Scrivener: A Review

As my current project progresses, I am finding the manuscript is becoming quite sizeable. In addition to my main document, I’m also keeping separate documents for my growing collection of character notes, scenes and overall theme ideas. It’s not ideal.

If you’re like me, you may have always done your writing in either Microsoft Word, or the Mac equivalent, Pages. And like me, you may be finding it an unmanageable way of  working as the project grows. You also may have heard about writing tools, but not given them much thought. The other day an article by fellow blogger J.M. Williams brought them back to my attention. So I decided to investigate further.

Writing tools are applications (mobile or desktop) that help you organise your work, so yOU can do what yOU enjoy most — write. They primarily consist of ‘editors’ and ‘organisers’.

Editors

The idea behind these type of applications is to help you write distraction free; the software often runs full screen without the intrusion of colourful icons, toolbars, and ‘ribbons’ that you get with your normal word processor. The idea is that fewer distractions means more focus. Two popular applications in this category are Write Monkey (for Windows) and WriteRoom (for Mac). I’ve only used the latter and have found it effective in the past. You can apply a variety of themes to change the colours and font. And overall, it does a great job in aiding focus by minimising distractions, and that can only be a good thing. However, due to the lack of annotating features, I always find myself going back to Word.

WriteRoom_Screenshot

WriteRoom’s distraction free editor with a retro terminal theme.

Organisers

The other kind of application is an ‘organiser’. The idea behind this is that it helps you structure larger projects into manageable scenes and chapters, it provides a repository for notes and other research material. Some feature their own built-in editors.

Plume Creator is available free for Linux and Windows. However as a Mac user, I had to look elsewhere. And that led me to Scrivener; it is available to try for 30 days for Mac and Windows, and appears to have a long, successful history. However, unlike Plume Creator, Scrivener is paid for.

Scrivener

Scrivener is more than just an organiser, it also features its own editor. It appeared quite daunting at first. But a few minutes watching the tutorial video and I was away.

As with Plume Creator, Scrivener allows you to separate your manuscript into smaller chunks with chapters as folders, and scenes as text files within those folders — as you would organise files on your computer. Working in smaller chunks makes it easier to write and edit, and makes reorganising the plot a doddle — as easy as dragging and dropping. I imported my Word manuscript, and had split it into scenes within minutes. All other notes and comments from Word were also imported.

Scrivener also has a ‘corkboard’ feature which I really like. The idea is that each scene has a little synopsis card attached to it, in ‘corkboard’ mode, you can move these cards around until you are happy with the structure — no more copying and pasting huge lines of text in a single document. You can also organise the structure in a more traditional ‘list’ mode.

feature-corkboard-lg

Scrivener’s ‘corkboard’ feature.

Scrivener also helps by providing the following folders:

  • ‘Characters’: helps you collect notes, research material, webpages, pictures etc. about your characters
  • ‘Places’: for storing information about settings and locations
  • ‘Research’: for general notes regarding your project

The text files are stored in a universal ‘rich text format’ in Scrivener rather than in any propriety format — you can still export to a variety of formats including Word and PDF. It also syncs with DropBox so you can work on it between desktop and mobile seamlessly (as long as you are happy to pay for both versions). Another great feature is the ability to automatically format your document to industry standards for submitting to agents, for publishing as a paperback, or as an e-book. When you are ready to do this, you ‘compile’ your files together, and Scrivener ensures it is consistently formatted for alignment, font, spacing etc. into a number of different formats including ePub and Kindle. In this way, it separates the formatting from the content, so you can concentrate on the writing.

The other nice feature is its own built-in, full-screen editor. At a press of a button the screen becomes a distraction-free black back drop with a single sheet of white paper — you can change the appearance to suit your needs. A nice feature is how it simulates a typewriter by keeping the current line always in the middle, rather than scrolling downwards at each line — a subtle but effective feature. The editor also incorporates word and character counts, and standard spell-checking (for Mac at least).

feature-fullscreen-lg

Scrivener’s full screen editor.

Other features include:

  • Version controlling — take ‘snapshots’ of your documents so that you can restore a previous version, or compare changes at any time.
  • Add keywords, categories, and colours to files. This makes it easier to find and manage all the scenes, for instance by searching for all content that are from a certain character’s point of view.
  • Project templates are provided for novels, short stories, screenplays, academic essays, as well as other non-fiction projects.
  • Project targets — set your desired word count — and optional deadline — and Scrivener will calculate your daily word target.

Conclusion

Overall, I’ve found Scrivener invaluable in helping me organise my current creative writing project (as well as my academic work). I’m impressed with the full-screen editing tool, the way it formats your manuscript, the ‘corkboard’ feature is a nice touch, and version control is invaluable. Having one application to organise, annotate, and write in saves a lot of time and interruption. The only criticism is it may seem overly complicated — the preferences screen alone seems very daunting — but you don’t need to be concerned with every aspect of the software; and the price, currently $45USD, may put some people off; but from what I’ve seen so far, worth the money.

Think of Scrivener as your virtual office, you have folders to put your scribblings, notes, and scraps of research together, you have a clutter-free desk to write on, and a board to pin your index cards and shuffle them around. If you have never considered using an organiser or an editor application before, but feel that your project may soon become too unmanageable, or you become too distracted while writing, it’s worth giving these applications a try.

Resources

Write Monkey (Windows)

WriteRoom (Mac)

Plume Creator (Linux, Windows)

Scrivener (Mac, Windows)

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8 Replies to “Scrivener: A Review”

    1. Glad you found it useful. You may find the fullscreen editors useful for even shorter pieces. If you’re on Windows many are free, not so on Mac unfortunately.

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