It’s no secret that I’m a writer- I mean, hell, you’re reading something I’ve written right now.
But to be a writer in 2020, you’re going to need some technology. And that’s what I’d like to talk about in this article. Whether you write on a MacBook or a PC, a Chromebook or an iPad, you’ve got to write on something. Pen and paper is now a thing of the past.
But in this article, I don’t want to compare laptops or tablets or even keyboards. No, I want to talk software. Because having a piece of tech to write on is the first step, but finding a program to translate your chaotic key-presses into something worth reading is equally significant.
And it depends, a great deal, on what you are going to need to do in your writing program. Do you need total control over every aspect of how the document appears? Do you need to have the ability to share your document with others to collaborate on? Are you- like me- writing a novel or a series of novels? Are you writing school papers? Work documents?
*Please keep in mind: For reference, I will only be talking about the personal versions of these programs; if there’s any differences between the standard programs and
their business counterparts- like G-Suite or Office for Business- I won’t talk about it here.
This is always my starting point. If you’re considering which program to write with, it’s always a good idea to consider how much it will cost you to use them.
Thankfully, there are free versions of all three of these programs- but they vary in superiority and usefulness.
Google Docs, actually, is completely free; all you may have to pay for is Goole Drive storage, and that’s only if you exhaust the 15gb Google Offers you for free (this includes your Gmail, photos, and anything else you have in Drive besides your writing).
Apple’s Pages is another free program to use, which is quite awesome; Apple used to charge for this software ($19.99 on Macs, and $9.99 on iOS). It’s also a bummer, because I’m pretty sure I paid for the iPad version when it was first released. Just like Google Docs, all you would have to pay for would be additional iCloud storage if you need it.
Microsoft is the only app that will cost you; to use the desktop version of Word- or the app on any device with a screen that is 10.1 inches or larger- you must pay for a Microsoft 365 subscription, which starts at $6.99 a month (or $69.99 a year). The advantage of this plan is that it automatically comes with 1tb of OneDrive cloud storage, so at least you are not limited to a meager 5gb storage capacity.
Having said that, Microsoft does offer a free web-version of Word; it is not that feature-rich, but it’s there and can be used in almost any web browser. The shortcoming, of course, is that you need to be connected to the internet to use this free model.
Winner: I could argue that required subscription from Microsoft is advantageous because of the extra cloud storage, but truth be told: free is free. Apple and Google tie in this category, leaving Microsoft in the dust.
Whether a program is free or not, you need to consider when and where you can use it.
This depends primarily on the devices you use. For instance, you can only use Pages on Apple devices- An iPhone, iPad or Mac. Apple offers a web version of Pages on iCloud.com, but frankly , it’s a far cry from the real processor; it will help you in no time, but you aren’t going to want to use the web app on a daily basis.
Microsoft Word has a much wider reach, with fully-fledged programs available on both Windows 10 and macOS. While it’s web version is somewhat – and I mean somewhat- better than Pages in iCloud, it still isn’t something to use on the regular. And if you use an iPad or a Chromebook, there is an app version of Word that has gotten pretty good over the years, but still isn’t as good as the desktop version.
Google Docs has the advantage over the others – or should I say the Chrome – because it is available everywhere. On most devices, Google Docs is only web app- but unlike the web versions of Pages or Word, it is fully functional- in fact, it is more functional on the web than the downloadable app versions.
Google Docs is accessible from anywhere provided that you have a web browser. In fact, you don’t have to use Chrome; if you do use Chrome, it features a built-in offline mode so that you can access and edit your docs on the go (Simply ensure you’ve allowed Google Drive to store files offline). If you use an iPad or Android device (including Chromebooks that run Android apps), there is a Google Docs app you can download, but similar to the web versions of Word and Pages, it is nowhere near as useful as the real deal.
Winner: Google Docs. Whether you use a Mac, a PC, a Chromebook, an Android device, or an iPhone/iPad, Google Docs is readily available. Although the app isn’t as fantastic (we’ll talk about that shortly ), if you have a web browser, you’ve got access to Google Docs. Microsoft Word comes in at a close second, especially if you prefer the desktop program compared to a web app or mobile app. Apple Pages… well, it’s best if used inside the walled garden.
Saving and the Cloud
Saving your work is very crucial. If you don’t, well… why waste your energy writing it, right?
Personally, I’ve been burned before as far as saving my work is concern; Windows once lost 12 whole chapters I had been writing, and I’ve never really forgiven it for that. But that was way before the introduction of cloud storage and autosaving; today, there’s a lot of peace of mind built into these programs. Having said that, I’m a paranoid writer; I always keep back up copies of my work so that I’m not depending on a single cloud service or my computer’s hard drive.
