Create a Writing Software Toolkit to Boost Personal Productivity
Best of breed writing tools can boost your productivity, improve your writing life, and help you become a better writer. They can even add joy to the writing process.
“I kept always two books in my pocket: one to read, one to write in.” — Robert Louis Stevenson
Suitable software tools can enhance your writing quality and productivity. Many excellent applications are even available for free. This article covers these types of programs and should help you decide which ones to include in your toolkit:
- Word processor
- Grammar checker
- Dictionary and thesaurus
- American English style guide
After I graduated from college, I landed a job as a computer programmer/analyst at the new eight-person St. Louis branch office of a large consulting firm based in the Washington, D.C., area. One of my first assignments was evaluating and recommending the word processing application for our office. The top choices in that pre-Microsoft Windows era were the DOS-based applications Microsoft Word and WordPerfect.
I analyzed the products and described their features, advantages, and disadvantages. I recommended WordPerfect, and management chose it as the standard word processor at our office. WordPerfect and Word were popular and full-featured products at the time. Both still exist, but Word has overshadowed WordPerfect for years.
A word processor may be the most crucial component in a writer’s toolkit. Every writer should evaluate a variety of word processing applications and choose the product best for them.
My Choice — Google Docs
I have used many word processing applications over decades, including WordPerfect, Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, and Google Docs. While I subscribe to the versatile and powerful Microsoft Office 365 suite, I write primarily in Google Docs.
I adopted Google Docs more than ten years ago while on a church board. Committee members were amazed that we could simultaneously edit the same document on separate computers. The product has improved over the years and is still my favorite word processor.
Microsoft Word and some other word processors now include collaboration features. Still, I do most of my writing in Google Docs for these reasons:
- Google Docs is free.
- While Google Docs apps are available for smartphones and tablets, no software needs to be installed on desktop and laptop PCs since it works in web browsers.
- All documents are stored in the cloud and are available from any desktop or laptop PC, smartphone, or tablet computer.
- The user interface is clean, simple, and easy to understand. Google continuously improves it, too.
- Documents can be imported and exported in a variety of formats.
- Documents can be kept private, or you can share them with other users. You can specify whether a particular user can edit, view, or comment on the file.
- Grammarly works interactively with Google Docs documents in my browser of choice (Microsoft Edge).
- The documents created in Google Docs can almost be seamlessly copied and pasted or imported into my favorite publishing platforms, such as Medium and WordPress.
- Google Docs is part of a free online application suite that includes Sheets, Slides, and Forms.
Alternative Word Processors
While I use and enjoy Google Docs, you should choose the word processor that is best for you. Here are some alternatives that you may want to check out:
- FocusWriter — Gott Code says that its “FocusWriter is a simple, distraction-free writing environment.” Versions are available for Windows and Linux.
- FreeOffice TextMaker — TextMaker is part of a productivity application suite from FreeOffice. Versions are available for Windows, macOS, and Linux.
- Grammarly — While perhaps best known as a grammar checker that integrates with other apps and web browsers, Grammarly subscriptions include a web-based word processor, too.
- Hemingway Editor — Adam and Ben Long created the Hemingway App. They also sell the Hemingway Editor for Windows and macOS for $19.99. It checks your text as you write.
- Apple Pages — The Pages word processor runs on Apple Macintosh desktop and laptop PCs, iPhones, and iPads. It is also available on Apple’s iCloud on the web. It is a member of a productivity suite that includes Numbers (spreadsheets) and Keynote (presentations). I used Pages for many years while I owned a MacBook Pro. Typical of many Apple products, it is beautiful and just works. It offers real-time collaboration, too.
- LibreOffice Writer — The Document Foundation offers the open-source LibreOffice productivity application suite for free. Versions are available for Windows, macOS, and Linux.
- Apache OpenOffice — The Apache Software Foundation provides its free office suite for Windows, macOS, and Linux. It includes a word processor and five other productivity applications.
- Microsoft Word — Still a leader after all these years, Microsoft offers its Word application as part of the Microsoft 365 application suite or as a standalone product. Different versions run on Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android.
- Scrivener — The capabilities of Scrivener, produced by Literature and Latte, extend well beyond basic word processing. It is a fascinating application tuned to support large and complex writing projects, such as a thesis or book. I used an earlier version of the MacBook Pro product but stopped because it was overkill for my small writing projects. Now that I plan to write three books in the coming year, it has reentered my potential tools list. Scrivener 3 runs on Windows or macOS. Literature and Latte charges $49 for Scrivener ($41 for students and academics). Scrivener has a steeper learning curve than most word processors, but its capabilities can benefit writers on large projects.
- WordPerfect — WordPerfect sells what it calls “The legendary office productivity suite designed with you in mind.” WordPerfect Office Standard sells for $249.99. It runs on Windows.
