YWriter Review: free Book Writing Software
I downloaded yWriter about a year ago because it was free and I was looking for a better way to handle a novel-sized document than Microsoft Word. My experience after switching from Word 2007 to 2013 was bad. The program froze a lot, took a long time to load a 100,000 word document, and hesitated with every command, almost like a punk lieutenant unsure if I was really the boss.
yWriter is radically different from Microsoft Word. The programs are designed with different things in mind. Whereas Word allows you a nearly infinite array of options for formatting a document, it does a terrible job of helping you organize a document. The longer your story, the more difficult it becomes to manage. Word allows you to add links and a table of contents, and keep the contents up on the sidebar so you can navigate more quickly. That’s great, so far as it goes. But yWriter does much more.
I’m not a yWriter expert, and the program has a lot of functionality I didn’t use, such as a handy way to keep track of details about characters and locations. But I did write the rough draft of my last novel STRONG AT THE BROKEN PLACES (which I’ll release this summer) on yWriter. I learned to use the program by bumbling around, making errors–which means that it’s not too difficult to learn. You can also refer to the wiki on how to use the software, located here.
My expectations weren’t high. Seriously, free book writing software? Let’s just say I kept my expectations low so that I wouldn’t be disappointed.
I was very pleasantly surprised. This is what the program looks like populated with a rough draft of a novel.
Getting Around yWriter
On the left you have every chapter, the word count for the chapter, and the number of scenes in the chapter. Then a running total word count, and a brief description of the chapter. The bottom left shows a detailed chapter description, which I didn’t use. Because this novel is about an ultramarathon runner solving a murder mystery while running the race, I found it useful to note each chapter with what mile my protagonist was on. To add an additional chapter, go to the main menu, click Chapter, and Add New.
The top chapter on the left is highlighted in gray. This is the chapter that everything to the right refers back to. If you look at the top of the page, center to right, you’ll see the scenes that are in that chapter, in this case the Prologue and Mile 26. To add another scene, you guessed it. Main menu, click and click. When setting up the scene you choose whose viewpoint it is in, which is a handy thing to see beside the scene name. You can also note the exact date and time, down to the minute, the scene takes place in, where it takes place, and every other key piece of organizational info. This is helpful, as you’ll see below.
The prologue is highlighted in gray, meaning it is the scene that is operative in the sizable text area below. You can’t edit the text that comprises the scene from this view. Instead, double click on the scene heading and a window pops up that looks like a basic word processor–just the stuff you need. See the screen shot below.
That black triangle? Press it and your computer will read your text out loud for you. Granted, Microsoft Anna sounds like a robot, but she’s cool in a sterile way:
You can do the regular stuff that you can do on Word. You can format the font, size, spacing, drag and drop to edit, and find and replace. Word count is all over the place, on each scene, running total on the left side with each chapter, and bottom right.
One nifty feature is that black triangle pointed rightward. Click it and your program will make typewriter sounds… so you can close your eyes and imagine you’re Ernest Hemingway, if that’s how you roll. Incidentally, the title STRONG AT THE BROKEN PLACES is a Hemingway quote.
I found yWriter superior to Word in several big ways.
First, access to information:
Organization is one of the biggest challenges a novelist faces. Keeping track of the million things that are going on, the plots, subplots, character arcs, who wants what and what stands in the way, and how the motivations are changing. Oh, and how old the protagonist was in the first flashback, so that his age progression is right by the ninth. Did he break his right leg or his left? And where did I put the scar that looks like a nuclear mushroom cloud?
That’s a lot of stuff to keep in your head. Writing on Word, I had to write a rough draft in a flurry of activity, so everything would be fresh. Even then, I had pages and pages of notes tacked to the end of the manuscript. I often had to do word searches to find the info I needed to make sure new text didn’t contradict the old–and then another word search to find the text I was working on when the question arose. When you write in multiple points of view and a dozen timelines, you spend as much energy double-checking yourself as writing.
Ywriter solves all of that by giving you efficient access to the information.
