If you've ever taken a crack at writing a novel, you know what happens after the first 100 pages or so. The breezy storylines and gossamer plot threads you've been weaving effortlessly begin to take a life of their own, veering alarmingly into one another or disappearing without a trace. Word processing software specially designed to tackle these projects has been around for a while, with the lion's share of the market going to the slick (but not cheap) Scrivener. Despite its popularity, not everyone is taken with Scrivener's glitzy approach to organizing the creative process. Others are put off by the price tag. For the no-nonsense or low-budget author, Spacejock Software's yWriter (download) is a free alternative that dumps the theme-park visuals for a more conventional interface packed with practical features. See all Software reviews.
yWriter is based around the novel structure: Each project is divided into chapters, and each chapter into scenes. Tabs specify characters, locations, items, pictures and other notes for quick, cross-indexed reference to story assets and other information. It is primarily aimed at producing novels and screenplays, but the format is flexible enough to track virtually any kind of creative endeavor, although it lacks the customizability and flexibility of Scrivener.
The interface is kept clean, direct, and simple to a fault, employing system default fonts and standard Windows interface conventions unless otherwise specified by the user. Rather than stripping the experience of personality, this provides the author with a sense of focus akin to retreating to quiet den or favorite desk with a notebook and a pen. Remove the fake corkboard textures, typewriter themes, Yin/Yang icons and other distractions, and the content itself takes center stage, rather than the software. That said, yWriter pushes the generic angle a bit far a times: The Windows Task Manager looks more dynamic. This can affect project enthusiasm for some, especially when writer's block sets in.
yWriter can also keep track of notes for creative projects like pen and paper RPGs, computer game modding projects & screenplays.
Feature-wise, little is missing. Daily work targets can be manually set or calculated from a deadline and the program can easily derive metrics such as scenes per character and word counts for protagonists, giving you highly granular information beyond the usual office work processor basics. Typing into yWriter's data boxes is less natural than working with Word, but it's far more efficient than organizing similar information on paper, in a spreadsheet or standard database program. yWriter works well in conjunction with commercial word processors, but feels more relevant when used as your primary tool rather than a creative add-on for Microsoft's Office suite.
YWriter's spartan nature serves it well when it comes to system overhead, needing little more than the OS’s bare minimum requirements to operate. This puts it on par with programs like Notepad, which is to say performance isn't going to be a problem, even if your rig is an antique. Netbook holdouts and laptop lovers will find much to like about yWriter's modest footprint, snappy performance and no requirement for an Internet connection.
Developer Simon Haynes modestly defers to the competition on his website, but there's no need for modesty here. YWriter is a hidden gem for authors using Windows. Even if you use Scrivener, you've got nothing to lose by giving it a try. You might find that the simple, clean taste of vanilla is better after all.