- WPS Office Writer — WPS offers Writer as part of its free Office suite for Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, and iOS.
- Writemonkey — Writemonkey is a free word processor that runs on Windows. It offers software packs for a variety of languages.
In 2021, I wouldn’t want to write seriously without the aids provided by interactive grammar checkers like Grammarly and ProWritingAid. They check and suggest improvements to spelling, grammar, sentence structure, word choice, and more, either interactively or on-demand.
My Choice — Grammarly
I started to use Grammarly several years ago to improve my writing. It applies artificial intelligence (AI) to suggest changes to my grammar, sentence structure, spelling, and word choice.
Grammarly has continuously improved its products. They work with a variety of browsers, operating systems, and some word processors. Here are the company’s current product offerings:
- Grammarly Add-in for Microsoft Office
- Grammarly for Microsoft Word on macOS
- Grammarly for Windows and macOS
- Grammarly for Microsoft Edge
- Grammarly for iOS and Android
- Grammarly Keyboard for iPhones
- Grammarly for iPad
- Grammarly Handbook
A free version of Grammarly suggests changes to spelling, grammar, and punctuation. I use the Premium version that includes additional features. View the plans and prices here.
Alternative Grammar Checkers
While Grammarly is a leader among the growing list of grammar-checking apps and services, check this list of alternatives to find the tool that meets your needs:
- Ginger Software — Ginger checks writing with AI. The company offers versions of its software for Windows, Microsoft Office, macOS, web browsers (Chrome, Safari, and Edge), iOS, and Android. It offers some limited tools for free and sells full-featured versions on a monthly subscription basis.
- Hemingway App — Adam and Ben Long have shared the Hemingway App since 2013 to help authors improve their writing. Paste your text into the home page to see how it works. The Longs also sell their Hemingway Editor, with an integrated grammar checker, for Windows and macOS, for $19.99.
- LanguageTool — LanguageTool says it “is your intelligent writing assistant for all common browsers and word processors.” It runs as a web browser add-on for Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Safari, and Opera. It also runs as a word processor add-on for Google Docs, Microsoft Word, OpenOffice, and LibreOffice. The basic grammar and spell checker is free. LanguageTool offers a premium version for $4.92 per month.
- PaperRater — PaperRater is a free online grammar checker, spell checker, and proofreader. It suggests grammar improvements. It also claims to check your text against over one billion documents to detect potential plagiarism. The company offers a more advanced version for $7.95 per month.
- ProWritingAid — ProWritingAid and Grammarly may be the most popular grammar checkers. ProWritingAid claims that it “is the only platform that offers world-class grammar and style checking combined with more in-depth reports to help you strengthen your writing.” Like some other tools, ProWritingAid uses AI to suggest writing improvements. It claims to be one of the most potent grammar aids. It charges $20 per month or $79 per year. The application integrates with Chrome, Firefox, and Safari web browsers. It also works with Microsoft Office and Scrivener.
- Reverso — In addition to its ability to check spelling and grammar, Reverso includes a language translator and a conjugator. It scans text online for free. You can download free apps for Windows and macOS as well.
- Sapling — Microsoft offers Sapling for free for Windows and its Edge web browser. Sapling Intelligence, Inc. created Sapling and claims that it is an “AI extension that makes grammar and style suggestions to help you write on-point messages and content.”
- SentenceCheckup — SentenceCheckup is a free online tool that detects run-on sentences, sentence fragments, misspelled words, and grammatical errors. To use the tool, simply copy and paste your text into the textbox on its home page.
- Slick Write — Slick Write is a free online service that checks your writing for grammar errors and stylistic mistakes. To use it, simply open the Slick Write Edit window and paste your text.
- WhiteSmoke — WhiteSmoke claims to be the best English writing tool on the market. Its Desktop Premium software includes WS Web and WS Desktop. The company says that it works with Microsoft Word and the Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Opera, and Safari web browsers. WhiteSmoke Web works with the same browsers. At this time, Desktop Premium costs $6.66 per month, and Web costs $5.00 per month.
Dictionary and Thesaurus
A writer’s toolkit is incomplete without a dictionary and a thesaurus. While I mainly depend on online versions of these references, printed books are still viable, too.
My Choice — Merriam-Webster
Merriam-Webster, Inc. publishes dictionaries and other reference books. George and Charles Merriam established the G. and C. Merriam Company in 1831 in Springfield, Massachusetts. After Noah Webster died in 1843, the company bought rights to An American Dictionary of the English Language from his estate.
I rely daily on the Merriam-Webster online dictionary and thesaurus. It is available for free in web browsers. Premium dictionary and thesaurus apps are available for $4.99 for iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch) and $3.99 for Android devices. I use the web browser and iPhone versions.
