There’s been a little bit of disruption in the “writer’s tools” market recently. I see a lot of questions online about which tool is the best, and having spent my time in the various saddles, I thought I’d break down which I think is best.
- macOS: Vellum + Mac Notes. Optional: Aeon Timeline.
- Windows: Word + OneNote + Atticus. Optional: Aeon Timeline.
- Browser-based: You can probably get away with just Atticus, but if the rough edges bother you, consider augmenting with Google’s Docs, Keep, and Drawings.
Wait, I thought this was about Vellum, Atticus, and Scrivener… WTAF are the other tools for?
Good catch. Let’s consider writing as workflow. For example, your workflow might start with an idea, then an outline or timeline, a draft, editing, and finally production.
I’ll focus on Vellum, Atticus, and Scrivener here, but my workflow relies on a good notes app, and a great timeline tool. Unless you can keep a word bible in your skull, you’ll need a notes app. If you’re an outline (rather than discovery) writer, you will benefit from a timeline/plot tool like Aeon Timeline. I touch on both briefly at the end.
A factor for me is whether the tool provides a perpetual or subscription license. Perpetual licenses are those you buy once for eternal access, and subscriptions are (generally) lower-priced, but carry a monthly or yearly fee. Once you stop paying for a subscription service, you lose access to the tool (and often, the data inside it).
I have a strong preference for perpetual license models, so I’ve focused on tools supporting that. I’ve got a couple call-outs at the end if you want to investigate subscription-based software. My cost profile for our perpetual license tools (as of November 2023, in New Zealand dollars) looks like:
- macOS NZD$505.98: Vellum $409.99 + Mac Notes (free) + Aeon Timeline $95.99.
- Windows NZD$529.99: Word $185 + OneNote (free) + Atticus ~$249 + Aeon Timeline $95.99.
- Browser-based NZD$249: Atticus ~$249. Brace for a few imperfections.
If you’re really into compilation pain and want to go with Scrivener, that’s $99.99. I used to use this exclusively (no Word, Vellum, etc.) and it totally can be done. It also turned me into an alcoholic because compilation is a fuckoff; I don’t recommend this, and we’ll get into details below.
Regardless of platform, you’ll get some free cloud storage for things like backups; both Apple and Microsoft offer 5GB free. If you’re browser-based, Google’s 15GB of free storage is pretty sweet and should allow you to scale Docs across quite a few books before you hit a price barrier.
Most authors will spend the largest chunk of their time in their writing software, rather than outlining, notes, or production. Writing software needs to be frictionless, slick, and just fucken work. It shouldn’t crash or be riddled with bugs.
Here’s the comparison table; I’ll break this down below.
|Platform||macOS||macOS, Windows, iOS||Your browser||macOS, Windows, iOS, Android|
|Drag and drop sections||Y||Y||Y||Not on MacOS|
|Smart quotes||Y||Y, bit iffy on Windows||Y, quite buggy||Y|
|Output Styles||Y||Through the agony of compilation||Y||Not really|
|Automatic backups||Y – macOS file versions||Y – macOS file versions|Windows Backup, backup folder||Not really – you can manually export to .DOCX||Y – Windows Backup (OneDrive)|
|Progress tracking||Y, word count by document, chapter, and section||Y, word count by document, chapter, and section, plus extensive by-day reporting||Y, word count by document, chapter, and section||Word count by document only|
|Understanding of sections, chapters, front matter, automated social links, back matter, etc.||Y, neat feature to re-use back matter||Y, compilation agony here though||Y, neat feature to create cross-document “masters”||Not really – does a mean ToC though|
|Security features (encryption, authentication)||FileVault, TouchID||By platform||No MFA support yet||Windows device encryption, Windows Hello|
|Performance – startup speed, editor navigation, search/replace, section movement, quick access to last opened doc||Extraordinary||Extraordinary||Bit crunchy||Great, can be a little a little slow on startup|
|WYSIWYG||Y – book preview available as you type||Not really – formatting is visible but you can’t “see your book” until compilation||Y – book preview available as you type||Not really – formatting is visible but you can’t “see your book” until retailer conversion|
|Chapter PoV perspective, tagging for editing||Not really, can workaround with chapter images or emoji||Y, extensive colourised and labelled visibility||Not really, can workaround with chapter images or emoji||N|
|Inbuilt word bible, character sheets, and note book||N||Y, extensive||N||N|
|Re-use of back matter||Y||N||Y||N|
|Support||Excellent – email-based||Excellent – forum-based||Excellent – email-based||LOL|
|Richard’s Likability™ factor||Feels lovely to use||Pretty slick, but you’ll hate yourself at compilation time. This one step will curse your descendants for all time, ushering an age of darkness on your house||Pretty good||It’s Word. Bit “corp” and boring|
That’s a wonderful eye chart. What’s it mean?
I kicked off this analysis after hitting the production cycle of my latest series, and (once again!) jousting with Scrivener to export the manuscript. Scrivener’s “Vellum export” template just doesn’t work, and I decided I wasn’t up for this kind of heartache anymore.
I spent time with Vellum, Atticus, and Scrivener for writing, editing, and production. Let me lay some nuance on y’all.
Vellum. Vellum is the “just works” option out of all that I’ve tried. 180g markets this as an eBook production suite, but it’s very capable as an all-around writing suite as well. There’s something quite special about seeing your ebook output as you write it. Equipped with Word export so you can share your book with your editor, you can also re-import the edits which can cut down your production time. I’ve found Vellum’s online documentation the best of them all, and the company provides great by-email support if you need it. The software gets regular updates. It has sped up my production cycle tremendously, and has given me zero pain. EDIT 11/11/2023: Vellum just released re-use of back matter! This is similar to my favourite Atticus feature of Master Pages (below).
