Scrivener 2.0 Is Coming Soon

Scrivener is the formerly Mac-only application I use to do most of my writing. It’s a self-contained, multi-functional marvel that lets me get down to writing and have all my research, notes, snippets, and whathaveyou to hand without having to switch between windows, or fiddle around with combining lots of different services and bits of software. Back in 2009 I wrote a paean to Scrivener which has turned out to be one of the most read posts on this blog.

Scrivener has always worked well for me, despite being intended primarily for writing fiction, but there were rough edges. Now many of those edges are going to be smoothed. Scrivener 2.0, introduced on the developer’s website before its release in October [Update: November 1st], looks like a significant revision. Among other things there are improvements to the corkboard, and outliner, new ways of comparing text, and managing notes, and even ePub export. There is also Simplenote syncing, which is extremely exciting. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on it.

Scrivener 2.0 is described, with screenshots, right here.

My review of Scrivener, and a description of my workflow, is here.

Simplenote: Notetaking Everywhere

In my ongoing and probably fruitless quest to find software that will do its job across platforms and devices I have been looking at notetaking applications. In the course of my week I work on three different ‘full-size’ computers using three radically different operating systems and I use an iPod Touch for keeping on top of things while I’m on the move. Synchronised data is a serious problem.

About a month ago I discovered Simplenote, a notetaking app for the iPhone/iPod Touch which has one simple aim: to replace the built-in notes app on those devices. Like a lot of iPhone apps Simplenote syncs with a web-based service. But the clever thing about it is that it allows other applications to sync too. There are currently four desktop apps (Mac only I’m afraid) that sync with the Simplenote web app. Windows and Linux users should take heart from the Simplenote plugin for Google Chrome, a great replacement for the now more or less defunct Google Notebook (Update: Windows users might now also like to try Resoph Notes, or Notes, and there are continuing developments elsewhere too–thanks to David in the comments for the update). A full list of apps, plugins and extensions is here.

For me the best of the desktop apps on the Mac is Notational Velocity, a simple, lightning-fast open source notetaking tool that syncs with Simplenote almost instantly. Notational Velocity is focused on keyboard work rather than the mouse, it works in plain text or Rich Text Format, and it can encrypt notes. Unlike other similar applications it can be configured to save the notes as separate text files rather than locking them inside a database. This means your work stays yours and is easy to manage. It also opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities. If you change one of those files in another application–a wordprocessor for instance, or Writeroom–it appears in Notational Velocity and from there on your iPhone. You can even create new files outside of Notational Velocity and they will appear there when you next open it up; or put the Notational Velocity file folder in Dropbox to sync with other machines. That’s pretty slick, though it is unwise to have two instances of Notational running and pointing at the same folder at the same time.

Notational Velocity meets a lot of the needs I have in this kind of application: it is simple, fast, stores my data in an open, portable format and allows me to move it around to different devices seamlessly and straightforwardly. Add to that the ecosystem of apps growing up around Simplenote, and the interaction possible between them, and suddenly ‘cloud computing’ looks like much more than just keeping your documents on Google’s servers. In this version of the cloud, data is everywhere. We need more software like this.

Todo Lists Anywhere

Tasque todo list
It's not pretty, but it works.

I’ve been on the lookout for good todo list software for a while now. My primary machine is a Mac, but I also use Linux and Windows and these days an iPod Touch has taken over most of the duties of a laptop when I’m out and about. Since it’s my main machine I looked first for Mac software and tried Omnifocus (powerful, complicated, expensive) and the Things (simple, brilliant, pretty, great support) but quickly realised that none of the standard solutions were really cross platform. Certainly none of them had the ability to sync from Mac to Linux. I could sync from desktop to iPod/iPhone, and Mac to Mac (sorta, using Dropbox), but Windows and Linux might as well not exist.