For years, Google Docs has been my gold standard as far as savings your work is concern. It saves after every. keystroke. instantly. Even when you are using it offline, it saves every single added character and instantly uploads it to Google Drive the moment it gets a scent of Wi-Fi. Personally, this is the single reason I keep going back to Google Docs; I know that if my laptop dies mid-sentence, Docs saved that half-a-sentence. And because it is all saved in the cloud, if someone came and shattered my laptop as I work on a document, all I need to do is sign into Google on another device to keep on chugging.
Microsoft Word has really improved when it comes to saving in recent years; while it has had its own auto-save feature for a long time, it used to only save every Two minutes. Yes, that is still pretty often, but potentially offers enough elapsed time that you could loose something. Word includes a redundancy feature that recovers documents that weren’t saved before a shut down or power loss, but in my testing, this is quite unpredictable.
These days, if you enable autosave (for some reason, this is an option and not a default), it will save every time you stop typing, and it will upload it to OneDrive- either instantly or as soon as your device is connected back to the internet, and is very almost as reliable as Google Docs gold standard. The only problem I have experienced is that occasionally, Word gets an error where it can’t figure out which version of the document is the most up-to-date, but the problem only seems to occur when I’m editing a document on one device and then I switch to another (for instance, going from Word on the iPhone to Word on a Mac). But even when that happens, Word will prompt you to check the differences or ask you to save one version as a copy.
To be honest, Pages method of saving annoys me. It autosaves too, and seems to do so as well as the other two. However, the problem is that it doesn’t indicate it is saving. It just does it- and it just works, as with most Apple products- but this is the one time I’d really like Apple to tell me what it is doing. Essentially, you just have to belief when you close a document that it saved everything just how you wanted it. What’s worse, sometimes Pages- at least the macOS version- prompts you to save before closing, which to me says that it wasn’t autosaving a damn thing.
Both Google Docs and Word will notify you at the top of the page when it is saving and when everything is saved, and will even let you know if it is waiting to upload your file to their respective clouds. Because Pages doesn’t do this- ever- it makes me not want to rely on it, especially when writing something as long as a novel.
While we’re on the topic of saving, we should also discuss the issue of the cloud. I’m not going to break down cloud storage or the pros and cons of each service- that’s probably a subject for another fight – but I do want to talk about how using the cloud to store your documents will work with each service.
With Google Docs, your documents are automatically uploaded to Google Drive, and, if you are using Chrome, Google Drive will automatically store your files on your computer for offline use. The process is quite simple, and you really don’t have to do anything; provided that you are signed into Google Drive for the first time in Chrome, the offline download starts automatically. Having said that, it’s quite challenging to use Google Docs to open an edit documents that aren’t saved in Drive- basically, Google will prompt you to upload it to Drive first- and possibly convert it into Google Docs format- before you can do everything you need to with it. If you are using the Google Docs app, you can toggle specific documents to always stay downloaded to your phone or tablet, but you will be required to go document by document; at the time of writing, there’s no way to mass-download the documents.
In Word, you can create word documents that only live offline (as long as you are using the full desktop version on a Mac or PC; the app versions and the web apps will require OneDrive to save files), or you can save files in OneDrive. I love this functionality because it makes it easy to save a back-up copy on your computer’s hard drive in case your cloud becomes inaccessible, and the other way round. OneDrive also includes a “Personal Vault” where you can store documents behind some added encryption, but in my experience, it was difficult to access and edit documents if they are in the vault; Word, for instance, can’t search the vault to open a document. As far as offline work is concerned, you can instruct Windows to always keep specific documents or folders downloaded to your computer so that they are always at your disposal wherever you are. In the Word apps for iOS and Android, there’s absolutely no way to specify which files you want to stay downloaded; Word will automatically download and store documents you’ve recently opened, but those downloads won’t stay for a long time.
Pages, by the same token, offers you the ability to open and create documents stored both on your Mac (or iPad or iPhone) and in iCloud. In addition, you can instruct iCloud to download a folder or a file, but, at least in iOS, iCloud appears to automatically remove those downloads after a while, which is annoying because you either have to remember to re-download the documents you’re gonna want while offline, or you discover too late that your documents are unavailable when you need them. I haven’t managed to test whether or not macOS will also automatically dump downloaded files back into iCloud when they haven’t been used in a while, but I personally don’t expect it to work any differently than it does on iOS.
