with that name. You can then have a command that will list all of the characters and even optionally open a selected one in a new buffer or split.

Spell-checker (That's a tough one as I'm writing in Russian and I need spell-checker for Russian). It might not have its own spell-checker, but it should then allow 3rd-party ones to work with it.

Not only does vim have russian spellcheck already built in afaik. You can also add in custom dictionaries (and thesauri) yourself.

IDE-like reference tool (that's actually what gDocs totally lack)

Not sure exactly what is desired here, but vim has a very powerful ctags functionality (I haven't messed with it myself) whereby you can autocomplete from other files, reference things from other files, etc.

"Find in project" would also be a nice feature, especially if it'd support regExps

There's tons of different options for this, from vim plugins (like ctrl-p), to using a keyboard command to just launch grep or fzf (fuzzy-finder) and give you the output.

Should either be free or have a free trial, as I'm not buying a cat in a sac

Vim and other plugins are all totally free. And there's tons of other features I haven't even mentioned, like word-count on arbitrary regions of text, swift editing with vim's commands, macros, (book)marks, multiple copy/paste registers available, Abbreviations to autocorrect of misspellings like teh=>the or automatically convert text as it's typed like c1=>Elizabeth, style-dictionaries that point out poor writing, and so much more.

Let me know if you have questions about any of this and I can elaborate. Also check out my answer to a related question, about why vim is great to use for writing: https://writing.stackexchange.com/a/45091/33999

  • That's a clever answer. But considering how much work I'll need to do (setup all the stuff you mentioned) and how many new tech I'll need to learn (vim, for starters isn't a very user-friendly program and I don't even know how to exit it), I might be better off writing a writers plugin for Idea (I have thought about it already). But it's not exactly a solution I'm looking for, more like a last resort.
    – Alissa
    Commented May 11, 2019 at 1:01
  • Ah, and by mentioning formatting support I definitely didn't mean markup, otherwise I wouldn't mention it at all, as you can write markup-formatted text even in notepad.
    – Alissa
    Commented May 11, 2019 at 1:07

Something that may do SOME of what you want (the "binding" of character to event is what made me think of it) is ARCHIVOS.

Basically, you create story elements (people, places, events), and then declare the relationships between them. Things display in a "storyweb", timeline, and map. It's free to have an account for one "world". More info on how to set it up is here: https://archivos.digital/getting-started-archivos/

So you may link Sally Brown to specific people (family, bosses, underlings), items (Sally-sword) and skills (cunning), and also link to her for each event she's involved with. And if the events have dates, they'll be on the timeline, so you can track her story chronologically.

(Apparently in v2, there'll be multiple timelines available, so you can track broadcast-date vs event-date (or have a non-linear novel link up with "audience reads it in X chapter" vs "character experienced it at this date.") That's a feature I definitely want to exploit -- more for media analysis than my own story-creation. )

Disclosure: I went to a few demos of this at Balticon last year (2018), and if I were in a fiction-writing mode, or doing the planned media-crit podcasts, I'd totally use it. I'm now Facebook friends with the guy who created it. (Hi Dave!) I am not linked with them, but I do seem to share their link a lot here, because it seems relevant frequently.

  • Is it bound with a text-editor? Because I don't want to maintain the map separately of writing. Actually I don't need a map, but more like a way to bind pieces of text
    – Alissa
    Commented May 10, 2019 at 14:03
  • I don't really know. You may want to email them your questions. I only have used it briefly. Commented May 10, 2019 at 14:49
  • They have a free plan, so I was able to take a look at the app. And no, there is no text editing at all. There are text pieces here and there (event description, character description, etc), but no place to write the story itself
    – Alissa
    Commented May 10, 2019 at 15:37
  • Sorry it wasn't able to suit your needs. I think it is more for the planning/world-building (or for story-analysis, world-examining) than the writing itself. Commented May 13, 2019 at 13:18

I'd really recommend you try the Novel Factory.

Disclosure - this is my product.

It's designed to handle a lot of the data side of things about novel writing, and also provide a lot of useful hints and guidance to new writers.

Add characters and locations

You can easily add a character by clicking a button and filling in the various fields, and same for locations.


Scenes can be viewed as 'cards' or also in a list.

Also, you can open up a scene and there are various tabs for synopsis, time and weather, scene goal, associated characters, and various drafts and notes.

Subplot manager

It contains a 'subplot manager' which works sort of like an excel spreadsheet in that you have scenes along the left column and then a column for whatever aspect of the plot you're looking at, such as a character, item, theme, etc. But, it's more visually appealing than excel, and you can drag and drop the items.


Via the browser it provides a spellchecker.

Cloud Features

The Online version can be used on any device that has an internet browser, and your work is stored centrally so you can open it up on any device and everything is right there.

We highly disapprove of cats in sacks, so you can try it fully featured for 30 days.

Here is the link to the full feature list and where you can try it: https://www.novel-software.com/featureswebversion

  • I've seen it, but I was a bit confused with the 'scenes' idea. I think I'll give it a second try. For now number of steps to get to start writing a chapter seems too big for me.
    – Alissa
    Commented May 13, 2019 at 15:07
  • Hiya - thanks for the feedback - could you tell me anymore about what was confusing about the scenes? Chances are if you didn't find it intuitive others might not, and we might be able to make it clearer. Yes, the roadmap does spend quite a long time on planning - but you don't have to follow it closely, or even at all :) Commented May 14, 2019 at 11:16
  • First of all, it's not immediately clear that 'scene' is a text entity. It looks like a place for short synopsis (e.g. "Sally Brown has a heated argument with her boss"). And in other writing software, that is the case. Also, it looks like I'm expected to have 3 scenes in a chapter (head, incident and tails) and that seems unnecessarily restricting. Btw, it would be nice if there was an option to discard default roadmap and write my own.
    – Alissa
    Commented May 14, 2019 at 11:37
  • Thanks for your feedback, it's much appreciated - will have a ponder about Scenes and how to make it more obvious how they work... And yes, we have plans to allow people to create their own roadmaps. Commented May 14, 2019 at 12:55
  • I've tried it once again. And no, it's not what I'm looking for. I've found that I can attach characters to a scene, but it is done in a separate tab, and it seems quite annoying. Alas.
    – Alissa
    Commented May 24, 2019 at 15:16

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