Updated April 19, 2021
I grew up on PC and graduated to Macintosh when I got into a design field. A couple of years ago, I made the decision to transition to a Google Chromebook. The primary factor was cost. I couldn’t justify the price of a MacBook. (The second factor is that Luke the schnauzer likes to smack my laptop with his paw to get my attention. The Chromebook has withstood this beautifully.)
I picked up an Acer Chromebook for under $200 on Amazon, and it was one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. But Chromebooks don’t support the novel-writing software Storyist that I have on my Macintosh, which brings me to the point of this post:
What are the best free writing apps available to authors using a Google Chromebook?
If you already write on a Chromebook, you probably have favorite programs. These are mine. And they might not work for you, but maybe you’ll get an idea or two out of this post.
If you’re considering the switch to a Chromebook, I’ll be honest: your choice of writing programs is limited. Storyist and Scrivener don’t work on this platform (though there are now cloud-based subscription services available if you’re into that — they’re all around $10 a month). But that said, if you’re adaptable, Chromebooks are fast and affordable.
Google Docs has been my go-to writing program for years. My documents are available on any computer, iPhone, and iPad, and it offers collaboration tools–invaluable if you work with one or more editors. Google Docs (part of Google Drive) is free to use and works on all browsers. There are also apps for iOS and Android, so you can take your novel on the go.
The only downside I’ve noticed is that larger documents do not play well with my Acer, which does not have a lot of memory. I have to split anything over 20,000 words into multiple documents, but that’s no big sacrifice.
Google recently integrated Google Keep into Google Docs, giving you virtual post-its in the sidebar. You can drop and drag notes into the document, and they paste as text. I use it to hold cut material or the line that just popped into my head. No more jumping between my notes and the actual manuscript. It’s a lot closer to the Storyist experience now.
Added in 2021
My new best friend. If you’re not already years into using another notes program, check out Notion. A friend uses this to organize writing and classwork, and they introduced me. The best way I can think to describe Notion is as the love child of Evernote and Airtable, with a little of Dropbox Paper mixed in.
The free tier is robust. Beyond basic note taking, Notion offers in-page databases with wiki, gallery, timeline, calendar, and kanban functionality. I spent a weekend migrating my life onto the app and created a wiki for my book. I’ll share my Notion creative writing templates here once I tweak them a bit more!
When Google Docs acts up, I write directly in Notion. It’s visually pleasing, especially in dark mode.
ETA 2021: Calmly Writer’s Chrome extension is apparently going away, but the free browser-based version of the program is still available for Chromebook users.
This Chrome extension costs a few dollars, but it’s worth it. It provides a distraction free, full screen environment in light and dark clothes, and you have the option of turning on the delightful typewriter sound! Ahh, the sound of productivity. It’s good when I need to write in sprints. Bonus: Calmly Writer can sync with Google Drive to back up your documents. If you don’t want to pay for the extension, there’s a free browser-based version!
Evernote helps you create and organize thoughts, outlines, character profiles, planning notes, pre-writing, or prose. This browser-based and/or desktop program syncs with optional mobile apps. They offer free and premium tiers.
They also offer free creative writing templates. Their 3-act structure is my favorite.
Google Remote Desktop
Cheat! Do you have writing software installed on another machine? Access your computer remotely through your Chromebook. Setup takes just a couple of minutes, and the service is free. Congratulations, your desktop computer is now mobile.
Can I use Mac keyboard shortcuts from my Chromebook while using remote access?
Yes, you just need to map the keys. Expand Remote Desktop’s off-canvas menu and select Configure Keyboard Mappings.
- Map AltLeft onto MetaLeft
- Map AltRight onto MetaRight
You should now be able to use Alt+C and other shortcuts on your Chromebook’s keyboard while remotely accessing your Mac. You may need to re-map every so often, so make a copy of those steps and stash them somewhere. (I keep them in Notion.)
ILYS resumed paid service in 2021 and is no longer free.
Set a goal and type. ILYS hides what you’re writing so you don’t get distracted by your inner editor (you can peek). Once you hit your goal, keep going or edit what you’ve written. They even track your progress. I didn’t have ILYS on the original list since this distraction-free tool went paid a while back. But the developer made it free in 2020, and since it’s still free, I’m adding it. ILYS currently runs on donations.
These tools may add back some of the functionality found in novel-writing software.
If you’ve ever spent time around me, you’ve probably heard me gush about Airtable. It’s a database program with a clean, easy-to-use interface. The day I signed up, I was up and running in five minutes. I use it to organize everything from holiday card lists to city-wide events. It’s free to use (there are paid levels) and can be fully tailored to your needs with a variety of field types.
It’s ideal for tracking daily writing progress, reading lists, or staying on top of your works in progress. I’ve also seen it used as a way to hold story notes and storyboard ideas.
Airtable’s website (if you sign up using that link, I earn a $10 credit)
Trello is an organizing tool. Create kanban boards and move cards between them to easily keep track of a list of story ideas, works in progress, characters, scenes, settings–you get the idea. I’ve used it to hold a list of story ideas that I might want to work on at some point, and I move them between likelihood boards. Its collaborative features also make it an excellent choice for large-scale project management.
How you use Trello is completely up to you. It is free to use and there are apps for on-the-go use.
Note: Airtable has kanban functionality, but I don’t find it to be nearly as robust or functional as Trello’s. If your needs are simple, though, it might be a good fit. Notion also has kanban views. Notion is so good, I broke up with Trello for writing purposes (though I still use it for work since nothing has beaten it for project management).
I adored Pinterest when it first came out — all of those recipes I would never make! Houses I would never own! I stopped visiting it after a while, but a few years ago, when I was working on an intimidating story, I needed to collect visuals to nudge me along. I’m a visual person, so I came up with the idea of creating a Pinterest board for that story.
Since then, I’ve made Pinterest boards for nearly every large project I’ve worked on. It’s an easy way for me to keep everything in one place, from links to research to inspirational photographs that remind me of a person or place in the story itself. You can even pin YouTube videos.
Pinterest is free to use, has a Chrome extension to easily add articles or photographs to your board, and also has mobile apps. If your manuscript’s content can’t be publicized (or you feel a little ehhh about pinning copyrighted material), you can create a secret board visible only to you.
Writers need to create graphics sometimes. Canva is graphic design software right in your browser. If you need to make a new Twitter banner or design a shareable graphic to promote your work, it’s a fantastic tool. I like it so much for personal use, I introduced it to my company. It saves time and doesn’t chain me to my desktop computer.
If you listen to your drafts, check out Natural Readers. Their Chrome extension works within Google Docs. Create a free account to access the pronunciation editor. The free voice selection isn’t exciting, but considering the service costs nothing, I don’t complain. And you can use the premium voices for up to 20 minutes per day.
Luke just smacked the computer. A fitting end to this post.