In Praise of Scrivener: a writing tool for writers

By inclination I prefer to use software that runs on several different platforms, but one exception is Scrivener, which runs only on the Mac. Scrivener is essentially a word processor, but it is not your father’s wordprocessor. Scrivener is writing software created with writers in mind. Where wordprocessors such as MS Word or OpenOffice Writer are designed to create documents, Scrivener is intended for managing writing projects. It handles every aspect, from arranging narrative, developing characters, and organising research, to the writing itself. I should say right now that this post is not so much a review as a celebration. This piece of software is truly impressive in the way it addresses very specific writerly needs.

It took me a while to get into using Scrivener. I started using it off and on early in its development, but I began using it seriously about half way through writing my ‘beer book’ some time in early 2007. It transformed the process. Instead of having research scattered all over the place, Scrivener pulled it all together. The Scrivener files (.scriv) are actually folders that contain the whole project. So while a short book might contain a couple of megabytes of rich text, a Scrivener project could be much larger. For the record the Cain’s book .scriv, even though I only moved to Scrivener half way through, is well over 20 40 megabytes: it contains pdfs, images, chunks of text, saved web pages and so on. This kind of conveniently accessible data soup will be familiar to anyone who uses Mac OS X, but the Scrivener interface makes it all very easy.

In the Scrivener window itself the writing and research are contained in two sections.

The writing section is obvious: it’s the area where you keep your writing. Cleverly though, it is unlike the normal wordprocessor model in that it allows you to write in chunks, all of which are available all the time. Rather than a whole bunch of files accessible only through your file manager, all your notes and short chunks of text are available instantly within Scrivener. It is possible to move sections around, merge them, turn them into an outline, move notes to the research section and so on. The flexibility of it is brilliant.

The research section is where you store research materials. This can be anything you can save and view in Mac OS X. From pdfs to Word documents, to saved web pages, you can organise everything easily. I happen to use two screens when I’m doing most of my writing, which allows me to open research materials in a window in the left screen and keep writing in the right (Scrivener) window. Scrivener allows you to split the screen so this will work on a single screen setup, but having two screens really unleashes the power of the research section. For instance, I can open a multiple saved web pages in the web browser Safari in the left screen while running Scrivener for writing in full screen on the right.

Two other features of Scrivener are worth mentioning. Firstly, Scrivener has access to all the text formatting tools in Mac OS X, so you can view your text as you like it. The idea though is that Scrivener is primarily a writing tool, so it is expected that you export your text to a wordprocessor for final formatting. It’s what wordprocessors are for after all.

The second key feature is full screen mode. Lots of ‘no distraction’ text editors are available these days. Write Room is probably best known on the Mac, but even iWork has a full screen mode now. Scrivener’s blows them all away. Not only does it provide more information in full screen mode than the others, but it allows almost limitless formatting. If you want green text on a black background, that’s fine. Maybe you want a single white page, or to be able to see the windows behind ever so faintly. However you like to work, Scrivener seems to cater for it. And because of that, it gets out of the way and lets you write.

I work almost exclusively in Scrivener now, exporting text in .rtf format for processing in final draft. It is primarily aimed at fiction writers and ships with templates for novel and screenplay writing. The flexible research tools also make it well suited to large projects, but my non-fiction projects seem to work just as well, whatever their length. Oh, and did I mention Scrivener has a versioning system built in? If you don’t like your current draft, or part of it, you can go back to an earlier copy with a single click.

Having somewhat obsessive geeky leanings I like trying out new software and I download a lot of new things. Most don’t last and even fewer get my money. If you’re a writer and you use a Mac, Scrivener, at $39.99 is one of the best software bargains out there.

The Scrivener homepage is here. Here’s a video tutorial for Scrivener.

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