Software Tools for Writing Projects

This is a list of tools for writing projects. If you’ve ever grappled with long documents, pulled out your hair due to persnickety bibilographic style requirements, or struggled with getting those first few ideas down, you’re in the right place. Hopefully some of this software can ease your pain and open the way to more productive writing activity.

I have also created a webinar on four of these tools (Scapple, Notebook, Scrivener, and Zotero), which you can check out here.

Research Management & Outliners

These tools are great for collecting and organizing research, planning your writing hierarchically, and keeping track of what you’ve read for use in literature reviews and research.

Circus Ponies Notebook

Circus Ponies Notebook is a cute, powerful, handy swiss army knife of a notebook application. I use it for a digital journal, for my total bibliography, and for several topic notebooks. It helps me outline my lit reviews, organize my annotations, and take class notes. The skeuomorphic style (i.e. it resembles a paper notebook) makes it easy to use– I love books, so I feel right at home. You can link between pages, search throughout your database, and follow a linear page order to organize your documents– and employ all these strategies at the same time. There’s no end to how long an individual page can be, or how deeply its outlines can nest; yet it still feels wieldy due to the table of contents, divider tabs, and automatically-generated multidex. Check it out!  (Mac only, $39.95 for students.) Update: Regrettably, as of Jan 2016, CPN is out of business. A real pity! Seems like OmniOutliner might be the best migration solution (CPN -> OPML), although linked images and diagrams will not carry through.


Evernote has had a lot of success branding itself as the cloud service to dump all the details of your life into. I have friends who love it, and who have pretty much gone the digital archive route with Evernote. There are free accounts and paid upgrades, and it’s a cross-platform solution (there’s even a Linux client, and a ‘more aesthetically refined’ Mac client). As a hybrid sci-fi-luddite, I love the writing software, but I prefer to keep it local– so this cloud-based solution is not for me. But check it out– you might like it. (Mac, Windows, Linux, Android, iOS. Freemium.)

Microsoft OneNote

Lots of people swear by OneNote for their note-taking. I tried it out and liked the free-form canvas, but I don’t really like storing stuff in the cloud, or signing up for a service that the provider warns might be taken down at any time. That said, if you trust Microsoft (and hey, who doesn’t?), OneNote could be a really great tool for you. Check out this blog post about note-taking and outlining with OneNote. (Mac and Windows. Freemium.)

Notational Velocity

This little gem lets you build a big text database and easily filter by searching. It’s designed to be minimalist, keyboard-driven, and hassle-free. The original version of Notational Velocity is Mac-only, as is its modifed brother NValt. I use NValt, which has some great extras, like MultiMarkdown preview, tag support, wiki-style links to connect notes, and other enhanced thingies. (Some of this may exist in the original NV, but I’m not sure which.) For Windows and Linux users there’s the python-based nvPY, which has the same basic functionality, but is uglier. (Windows users may need to use these special install instructions.) I also used nvPY on Linux, and later ported my ‘database’ to OS X– which is pretty easy, because it’s just a folder with text files in it. (Making NV perhaps the best future-proofed computerized database around. It is also possible to store your notes in a strongly encrypted format.) I mostly use NValt to manage my to-do lists and little fragments of text, but you could use it to manage a whole plain-text research database. (Free!)

More Outliners

Wikipedia has an extensive list of outlining software.

Brainstorming & Planning

Need to organize, brainstorm, plan, and discover structure? These visual-spatial tools help you build basic structures, generate new ideas, and understand connections among them quickly. Those who (like me) thrive on maps will find these quite beneficial.


What I love about Scapple is that it’s cheap, really easy to get ideas down on the page (screen), and it doesn’t force you into a hierarchical format. For mindmapping tools, this is by far the best in my book. When I need linear nesting, I’ll go to an outliner; but for non-linear complex connectedness, Scapple is where it’s at. Adding a new item is as simple as double-clicking and typing; to connect two items, just drag one onto the other, and a line appears. You can drag and drop images, URLs, and documents from your computer to embed or link to them, and color controls offer flexible styling. Literature & Latte offers a 30-day trial, so take it for a spin. (Mac and Windows. $14.99.)


FreePlane is a free, cross-platform, powerful mind-mapper. You can create vast maps, link to different parts, manage sub-nodes, style things however you want, and export in multiple formats. It has filtering tools to find specific items in your mindmap, and you can customize some hotkeys to make buried menu commands more accessible.  For hierarchical mind-mapping, it can be a really great tool. That said, its Java interface looked pretty clunky on my Mac, and the fonts just didn’t antialias smoothly. I’m pretty sensitive to GUIs, and hierarchical mindmapping still just isn’t my thing– I prefer roughing it out and then getting it in to shape. So I decided to return to Scapple and Notebook for my needs. But if you like large ramified trees to connect your information, you should definitely check FreePlane out.

