Linux for Writers by Charles Olsen

The Best OS for a Working Writer

Note: I recently recorded a guest segment for the Linux Reality podcast on the topic of "Linux for Writers." This article was written from the notes I compiled for that podcast.

In some of my previous articles I've tried to let people know about Linux and some of the advantages to using it. I think the biggest thing holding it back right now is that most people don't have a realistic understanding of Linux.

While there are practical and financial advantages to running Linux as opposed to other operating systems, I realize that a lot of people don't actually care about that. They have things they need to do with their PCs, and they want to know that they can get these things done.

To that end, I'm going to discuss how writers can get their work done while using Linux.

I'll start by telling you a little about my background. I am a professional writer, in the sense that I have published articles and received payment. I've published between 300 and 400 articles -- about half of those were in paying magazines, and half in volunteer publications including the HAL-PC Magazine.

However, I do not make a living as a writer. Right now my job is to develop and present technical training. Before that, I worked in help desk and PC support for over 20 years.

In addition to writing nonfiction articles, I'm also writing fiction. I have not yet managed to sell any fiction. I'm still working on that. One day you will read my novels, and perhaps even see my movies on the big screen.

Linux is a great operating system for writers, because writers tend to be poor. When you consider the hours worked and the pay received, I think writing may be one of the lowest-paying professions.

You may point to Tom Clancy, or to JK Rowling -- who is now a billionaire. But for every Tom Clancy or Jo Rowling, there are probably hundreds of writers like me -- people who have published articles or stories and have received payment, but not nearly enough income to make a living.

And there are a lot of writers who are living off their writing income, but just barely getting by. Many of these are using the oldest, cheapest computer equipment they can get by with.

In the many years that I've been doing computer support, a lot of people have asked me for recommendations for what hardware and software they should buy for home use. Of course nobody wants to pay more than they have to, but the writers I've talked to have been the most emphatic about saving every penny they possibly can. They also tend to use older hardware because they'll hang on to it until it completely dies.

So, Linux and other open source software are great for writers. Everything I'm going to talk about in this article is free. You can legally download and install as many copies as you want, at zero cost.

The obvious starting place is with Linux itself. The great thing about Linux is that it will run just fine on old crappy hardware that couldn't dream of running Vista -- or even Windows XP. If someone is looking to re-invigorate an older PC that's been running Windows, Linux is a very effective way to do it.

Which Linux you use doesn't matter so much. But if you're making a recommendation for a potential new user, I'd suggest you stick with one of the more popular distros because it will be easier for them to find support.

I used Kubuntu for quite a while. I'm now running PCLinuxOS on my desktop and I love it. I've also read good things about Mint, Fedora and Mandriva. And there's a new version of Ubuntu which has made great strides in user friendliness. These are all good distributions for someone who's just getting started in Linux.

Here's something else to think about: If you're the one who is introducing a friend to Linux, you're probably the one they'll come to for support. Make it easy on yourself and give them a CD for the distro you're using. That's probably the one you're the most familiar with, and will be easiest for you to support.

Once you have an OS, a writer obviously needs a word processor. I think most of the popular Linux distributions include OpenOffice as part of the base install, so this is already covered.

I've been using OpenOffice for a few years, and it's done everything I've needed it to do. I did have some frustrations with version 1, but I've been pretty happy with it since version 2 was released.

There are several advantages to using OpenOffice:

  1. It's powerful. It can probably do everything you need it to do.
  2. It's free. You can contribute to the project if you want to -- by contributing money, or contributing time by testing, writing documentation or even writing code. But you don't have to do any of this. You can legally install and use OpenOffice without paying a dime.
  3. It's small. OpenOffice doesn't take up nearly as much space on your hard disk as Microsoft Office. And, if you're saving files in the Open Document format, they tend to be about one-fourth the size of files saved in Microsoft Word format. This means that you can get by with a smaller hard disk.
  4. It can read and write files in Microsoft Word or Excel format up to version 2003, so if you already have documents created from those programs, you can open them directly in OpenOffice. It can also save files to Microsoft Office formats, in case you have to share them with people who are using Office.

