A reader of this blog recently e-mailed me asking for a recommendation for a novel-writing software package. A few months ago, I reviewed some of the major novel-writing suites for PC Mag ("Ten Tools for Your Bestseller"). For Windows users, I thought yWriter4 was the best all-around package for writers. And the fact that it is a free download makes it an even better value.
But the question remains: Does using novel-writing software significantly the process or greatly reduce the time it takes to crank out a decent draft? Obviously, writers have been creating magnificent literature for hundreds of years without computers or novel software. So here's my take: If you are a beginner, working on your first novel, or without much academic training, this software can be very helpful. At its core, most novel-writing suites are organization tools. They use the scene as the basic building block of fiction and shape their programs around that premise. Any package worth its salt should let you create character profiles, scene summaries, plot and story arcs, setting descriptions, and more. Such features can be incredibly handy for those who constantly struggle to keep notes and outlines organized.
Keep in mind that most suites are better utilized when you are at square 1 in the process, instead of trying to incorporate the software in the middle of writing or editing your novel. Also, I've found the word processors in these programs awkward. Most are not nearly as powerful or feature rich as Microsoft Word. Another problem with novel-writing software is that it will probably be difficult to use for those who are accustomed to tactile, physical world notebooks, index cards, and even sketch pads. And since these programs are often very robust, you can easily spend more time writing character profiles, scene notes, and summaries than actually writing your novel. Finally, if you're not diligent about backing up and you have no hard copies, your entire novel--outline, manuscript, everything--can be obliterated if your computer dies or is stolen.
I think the best way to approach novel-writing software is to download yWriter4 and give it a shot. If it appeals to you, you can stick with it or go for one of the for-pay packages. Writing a novel is one of the most difficult things you will ever do, and no software can change that essential fact. It is also one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had, no matter whether the novel gets published.