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Open Source Software for Writers

November 4th, 2009 . by Peggy

Writer’s tools are extremely expensive, especially in terms of software. Here’s a great list of free open-source software designed just for writers.

First, lets define exactly what open source software really means. The term “open-source” comes from the idea that the source code of the software is revealed to the public, unlike Microdaft where everything is super-duper secret. (Or at least, so they think.) When the source code of a piece of software is available to anyone, it means that anyone in the software community can use it – within certain very loose guidelines – to create new software, create add-ons, refine the program, and so on. The one major caveat: they cannot take this free source code and sell it for a direct profit.

Does that mean it’s free? Well, sort of. There’s a strong code of ethics in the open-source community, and almost nobody abuses the grass-roots system that has grown up around this concept. Most people who contribute to open-source projects make their living by consulting, designing, supporting, and doing other things alongside the product of the open-source project, not the project itself.

However, this same code suggests that if there’s a donation button, and you’re happy with the software, then by all means, buy the programmer a virtual coffee. Realize that programmers of open-source software make only marginally more than your average freelance writer. Yep – a couple of bucks wouldn’t hurt either of you.

The website osalt.com has a massive database of open-source software for almost any purpose. (Be aware that they also offer downloads of commercial software – scroll past that to get to the free stuff.) But here are some of my personal recommendations for writers;

- OpenOffice, an alternative to Microserf Office. I have not used any MSO products for several years – this does more than MSO ever will, and looks almost identical. Virtually no learning curve, except for some exceptionally cool new stuff. Imagine this: free, does more, and fewer crashes. I once used this to layout an entire book for print, which I’ll talk about in a future blog post.

- WordPress, the blogging platform that this blog you’re reading is based upon. (This is different from WordPress.com, which is when you use it on a public server, which I do not generally endorse for writers.) I’m talking about WordPress.org, which offers the version that you can download and install on almost any webhost. A zany array of plugins and graphical themes are also available at WordPress.org/extend/.

- XMind, a mind-mapping application that can be used not only to distill your writing ideas, but also to map out characters, plot lines, and even help you figure out who the murderer is.

- PDF995, which although not really an open-source project, it is still free and very reliable. Even though you’ve read in other posts what a fan I am of Adobe products, I still use this for creating most of my PDF documents from typed documents, because it’s lighter and faster than the real thing. This version displays ads each time you use it, but you could just slap down the $10 and not see the ads.

- Celtx (pronounced “Kel-tix”) offers an alternative to the writer’s plague of crazy pieces of paper in every room of your house. Designed as a pre-production and planning tool for screenwriting and similar story-based art forms, it’s very useful for writers. Think of this as a digital binder, collecting your ideas and storyboards, not to mention the actual script, all in one place. Great collaboration tools for more than one contributor.

And for Writers Who Podcast…

- My beloved Audacity, the program that I use to record and edit almost all my audio podcasts. Easy to use, with cool built-in effects and a very forgiving undo button. Even the kids will love this.

- I recently discovered The Levelator, a dandy yet tiny application with big benefits for any podcaster. Smooths out levels and jumpy volume levels. This saves me hours of work.

If you can find a way to give back to the open-source community, please do so by donation or by promotion. It will keep writers in software for a long time coming.

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