Then I discovered Tasque, which is an underdeveloped free application from the Linux-centric Gnome desktop. Tasque is simple and straightforward and runs on Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X. It isn’t pretty and isn’t especially Mac-like, but its killer feature is that it syncs with the web-based todo list Remember The Milk. So Tasque, plus a $25 per year Remember The Milk Pro account and free iPhone app (there are apps for other handhelds, including Android and Blackberry) means I can sync my todos across platforms and across computers; there’s always Remember The Milk on the web too. Despite its lack of shiny shiny I find Tasque works very well on my Mac with very little fuss.

Go-OO: the most compatible office suite

Many people have heard of OpenOffice.org, the free open source office suite which in one form or another is the most powerful competitor against Microsoft Office, the default option for most Windows users. There are things I don’t like about OpenOffice.org. For instance it’s a little slow at first start up and the interface looks a little dated alongside the likes of Apple’s iWork and even IBM’s Lotus Symphony, which is itself built on the OpenOffice.org codebase. In use OpenOffice.org is a highly capable office suite and through its support for the Open Document Format boasts compatibility with a wide range of other similar programs. It also supports an extremely wide range of languages and has a growing collection of extensions, including my favourite, which allows upload and import to and from Google Docs and Zoho Office. The big advantage for me though is that unlike MS Office I can run it on all my computers, giving me cross-platform access to my files at no cost. It will even run off a thumb drive, in case the computer in front of me doesn’t have it installed.

Unfortunately, despite these huge advantages, the ubiquity of MS Office means the biggest problem for any office suite contender is file compatibility with MS Office. In this respect OpenOffice.org is good, but a variant known as Go-OO is better. Go-OO is essentially the same as OpenOffice.org, but with added features, including support for Microsoft’s Excel VBA Macros, import of MS Works documents–a notorious dead zone for non-Microsoft software–and for Lotus Word Pro. It is also faster on my Mac than the ‘official’ OpenOffice.org release. A more complete list is available at the Go-OO website. I would be very surprised if this wasn’t the most flexible and compatible office suite available. In terms of document portability it leaves MS Office in the dust.

Many OpenOffice.org users are already using the Go-OO variant without realising it. It is the default office suite on many of the major desktop Linux distributions, including Debian, Ubuntu and openSUSE, and is the basis for NeoOffice on the Mac. If you downloaded OpenOffice.org from the main http://openoffice.org website though, you won’t be able to take advantage of these enhancements. I recommend going over to the Go-OO site and getting the enhanced version from there. It will cost you nothing at all, looks very similar to the original version, but makes the whole experience a lot better.

Free download for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Snow Leopard: Why Ship a Physical Disk?

The ‘I upgraded to Snow Leopard’ stories are coming thick and fast and for the record this is mine. Here are the facts: It took about 55 minutes and there were two reboots, one half way through and one at the end. That’s it. This was a very easy upgrade with no human intervention beyond a couple of clicks to get it started. Since I have a Time Machine backup and keep my work in progress in on a synced Dropbox volume I didn’t worry about a clean install. It just wasn’t necessary.

Snow Leopard seems fine, but what I don’t understand is why I had to wait for the postman to deliver a CD. Why doesn’t Apple deliver OS upgrades like this using iTunes or even the regular Software Update tool? Most Linux systems deliver major upgrades that way using package management tools such as Synaptic and it works very well. The Ubuntu desktop I’m using to type this has had two Snow Leopard-equivalent upgrades now, both delivered in the same way as regular bugfixes and security updates, through Synaptic. If Apple has now caught up with Linux and Mac users no longer need to do clean installs it seems crazy for Apple to keep shipping actual physical media. We don’t buy iPhone OS upgrades on a disk after all.

Incidentally since I was installing Snow Leopard on my Mac I took the opportunity to upgrade my wife’s iBook G4 to Leopard. I kept the old Tiger install disk handy in case performance was poor, but actually this six year-old machine runs very well. Of course it will never be able to run Snow Leopard, but it will at least continue to receive updates until Mac OS X 10.7 “Hepcat” renders 10.5 obsolete. By then it will be around nine years old. She’ll have to manage with only 12GB of free disk space though.

