Antique Typewriter - Word Processing without a Word ProcessorA Writer’s Guide to Alternate Writing Tools

When we think of word processing today, most people think of Microsoft Word, or one of the full-featured alternatives, say LibreOffice Writer (or the Apache OpenOffice equivalent), or Google Writer, or other similar software. (Zoho Writer and SoftMaker Office’s TextMaker come to mind, too.)

These word processors are sophisticated editing and publishing tools, but writing, research and creativity are not the same as editing and publishing. You can use these tools for your writing, but they won’t necessarily enhance it. If you’re a blogger writing HTML or using Markdown, a poet or essayist, or a playwright, or a researcher, or just kicking around ideas, a traditional word processor is not the best tool for the job. Some writers also might just want something smaller and more nimble.

Writers have lots of other options for creating their novel (or a letter) and they use a wide variety of tools. Today we’ll look at zenware, text processors, mini-word-processors, novel and play-writing tools, outliners, mind-mappers, markdown and blogging platforms, encryption tools and, briefly, old fashioned paper.

Zenware tools.

If you find menus, toolbars, ribbons, sidebars and squiggly lines under text to be a distraction instead of an aid, there’s an entire category of writing tools called Zenware to help. These provide a minimal or customizable writing environment that hides distractions. Generally, they are tools for focusing just on the writing. I’ve used several and, often, that full, blank computer screen truly helps you concentrate on writing.

If you create on-screen, you should definitely try a Zenware writing app or two. Want more info on why, check out our in-house expert, The Frugal Parson. Check out our Frugal Guidance 2 list of zenware writing tools here.

Text processors

A text processor is distinct from a word processor by concentrating on manipulating and writing text without heavy formatting. There are a wide variety of text processors out there on a scale from bare-bones “don’t-even-think-about-formatting” text tools to “almost-a-full-word-processor.”

Windows users have two very different text processors hidden in every installation: Notepad and WordPad. They’re tucked away under Windows Accessories (in Windows 8 and also in the just-released Windows 10), so many people don’t even know they’re there! (Mac users have TextEdit.)

Let’s look at each:

Notepad

Windows Notepad

Microsoft’s Notepad is about as minimalistic a text editor as you can find.

When it comes to text editors, Notepad is about as minimalistic as you can get. You can’t format text or change fonts. Neither can you add graphics or other media.

Notepad’s job is to let you get your words (or programming code) on the page. For some writers, including bloggers using HTML or Markdown, that’s all they might need. (If you want to write HTML, you need to save it with the .htm extension, not .txt.)

But real programmers might miss line numbering, advanced search, regular expressions, and code highlighting used in other tools. (Really, if you write any kind of code, Notepad++, noted below, is a superior option.)

If you’re borrowing a friend’s PC and want to send your work to your Mac or paste it into an email, this is the most basic way to do that.

Notepad is also a quick tool to use when you want to paste in formatted text and make it unformatted. You can paste in a clip of a web page and turn it into plain text, too.

Wordpad

WordPad is a big leap forward in usability compared with Notepad. It actually looks like a mini-Word application with its tool ribbon. You have most of the common formatting options, bold, italic, underline, super- and sub-script, fonts, font colors, bullet lists, paragraph spacing, tab spacing and more. Click on the Paint drawing icon and a small drawing application pops up, too.

Wordpad, in fact, has most of the same features as Word’s online application, with a simpler, streamlined interface.

Microsoft WordPad

WordPad has many of the same formatting features as Word’s online app.

If you need to edit Word files, though, WordPad’s abilities are limited. Generally, WordPad opens Word 2007 and later documents (DOCX files), but not earlier DOC files (Word 1997-2004 documents). Even with DOCX files, it might not import all the advanced formatting features.

When you are ready to share your writing with an other application, WordPad lets you save your work in a variety for formats: text, RTF, Word DOCX (Office Open XML), OpenOffice format, and Unicode.

See our companion post on word processing formats to find the right format to share your writing with the world.

Notepad++

If you like plain text or you program, you’ll love the always-free Notepad++. It’s mainly a programming editor, but it also supports HTML and just plain text. It’s a very popular program and has lots of plug-ins for various programming languages and other features, including spell checkers. Notepad++ has superior search tools and supports advanced use of Regular Expressions (RegEx). It’s macro tool has a “watch me” function that will save any sequence of keyboard actions as a repeatable macro.

