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yWriter: A Free Alternative To Scrivener

If you’ve been writing for even a short time, it’s likely you’ve heard of Scrivener from Literature and Latte, a self-described “content-generation tool for writers that allows you to concentrate on composing and structuring long and difficult documents.”

Scrivener has a number of features, but at its core is the ability to organize small pieces of content in a hierarchical fashion. In other words, it’s a flexible, mutable outliner.

For many authors, especially those who plan their works instead of planning and plotting as they write their first draft, a customizable outlining tool is extremely powerful both in terms of organization and for productivity. When you’re faced with a big, complicated document like a novel, it’s great to be able to break down the big job into smaller, bite-sized tasks… and to organize those smaller pieces any way you want, as needed, on the fly.

Scrivener allows that, and more… a lot more. In fact, it has features you may never find yourself needing, especially if you’re a novelist or short story writer. Also, Scrivener retails at around $40.00, which might be more than a beginning writer wants to invest.

When You Don’t Want (Or Don’t Need) Scrivener: yWriter!

Happily, a scrappy, underground, alternative to Scrivener has been available for years. And it’s absolutely, 100% free.

yWriter by Spacejock Software
yWriter main screen (click for larger image).

yWriter from Spacejock Software was created by Simon Haynes, a developer who is a prolific fiction writer as well. It’s the application he uses to craft and create his own works, which I think is important: with yWriter, you’re getting software for writers that’s actually made by a writer.

The best thing about yWriter (apart from the price!) is that it’s laser-focused on writing novels and other forms of prose fiction.

In yWriter, Every Work is a Project

yWriter Project Settings
The Project Settings screen of yWriter (click for a larger image).

Everything starts with a Project. This is the container for everything connected to your work.

At the project level, you can set deadlines for each stage of the work (outline, draft, first edit, second edit, finished project), assign custom rating fields to help you monitor the balance of various qualities (like conflict, tension, humor, romance… whatever!) of your work,  and of course the title, author, and a general description of the work.

Your project is automatically backed up on the same machine in which yWriter is installed, but you can also assign backups to be sent via email or even a remote server (via FTP). Those auto-backups can be restored at any time.

“Chapters” and “Scenes” in yWriter

The Chapter Details Settings Screen in yWriter
The Chapter Details Settings Screen in yWriter (click for a larger image).

yWriter organizes the content of your work in “chapters,” but don’t feel locked into the strict definition of that word.

A “chapter” is simply the top level of the hierarchy within your project.  You can re-name chapters (I like to begin with four “chapters” labeled “Act One,” “Act Two Part One,” “Act Two Part Two,” and “Act Three”), so feel free to utilize this any way you want.

You can even designate a “chapter” as a dumping ground for notes, outtakes, or… anything!

Within each chapter, things really get going.

Editing Scenes in yWriter
Editing Scenes in yWriter (click for a larger image).

Chapters consist of “scenes.” Each scene can be expanded to include not only the actual content of the scene (yes, you can draft your entire work from within yWriter), but also tons of information associated with the scene:

  • Details, which I use to sketch out what needs to happen in the scene in a shorthand fashion.
  • Characters, including assigning a viewpoint character.
  • Locations / settings.
  • Items, which is very useful if your story features a macguffin like a One Ring, Letters of Transit, or a falcon statue from Malta.
  • Notes.
  • Picture.
  • Goals: allows you to label the scene as either an action (for which you can then assign a goal, conflict, and outcome) or reaction (with assignable reaction, dilemma, and choice) and designate whether the scene is part of the A or B plot.
  • Exporting functions, which is handy if you don’t want some scenes to be included in an export to another format like HTML or rich text.
  • Time, which is super-cool: it lets you assign when the scene begins and ends, relative to when the story begins.
  • Ratings: especially handy during your first read-through of your original draft, this lets you assign an evaluation to the scene based on criteria you assign (tension, humor, and so on) at the project level.
  • Completion status (Outline, first draft, first edit, and so on).
  • Tags, which allow you to create your own taxonomy for organizing scenes.

Scenes can be dragged and dropped within the chapter, or over to another chapter, allowing you to reorganize individual scenes at any time. Of course, you can also insert and delete scenes at will… although rather than deleting a scene, I recommend moving it to a “chapter” labeled “Discards” or something like that.

Storyboard View and Other Features

The yWriter Storyboard View
The yWriter storyboard view (click for a larger image).