This screen shot shows my notes area. Under the heading Project Notes, I made note pages for different reasons so the info I needed was only a click away. Every time I thought of something I needed to add to the story–such as when I decided the protagonist’s sister needed to be confused on Hydrocodone, I made a note under “Story Still Needs” to remind myself to add her drug habit to an earlier chapter, so it wouldn’t be a surprise later on. Another example: when I needed to know how far my protagonist should have traveled, based on his pace, I went to the Splits note, which is the one shown below.
Second, Getting around and Moving Stuff
The second way I found yWriter an exceptional improvement over Word has to do with getting around the document and moving text.
In Microsoft Word, if you want to jump from scene to scene, you have to set up a table of contents and use the headings to describe the contents so the description shows up on the menu, if you have it set up to display all the time on the left side. If you want to move a scene, you have to cut and paste the entire thing. Moving more than one scene become a tedious, error-prone exercise.
With yWriter, you can drag and drop scenes from chapter to chapter, so it’s easy to reorganize, or insert new material into the story. In fact, before I set up all the chapters, I created one chapter with a zillion scenes. As I fleshed out what would happen in each scene, I started thinking in terms of story questions, plot turns, and the like. As I hammered out the details, I created additional chapters so that I could start to “store” the drafted scenes elsewhere, and be able to see the overall story starting to develop. As I thought of new twists and turns, I simply dragged and dropped scenes to accommodate.
The point is that however you create, yWriter will allow you to handle the text the way you need to so that you remain in control.
Third, Understanding the Whole Shebang
Each scene has an area that allows you to write a brief synopsis, which 1) allows you to quickly see what the scene is about, and 2) the program will use to create a brief or thorough synopsis.
yWriter gives you three ways to grok your story in the big sense: a brief synopsis, a detailed synopsis, and a storyboard. If you take the time to fill in the basic info as you’re creating your scenes, all three of these tools are just a couple clicks away when you need them. That can save time. Say your agent asks, “Where are you at on that novel?” You click a couple buttons and fire off a synopsis.
Of course, it’s far more important what the tools do for you than for your agent.
Writers get myopic. We see the story so much we lose the ability to be surprised, so we struggle to understand how the story will hit a reader. That’s true from the smallest level, word choice, to the biggest, plot turns and character motivations.
The synopsis and storyboard provide a quick, thorough way to get a macro understanding of how the story is developing. The synopsis spells out, in sequence, every scene description, word count, and point of view. The storyboard, which you can see below, shows scenes arranged on point of view character’s timeline, within the context of every other character timeline, and thus, the entire novel’s timeline.
You can see each plot shift, monitor the story questions you’ve created and the timing of the clues you’ve provided your readers. You can see whether the story is unfolding logically. All of that is embedded in my shorthand scene explanations you see below.
In my case, after I wrote the rough draft, I used a handy tool built into the software that exported the scenes and chapters into a Word document. I found I preferred editing in Word for two reasons. First, I had the scenes in the order I wanted, and all of the details were in place, meaning from then onward, I’d have little need of my extensive notes. Ease of use became paramount and I’m more familiar with editing in Word. To keep my eyes fresh for the text, I like to be able to change the font, line spacing, and margins for the entire document. I could do that more easily in Word. Second, I like to edit on paper and then update my document based on the red ink. I find it easier to navigate the commands, drag, drop, cut paste, backspace, delete, in Word than yWriter.
Wrapping it Up
Using yWriter was a great experience and the next time I sit down to write a rough draft, I’ll return to yWriter. The program allowed me to capture ideas coming out the floodgate, while imposing enough order on them that later editing and organizing was made easier. The program increased my efficiency, allowed me to see fundamental problems in story structure long before I got married to the text through multiple edits. The program allowed me to keep track of tons of information so that I could quickly organize a very complicated story, with a lot of timelines and flashbacks, without a lot of word searches, or reading vast swathes of text to make sure I wasn’t contradicting myself.
yWriter has a lot of functionality that I haven’t discussed, and I’m sure that if I was more familiar with the program I could have avoided switching to Word until the very end.
The best thing about yWriter is that it is free, so it isn’t going to cost you anything to see if it will work for you. Check it out here.
Please take a moment to comment on your experience with yWriter or other book writing software. Also, if you’re a writer you probably know plenty of other writers who’d love to know about yWriter. Consider using the buttons on the left to post this article to your Twitter or Facebook page!