Notepad++ screen shot

Notepad++ is for those who need a more advanced text processor

All these extra features add to the program’s complexity. As a writer, you should expect to spend some time learning how to use Notepad++’s features.

If you blog, write HTML, or need to manipulate text for any reason, give it a look.

There are other programming editors out there, too, and if you code all the live-long day, you might like something else. But for writers, this should do!

More Non-Word-Processor writing tools

Markdown Editors

If you blog or write HTML, consider using Markdown. Markdown is a shorthand for basic HTML that you can process with a translator. It speeds up writing, editing, proofreading and is a pretty good intro into the possibilities of HTML.

Note, you can write Markdown in any text editor or word processor, but you need a tool to transform the Markdown text into HTML. There are special Mac and Windows programs to do this, as well as online tools. Most of these editors have a split screen to show you your Markdown in one window and the formatted HTML equivalent in the other.

MarkdownPad Screenshot

MarkdownPad shows a typical Markdown interface, with Markdown code on the left and the formatted HTML output on the right.

See our Frugal Guidance 2 series on how to use Markdown. We also have what is probably the web’s best resource on Markdown tools here, too.

Rich(er) text processors

Scrivener

There are so many mid-level text/word processors out there it’s hard to choose. Writers of fiction and other long forms should look at Scrivener by Literature and Latte. Why? Because it combines outlining, research notes, a character database, and digital post-its, into a flexible writing tool. Scrivener was developed for the Mac, is now available for Windows, and has a beta version for Linux, too. It is a writing tool, not a publishing tool, though, so when you are finished writing and editing, you compile your work into a final word processing file. If you write books (as opposed to short forms, like blog articles), you should give Scrivener a look.

Scrivener is a complicated program with lots of features. That’s why they give you 30 real days to try it before paying $40. (They only count the days you actually start up Scrivener, which is a nice feature for trial software.)

Some Mac alternatives to Scrivener include Storyist and Ulysses III.

Jarte

Jarte is a Windows-only writing program that could be a light substitute for Word or LibreOffice. It uses the Microsoft WordPad engine and adds more features. Jarte allows you to hide the menus and use a quirky graphical interface that you may love or you may hate. Nevertheless, it’s a quick-loading, nimble mini-word processor. Jarte is free and might be all you need for writing. But if you want certain extra features, you can get Jarte Plus for $19.95.

Jarte screen shot

Jarte has an atypical interface for a text or word processor, but includes many good writing features.

If you want to open older Word DOC files (Word 1997-2004), you will need to install some software to allow Jarte to open the files because Windows 10 does not include the necessary translator. Info is available on the Jarte site. It’s an easy fix, but really Jarte should include the translator natively.

Angel Writer

Angel Writer has been around for many generations of Windows. It’s free, but asks for a donation. It’s a very tiny, quick-installing flexible text editor that allows you to add columns, tables, graphics and so on. Its toolbars and menus remind one of a teensy version of LibreOffice. Worth a try if you are looking for a lightweight editing/writing tool.

Angel Writer screen clip

Angel Writer is a good, basic rich text tool, but not a Word substitute.

Angel Writer will only open and save text, RTF (Rich Text Format) and HTML files. If you need to open Word files, though, look elsewhere.

Atlantis Word Processor

The Atlantis Word Processor has been around a long time, it seems, but it has updated itself as a writing tool for creating ebooks (in MOBI and ePub formats) by accessing KindleGen from inside the program.

Atlantis handles complex formatting, including multiple columns, footnotes, and more with style sheets and long document navigation tools. It also has a text prediction feature, called “Power Type” that might save time; writers might find the “Overused Words” feature useful. Writers with secrets may like the included encryption feature, too. There’s a 30-day free trial, then it costs $35 for a full license and technical support.

AbiWord

AbiWord is a free, open source, light-weight but well-featured word processor for Windows, Macs and a wide variety of Linux implementations. It’s also available for many languages. AbiWord’s interface hasn’t changed much in the last ten years, so it’s not the newest looking UX on the block.

AbiWord screen shot

AbiWord isn’t as full-featured as Word or LibreOffice Writer, but it’s close and has great language support.

