Overview | Writing Software Reference Management Software | Research Tools | Grammar Checking Tools

Whether you are writing an article, research paper, essay, blog, and dissertation or PhD thesis, it is important to choose an appropriate writing software tool for your work. The choice of writing software comes down to your personal taste. Everyday users are happy to shed a few dollars to purchase a well-known writing tool such as MS Word. Tech savvies welcome open source projects such as OpenOffice and LibreOffice. Whereas, research community is much more adventurous and have embraced the type-setting system, Latex as their writing medium. Blog writers and journalists use online writing tools such as GoogleDocs and DropBox Paper as they find these tools perfect for collaborating with others. Novel writers use more fancy writing tools such as Scrivener to organize their ideas and create a storyboard to help them write.  In this blog, we review some of the common writing tools and software used by writers.

1. Microsoft Word

MS Word is the most widely used tool in the writing community.  It comes with great features and keeps evolving with each version. Some of the popular features include: Grammar and spell checker, Thesaurus, text formatting and aligning, bullets and numbering, inserting watermarks, page numbers headers and footers, readymade templates and mail merge.  You can install plenty of third-party plugins and apps to enhance your experience. A good choice of plugins can save you a lot of time and effort with your writing.    

You can use office online for free and save your documents in the cloud; all you need is a Microsoft account. If you need a desktop version, then you have to purchase a copy. Some universities offer free copies to students. Office 365 offers a subscription model that allows you to install the latest version of MS office on up to 5 computers. You will also have access to the online version of MS Office and up to 1TB cloud storage.

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2. Latex

LaTeX is a typesetting system for the communication and publication of scientific documents. It is free software. The writer writes in plain text and then adds markup tags to stylise text. Latex is widely used for publishing scientific papers, thesis, and books in many fields. Latex offers a wide variety of features including cross-referencing tables and figures, bibliography management, page layout, chapter and section headings, and numbering.  It has a steep learning curve, and beginners will take some time to build up expertise in Latex. People who have no or very little experience in programming will take a while to get used to Latex since it is similar to learning a new scripting language. Most publishers make a Latex template available alongside MS Word template as a part of the author submission instructions.

Complex equations can be beautifully formatted in Latex by inserting relevant tags. Latex produces a .tex file which in turn can be converted into a wide variety of output formats such as PDF, HTML, etc. using TEX distribution packages such as MikTex. The major disadvantages of using Latex is that it does not come with an inbuilt spell checker or graphical user interface.  Latex comes with several templates – book, report, article, letter or beamer. You should define the document class in your .tex file so that Latex can include all the necessary packages to produce the final output. One of the biggest advantages of using LateX is that you can concentrate on the writing and leave the formatting to Latex. You don’t have to worry about figures getting out of place because you hit a key by mistake. Everything is taken care of in the backend. One of the powerful features of Latex is bibliography management. Essentially the whole process of referencing and generating bibliography is automated using BibTeX or BibLaTeX.

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3. Open Office

OpenOffice is an open-source product that mimics MS Office. It is completely free, and the suite of products it offers includes Writer (Word), Calc (Excel), Impress (Powerpoint) and Base (Access), plus a vector graphics editor, Draw (Visio). The default file format of OpenOffice is OpenDocument Format (ODF). However, you can open and save documents with DOC and DOCX extensions. OpenOffice is available for Windows, Linux, and macOS, and the tool is distributed under Apache License. Many paid features of MS Word such as PDF export are available for free in OpenOffice. There are no hidden charges for add-ins and upgrades. The tool supports over 40 languages and includes Grammar and spell checker.

OpenOffice might exhibit some formatting issues while working with DOC/DOCX files. These issues might be apparent while working with word files with a lot of pictures, columns, headers and fancy text alignments. OpenOffice remains quite popular as it is downloaded approximately 100,000 times a day. Another important advantage is that it is open source and you can customize the tool to your requirements. It is ideal for small businesses and startups if they are not so keen on shedding money for buying the MS Office site licenses.

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4. LibreOffice

LibreOffice is a free open office suite that is similar to OpenOffice. LibreOffice project branched out from the OpenOffice project in 2010 and is maintained by ‘The Document Foundation’.  You might notice some minor differences in features between OpenOffice and LibreOffice. However they are broadly similar regarding layout and functionality. Both projects are well-maintained. LibreOffice team tends to release very frequent updates with minor feature increments, but OpenOffice project tends to release new versions with major feature updates. LibreOffice enjoys a better recognition among the Linux community as it comes packaged with Linux, whereas you must download and install OpenOffice manually.

