Let’s face it, all you really need to write is a paper and pen. Or — more likely these days — a desktop, laptop, tablet or even a smartphone (I may own one of each — don’t judge). But wouldn’t a couple of nonfiction writing tools help you a lot more?
There are software/SAAS (software as a service) options you can use to make the process a bit easier. Nonfiction writing tools can help you organize your ideas, track your research and notes and assess your progress toward your goal. These tools are specifically focused on writing — not publishing. Your first step needs to be getting your thoughts down in a coherent format before you start worrying about formatting or printing. Finally, some of these tools were originally designed for authors writing fiction, but they could be adapted for nonfiction writing if you like the interface.
And be sure to scroll to the end of the post to grab a FREE nonfiction content worksheet that you could use with just about any of these nonfiction writing tools.
Why Microsoft Office Isn’t A Tool To Write Your Nonfiction Book
Because Microsoft Word and its free counterparts, Open Office and LibreOffice Writer aren’t really built for organizing ideas, they have been excluded from this list. You could use them — plenty of people have. But Word can get a bit unwieldy when you start approaching the volume of words you’d need for a nonfiction book (around 60,000 words). At that point, you may need to divide your book into multiple files to make it easier to manage and edit.
Scrivener is the grande dame of nonfiction writing tools. It uses an index card system, allowing you to move your ideas around on a virtual corkboard. It includes an outlining system so you can both structure your ideas and reorganize them as you go. Scrivener lets you set writing targets and tracks your statistics.
I think two of its biggest benefits are full-screen mode, allowing you to block out anything else on your screen (all those tabs in your browser) and that it’s software: something on your hard drive. No internet connection is required, making it that much easier to get rid of those distractions. But I think that can also be its biggest drawback. Since it’s not available online (like Evernote, for example), you’re stuck to the one computer it’s installed on. Perhaps not a big issue for some, but it’s definitely something to consider before you purchase. A free 30-day trial is available at the link above.
- Pros: Built for writing, ability to minimize distractions, Mac or Windows
- Cons: Not browser-based, so can limit its usability
YWriter is a good alternative to Scrivener if you are looking for a free option (but note that it’s available for Windows only). And while YWriter was built as a tool for fiction writers, I didn’t have any problems putting in the basics of a nonfiction work. There is a project wizard to get started, making it really easy. You begin by adding chapters, then you can add scenes to each chapter. It looks like you can easily move things around (for example, scene 5 in chapter 3 could be quickly moved to scene 1 in chapter 4). YWriter keeps track of your word count in each scene, so if you get a writing goal, you can track your progress. I found it very easy to get around in just a few minutes after I downloaded it. Best of all is it’s free!
- Pros: Free, simple interface
- Cons: Not available for Mac, created for fiction writers so you may need to tweak how you use it.
Writer’s Blocks is similar to Scrivener; it allows you to move “blocks” of ideas around on a virtual whiteboard. Each block can be an idea — a scene if you’re writing fiction or a supporting argument if you’re writing nonfiction. Your blocks run horizontally across the screen in columns, which I like, which means you can see a lot of ideas all at the same time. Blocks can be formatted in any number of ways (by color, etc.) and they can be numbered — or re-numbered automatically if you need to. The top menu is similar to the formatting menu in Microsoft Word. You can instantly convert your blocks to a manuscript and start editing right within the program.
Of the nonfiction writing tools specifically created for writers, I like this on the best. I think it’s got more functionality than some of the others, but the visual presentation of your ideas is the best. It would probably take a bit of playing with it to learn its full capability. On the other hand, there are several tutorials online. I think this is one piece of software that would just be fun to play with. I think the only drawback is the price — it’s the most expensive on this list at $149.
Writer’s Blocks offers a free 2-week trial, and I was given a $30 discount if I purchased before the trial period was over.
- Pros: Visual layout helps you move ideas around quickly and easily; lots of functionality
- Cons: Price, not available for Mac
WriteWay’s interface reminds me of Scrivener’s — a corkboard on which you can move around your virtual index cards. The left-hand side of the screen contains your outline. Like some of the other programs, WriteWay comes with a tutorial file that you could adapt for your purposes. You can easily toggle between storyboard mode and composition mode, so you can easily see how all your ideas/scenes fit together and then quickly switch to writing. You can color-code the index cards, and there’s a helpful pop-up legend so you can remember what each color means.
In writing mode, the bottom of the screen contains a handy table with headings like plot, character, conflict, etc. Since those interface headings can’t be changed, it makes this a little tougher to adapt for nonfiction purposes, but it could be done. I didn’t like this interface as much as Writer’s Block, but WriteWay is free as opposed to Writer’s Block heftier price. With a little bit of practice, I think learning how to use it would be pretty easy.
- Pros: Free, switch between idea mode and writing mode
- Cons: Not available for Mac
Evernote may be the only non-writing tool on the list, but I also think it’s the most accessible. There’s a free version and a paid version; for getting started — especially if this is your first nonfiction book — the free version will work very well for you. It’s web-based, so it’s accessible from any device you have that connects to the Internet.
The beauty of Evernote’s structure is notebooks and notes. You can have up to 250 notebooks and 100,000 notes — even on the free plan! (There are also limits on note sizes, but they are pretty generous). Notes can contain anything you want — images, PDFs, web links, etc. You can tag your notes for easier searching. And you can add reminders to notes and even send yourself emails that will go write into your designated notebook. The options for how you organize the information for your book are almost limitless.
A quick search of Google shows that many authors have used Evernote to write their books. Although Evernote can’t really be compared to the other nonfiction writing tools on this list (it’s kind of apples and oranges), it’s probably more easily adaptable to nonfiction than some of the others. If you’re not sure where to start, try Evernote and see if it will meet your needs.
- Pros: Cross-platform compatible, Web access, infinite flexibility in organizing ideas
- Cons: Not built for writers specifically
Download my Nonfiction Content Worksheet! This will give you some ideas for how you can plan, organize and write your nonfiction book using some of the tools above.
Which of these nonfiction writing tools would work best for you? Since they all have free trials, it’s worth it to spend some time to find the one that will work best for you. And let me know what you decided on!