Winner: Once again, the award goes to Google Docs. It remains the gold standard for saving, and it makes keeping documents offline something you don’t have to think about, provided that you are using Google Chrome as your browser. Once more, Word comes in at a close second; they’ve really worked hard in the last couple of years to get their autosaving up to par with Google’s, and while saving cloud documents for offline use is done manually, it is still relatively simple to make sure your files are downloaded and stay downloaded. In this case, Apple’s jingle that “it just works” isn’t enough, especially for a paranoid writer like me.
It is important to talk about what you can do with these programs… you know, besides writing. For the vast majority of people, all they need is something to type in, but every now and then, there are other thing you’re gonna need.
In this section, I am going to particularly discuss the desktop versions of Word and Pages, in addition to the web version of Google Docs, since we’ve already established that their apps aren’t as full featured, and I’ve promised I’ll talk about the apps in another section.
Obviously, all 3 of these programs do the basics- formatting, fonts, and footnotes. If you’re a font fiend like me, it’s worth noting that Google Docs only supports fonts from its own catalog, while Windows and Apple will only allow you to install fonts you’ve downloaded or purchased, as well as fonts from services like Adobe Creative Cloud.
Also, please note that Pages seems to have a weird formatting bug with some fonts; depending on the font you use (and it may only apply to third-party fonts), Pages will “lose” parts of each page once in a while. Thankfully, none of your writing gets lost, but where the page breaks, sentences and even whole paragraphs won’t displayed. You can fix this by copying the entire document and pasting it into a new document, but unless you change the font, it will only happen again after a while. It’s somehow annoying, especially if you have a preference for a specific font for your work. I also couldn’t get bold to work in certain third party fonts in Pages. I thought maybe there was a separate bold font I needed to install for this to work, but the same font installed in Microsoft Word appeared in bold whenever I hit the command.
Each of them includes collaboration feature as well, in the event you need to share your document with others. All three gives you the ability to share a document either with full permission to edit or with only the ability to view the document, but Google goes a step further by adding a third option, where you can allow people you share with to add comments. I love this option because I can allow proofreaders the ability to make notes without actually being able to change the original document.
Google Docs allows you to see a collaborator working in real time, with a separate cursor (in a different color) and their name next to it. There are two modes here- suggesting and editing – with the latter allowing them to make direct changes that will fall in line with the rest of the document, and the other highlighting their changes for you to accept or reject before they are incorporated into the document.
In Word, this collaboration becomes quite a bit more robust. Real-time changes don’t show up quite as fast – however, still within a few seconds- but changes are tracked so that you can easily find, approve, and reject changes made by others. Formatting or font changes are marked with a red line to the left of the segment that was changed, and clicking on that line will show you the notes in the comments panel to the right that identify what was changed, while text changes will be in red and will underline what was added or cross out what was removed.
Pages, more or less, works the same. I encountered some difficulty seeing real-time changes in the documents, though it could be an issue with iOS vs. macOS; I know I said I wasn’t talking about the apps in this category, but I don’t have an extra MacBook to try Pages on. If I made a change on the iPad, it took Approximately 10–20 seconds to show up on the MacBook, but if I made a change on the MacBook, the iPad compelled me to close the file and reload it before the change could reflect. Working Mac to Mac, I think it would work more like Word, but to be honest, I used the app versions of Google Docs and Word on the same iPad to test collaboration and never had to reload the document manually. Tracking changes works the same as it does in Word; added words are marked in red, erased words also appear in red and crossed out, and changes are also indicated by a red line to the left of the segment that was changed, and a note in the comments section.
To be honest, I can’t talk about all of the features packed in these programs- I’m not a power user- and most things- such as changing headers and whatnot- Works pretty much the same and as well in each that it isn’t worth writing about. But there are a couple of other things I wish to point out in this category.
Among the three, Google Docs is arguably the least feature-heavy. It is definitely more for lighter users, which is made explicit by lengthy documents- even on a computer with a good processor, Google Docs will lag some in large documents (you know, like a manuscript).
Pages appears to have virtually all the feature Word has, but nearly does not get you an invitation to the Headless Hunt. Certain things- such as adding a page break- just don’t work as beautifully as they do in Word or Docs; Pages insists always on adding a whole blank page to the document, which I then have to delete. Pages also has a few drabacks that Word does not. For instance, I had numbered paragraphs in one section of a document, and then more at a later point in the same document. Pages insisted that the second set should continue the numbering from earlier, while Word allowed me to restart the count at one. Maybe Pages can do this as well, but they didn’t make this feature in any way findable.