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5. Scrivener

Scrivener is a writing tool that allows you write and manage a long document such as a Ph.D. Thesis or a novel with a lot of chapters, sections, and subsections. Scrivener is available for both Windows and Mac. One of the great features of Scrivener is that you can split your writing into small chunks or snippets. You can move these chunks around easily and reorganize your content. You can visualize your document using different views. One of the views displays a short message summarising each chapter as a sticky note stuck on a board. You can create folders and subfolders to store documents, images, PDFs, audio, video, and web pages that you need for your writing. You simply drag and drop these into your writing easily in a single click. After finishing the text, the user can export the project into a wide variety of formats. Scrivener is not a free software tool; you can get a copy for approximately $45.

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7. Google Docs

Google Docs is a web-based writing software offered by Google. The suite includes Google Docs, Google Sheets and Google Slides which are simplified versions of MS Word, MS Excel and MS PowerPoint respectively. You can create and edit files online. One of the powerful features of the Google docs is the ability to collaborate with other users online. The changes made by multiple users on the same documents are highlighted with a user-specific color. Google docs are extensively used in the publishing industry where the articles predominantly contain text and pictures with minimum formatting. This Google project is actively maintained, and there are frequent product updates.

There is a limit on the size of the documents you can create on the Google Docs. The documents cannot be larger than 50MB, spreadsheets have a limit of 2 million cells, and presentation cannot be larger than 100MB. The images in the documents and presentation slides cannot be larger than 50MB. Users can load and export documents in a wide variety of formats such as DOC, DOCX, TXT and ODF file formats. You can upload documents to Google Drive cloud storage. You can either download Google Drive App to your desktop or use the online interface to import and export documents. There are handy research tools that allow you to search for academic papers and quickly insert the appropriate footnotes or citations in a variety of citation formats to Google Docs. You can install third-party add-ons. Some of the popular add-ons include easy bibliography creator, diagramming tool, and table of contents generator.

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8. DropBox Paper

Dropbox Paper, or simply Paper, is a web based document-editing service developed by Dropbox. Paper is broadly similar to Google Docs in functionality. It has a very lightweight interface and is capable of supporting a wide variety of content including images, Google spreadsheets, data from Github, YouTube videos, Spotify playlists, and plain old code. This makes DropBox Paper easy to customise for a wide variety of projects. Documents can be easily shared with others. Documents can be shared individually or added to a folder with group access. You can also invite people to edit (or view) a file via email or with a specific URL. It is so easy to create tables and image galleries in Dropbox Paper document. You can create a table by simply clicking on an icon and specifying the number of rows and columns. Image galleries can be created by simply dragging and dropping images. DropBox paper also offers plenty of shortcuts that will save you a lot of time. For example, typing # followed by space will create an H1 header, and typing a hyphen followed by a space will start an unordered list.   DropBox will notify the changes made to the DropBox paper documents via the bell icon in the top left-hand corner. The version control system is very good. You can see all the changes that have been made to the documents and who made the changes. It is easy to navigate to various sections of the paper as the headings are listed as links in the left-hand panel. One of the downsides of using DropBox paper is that DOCX and MD (markdown ) are the only file formats available for exporting documents at the moment. Also, DropBox Paper does not currently support spreadsheet and presentation formats. Hopefully, this will be included in the future updates.

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  1. Given that the intro mentions all sorts of academic writing, there’s a severe lack of any mention of how these tools interact with referencing softwares. Mendeley, endnote, papers3, and many more I’m failing to mention…

    Plugins are available almost exclusively for word and libreoffice, and little else. As beautiful as scrivener looks, and as much as I like the way it structures documents and lets you focus on the writing, without an easy way to cite-as-you-write and automatically generate a bibliography, it’s simply never going to make any huge in-roads as far as academia is concerned.

    1. Timothy, For the purpose of an integrated software suite that incorporates every component of academic writing — research, writing, and citation management –you should look into Nota Bene (www.notabene.com). I note that I have no financial interest in the company.

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