As the cost-of-living crisis continues, Simon Whaley explores how writers can cut the cost of creativity
With inflation at a forty-year high, we’re surrounded by rising prices. And when it comes to the business of writing, the cost of creativity is increasing, too.
There’s also a growing trend in the software industry to move away from onetime purchase options towards a subscription-based model. Microsoft Office began its annual subscription plan in 2013, and more companies are following suit. While we can still buy Microsoft Office for a one-off fee, they’d much prefer it if we gave them money every year. But why pay for something annually, when there are free alternatives available?
So as price rises continue, is it possible to cut the cost of writing and still be creative?
The publishing industry has welcomed Bill Gates and his Microsoft Office with open arms. In the thirty-odd years I’ve been writing, every magazine and traditional publisher, and most writing competitions, ask for submissions in Microsoft Word format (.doc, .docx).
But other word processors can save or export documents in Word format, so there’s no need to buy or subscribe to Microsoft Office just for this purpose. Apple device users can use Apple’s Pages, which is free, to export their text to Word format.
Open source software, like LibreOffice, provides a fully functioning suit of software, which includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, and drawing package, all for free. It’s available for Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems, and can be downloaded onto your local computer.
Another popular alternative is Google Docs (along with Google Sheets and Google Slides for spreadsheet and presentation options). Known for being an online service, which means it automatically saves any changes you make, it is also possible to use these free services offline too. To do this, though, you need to download the Google Docs Offline Chrome extension, which means you can only make use of this if you use the Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge internet browsers.
Most of these alternatives export documents into Word format with little fuss, although there can be occasional formatting issues. The simplest way to avoid these is to use standard fonts, like Arial or Times New Roman, and keep any special formatting to a minimum.
For those truly creative moments, when all you want to do is get some words down and capture your creativity, a distraction-free environment can be practical and productive. Such writing software takes away all the screen clutter, leaving you with a blank screen and a flashing cursor. There are many such programs, including Ulysses, Scrivener, IA Writer and Byword, but these all come at a cost.
Free alternative FocusWriter (Windows and Linux) allows you to save your work in simple text, basic rich text, or ODT files, while also giving you the option of setting goals and displaying word counts. Writemonkey (Windows only) is a similar stripped-back writing app that is light and fast, and allows you to write as soon as you open it. One click is all you need with Bear (Mac only, free to use on one device) to hide all side panels and slip into focus mode.
Scrivener is the preferred writing software for many writers tackling large projects. Its ability to outline, draft, re-arrange scenes or chapters, and hold a wealth of research material, all in one place, helps writers get to grips with the biggest of projects.
Manuskript (Windows/Linux) is a free alternative, allowing writers to outline their book, keep track of characters, plots, and timelines, as well as move scenes or chapters about easily. There’s even a novel assistant based upon the snowflake method to help you develop your plot to its full potential.
Bibisco (Windows/Linux/Mac) has two variations, and its community edition is completely free to use. It allows for unlimited projects, tracking characters, chapters and scenes, and it can export any text in pdf, docx and txt formats.
Once we’ve written our text, we need to edit it. While nothing beats a professional editor, there are steps we can take for free, to improve our basic grammar, spelling and punctuation, before handing it over to the specialists.
Online services like Grammarly and ProWritingAid offer a free service where you can paste text into an online editor and scan it for potential errors. You’ll need to create an account first, and they offer more in-depth services for a fee, but the basic free service typically checks for spelling and punctuation errors, as well as some stylistic issues.
Always remember that artificial intelligence powers these services, so their suggestions may not always be appropriate, but they’re a great way to flag up potential errors.
Another useful free editing option is the online Hemingway app (a downloadable version is available for a charge). This does not check for spelling or grammar issues, but instead looks for where text can be strengthened to improve its readability. It analyses the text and checks for passive voice, complex sentences and an overuse of adverbs, and does this by colour-coding your text.
It doesn’t matter whether we write fiction or non-fiction, many writers are information hoarders of research that just might come in useful sometime. I used to be an avid Evernote user, throwing everything and anything I found mildly interesting into it. That was until they put up their annual subscription prices.
Microsoft’s OneNote (Windows/Mac) is free and does not need a paid-for Microsoft Office account, although you will need an account for log-in and sync purposes. This offers 5Gb of free cloud storage, which means you can sync your research across your iOS and Android devices too.
Apple users shouldn’t forget Apple Notes, which allows users to capture notes, ideas, website addresses, images, pdf documents and more in one searchable depository, which can then be accessed from your iCloud account.
Zoho Notebook (Windows/Linux/Mac) allows writers to capture text, checklists, audio, photos, files and sketches and sync it to other devices via the cloud, too. Storage space is unlimited, although there is a maximum 5Gb file limit, which is still generous.
Notion is a web-based service, which is free for personal users, and can be a great depository for information. As with Zoho, there’s a 5Gb file limit, and most file types can be uploaded and stored there.
A key part of the writing business for self-published writers is being able to convert our words in the required ePub format for distribution via ebook sales platforms. Software programs like Scrivener, Vellum, Ulysses, and even Google Docs, can export text into ePub format.
However, there are other ways we can do this at no cost.
A popular piece of software is Calibre (Windows/Linux/Mac), which supports a wide variety of e-readers and ePub formats. It allows you to convert docx and odt files, and even pdfs, although be aware that pdf files don’t convert particularly well.
Draft2Digital is a book distribution service that enables writers to distribute ePub files to online bookstores across the world. As part of this service, users can upload a Word document that their system will convert to an ePub file. They’re happy for writers to use this part of their service, purely to create an ePub file for free, without using their distribution service.
Another free online service is Reedsy, which is better known as a freelance market place where writers can connect with editors, proofreaders, graphic designers and more. The production tool makes it possible to upload a Word file, and then export it as an ePub or even a print-ready pdf file.
The interior is only part of a book’s production process. Cover design and book marketing images are vital. While some design software comes with a hefty price tag, it’s still possible to generate high-quality images with free tools.
Canva takes a lot of the guesswork out of design, whether you want to design a social media image, some bookmarks, or even your next book’s front cover. (I’ve used Canva for all three covers in my Practical Writer series.) With a new desktop app for Windows and Mac, it’s even easier to get creative. Although they have a paid-for subscription model, their free service still offers a wealth of designs and templates.
Those happy designing from scratch, but loathe to subscribe to Adobe Photoshop, should check out GIMP: GNU Image Manipulation Program. Available for Windows, Linux, and Mac, this free, open-source software package has all the sophisticated tools needed to create your next book cover, and more.
Anyone looking for free desktop publishing software should look at Scribus, a free, open-source alternative to Adobe InDesign. It can help you design newsletters, magazines and typeset books.
So while the costs of living continue to rise, there are ways in which we can cut the cost of running our writing business. I’ve even moved my writing business bank account to Starling Bank, which offers free banking for self-employed sole trader accounts.
Sometimes, we only need a piece of software to help us do something once. Therefore, finding a free version makes perfect business sense. At other times, using free software can help us assess whether investing in the well-known product is a price worth paying.
Rising prices needn’t stop us from being creative. But we may, though, have to be a little more creative in selecting the tools we use to be creative in the first place.
Business Directory – Alternative Free Software
Google Docs: https://docs.google.com
Microsoft OneNote: www.onenote.com
Apple Notes: https://apps.apple.com/gb/app/notes/id1110145109
Zoho Notebook: https://www.zoho.com/notebook/
© Simon Whaley