Writers talking about software usually mention Word, or Scrivener. I don’t use either. No Word, no Scrivener, no Photoshop, no OneNote. I don’t store my documents in the Cloud. I don’t use any version of Windows or MacOS. I also don’t pay for any of the software I use, either up front or by subscriptions. Before you get cranky, I’m not a pirate either.
Most of the programs I’ll mention are available in Windows or MacOS versions.
A Word About Hardware
Everybody wants the latest high-speed computer, but why pay top price for a computer that will spend most of its life waiting for you to press the next key? Desktop units are great if you want high performance, but writers often travel or want to sit outside on a nice day. Get a laptop.
I bought a 2011-vintage refurbished HP Pavilioin g6 for a lot less than a new one and added 8 GB of memory. That was probably overkill, but I can edit really huge graphics without any problems.
I have a separate Bluetooth keyboard so I can put the laptop at arm’s length at eye level while the keyboard is at typing level. My neck and back thank me for this. Laptops are not ergonomic.
If possible choose a 4:3 aspect ratio display rather than the newer 16:9. The extra height is better for getting more text (or an entire book cover image) on the screen.My laptop has a 16:9 and it’s a bit annoying. If all you can find are 16:9, don’t dispair. It’s usable, and you can always get a separate 4:3 monitor later.
Apart from web browsers when I’m doing research, none of my software requires a network connection. I can work anywhere even if there’s no WiFi or cell phone service.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin…
Like Windows or MacOS, Linux is an operating system. I use it because it is powerful, secure, and free. If you’ve heard bad things about Linux, they are either from people who want you to give them money, or are from experiences that are many years out of date—sort of like judging Windows 10 on the basis of an experience with Windows 3. As Wikipedia says, “While the adoption on desktop computers is low, Linux-based operating systems dominate nearly every other segment of computing, from mobile devices to mainframes. As of November 2017, all of the world’s 500 most powerful supercomputers run Linux.” Android phones run Linux, and the major effects houses use Linux to create movie special effects.
There are a lot of different Linux versions (distributions) available with various looks and feels. Some are optimized for special uses, such as an audio or video studios. Many are general purpose and are great for writers. It’s like being able to pick the Windows version you like without worrying that it will ever stop being supported.
I use Xubuntu Linux (https://www.xubuntu.org) which is relatively small and fast without a lot of extra features that aren’t of any use to me.
Download the ISO image, burn it to a DVD, and fire it up. You can run it directly from the DVD. It’s slow, but lets you try it out before installation. The installer will look remarkably similar to any other program installer.
Once you have installed Linux, you can start downloading your toys. That will require a network.
Of course the usual things are available, such as Firefox, Chrome, Thunderbird, calculators, and others. Pick what you like and download it.
I’ve been using Linux since 1994, and I’ve never had a problem with viruses or malware. Virus checkers exist (ClamAV is a good choice), but unless you incautiously download and run a Windows program it is unlikely you’ll need anything.
I choose to get software updates about once a week because I like to keep up with the latest improvements. The updater does its thing automatically, and I’ve never had any problems with updates breaking anything. For the sake of paranoia, I reboot after an update just to make sure the latest versions are being used everywhere.
LibreOffice is a full office suite. It’s native file formats are an international standard rather than a proprietary one that keeps changing. It has no trouble reading and writing MS Office files, and can create and edit PDFs.
LibreOffice includes modules similar to Word, Access, Excel, Draw, and Powerpoint.
Like many typists, I learned to put two spaces after a period. That’s no longer the standard, so I set AutoCorrect to change two spaces to one as I type. Easy.
I created three templates for writing novels. The first is exactly how the book will look in print, so what I write looks just like it will as a physical book. It is maybe an hour’s work to copy, modify, and save a new print look for a new project. The second is how the book will look as an ebook. The third is how the book looks as a traditional manuscript, in case I want to submit it to a publisher who likes that kind of thing.
LibreOffice has a lot of free extensions available. I find these three really useful:
LanguageTool is a grammar and style checker that works very well, and you can create your own rules if you find a mistake it doesn’t catch. I created a proofreading mode that is really handy.
Template Changer does what it says—allows you to easily change the template being used by a document to another one. I just change a document from the print template to the ebook template, move a few sections around, and it’s ready for conversion.
Alternative Searching lets you search and replace all kinds of marvellous, non-standard things such as character styles and text properties.
Aiksaurus GTK and Artha
Aiksaurus is a standard thesaurus for those moments when you want a synonym for the word you’ve already used five times.
Artha is similar but also deals in definitions, derivatives, and other handy things. They are free, so why not have both?
This is a note-taking application that lets you link things together like a web site. Put all of your research notes for a project in one location so you can find them easily. Save pictures. Record the URLs of information so you can find them later. Organize your notes any way you like. It’s like a poor man’s, offline version of OneNote.
Calibre does just about anything you can imagine with ebooks, including reading them, cataloguing them, editing them, and creating them from your LibreOffice .odt documents. It turns out that .odt files are much cleaner than .doc or .docx for creating ebooks. The most useful extension I’ve found is Hyphenate This that makes your ebooks prettier.
This is an ebook creator/editor that some people prefer over Calibre. I have it just in case I need to do some really heavy editing.
Some people love it. I don’t. It does lots of things for you, but it doesn’t have the flexibility I want, and doesn’t let me work in my own way.
Sometimes, you need to research things that you would prefer not to have traced back to you.
TOR was originally designed by DARPA so spies could communicate without being identified. It’s used by intelligence agencies, political activists whose lives are in danger, abuse survivors to get help, government whistleblowers, journalists talking to informants, and, yes, criminals.
Not everything is about writing, although the programs on this list help to keep me organized and in communication.
This is the calendar and scheduling part of the KDE Kontact suite. It supports multiple calendars, a ton of other features, and is really easy to use. I use it to keep track of all my events, work schedule, meetings, and deadlines.
If you are a writer, eventually you have to do interviews. Both Skype and Google Hangouts are available for Linux.
Most people ignore backing up their work until their hard drive dies, taking everything with it. I use luckyBackup to do automatic, periodic backups of my work. I have an external 2TB hard drive that I use about once a month, but luckBackup also makes copies of my work to a local drive every 15 minutes and the drive on a remote server twice a day. All without me lifting a finger.
If I need to make a CD/DVD copy of something, I use K3b which is the most versatile and easy disc ripping/copying program I’ve ever seen.
GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program)
The GIMP is similar in function to Photoshop. I mostly use it for creating book covers, editing author headshots, and creating illustrations.
Marble is an offline/online mapping program that can show you the Earth (Venus, Mars,…) in a variety of formats as well as useful features like distance along a set of way points and great circle distances. Also includes some historic maps. Closeups require you to be online, but it’s still very useful offline.
See what the sky looks like from pretty much anywhere in the solar system anywhere at any time from 100,000 BCE to 100,000 CE. Was there a full moon on the night in question? When does Jupiter rise in London on March 13, 4004 CE? Now you’ll know.
This is a vector graphics program. Perfect for creating logos, display banners, or other things that may need to be scaled anywhere from tiny to banner sized without distortion.
This is the audio equivalent of GIMP. A professional voice artist told me that if you have outgrown Audacity for your audio book projects, you need a full professional studio.
Okay, this isn’t a writing tool, except that I use it to play background music every time I write. It lets you use a large variety of sources including your own playlists and internet radio stations. My personal favourite radio station is Venice Clasusic Radio Italia (http://www.veniceclassicradio.eu/en/)