Why Apple should be more open with iWork document formats

When Apple introduced iWork a few years back it offered a slick, but limited wordprocessor/text layout tool called Pages and a rather more impressive presentation tool known as Keynote. It was a good start, but it was hardly a challenge to Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac. In its iWork ’08 iteration both of these apps were improved significantly and a spreadsheet application was added, making the suite a more viable contender. I was impressed enough to buy a copy, mainly for Keynote, as I had some important presentations coming up. At the 2009 MacWorld in January, Apple introduced iWork ’09, the most impressive iWork yet and, for my limited needs at least, easily a replacement for MS Office (which I haven’t used in anger for years anyway) and OpenOffice.org, which in version 3.0 runs natively and rather nicely on the Mac.

I like iWork ’08 very much. Most of my actual writing needs are met by a combination of Scrivener and Nisus Writer, but if there is layout required, Pages comes into play. For dealing with figures I love the simplicity of Numbers, especially the way it allows you to lay out tables in a human-friendly way. For presentations Keynote is the best in the business. iWork is also good value for money, but there is one thing standing in the way of me adopting it as my primary office suite: proprietary file formats.

I don’t object as such to Apple deciding on its own format. iWork apps operate differently from every other office suite and if Apple thinks it can do better with its own format, well, who are we to judge? The problem is Apple’s format is the default and you can’t change it. It’s possible to save your documents in a few other formats (.rtf, .pdf, .doc etc.), but only by exporting them separately. Worse still, documents saved in iWork ’09 format can’t be read by iWork ’08. Not even in a ‘You know you should really upgrade, but since you haven’t you’ll have to put up with this mess’ kind of way. I don’t believe there is a technical reason for this, but I suppose it doesn’t matter too much because I would never consider saving anything in the iWork formats if I thought for a moment someone else (including future me) might ever need to look at it. It also means a lot of things might have to be saved twice in two different formats, wasting disk space and creating a version control problem. It keeps me from using iWork more often.

This is completely out of step with the way things are going. Even Microsoft, hardly a paragon of virtue in this regard, is adding ODF support in Office 14. OpenOffice.org, which is available for free, can open and save a multitude of different and competing formats. It just isn’t good enough any more. The online iWork.com service looks like a slick way of presenting online documents, but iWork itself has a fraction of a fraction of the office suite market and making life more inconvenient for users than it needs to be is not the way to improve on that position.

It also looks weak. Part of the reason for iWork09’s online features is that they will make it easier to collaborate with people who don’t use iWork09 or, heaven forfend, don’t use Macs. But the point about using a Mac is that Mac users choose to be Mac users. They do so because they find Macs better, easier, more powerful; that’s why they have a reputation for evangelising. So they are not going to buy a Dell running Windows Vista just because iWork doesn’t have online collaborative tools, but they might choose OpenOffice.org to run on their Macs if they can’t easily save their work in ODF or MS Office formats or have to pay for the privilege of working with others. If some kind of half-hearted lock in is all Apple has to persuade its customers to stay it might as well give up on iWork right now and that would be a shame.

So come on Apple, what’s the problem with offering other formats in the Save As menu and at least giving us the option of using an open format? You have nothing to lose and a whole new market to gain.

Foxmarks for Safari (and Internet Explorer)

Over the last couple of years one of the things that has kept me a devotee of the Firefox web browser is the Foxmarks extension. This is an addon that enables you to synchronize bookmarks across different copies of Firefox on different platforms. There are three computers that I use regularly: a MacBook, a PC running Linux, and a PC running Windows XP in an office I share at the University of Liverpool. It is very useful indeed to have the exact same bookmarks on all of these machines. There are lots of other good reasons for using Firefox, but there are times on the Mac when Safari just works better. It’s definitely faster and is much better integrated with key Mac applications such as Scrivener. Safari is a fairly limited browser in terms of features though and up to now using it has also meant keeping track of bookmarks manually. No longer. Foxmarks is now available for Safari on the Mac, on the iPhone/iPod Touch, and for Internet Explorer. I haven’t yet tried it on IE7, but it appears to work perfectly in Safari. Get Foxmarks, for Firefox, Safari, and IE here.

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.