AbiWord offers the ability to define paragraph and character styles (but not page styles) from scratch. It doesn’t support Regular Expressions for search. It does allow you to add a variety of plugins – mostly import and export filters (including filters for WordPerfect, Clarisworks, Microsoft Write, and KWord).

Right “out of the box,” though, AbiWord opens all Microsoft Word formats, OpenOffice Writer formats, text files, HTML and more. AbiWord is a small program with lots of features that should be better known than it is. It also appears to work fine in Windows 10.

Uniquely, in addition to all the normal word processing features, it offers RDF or “The Resource Description Framework,” which lets you define people, places, dates, events, styles, and more – which is about all that I understand about it. If you’re as clueless about RDF as I am, you can simply ignore that menu with no harm.

A new addition to AbiWord is the free AbiCollab.net, which lets AbiWord collaborators share files on the web and even work on documents together.

yWriter

I’ve not used it, but yWriter is a special editor for writing novels for Windows and Linux. It breaks down your novel into chapters and scenes, project notes, characters, locations and other useful info.

You can create storyboards before writing, too.

There are many other commercial programs similar to yWriter. See our links at the end of this article.

Outliners

Outliners are a great way to organize thoughts, text and research. Years ago, when I was still a Mac user, there were a few great outlining options. I’ve never found an outliner I liked in Windows. Today there are much better outlining tools available for my iPad, where I have Outline Pro, OmniOutliner and Cloud Outliner.

Most outliners allow you to export to OPML format (an outline exchange format), text, or a few word processing formats (usually Word). You can organize your research and thoughts first in your outliner and then finish in a text or word processor.

Mind Mapping Tools

If you want to organize your thoughts, ideas, research, or your life, mind mapping software is well worth taking an hour or two (or a lifetime) to learn. If you’ve used outliners, think of a mind map as outline that grows out from the center, but may include graphics, photos, colors, files, apps, links, notes and more. As you grow your map, you develop a web-like structure instead of indented paragraphs.

Some mind map programs allow you to export to an outline, a to do list, or even a full project management program. But all support exporting to text and word processing formats, allowing you to turn the map into an article or book.

MindMaple clip

A mind mapping tool, such as MindMaple, is great for creating ideas and organizing complex topics, but not a substitute for a text or word processor..

Some mind map software allows you to use alternate visual metaphors (fishbone display, tree displays, left and right direction maps, chronological maps, and organization charts). A mind map isn’t the only visual way to display information, but it’s a very flexible one.

My favorite mind mapping apps for the PC are MindMaple ($10 / year), and the free Xmind, although I started with FreeMind. On the iPad, I use iThoughtsHD as my go to mind mapper. SimpleMind is my next favorite. (MindMaple is available on the iPad, too.)

Mind maps are great for floating ideas and thoughts, making connections between ideas, reorganizing them, brainstorming, and organizing research. They are not editing tools, so you will probably finish your writing in an actual writing app. I’ve been known to mind map and construct an article in IThoughtsHD (on my iPad), export in OPML to an outlining program to rearrange the structure, and then export it to a text or word processing format (or just email myself the text) for final editing in a regular word processor. Other times I’ve used the mind map as a separate reference and write out the ideas from scratch on my iPad or my PC.

By the way, you can mind map on paper if you don’t have a mind-mapping program handy. For years that was the only way to create one.

For more on using mind maps, start with our Frugal Guidance 2 article, Why Mind Mapping is for You!

Tablets and Phones

There are hundreds of writing apps for tablets and phones. Too many to cover here. All I’ll say now is that, on my iPad, I’ve liked Textilus and Writing Kit, but use Textastic the most. That’s a bit strange, since Textastic is more of a programmer’s tool than Textilus and Writing kit, but I like it’s on-screen keyboard better than any other on the iPad.

Blogging apps

If you are a blogger, you might actually put your ideas, thoughts and text down in your blogging app. There are many newer blogging services that advertise the ease of use of their writing tools – most using a simple HTML editor or a Markdown tool.

Unfortunately, even though I love WordPress in general, I really hate its editor for actual writing, especially for long posts (like this one). Generally I’ll write in almost anything else: a text editor, a word processor, an online tool, Markdown tools (anything!) and THEN paste the HTML into WordPress. Then I add graphics, live links, use a few shortcodes, and proof it all.