While in the tsubject of finding thinks… Word has a handy search bar- not the one where you can search words or phrases in the document- but to search for features in the program. This makes it incredibly useful if you are aware of the feature you want but don’t know where to find it.
All three processors includes spelling and grammar checker. Google Docs’ appears to depend on the internet, however; when in offline mode, it will simply ignore your mistakes. Pages, in contrast, has some weird drabacks of its own; for some reason, it insists on capitalizing after a question mark in a quote, resulting in “Where is she?” They asked… instead of “Where is she? they asked. It also tried to convince me that I should be typing “Your wrong” instead of “You’re wrong.” I mean, words like their, they’re, and there are hard enough without Pages incorrectly telling you which one to use.
If you own a PC that has a touchscreen and supports the use of a stylus- for instance the Surface Pen- Word supports drawing in the document. This is a super useful tool, and one I personally like for writing notes in my documents because it makes the notes stand out from regular text. Pages supports this as well, but only on the iPad.
Lastly, if you are looking to get your work published, it’s worth noting that Microsoft Word is the standard for the most publishers. While Docs and Pages can export into a Word document, I’ve noted that sometimes there are formatting issues when trying to open those files in Word. Pages, for example, sometimes entirely forgets to translate tabs over, which I think is somehow connected to its auto-tab feature. Having said that, if you are looking at self publishing, Pages does have it’s own macOS app built for publishing into Apple Books.
Winner: Microsoft Word. It is hands down the most feature-rich of all the three word processors, and it is also the writing standard for most publishing companies. In addition, collaboration is at its best in Word. Obviously, it really depends on what your needs are; I don’t use half of the capabilities Microsoft Word offers, however, apparently I use just enough that Pages sometimes falls short. Moreover, Pages sometimes just doesn’t understand grammar, and that right their is a huge problem.
I promised to talk about the apps, and I meant it. So here we are. All the three programs offer app versions of their word processors, but the apps are not created equal.
As I pointed out, Google Docs’ app for iOS and Android is a far cry from the full-fledged web program; it is missing most of the features that are built into Google Docs proper, including some basics such as footnote support (indeed and in fact, you can’t even see footnotes that are in the document unless you look at the Print Preview). It also lacks what I consider Google Docs signature feature- its instant saving. Instead of seeing it save after every keystroke, you have to tap a check mark at the top of the screen to save your changes. Generally, the app just feels old-fashioned; Google has done very little to update it in years, at least from a visual angle, and honestly they seem very slow to release major feature updates too. Candidly, the Google Docs app feels like an entirely separate program from the main web version.
Microsoft’s Word for iOS and Android has come a lot closer to the full desktop app- it can even support third-party fonts on the iPad now- but it still isn’t on same level with the desktop app. First of all, you can’t open multiple documents at the same time, even though Apple introduced this feature with iPadOS 13 (don’t worry, Google Docs can’t do it either). Secondly, some of the keyboard shortcuts- such as inserting those dreaded footnotes- don’t work in the app, even when paired with a physical keyboard. The top bar also feels like a slimmed down version of the tool panel you get in the full Word experience, but almost everything is pretty much where it should be if you are conversant with the desktop version. I couldn’t figure out a way to view all of my headers in a large document, though, which is a bummer for navigation.
Pages on iOS works pretty much the same as Pages on macOS. The layout of things like the formatting menu is the almost similar, although some of the options are split to feature at the bottom of the iPad display, where, ideally, it is closer to your fingers when you’re typing on the screen. Unfortunately that makes it quite challenging to find things sometimes; an option for, say, a footnote is down at the bottom of the display rather than at the top in the menu (and same as Word, the familiar keyboard shortcut doesn’t do a damn thing). Other stuff, such as the table of contents, are presented only as a drop down menu and not as a permanent fixture beside the document, which, again, is a bummer for navigating a large document.
But the apps aren’t exclusive to the ones you download; Pages and Word also offer online web apps. In this category, though, Google Docs wins by a clear distance, simply because the primary version is a web app. Pages and Word are, more or less, the same as the mobile app that you install on your device, except that they require internet connection and are lacking in even a couple of more areas- such as font support for anything but the basics that are built into the programs.