OpenOffice isn't the only software available for word processing; two others are KOffice and Abiword. I haven't tried Abiword. I did try KOffice a while back, but -- at least at that time -- it couldn't read or write files in MS Office formats. So I've stuck with OpenOffice.

Before you start writing, you need to organize your thoughts and ideas. There are a lot of tools available to help; index cards are an approach that writers have used for a long time, and which some writers still use even though they have computers.

If you want to organize your writing on the computer, there are programs designed to help. I've tried some of them, but never found one I kept using. Even those times that I initially liked the software, I just didn't find it helpful enough to keep using it.

I read a suggestion from a professional screenwriter who uses Microsoft Excel to organize his screenplays before he writes them. I use the spreadsheet in OpenOffice instead of Excel, and I've found that this approach works very well. The cells in the spreadsheet basically become your index cards. You can have multiple stacks by putting each stack in a separate column or separate worksheet, and it's easy to move the cards around. Now I use OpenOffice Calc to plan my fiction writing and sometimes even my articles.

Of course there's more to writing than just writing. Usually you have notes that you need to keep track of. These days, a lot of your research can be done on the Internet.

Whether you're researching on the web or from books or magazines, Zotero is a great way to collect your notes. Zotero is an add-on for a few web browsers, including Firefox, which is the one I use.

Zotero adds a button to the bottom right of the Firefox screen. When you click the Zotero button, it opens in the bottom the Firefox window. You can type notes in directly or paste in text. It can also capture a link to the web page, or capture the web page itself. I always save the web page rather than a link. So many times in the past I've saved a URL and then when I go back to the page six months or a year later, it no longer exists. If you save the page in Zotero, you'll always have the content.

Once you've entered a note or saved a web page, Zotero also lets you add tags to your notes. You can also create folders to organize notes.

Zotero is free, and it runs on Linux, Windows and Mac as long as you're running Firefox, Netscape Navigator or Flock. If you're using Firefox, you can get Zotero by clicking Tools > Add-ons. Or you can browse to to download Zotero for any of the supported browsers.

If your goal is to write movie scripts, there's software that can help you with that. Scripts must be written in a very specific format. In Windows, the most popular script writing programs are Final Draft ($229) and Movie Magic Screenwriter ($250).

You can use word processors, but scripts must be submitted in a very specific format including margins, indents, uppercase, and lowercase. It's a lot harder to do with just a word processor.

There is a free program for scriptwriting, available in Linux as well as Windows and Mac. Celtx is an open source program that makes it very easy to write in the correct format for scripts.

A script includes various elements -- Scene Headings, Action, Character Names, Parentheticals and Dialog -- which must be formatted correctly. In Celtx, you can select these elements from a drop-down, but -- even better -- you can select them by pressing the Tab or Enter keys on the keyboard. This is great for touch typists, as you almost never have to take your hands off the keyboard to reach for the mouse as you're writing.

When you're ready to submit a script, you can print it out or save it to a PDF file.

Celtx can actually help you do a lot more than just write your script. A Celtx project can store multiple scripts, and quite a bit of other information including:

  • information about characters (name, description, age, role, background, and more)
  • extensive details about scenes, including locations where scenes will be filmed
  • contact and facilities information about the locations
  • detailed info about props
  • actors
  • wardrobe
  • storyboard, where you can add graphic images to help visualize your project

All these items things can be created and stored in a Celtx project file.

The files are the same regardless of what kind of PC you're running on. I've copied Celtx projects between Linux and Windows PCs and back again, editing on both platforms. No conversion is required.

Celtx is a very powerful program, and it is absolutely free. You can get Celtx at

As you can see, Linux has tools to take care of everything a writer might need. An added advantage is that Linux can run on old, slow PCs that can't run Windows well -- or at all.

And of course if there is some Windows program you can't live without, you can probably run it in Wine (which is free).

If you know any writers who are looking to upgrade from an old PC but don't have the money -- or don't want to spend the money -- let them know that they can install Linux and all the software they need for free.




Charles Olsen is a writer, trainer and MIS professional. He can be reached at

© 2008 by Charles M. Olsen