As a usability researcher by day, I'm a sucker for trying out new digital tools; but, I'm also very picky about how software looks and works. Whenever I hear about a writing tool, I'm compelled to try it out. In the past couple years I've been focusing more on fiction instead of journalism/academic writing, and I have been searching for the best writing tools for longform writing. Three programs that frequently appear at the top of lists are Scrivener, Novlr, and Ulysses. I have been using all three programs for several months now, and thought it would be useful to share what I like and what I don't like about each of these programs.
Scrivener, Novlr and Ulysses are all, in essence, word processing programs. They are used to write, edit, and export pieces of writing, such as books, novels, or longform projects. They each offer additional features, such as formatting, organization, and outlining. Each program connects to cloud services to save your documents.
How I'm using the programs
To get the most out of each, I have used each program for multiple projects, including:
- Revising the manuscript of a nonfiction book. The bulk of this book has been written elsewhere for an email series, so this has required importing the text and formatting it.
- Writing a multi-part novel — with research, such as images and maps.
- Writing short stories to submit to literary journals.
- Writing articles, help docs, and blog posts.
Because I use these programs for different types of writing projects, I've been able to explore and try features I may not have normally discovered.
I am part of a global writing group, and many of the prolific writers in it RAVE about Scrivener. I've been using Scrivener since November, after National Novel Writing Month. I bought the software using the NaNoWriMo Winner's discount, which also helped me get over the pricing hurdle. In the long run, $45 doesn't seem very expensive for dedicated writers, but it's hard making the leap when you're not sure what to expect.
What I love about Scrivener:
Scrivener is a great program to use for any stage of a project: outlining, brainstorming, writing, editing, revising, and preparing for publication.
My absolutely favorite thing about Scrivener are its research capabilities. You can easily import images and documents into the research section of your project, and have them visible or accessible as you're writing. Since I am a researcher by profession, this has been a wonderful discovery, and I think writers who are writing research-intensive books (like historical fiction) should absolutely take advantage of this.
Scrivener templates are also extremely handy. I now rely heavily on the character templates to help make my characters as real and well-rounded as possible. Making resources like that readily available in the software shows that Scrivener was made to help writers be more thoughtful about their projects.
Another unique feature of Scrivener is its statistics. Beyond just tracking your word or character count, you can set writing goals, and Scrivener will calculate what your word count needs to be daily to meet that goal. You can also look at the stats to see what words you used most often throughout your manuscript, which is helpful when revising.
What I would like to change about Scrivener:
As a UX researcher by day, I have really high standards about design, and sometimes Scrivener can feel a tad dated. What's nice is that you can tailor most of the interface to your needs, but every now and then, I feel like there's just too much going on.
Scrivener is excellent for big projects, such as novels or series, because you can get really specific with how your book is organized. Plus, its research capabilities make it a good option for people writing research-based books or academic projects. Scrivener's templates make it easy to be organized and detail-oriented. And, the statistics feature is insightful about your writing habits.
$45. Available for all operating systems.
Novlr is a gem of a program, and I began using it a few years ago during a prior NaNoWriMo challenge. It's browser-based, so there's nothing to download.
What I love about Novlr:
A lot! First and foremost, I love how simple it is to connect Novlr to Google Drive and make backups. Novlr makes multiple backups every time you update a story, and that is really important to me since I normally do that manually.
The design of Novlr is lovely. They offer daytime/nighttime writing modes, and that makes a big difference! (Especially if you find yourself writing late at night, like I do.) I really love the way their goals feature works: once you've set a goal, the program gives you support and reminders as you work toward that goal. Since I frequently participate in writing challenges, I like knowing that my tool is essentially rooting for me to finish.
What I would like to change about Novlr:
Although it's easy to outline and organize your chapters and parts, Novlr doesn't have as many research tools built in to it, so I find that I still have to organize my research outside of Novlr. Novlr is focused on a great writing experience, but in my opinion, research is ingrained in that for many writers (especially historical fiction) and I'd love to see more integration for this in the future.