If you want to look at different blogging platforms, we have a detailed series on many new and current blogging platforms on Frugal Guidance 2, starting with Easy Blogging Tools for Minimalist Bloggers.

Encrypted Text Editors

While researching this article, I discovered a subcategory of encryption-enabled writing tools, sometimes called “secure text editors.” As seen above, Atlantis Word Processor has built-in encryption. NotePad++ has encryption plugins: NPPCrypt and SecurePad. Microsoft Word, LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice all have password and encryption features.

If you have a need for secure content, but not a full-fledged word processor, you can also take a look at CryptNote (iOS, Mac, Windows and Linux), Encrypted Notepad, CryptoTE, NotepadCrypt, K Notes, Xint, and F0dder’s fSekrit. If you are paranoid about the NSA looking at your files, I’m not sure I’d recommend Kremlin Text, either, just for the name.

Alternatively, if you don’t want to give up your current writing tools, you can use 7-Zip, which is a file compression tool that also offers encryption.

If you’re security-conscious enough to want to encrypt your work, you might want to look at hard drive encryption or use an encrypted USB thumb drive instead. Check out Bitlocker, VeraCrypt, AES Crypt, and there are many more.

Also think about getting a password vault, such as KeePass, LastPass, or 1Password (and there are many others) to keep track of all those passwords, too. At the least, use an encrypted spreadsheet or text file.

Encryption and security are very much in the news these days, with the FBI (in the U.S.) and other governments looking at ways to be able to peek into encrypted files.

Frankly, I don’t use encryption myself, but I can see, in a world of government sponsored hackers, why many legitimate writers would like to use encryption. Maybe I should start.

Plant-Based Media (a.k.a. Paper)

With all the discussion about text and word processors, sometimes a writer just wants to go old-school (really) and put pencil or pen to paper. You can also draw, mind map, outline, make lists, set reminders, and scratch out your bad ideas. I’ve never had a paper notebook crash on me – it’s proven technology. You’ll eventually have to re-type it for editing, rewriting, and publication. But, when the muse strikes, you don’t need to wait for an internet connection, boot up a computer or device, and you can do it just about anywhere except a dark closet. (I tend to avoid dark closets, myself.) If you want to carry a small notebook around with you, see our Frugal Guidance 2 article on Alternatives to Moleskine Notebooks.

Our next article on Frugal Guidance 2 will discuss what a writer needs to know about opening and saving different file formats, how to open ancient word processing files, and some ideas on keeping your writing available for posterity.

And There’s More…

There are hundreds more writing, grammar and research tools out there, you just need to look. In addition to the resources here on Frugal Guidance 2, you may want to look at these lists of tools for any kind of writer:

Top Ten Review’s 2015 Best Creative Writing Software Review is a list of commercial novel, play- & screen-writing tools with full reviews and comparisons.

Also from Top Ten Review is their top 10 Writing Enhancement Software Review. The review also explains all the features they use to evaluate their list, which will help you decide on which programs you might want to try.

14 great text editors for web designers by Craig Grannell, Aug 7, 2014 on Creative Bloq.

Top 10 Best Text Editor 2015 on Developers Feed

The Best Microsoft Word Alternatives That Are Totally Free by David Nield, 7/24/14, on Field Guide from Gizmodo.

10 Free Writing Apps and Tools by Payton Price on ProWritingAid.

Best free software for writing: 10 programs to unleash your creativity by Mark Wilson, January 26, 2015, on TechRadar.

Novel Writing Software: the tools you really need by Graeme Shimmin.

25+ Pieces of Writing Software You Should Know About by Ali Hale on Daily Writing Tips.

10 Best Proofreading Tools for Professional Writers by Gavin on CodeGeekz.com.

The best cross-platform writing apps for Mac and iOS by Michael Simon, Apr 6, 2015, on MacWorld.com.

The best focused-writing apps for OS X by Kirk McElhearn, Apr 24, 2014, on MacWorld.com.

30 Truly Useful Mac Apps for Professional Writers by Joshua Johnson on MacAppStorm.net. The article dates from September 6th 2011, so a few of these programs might not be currently available.

Top Ten Advanced Writing Tools For Professional Writers on The Geeky Globe.

Credits:

Vintage Typewriter photo is courtesy of Skitter Photo and StockSnap.io.

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