Winner: When compared to their desktop (or web, in the case of Google) counterparts, none of these really compare. Having said that, Word at least bear a resemblance to
the desktop program in terms of design, therefore, at least there isn’t too much of a learning curve as far as finding what you need is concern. Pages, if anything, is fuller featured on the iPad than any of the others, but only by comparison. While it’s quite tough to decide between Pages and Word as a winner here, I think it is Fair to say the Google Docs app is definitely the loser. It feels like it was designed by a completely company. It sucks.
The final thing I want to talk about has nothing to do with the programs themselves. But if you’re a writer, more than likely you’re going to take notes at some point in time.
Each of these companies also makes a note-taking app, which in some way works together with the main program. Of course, you can easily use a third party program like Evernote for your note-taking, however, I’d like to take a moment to consider what Google, Apple, and Microsoft have to offer and how they interact with their word processors.
Similar to Google Docs, Google Keep primarily resides on the web. Unlike the Docs web app, however, it doesn’t include an offline mode. For that purpose, you’d need to be using a device- such as a Chromebook or an iPad- that can install the Keep mobile app. Keep notes are also kept in the cloud and synced so that you can access notes from all your devices.
As far as I’m concern, Keep is a little lacking in organization. While it includes features such as searchable labels and the ability to pin the most essential notes to the top of the list, it doesn’t include an option for folders to better organize notes. But the bonus of using Keep is that it is quick to start a new note, and from Google Docs you can directly import a note from Keep- to do this, just tap the Keep icon to the right of the document and your list of notes appears. Also, you can set reminders directly in your notes, so that your note reappears when you need it to, and you can add photos to your notes.
Apple, likewise, stocks its Notes app on iOS and macOS. Like Pages, it’s not available on PC, Chromebook, or Android users however, for people in Apple’s ecosystem, it’s an automatic choice. Unlike Keep, Notes offers the ability to create folders for organization, and like Keep you can pin important notes to the top of each notebook. While it’s impossible to set up a reminder within the note, you can share a note to Apple’s Reminders app, where it will appear as an attachment when the reminder goes off. On iPhone and iPad, you can draw in Notes, and if you own an iPad that supports the Apple Pencil, you can easily open a new note from the lock-screen by tapping the Pencil to the screen. And, like Keep, you can add photos to notes. Unfortunately, there’s no way to easily import a note into Pages beyond copying the text in Notes and pasting it in Pages. Not a big issue, but nowhere near as fast as Keep’s built-in function within Docs. Another nag is that sometimes Notes will open a new note in between other notes rather than in order. It’s a pain, but you can easily move the notes around if you need to.
Lastly, Microsoft offers OneNote, which incidentally is the only free part of their Office Suite; you don’t need that 365 subscription to use OneNote. I like OneNote, because it not only supports folders for organization, it supports subfolders within those folders. Among the three programs, it probably takes the longest from opening the app to starting a note, but once you get going, you’ve got a lot of tools to work with. Actually, you have almost the same tools that you have in Microsoft Word. You can use a pen on supported devices to create handwritten notes or drawings. OneNote does not seem to have an easier way to share notes into Word besides copying and pasting, but one advantage that it has is the ability to attach damn almost any type of file to your note. It’s worth mentioning that OneNote has a very fluid layout; while the others are pretty static typing interfaces, OneNote allows free formatting so that you can put your notes and images and whatever else where it works for you in the note. For creatives and non-linear thinkers, it’s absolutely a great feature.
Similar with the word processors themselves, there are other features- such as voice dictation- that I don’t use often enough to compare them for you.
Winner: OneNote. While it doesn’t have the fast sharing method that Google Docs and Keep have, it’s certainly the most robust note-taking app available from these three companies. And while it doesn’t tie into Word in any significant way, the tool bar in OneNote is very similar to Word’s, which means if you use one, you should easily be able to slip into the other. Additionally, the free style of OneNote is an absolute win for creatives.
So Google Docs won this fight, at least on paper, but which writing program is right for you? As with all things, I think it depends on your needs.
Google Docs is fantastic for light users who need a free word processor, and it is great because it saves instantly and it available everywhere. However, steer clear of the mobile app; it’s not worth it.
Pages is a great step up from Docs- especially for a free program- and will definitely suit most users’ needs. But it isn’t for everyone- literally, if you don’t own a mac or an iPad, you shouldn’t even think about it.
Microsoft Word is my processor of choice, since it’s available on most computers, it is feature-rich, and it is the publishing standard (again, whether or not that matters to you). While it does cost cash, it at least pairs that monthly charge with a load of cloud storage. And while the mobile app isn’t great, it doesn’t suck either.
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So, what about you? Which writing program do you use, and what makes you love (or hate) it? I’d be interested to know in the comments.