I'd also love a few more options for formatting. Novlr's goal is to help you write efficiently, and they've designed their writing space to be conducive to that, but I wouldn't mind a few more font options or the ability to make headers and whatnot. Not everything I write is fiction, so when I'm writing a journalistic article, it'd be nice to be able to continue to use Novlr but format it for a different type of piece.
Novlr is deceptively simple, but you'll quickly come to love and rely on its additional features, like writing modes, analytics, and goals.
It took me a little longer to come around to trying Ulysses; it's a hefty investment of $45 USD, and that can be hard to justify when there are cheaper programs out there.(UPDATE: It has since changed to a subscription model, costing $4.99/month.) However, I was drawn to how simple it is, and I wanted a better way to write throughout the day instead of using Evernote or Google Docs. Reading their blog gave me insight into how other writers use their program, so that motivated me to give it a shot.
What I love about Ulysses:
Using Ulysses is like a digital form of a handy notebook: it takes no effort to have it open at all times, and it's super easy to jump into a blank sheet and just start writing. As such, there's no friction to just getting started on a new idea.
I really appreciate the minimalist design of this app. I'm inspired to write when I use Ulysses because it's so clean. The organizational features are subtle, and you can create "libraries" to group particular documents that are part of the same project. I love being able to set a custom icon for each library. Little details like that make using programs more enjoyable.
What I would like to change about Ulysses:
I am familiar with using markdown, but I find that sometimes it disrupts my editing and revision process. For instance, using the *emphasis* markdown turns anything in italics bright blue, and when I'm reading through a document, this makes it hard for me to visualize what it will look like without that type of formatting.
Unlike Scrivener, I don't find Ulysses to be great for research. It's certainly good for note-taking and outlining, but it has limited options for importing documents or media. That's not really it's goal as a program, but it's something to keep in mind if you are working on research-intensive books or projects.
Ulysses is an Apple-only product, so it's not be accessible to all devices. (For example, I have a Macbook, but my desktop is a Windows machine, so I can't move documents around from device to device. Ulysses does have an iPhone app, though, so you can sync with your smartphone.)
And lastly, I'm not too fond of backing up my projects to iCloud or to my computer itself. I always prefer being able to save versions of my projects as actual documents, not as program files. With Scrivener and Novlr, I can constantly sync my stories to my Google Drive account (and from there, I make backups again, because I am super anal about saving my work!). They do offer a kind of workaround for this, but it doesn't export and save the actual files, and that's a limitation for me. I find myself writing in Ulysses, and then copying and pasting my writing into a Google Doc, just in case. Overkill, I know, but something to be aware of.
Ulysses is great for outlining and early drafts. The program is beautiful and distraction-free while writing. I enjoy the little details, like custom icons for each project. The markdown capabilities can be handy for copy editing, but I find it a tad distracting when doing actual revision.
$4.99/month. Only available for Apple devices.
In essence, all three programs are very robust. I would recommend Scrivener to writers whose projects require research, because Scrivener's research capabilities are unparalleled. If you don't need bells and whistles, and you own Apple devices, Ulysses is a great, unfussy platform that makes it easy to just write. Novlr is a wonderful bridge between the two: it has the formatting features I love from Scrivener, and the simplicity/minimalism of Ulysses.
I think you get the most for your money with Scrivener, and Novlr is easily worth the cost too, although it does require a monthly subscription (which can be paused at any time). Ulysses costs the same as Scrivener, and the thoughtful design and functionality justifies the amount, but if you need more planning and outlining features, you may find that it doesn't offer enough. However, for writing alone, it's perfect.
If you have to choose just one, I'd recommend Novlr. It's browser-based, so it works on any device, and it's easy to save backups to popular cloud services. They are adding new features all the time, and the writer analytics are a fun way to learn more about who you are as a writer. Their goal feature is helpful and encouraging for staying on track.
All three programs offer trials, so you have nothing to lose if you want to try them out.
Regardless of what program you use, it should inspire you to be a better writer. You'll be spending a lot of time with whatever tool you use, so you might as well find one that you love!