5 of the best free writing apps for designers

Finding the right writing tool for you can make the difference between becoming a blogging rock star and … well, never writing.

John Moore Williams
November 19, 2015
Resources

Writing is a vital part of the design process. And finding the right writing tool for you can make the process more enjoyable, flexible, and even fun.

These 5 tools have made all the difference for me. They might just do the same for you.

Note: I’ve omitted Google Docs and Evernote here. They're great tools, but everybody knows all about them.

1. Quip: a cross-platform writing and collaboration app

"The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus.

If you’re looking to improve your writing, you need to do four things:

  1. Writing. Every day.
  2. Getting feedback from better writers.
  3. Edit.
  4. Edit more.

And while Quip wasn’t built to help with number 1, it can be incredibly handy for number 2. That’s because the Quip team did a beautiful job integrating sharing and chat right into the app.

Within each document, you’ll see a sidebar featuring a few of your favorite collaborators. Just click the plus button next to the right person and they’re automatically added to the doc. Or you can share with a link. Once a collaborator’s joined, you can have a chat about the content right inside the doc. Need to focus on writing for awhile? Just collapse the sidebar and switch to the full-screen view to get into the flow.

Quip also offers an app everywhere you could want it. Use it in your browser, on your desktop, or your mobile and everything stays beautifully in sync.

Don't want to get distracted with styling, but still want beautiful type? Quip's got your covered with 5 typographic themes to choose from.

I’m also a big fan of Quip’s export options, which include Microsoft Word, PDF, Markdown, HTML, and LaTeX.

2. Hemingway Editor: the ultimate editing tool

So meta.

E.B. White, author of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, once wrote:

The best writing is rewriting.

Which I’d (humbly) edit to:

The best writing is editing.

Writing requires at least two stages: expansion (writing) and contraction (editing).

While you’re writing, let yourself go. Write down whatever comes to mind without second-guessing your phrasing. This stage is all about letting your ideas pour out on to the screen without self-censorship. It’s like a brainstorming session, except it sucks less.

Once you’ve flooded the page with your ideas, let them rest awhile, then come back for an editorial pass. Now’s the time to start cutting unnecessary words, simplifying complex sentences, and improving flow.

For stage two, nothing beats Hemingway Editor, because it was made for the editing stage. (Though it does have a writing mode that turns off all the features designed to help you edit.)

For my own workflow, I’ll write in Google Docs or Quip, then copy and paste my content into Hemingway. Then Hemingway automagically sweeps through the document, highlighting:

  1. Hard-to-read sentences
  2. Very hard-to-read sentences
  3. Phrases you could simplify
  4. Adverbs
  5. Instances of passive voice

Also known as the “5 deadly sins of writing.”

It also grades your text’s “readability” based on the difficulty of your diction and sentence structures. Super handy for writing for the web, where the standard is to aim for a reading level of 5th to 7th grade.

You can use Hemingway Editor for free on the web, and it’s just $10 to get it on your Mac or Windows desktop.

3. Grammarly: the writing and editing tool that teaches

Good catch, Grammarly. But I do indeed mean "automagically."

As I mentioned, getting feedback from better writers is one of the best ways to improve your skills. But not everybody knows a pro writer or three.

Enter Grammarly, which offers more detailed feedback on your writing than Hemingway Editor. It calls out common grammatical mistakes, word choice problems, and other mechanical issues. (Though the paid version does highlight more complex issues.)

My favorite Grammarly feature is its browser extension, which gives you grammatical feedback wherever you write on the web. Pretty handy.

I’d recommend Grammarly for anyone who's trying to strengthen their mechanics, particularly second-language learners.

4. Draft: minimal Markdown editor

I've got a real bone to pick with dumb quotes.

Draft is a lovingly designed and maintained side project of Nathan Kontny’s. Created as a way to offer better version control to writers who collaborate a lot, Draft has grown into a robust tool with a long feature list. All while remaining a beautifully simple way to write.

Draft offers a minimal interface, Markdown styling, and a “Hemingway Mode” that makes it impossible to delete anything. So you just keep writing. You can import and export documents from and to all over the place, and even build a super-simple website hosted on withdraft.com.

Other handy features include analytics, a fantastic transcription mode, and a super-simple presentation mode.

But what keeps me returning to Draft over and over again is the simple editor. It’s the best way I’ve found to work on my most personal writing projects.

5. Airstory: research, outline, and write in one place

Adding my scattered musings on the design process to a new project.

Few writing apps seem to grasp the whole scope of the writing process. Beyond writing and editing, research also plays a key role, especially for long-form work.

Airstory’s team (of 2) gets it. Probably because both Jim Briggs and Joanna Wiebe are writers.

Airstory’s dashboard divides your writing projects into two panes: On the left, you can add cards containing notes, references, and random ideas. On the right, a bulleted outline of your project. While this might seem pretty simple (and it is), it’s kind of revolutionary for a writing app.

Why? Because most writing tools treat creative input just like the output. Whether you're writing or reading, you start at the top and end at the bottom. But if you write a lot, you know what a non-linear process it can be. You’re constantly shuffling sections; rewriting bits here and there; or deciding to take a different approach entirely.

That’s why I love the card design pattern for writing. Instead of progressing linearly through my document, I can create scattered snippets of copy and sort them however I like.

Note: Airstory launched just a few months back, and it’s definitely still a little buggy. But it has immense promise.  

What’s your favorite writing tool?

There are tons of great writing tools out there, and we’ve only scratched the surface. Let us know what you write with on Twitter.

John Moore Williams

Head of Content Strategy at Webflow. Nice to meet ya. Follow me @JohnAMWill.

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