Writing Openly and Freely: Open-Source Writing Software

You may be an old-school diehard who is pounding out that dissertation on a manual typewriter, or scratching it out with a fountain pen. But if you are like most of us, you’re doing the lion’s share of your work on a computer, and you’re wrestling with Microsoft Word or Google Docs. Both of those are fine solutions, and Word in particular has all the bells and whistles you’ll ever need to craft a beautifully designed manuscript (more, probably, than you really want). 

But the software world is much bigger than Microsoft Word and Google Docs, and it can even be better. Even if you don’t mind being beholden to a corporate behemoth, those programs have drawbacks. Google Docs is difficult to use without an internet connection; Word — once you’re no longer in the warm arms of the GC — costs a lot of money. Neither one provides citation management or generates bibliographies.

There are scads of free, low-cost, and open-source tools available to you. There is software out there that can do things for you that you’re now doing manually (or thinking you’ll never get done). Here is an introduction to a selection of it.

A Preliminary Word: Free vs. Open Source


Open source means that you can download not just a complete software package but also the source code, so that you can make your own modifications and changes to it (assuming, of course, that you have ace software development skills). Open source, like OER, is not just a way to release products but a community, a philosophy, even a way of life. People who aren’t developers themselves may prefer open source solutions for reasons of principle (and, practically, because other people will be modifying and extending the software in ways they might like).

Free software is not necessarily open source, and open source software is not necessarily free. Even software that’s both free and open source can be intended to make money for its developers, but it requires a different business model. Zotero, for instance, both gives away its software and opens its source code, but it sells cloud storage that integrates effortlessly with the application, providing a revenue stream. 


There are as many different kinds of writing software as there are writers. The program you decide to use may have as much to do with your own writing process as with the reputation or robustness of the software.

The One and Only (Almost) All-in-One: Scrivener 


Scrivener is a program that has gained traction among scholarly writers for its unique structure and capacities, although it was not designed specifically for academics. Scrivener allows you to keep your writing, notes, outlines, and research within the same program — not merely open at the same time, but actually open in the same windows, categorized and collected in whatever combinations make your personal process easiest. 

Scrivener is a sandbox, not a pixel-perfect design program, so you will want to polish your final ms. in a more feature-heavy word processor. Additionally, it doesn’t incorporate a citation manager, although there are solutions that can bring Zotero into a working relationship with Scrivener

Scrivener is also the only program on this list that is neither freeware nor open source. It’s relatively low-cost, however ($41.65 with their educational discount), and it’s a one-time charge. There’s a 30-use (not 30-day!) trial; if you are at all interested, give it a look.

Another application worth a look if you’re working on a Mac is Manuscripts, which is designed to produce work for submission to academic journals.


The Archivist’s Ally: Tropy


Tropy is another piece of software that has a mission all its own. Its purpose is to collect, describe, and manage photos of research materials. If that doesn’t sound amazing to you, you’ve never hastily taken photos of the pages of a book chapter you needed, or captured a letter on display in an exhibit with your phone. Many scholars who work with primary sources have thousands of such digitized files.

Tropy lets you group image files into items and group items into lists. It facilitates the creation of metadata for these items and lists, and makes items and collections shareable. Images organized in Tropy can be exported as PDFs.

This software was created by scholars (The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University) for scholarship, and it shows. It does only one thing, but that’s something no other program does, and it does it well. 


Word Processors


LibreOffice is perhaps the most popular open-source alternative to Microsoft Office. It does a pretty good job of doing everything that Word, Excel, and the other pieces of the Office suite can do. Because it’s open source, enthusiasts have created hundreds (thousands?) of extensions to add everything from a translator for ancient Greek to a playable in-document sudoku puzzle. It’s also the indispensable bridge that your citations need for Zotero to work with Scrivener.

Other open-source office suites include OpenOffice (LibreOffice’s ancestor, or cousin, depending on how you interpret its development history) and WPS Office (free but not open-source; contains ads, though not gratuitously).

A completely different approach to the writing process is FocusWriter. This program, also open-source and free, though open to donations, aims for the most stripped-down, distraction-free writing environment possible. It has no whistles and only a couple of bells (you can set a timer if you’re trying to achieve a time-based goal). 

Another one to look at if you are interested in exporting your manuscript as an e-book is Atlantis Word Processor Lite. This is a stripped-down, free version of the not-terribly-expensive Atlantis Word Processor, and its chief distinction is that it is built to facilitate the composition and export of EPUB documents.


Reference Management Software


If you spend any time around GC librarians, one of us will recommend Zotero. It is free and open source, and like Tropy is a product of George Mason’s Center for History and New Media. Zotero allows you to collect bibliographic data on resources of every kind with a single click in your web browser, and even the resources themselves in PDF form; you can organize your references and produce citations in many formats. Zotero syncs across devices and can be downloaded or used as a web interface. 

We’ve written on Zotero before; we also teach workshops on Zotero itself and on integrating Zotero into other software. It comes with plugins that allow export of Zotero references into Microsoft Word and LibreOffice.

RefWorks is another citation management tool with many features, including integration into our catalog; you can export any record from OneSearch into your RefWorks account. It is web-based software, so you have to be on an internet connection to use it. RefWorks is owned by ProQuest, and is free but its code is proprietary.

Mendeley is a citation manager beloved by many. The company was created to further open sharing of data and research, but since its acquisition by Elsevier in 2013, it is less engaged with open access. Its reference management software was recently split into Mendeley Reference Manager and Mendeley Cite.


Remember that these tools are only a few greatest hits, and only the tip of the open-source iceberg. At another time soon, we’ll go into open source tools for creating graphs, charts, and other data visualizations. In the meantime, try out some new free writing software. You might find it inspiring.

Photo by <a href=”https://pixnio.com/media/black-and-white-keyboard-device-typewriter-alphabet”> Bicanski</a> on <a href=”https://pixnio.com/”>Pixnio</a>

About the Author

Katherine Pradt is the Adjunct Reference and Digital Outreach Librarian at the Graduate Center.