Hey, playwrights: what software do you use to write your plays?

I’m not asking because I need advice: I’m asking because I’m wondering whether you’ve ever asked yourself that question. I’ve known so many playwrights over the years who simply use Microsoft Word (or an equivalent Mac-based program) without ever asking themselves whether there are other options to consider.

Believe me, there are other options to consider.

Of late, I’ve noticed several playwrights using a program called Celtx. Its primary distinction seems to be that it’s free, though I’m sure it has lovely features that distinguish it from its competitors in some other way, too. There’s also ScriptSmart, a free plug-in offered by the BBC, and a variety of screenwriting-centric software packages that can be made to work for plays, too, like Scripped Writer and Movie Outline and Movie Magic Screenwriter… but none of them are exactly what you need.

What you need, really, is the king: Final Draft.

I’m talking to you, Playwright Who Uses Microsoft Word. Listen up.

All of the things you struggle with in Microsoft Word—tabbing over to where your characters’ names need to appear, aligning actions correctly, keeping lines of dialogue from spreading inappropriately across pages, and a lot more than that besides—are all handled for you in Final Draft. In a few short minutes of practice and fumbling around, you’ll be writing more quickly than ever. Your scripts will look good effortlessly—and as someone who has read scripts for more than one theater, let me tell you, a script that looks good definitely makes a more favorable impression.

But it’s not just about looking better and writing more efficiently; there are a great many more powerful tools you can learn to use in Final Draft that will make you a more professional colleague for the directors and actors you work with. (I am reminded of the fact that for the first few years of Microsoft Word’s existence, 85% of the people who used it, worldwide, limited their interactions to four functions: typing, deleting, saving, and printing, or roughly those four. No underlining, no copy-and-paste, no graphics, no tables, no mail merges, no nothing.) With experience, you will learn how to use Final Draft to manage script revisions during rehearsals, for example… a feature that in my experience has proven to be worth the entire cost of the software just by itself.

Speaking of which: yes, it does cost money. A lot of money, it might seem: $249 for a new copy. But if this is the ONE big investment you need to make to work as a playwright (aside from a three-hole punch, some wire brads or script covers, reams of paper, and ink for your printer), isn’t that fairly reasonable?

No, I’m not secretly a Final Draft rep; I paid for my copy like you will, and I don’t get a cut if you buy. Save up for it. Ask for it for your birthday. And deduct the cost from your taxes, too, if you can.

You’re worth it. Your career is worth it. And your collaborators will thank you.

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Comment by Richard T. Young on February 12, 2013 at 4:09pm

Gwydion - Hi.  It's been a while.  Great post.  You make me want to check this out. I spend a lot of time formatting and reformatting.  I think I'm ready for something like this.  Thanks.

Richard Young

Comment by Gwydion Suilebhan on June 11, 2012 at 11:55am

Yes. Final Draft formats like that.

Comment by Alexander Thomas on June 11, 2012 at 11:50am

I have Celtx.  It's pretty good.  The thing I'm disappointed in is that, in the play format, it places the character names to the left instead of center.   I want the character name center over the dialogue.  Do you know which program formats like that? 

Comment by Gwydion Suilebhan on July 3, 2011 at 7:15pm
Sounds like cool stuff!
Comment by Patrick M Brennan on July 3, 2011 at 1:00pm
I have created a nice (and free!) play formatting package on top of OpenOffice. It allows you to write in a rapid fashion and formats your play for you with very little fuss. It also has a nice feature which allows you to highlight any character's lines or the stage directions (this is a convenience feature allowing you to prepare scripts for readings). You can find the package at http://playwrighttools.sourceforge.net/

Regarding "revision mode", I have found that Mercurial is a tool no playwright should be without. This free package allows you to painlessly manage revisions to your script and compare the state of your script to any other change. I use it with a program called Beyond Compare (not free, but cheap), and it makes a potent combination for managing my writing process.
Comment by Gwydion Suilebhan on March 28, 2011 at 6:42am

Thanks, Greg. Glad you found this so useful. Sounds like Scrivener is your best best...


And thank you for the invitation. I'd love to come see, you, but I'm only in town for the weekend, which is (as you might expect) jam-packed! Another time...

Comment by Greg Hardison on March 28, 2011 at 5:33am
I love these ideas!!!  We have been developing scripts for our Museum Theatre program for years using only Word, and I never even knew these programs exisited, so Gwyndion, I heard you!  :)  All of our plays are based on copious amounts of research, scholarly support, and primary sources from the collections of the Kentucky Historical Society, so I am most interested in software that simplies footnoting, bibliography, and related research.  Andrew and Jacob mention Scrivener, which I plan to learn more about.  Can anyone else recommend programs that allow for supporting data?  Gwyndion, we are only about 50 minutes from Louisville, so come on over and visit while you are at the Humana Fest!
Comment by Gwydion Suilebhan on March 16, 2011 at 7:17pm

Drat. I knew about Scrivener and forgot to mention it.

The one Final Draft feature I have not seen in other programs -- not that it doesn't exist, but I haven't seen it -- is the ability to enter "revision mode," which allows for the locking of pages, the marking of changes, the separation of revision sets. It has made me the hero of more than one production that I was able to do this easily and smoothly.

Comment by ERIC ANTHONY SMITH on March 16, 2011 at 6:07pm
AbiWord 2.8.6-.......free ! Award winning crossplatform word processor. The pulldown menu -you see all your type faces - www.abisource.com/download/...............all FREE!
Comment by Andrew Hungerford on March 16, 2011 at 1:26pm
I use Scrivener and absolutely love it.

Among other things, it offers a great way to hold research files within the file for the script: the entire project is in one place.

It also has a great "corkboard" view, with 3x5 cards for each scene laid out in a graphical way. Need to rearrange scenes? Just drag the cards around. Its formatting features may not be as robust as Final Draft (I haven't worked with Final Draft much, so it's hard to say), but the project management features are amazing.

And at $45 it's way cheaper than final draft.

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