Pen and paper

The classic! There’s nothing quite as satisfying as thick notebooks, huge hand-drawn diagrams, and sticky notes every which way. I’m a big fan.

Other Mind Mapping Tools

Wikipedia has an extensive list of mind-mapping tools, including handy feature comparison tables.

LifeHacker rated the five best mind-mapping tools in 2013.

Delineato Pro is a mapper and diagrammer with a lovely aesthetic, but the interface isn’t that natural for me. (Mac and iPad, $7.)

Composing & Managing Writing Projects

These software products help you concentrate on your writing, organize longer texts, organically grow the structure of your writing, and keep your writing projects on track.


The premier software tool for writers, Scrivener offers robust features, a strong user community, and a mature product. I can’t say enough about how great this product is, and neither can this enthusiastic academic. The longer I use it, the more I learn about how great it is. Really. Scrivener remains under active development, and they’re working on an iOS version, too. Definitely worth trying out– free 30 day trial. (Mac, Windows, and Linux. $45, academic discount available.)

Ulysses for Mac

An alternative to Scrivener, Ulysses is particularly suited to composing in Markdown. As I refuse to update to OS 10.10 Yosemite because of how it looks on non-retina Macs, I have not tried it. (Mac and iPad, $44.99; Mac version requires OS 10.10.)

Citation Management

Use a citation manager to create your personal bibliographic database, annotate documents, insert citations into papers, and automagically generate bibliographies.


Zotero is an excellent, robust, mature, well-supported cross-platform citation management tool. This will be the savior of many an academic and grad student, for it assembles bibliographies in a snap, and stores all your citation information at your fingertips. Definitely requires some work up-front to populate and curate the citation database, but after that, it’s all dividends, in terms of time saved and hassle avoided. It can sync your citation database to the cloud, let you share your library with others, and offers the option to pay for extra storage space (i.e. for synching your whole PDF library). It integrates easily with Word and LibreOffice, and with a little extra effort, can be made to play well with Scrivener. Zotero is available as a browser plug-in or in a standalone version. (Free, open-source, cross-platform.)


I haven’t used EndNote, but it’s there. Maybe the price tag is an issue? (Mac and Windows. $250 for one license, $115 for students.)


RefWorks is a web-based citation management tool. It’s costly, but many universities offer it free for their faculty, students, and staff. It remains to be seen what will happen to your account after you graduate! Hopefully you’ll be able to export to BibTex or something.

For CIIS readers who came here from my July 2015 webinar, know that CIIS offers RefWorks to its academic community. Visit the library’s Resources page and see the RefWorks link under “Academic Tools.”


Bookends integrates with Scrivener and Nisus Writer Pro (my main composition tools), but I can’t get over the interface, which seems clunky to me each time I try it. Again, I need aesthetic as well as functional elegance, but not all of us are so finicky… (Mac only, $60)


Mendeley is designed to provide a PDF research environment, a citation management database, and an academic collaboration platform all in one. I am cloud- and freemium-phobic, and I don’t like reference managers that require you to become part of their social network. (Again, my tech-savvy Luddite position.) All that to say that I don’t have much more to say about Mendeley, except that I tried it and found Zotero and my other solutions to be satisfactory. But hey, maybe it’s your cup of tea! (Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android. Freemium.)

Software Efficiency for Graduate Students

These sites give some great tips for evaluating and using software in grad school.

Personal Knowledge Management for Academics and Librarians is a haphazard data pile of a blog that reeks of gold, if only you have the patience to mine it.

Catherine Pope’s Digital Researcher offers some nice posts about software tools for academic research, including 7 habits of highly effective researchers.

Crystal Renfro has curated a nice set of articles offering Productivity Tools for Grad Students, which I have only just discovered but will begin to plumb forthwith… just as soon as I finish that lit review, and get back those proposal comments, and finish writing this blog post… 😉

Organizing Creativity

Daniel Wessel’s great blog and book Organizing Creativity really helped me grapple with understanding and designing my research workflow. Check it out! It was really super-helpful– I crafted a workflow, learned about a bunch of these tools, and really began to understand the cycle of research. In fact, most of what I’ve presented above, I came to through Daniel’s work. His blog covers a lot of the ground of using digital tools for academic research workflows, but it’s also applicable for people working in fields other than academia. His book is helpful for writers of any kind, and really for anyone involved in any project that requires that new ideas be created, collected, organized, and implemented. You can download his book for free, and you should— and if you like it, you should buy it.

I hope these tools help you in your writing projects! Please give me a shout out in the comments if you’d like to let me know.

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