Alternative Dictionaries and Thesauruses
While Merriam-Webster is a reliable source of a dictionary and thesaurus of American English, here are some alternatives:
- The Cambridge Dictionary — The Cambridge University Press has offered its dictionary online for free since 1999. The university aims to make its dictionary accessible by all on a variety of platforms. In addition to its English dictionary, the site offers a variety of bilingual and semi-bilingual dictionaries.
- Dictionary.com — Dictionary.com is a free website that offers word spellings, definitions, audible pronunciations, and more.
- The Free Dictionary by Farlex — The Free Dictionary claims over 12 billion visitors to date. It provides the search, spelling, definition, and pronunciation features of other dictionaries. In addition to searching by word, users can search on the beginnings and ends of words.
- Google Dictionary — Google offers a dictionary service directly in its search capability. To use it, navigate to google.com and simply start a search phrase with “define: .” For example, the search on “define: ability” returns the dictionary entry for the word “ability,” as shown in the screenshot below.
- macOS Dictionary App — The Dictionary app on macOS provides an excellent and easy-to-use dictionary and thesaurus. I used it extensively when I owned a MacBook Pro laptop PC. Users can set the dictionary to use any of a variety of sources, including foreign languages.
- Netlingo — Founded by Erin Jansen, Netlingo’s about page says that the free dictionary documents the “…Internet culture and history: the lingo, acronyms, catch phrases, monumental dates, new business terms, emerging technologies, and more that define the tech world around us.”
- Urban Dictionary — According to Wikipedia, Urban Dictionary is a crowdsourced online free dictionary of slang words and phrases.
Style Guides for American English
Many writing tools are interactive websites or software applications. On the other hand, style guides are typically static reference documents published online or in printed form.
The Chicago Manual of Style
The Chicago Manual of Style started in 1891 when the University of Chicago Press printed a style sheet. In 1906 it published the first edition of a writing style, usage, and grammar book. The university now prints its 17th edition. The Chicago Manual of Style is one of the best-known writing style guides for the American English language.
I keep a hardcover copy of the book’s 14th edition on my desk. A new copy sells for about $36. You can purchase a one-year subscription for the online version for $41.
Gregg Reference Manual
The Gregg Reference Manual, by William A. Sabin and published by McGraw-Hill, guides English grammar and style. Now in its 11th edition, a spiral-bound copy of the book sells for about $86 new. I use a printed copy of the 9th edition. Amazon also rents an e-textbook version for about $61 and a paperback version of an older edition for $9.
The Elements of Style
Cornell University professor William Strunk, Jr. wrote The Elements of Style in 1918. The book is a concise American English style guide. In 2011, Time magazine called it one of the best and most influential books in the English language since 1923.
Strunk died in 1946. Author E.B. White, who had studied under Strunk, revised the book in 1959. People commonly refer to the book as “Strunk & White.” Paperback and ebook versions cost less than $10. A free PDF file of an old version is available here.
I keep a printed paperback copy of an old version of The Elements of Style on my desk. Reading it occasionally from end-to-end would provide a helpful knowledge refresher.
Alternative Style Guides
I use the same style guides that many authors use. But here are alternatives to consider:
- AP Stylebook — The Associated Press (AP) publishes print and online versions of its AP Stylebook. It sells the 55th edition of the spiral-bound book for $26.95. It also publishes the AP Stylebook Online version that includes additional online-only features, such as Ask the Editor, Topical Guides, and the Pronunciation Guide. The AP says that it has optimized the online version to work well on desktops, laptops, smartphones, and tablets. The online version costs $29 annually with yearly renewal and $36 annually without yearly renewal.
- MLA Handbook — Founded in 1883, the Modern Language Association (MLA) published the ninth edition of its MLA Handbook in Spring 2021. According to the MLA, its style “has been widely adopted for classroom instruction and used worldwide by scholars, journal publishers, and academic and commercial presses.” Starting on April 22, 2021, It will sell ebook versions of the latest edition for Apple, Kindle, and Nook readers for $22. It also sells a paperback version for $22.
- The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage — Editors at the New York Times wrote The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, the newspaper’s own American English style guide, in 1950. Allan M. Siegal and William G. Connolly updated the manual between 1974 and 2006. Hardcover and paperback versions of the book sell for between $21 and $25.
Writing tools well-suited to your needs can enhance your productivity and improve your documents and writing skills. They can make the process of writing more enjoyable, too. I hope that this article helps you assemble a toolkit that will help you master your craft.
About the Author
Randy Runtsch is a writer, data engineer, data analyst, programmer, photographer, cyclist, and adventurer. He and his wife live in southeastern Minnesota, U.S.A.
Randy writes articles on public datasets to drive insights and decision-making, writing, programming, data engineering, data analytics, photography, wildlife, bicycle touring, and more.
If you love birds and other wildlife, check out the article, Bison Herds of North America.