Scrivener. Before there was Vellum, Scrivener was the bad boy we all relied on. I’ve been using this on Mac since the before times, and was an early adopter of their Windows version. Scrivener is weirdly powerful, and if you’ve ever wondered if it can do something, the answer is yes. It’s got some rough edges though, most notably in the compilation stage, which is a bit of a nightmare and requires a doctorate in molecular engineering to get right. There are some weirdisms across the platfrms as well; for example, writing on the go using the iOS edition isn’t seamless, because smart quotes suck in the iOS edition, and it requires Dropbox for cloud sync, which is quite limiting. While this software has helped me write a lot of books, I’ve moved to Vellum because compilation in Scrivener is a cancer, and I believe they see how they do compilation as a differentiator, so are unlikely to change it. Support is good; they have an active forum and I’ve been able to get answers from community and company reps on there in good time. The docs are comprehensive too, although … wordy. It has an inbuilt notes function (we’ll touch on this below).
Atticus. I really want to like this! The company’s been aggressively releasing updates to close the feature gap with other suites, but it’s not quite there yet from a glitches point of view. It makes a great first impression, with a slick UI that closely resembles what you get in Vellum. The rough edges get tiresome from a writing perspective though, like smart quotes being ruinously fiddly, and em-dashes causing quotation issues. The performance isn’t great either, with the editor being a little sluggish. Automatic backups and two-factor authentication aren’t there yet either. However, it’s got some neat innovations – a thing I really like is the ability to create master pages (like front or back matter) you can replicate across all your books. Want to change your socials? Do it once and have it replicated everywhere. As far as a replacement to Scrivener or Word goes, it’s not quite there – but as a cost-effective replacement for the production side of Vellum, assuming your input copy is clean, it’s a good piece of kit. The support team is great, and they are open to feature requests to add to their roadmap, and there’s a robust set of online documentation. This is one to watch, as if they can fix the bugs and glitches, it will kick ass.
Word. I mean, this is ol’ faithful, right? As an editor, it’s fine! For ebook production, you need something else like Vellum or Atticus. I don’t think Word is great for progress tracking, and on macOS, you can’t use the Navigation Pane to move sections around (a deal-breaker for me). Startup is a little slow, and it is by no means stable – this is easily the crashiest software of any in this list (macOS or Windows both). It does have a nice browser-based version assuming you use OneDrive, but there are some odd limitations like a million-character limit (I wrote a book longer than this, that one time!). It’s unsuitable for eBook production, but it’s a fine authoring suite. Coupled with Atticus, it’s a great answer for Windows users. Support’s a bit iffy, though; while Microsoft Learn and other support articles are generally good, other formal support is dire. There are many online forums including the Microsoft Communities site to get help, but the Psychic Hotline can often be more accurate.
A note on … notes.
One of Scrivener’s selling points is the integrated notes function. Scrivener documents can hold character bios, images, maps, and so on. The challenge here is they’res not shared between Scrivener documents, so you will either need to have a separate Scrivener document just for notes, do a lot of copy/paste, or embrace the winds of change and use a notes suite.
Having tried both approaches, I find Scrivener a bit fiddly as a dedicated notes suite, and would recommend either Mac Notes (macOS) or OneNote (Windows). You can get away with OneNote on macOS, but I’ve found the Mac version of OneNote plagued with sync issues; it’s just a bit slow and buggy, and I’ve had situations of lost data and other fuckery that make it hard to recommend off Windows.
Both Mac Notes and OneNote have credible phone versions (assuming you’re on iOS for Mac Notes). I do a bit of brainstorming on the go so this is a neat feature I use a lot. It also lets you do things like keep your notes open on an iPad while you write on your computer; this alone makes separating note-taking out of Scrivener or other writing tool worthwhile.
What about Aeon Timeline?
If you haven’t played with Aeon Timeline, you probably should. It’s kind of like the easy-to-use, polite, and handsome edition of Microsoft Project. It’s got some neat features that benefit authors, like Scrivener integration if you’re still wanting to die on that hill, freeform brainstorming (a little like Scapple), and some really slick visualisations.
I’m more of a discovery writer than an outline writer, but I still use Aeon Timeline because it’s so damn good. It’s great for debugging your stories (e.g., write the story, then retroactively use it to ensure continuity and timeline consistency). The support team here is also great, and there’s a good online docs section.
It works on macOS, Windows, and iOS, so you’re covered no matter where you go. It’s a fraction of the price of something like Project, and won’t make you hate yourself in quite the same way. I’m a big fan.
Two subscription-based alternatives
If you don’t want to chunk out a bunch of coin up front and/or prefer a predictable monthly cost for your writing tools, let me suggest two options for you.
- 4thewords is a brilliant gamified browser-based tool for writers. It’s $4/month, and has a sweet UI, many production options, community competitions (e.g., NaNoWriMo), and is just generally rad. I recommend you check this out as your first port of call. Check out the walkthrough video 👌🏼
- Ulysses was a winner of the Apple Design Award. macOS only, sadly, but it’s kind of like what Scrivener should be like – deleting the excruciating compilation phase while preserving all the other features. $5.99/month gets you in there.
Bear in mind with both tools you’ve got a bit of a lobster trap problem for your documents.
And that’s that. Hopefully this has helped you decide which software is best for you, based on what you need and which platform you’re on. Now go out there and kick ass with your story!
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