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I've published 60 novels - and these 5 free writing tools helped make it possible

From drafting manuscripts to tracking edits and creating book covers, I get the job done with the help of these indispensable - and free - apps.
Written by Jack Wallen, Contributing Writer
Kilito Chan/Getty Images

I've been writing for more than 30 years and have published nearly 60 novels. During those three decades, I've tried out several applications to make the process more efficient, or simply possible. Eventually, I was able to weed out the tools I didn't need, until there were only five remaining. 

Three of these five tools make it possible to write, collaborate, and submit. On top of that, with the addition of two more tools I can better manage what can be a complex process -- and even create high-quality book covers.

Also: Chrome now has a new AI writing tool to help you write almost anything online

I know there are several tools available -- such as Scrivener and Atticus.-- that can serve as one-stop shops for many of these tasks. I prefer not to use those because I find them to be somewhat limiting. Tools that combine storyboards, dashboards, notes, chapter breakdowns, and the like are fine for some writers, but I've been writing long enough that I don't need much help piecing tasks together to make a cohesive whole. The process I've created works well for me.

Another thing about my method is that all of the tools I use are free. For one of those tools -- Apple Pages -- you do have to purchase a MacOS (or iPadOS) device, so -- technically speaking -- that piece of software does have an associated hardware cost. Everything else, however, is free of charge.

If you're either a budding author or someone looking to make their process a bit more effective, read on.

1. LibreOffice

This is where the magic happens. I write all of my first draft manuscripts in the open-source LibreOffice. There are several reasons why this is my word processor of choice, but it boils down to efficiency and customization. Not only does LibreOffice include the usual tools like spellcheck, but it's possible to create customizations that can help lead to a more efficient workflow. One of them is as simple as customizing the UI to better fit the way you work. Another is to edit styles such that you do not always have to reformat every style to match the requirements of your publisher. Those two features alone help make me a more efficient writer.

I tend to write a full-length novel in two to three months, which means I need a word processor that doesn't get in my way or might randomly close on me for updates. I require a tool that is highly compatible with other word processors. My primary editor uses MS Word on a MacBook. I've been sending her .docx files from LibreOffice for years and haven't had a single complaint. 

Also: 5 ways LibreOffice meets my writing needs better than Google Docs can

The only time we had issues was when I collaborated with another author and had to use Google Docs. When those manuscripts were sent to the editor, we wound up having to spend an inordinate amount of time correcting problems caused by a combination of Google Docs, an older version of MS Word, and the latest version of MS Word. Had I stuck with LibreOffice, those issues would not have surfaced.

LibreOffice can be installed on Linux, MacOS, and Windows.

2. Apple Pages

When the first round of edits for my novels come in, it's time to fire up Apple Pages. Why do I switch applications? Simple. Although LibreOffice is an outstanding tool for first drafts, when it comes to edits, it can choke on a file with a large amount of comments. To avoid that, I make the switch. Apple Pages gracefully handles all comments and track changes without batting a metaphorical eye.

If you're not dealing with a lot of track changes or comments, LibreOffice will be fine. But if you're working with an editor who really knows their stuff, your manuscript will be filled to overflowing with the stuff -- so go with Apple Pages.

Apple Pages is only available on MacOS and iOS devices, although you can access documents shared to iCloud via a browser. Personally, I prefer not to save my documents to the cloud because I don't want to give third-party services any access that enables them to train AI with my work.

3. Calibre

Calibre is one of the most powerful tools for converting your manuscript to ebook format (which will most often be EPUB). Sure, you could do this with Apple Pages (or another word processor) but those tools don't offer nearly the power and features of Calibre. With Calibre, you can get into the source of your book and edit the HTML and CSS of the file. I've found this is the only reliable way to center images and get the formatting exactly how you want it. 

Also: How to convert documents to e-books the easy way

Calibre is free and can be installed on Linux, MacOS, and Windows. 


I've not only created covers for my own books, but also for books by other authors. And although my publisher uses their artists for the majority of my covers, every once in a while, I have an idea and create it myself. For example, when I finished the first book of my most recent series, I had an idea and put it together in about an hour. I sent it to my publisher and they loved it. I've been creating the covers for that series ever since. 

Also: GIMP 3 is coming! The 3 features that I'm most excited about (and why)

Before being picked up by my current publisher, I was doing all of my own covers -- and for this work, I used none other than GIMP. GIMP stands for Gnu Image Manipulation Project and it's essentially the open-source version of Photoshop. With the power of Photoshop -- and a comparable learning curve -- GIMP features everything you could ever need to create beautiful, engaging book covers. 

GIMP is free and can be installed on Linux, MacOS, and Windows.

5. Trello

There've been a few instances when I had three different books in various stages: one in first draft, one in beta, and one in editing. When that happens, it helps to keep track of where each book is in the workflow.

I've also written some very complicated books that require chapter-by-chapter planning (when an outline just isn't enough). For those instances, I turn to the kanban-style, list-making project manager -- Trello. I have one kanban board for workflow (with columns like Idea, First Draft, Beta, Edits, Submitted, Published) and one used as a pseudo storyboard, which can include columns like Characters, Plots, Sub-plots, Chapters, Locations, etc. 

Also: This free screenwriting app makes writing screenplays and scripts very easy

I can do all of this with a free Trello account and even install the desktop application on all of my devices, so I have access to those boards at all times.

Trello can be accessed via a web browser or you can install desktop apps for Linux, MacOS, or Windows and even use it via mobile apps on Android and iPhone.

And that's it, all the tools I need to successfully (and efficiently) write a novel. You might think you need a far-costlier, all-in-one solution, but you'd be surprised that this list of tools can do everything and do it far cheaper and with more flexibility.

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