Once you’ve assigned a character to a scene, you can view the scenes in which a character appears in the Storyboard view. When you mouse over a scene box, it also displays any locations and items associated with that scene.

yWriter helps you stay on task and on target once you start writing. Just tell the program your start and projected end date and your target word count, and it will keep track of the words per day you need to write as you go.

yWriter has a number of export options for your project once it’s been drafted and edited, but it is not an all-in-one “from idea to published novel” solution.

That’s by design: yWriter is for writing, not ebook creation, or page layout, or any of those pre-publication tasks. There are other excellent (and free!) tools for the rest of the process, and I’ll be covering some of my favorites in future posts.

It’s yWriter’s tight focus on the planning and writing of your work that makes it so appealing (well, that, and the price). Since the developer is a writer himself, the feature list will never balloon into the realm of bloatware. Indeed, the installation file is only around six megabytes, and the minimum requirements are an Athlon or Pentium 4 processor (or above) with at least 512 megabytes of RAM on Windows Vista or above.

And yes, you can run yWriter on Linux or OSX.  You can even run it on a thumb drive.

Concerned about documentation and support? yWriter is very straightforward to use (one of the advantages of an application with a well-defined and intentionally limited mission).  If you need help, there’s a support group monitored by the developer himself.

yWriter is a lightweight and very useful writing tool maintained by a fellow writer… and it’s free. You should try it!

If You REALLY Need Every Bell, Whistle, and Kitchen Sink…

And if you still want something that’s more of an A-to-Z, planning-to-publication application, there’s always the for-pay Scrivener (Windows or  OSX), which is rather like the choice to use a multi-tool instead of grabbing what you need when you need it from a well-stocked toolbox.

It’s probably more than most writers need to plan, organize, and write a novel, short story, or other complex work, but it’s certainly a viable option for those willing to commit to it.

I think you should give yWriter a chance. If you decide to use try it, I’ll help you get started with a free fiction story structure Project (like a template) you can adapt for your own works! Click here for your free yWriter Fiction Story Structure Project.

Finally… have you used yWriter? What are your thoughts, especially as it’s utility as a viable free alternative to Scrivener? Sound off in the comments!

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  • I’ll tell you what, though, MWS:

    I’ve used Scrivener in corporate environments to great aplomb. The weird, high-end features that let you move stuff around and keep old copies and run through changes easily and quickly, and then finally export the whole darn thing out into a correctly compiled report is pretty darn powerful.

    I used it for more than a few corporate annual reports-. I used it for a couple of website relaunches. (It handles Markdown wonderfully.) I briefly worked at a large electronic medical record company where I used it to generate the names of fictional doctors using the fantastic name-generating tool that is hidden under Edit –> Writing Tools –> Name Generator.

    Here is a list of 31 fictional Polish people who agree with me:

    Jason Listkowski, Jacek Nowodworski, Amy Podanowski, Christopher Waskoski, David Sawinski, Grace Antoszewski, Elizabeth Niemczyński, Władysława Pelsinski, Magdalena Andrykowski, Richard Garboski, Emil Kaczmarski, Eric Archiciński, Lisa Bahrynowski, Mary Płotkowski, Victòria Marsalski, Mariusz Radziszewski, Sandra Jezoski, Armengol Szymurski, Domicela Bakowski, Jeffrey Bartnekowski, Thomas Prosowski, Zdzisław Beczkowski, Michael Trembilski, Ada Molodzinski, Emily Okonski, Ruby Budohoski, Olivia Piechorowski, Jessica Slosowski, Cior Jenowski,
    Daniel Żychlinski, Michelle Mayewski.

    Thanks for all you do, Mathew. Keep up the great work.


    • A
      Matthew Wayne Selznick

      Thanks for the comment… and I’ve got no argument! Like I wrote, “if you still want something that’s more of an A-to-Z, planning-to-publication application, there’s always the for-pay Scrivener.”

      For many, many writers, especially those with limited budgets, Scrivener might be more than necessary, and yWriter is a perfect alternative.

      Scrivener is great if you need everything it does, and you want to / can pay for it. No argument. And having a built-in name generator is nifty… but of course, there are plenty of free tools to do the same thing. How about generating an entire fake Polish identity?

      Also, just to be clear, the ability to “move stuff around and keep old copies” aren’t “weird, high-end features.” yWriter does that, too!

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