The best free software for writers 2019: planning, writing and publishing

We've hand-picked the very best free software for writers, which will make it easier to plan, write without distractions, and prepare your work for publication.

Writers tend to make a very big deal of their tools, whether those tools are delicate pens or ancient typewriters. Increasingly, though, they'll talk about their software. Even the most genteel literary event can soon devolve into a fist-fight between fans of Scrivener and Ulysses (both of which cost around £27, US$40, AU$50).

Microsoft Word is the default tool for many writers, but a subscription to Office 365 costs £59.99/US$69.99/AU$89 per year for one user – pretty steep if you only need the word processing element.

There's often a better option for those of us starving in garrets: free software. Come with us as we discover the best free apps to turn your writing talent into something tangible.

1. FocusWriter

Operating system: Windows, macOS, Linux

Available for Linux, Windows and macOS, FocusWriter is designed to eliminate distractions so you can actually get on with the job of writing. To that end, it enables you to hide other apps, customize the way your text appears on screen and keep track of your progress. If you're feeling particularly old-school you can even add typewriter sound effects.

FocusWriter isn't for everyone – it's not the right tool for going back through and editing your work – but it's a lovely little app with a very modest footprint that stops you keeping an eye on Twitter all day.

Read our full FocusWriter review

2. WriteMonkey

Operating system: Windows, macOS, Linux

We're big fans of Markdown, the text-editing language that enables you to format, annotate, classify and link as you type with the minimum of fuss, and the superb WriteMonkey makes good use of it.

This free program delivers an incredibly stripped-down user interface that's considerably more powerful than it looks. There's an excellent outliner, automatic syntax highlighting and file organisation, and although markdown takes a bit of getting used to, you'll be very glad you made the effort.

Once you've mastered WriteMonkey, you can use it to create blog posts, print publications and anything else that needs words in it.

Read our full WriteMonkey review

3. LibreOffice Writer

Operating system: Windows, macOS, Linux

LibreOffice is a free, open source alternative to Microsoft Office, and that means its word processing app, Writer, has many of the power features of Word without the accompanying price tag.

It's a great choice for writers, with a full set of editing tools, a thesaurus, dictionaries for pretty much any language you can think of, and an active community in the support forums ready to help with any questions you might have.

It's available for Windows, macOS and Linux, and receives regular updates with new features and bug fixes.

The only real drawback compared to Word is the lack of direct cloud support, although you can easily use it together with a service like Dropbox, and the absence of a mobile app for working on the move. If you're happy to stick with the desktop then this could be the only word processor you need.

Read our full LibreOffice review

4. Scribus

Operating system: Windows, macOS, Linux

If your words' appearance is as important as their meaning, give Scribus a go: it's a free, highly-rated desktop publishing application for Linux, OS X and Windows that's suitable for producing entire magazines.

It's been kicking around – and regularly updated – since 2001, and while it's a little tricky to use at first, it offers professional-grade publishing with layered, multi-page documents and good colour management support. If you've ever used Adobe InDesign, you'll find the similarity striking. If you can use one, you'll pick up the other in seconds.

We wouldn't want to lay out a 400-page book in it (though that's quite possible), but for shorter works it's ideal.

Read our full Scribus review

5. Freemind

Operating system: Windows, macOS, Linux

Here's another app for writers that isn't strictly for putting your words on the screen: Freemind is all about mind mapping, and it enables you to record all the leaps and bounds your imagination makes whether you're plotting a potboiler or trying to organize complex threads of an investigation.

Freemind isn't something we'd necessarily recommend for mind mapping beginners – it looks a bit like a desktop publishing app having some kind of breakdown – but if you're an experienced intellectual explorer it's a lot tidier than a wall full of index cards and sticky notes.

Read our full Freemind review

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