By Austin Briggs
Although I’ve never had occasion to use it, I’ve been hearing writers rave about Scrivener for some time. Intrigued, I’ve been asking around for someone to write up a review of this fascinating software for writers, and novelist Austin Briggs volunteered. Here’s his review.
How many applications can you name that had compelled you to switch your computer’s operating system?
For me, Scrivener was one. I followed it from the first public beta many years ago. I used it daily since 2005. I switched from Windows to Mac for it.
That dramatic step is no longer needed—unless you’re on Linux. Scrivener is now available both for Mac and Windows, although the latter version misses some features.
You can see detailed demos at the Literature and Latte website, so let me focus only on the Five Features that I Can’t Do Without.
Scrivener may have weaknesses, but I bump into none of them in my daily work; and I’m not going to pretend displeasure for the sake of balance. So be warned: this is a positive article!
- Quality of Thinking and Execution
In our age of buggy software releases, typo-infested published novels, and messy websites, Scrivener stands out because it’s a work of quality. It’s also beautiful. I know that esthetics isn’t a deciding factor for many. It is for me.
Keith Blount, the program creator, has spent the last 8 years perfecting it. He’s a writer, and he knows what we writers need. His upgrades are infrequent, because he spends his time making things work.
Here’s a couple of examples of how Keith thinks, both involving the free Dropbox.com:
Scrivener can back up all your work into a folder of your choice. This feature also doubles up as set-and-forget sharing through Dropbox: you can point to a folder inside your Dropbox as the backup destination.
Said another way, your precious words are always safe and available on all your computers after only one step.
- Sync with Mobile Devices
There’s no mobile version of Scrivener. Instead, it can sync its text files with an arbitrary folder in your Dropbox, allowing you to edit those files in a variety of iPad writing programs.
It’s a simple yet elegant solution. I love it.
I delete programs that restrict my freedom. That’s why, although I love the allure of an uncluttered page before me, I’m weary of the “distraction-free writing environments”, which normally present me with a “zen” screen only capable of displaying plain text.
Scrivener delivers a wonderful balance between an empty screen in the “Compose” mode and the ready availability of powerful tools.
Here’s a typical distraction-free screen. I pulled up the hidden footer menu to show off its features. You can control the colors, transparency, width and position of the “writing paper”, as well as switch between documents right within this screen.
As a visual person, I need pictures when I write. I need the focus of a light page against dark background. I want to visually italicize, and not to mark my sentences with code that makes my eyes bleed. Scrivener delivers all this and more.
The full-screen mode wasn’t pioneered by Scrivener, I believe Ulysses was the first. But it sports one of its most successful implementations.
I’ll assume we’re all busy people, writing between our day jobs and family commitments. And yet, like many of us, I do invest lots of time into research. I check and re-check my sources. I return to exciting facts years after discovering them. I collect scans, text clippings, pictures, and sounds.
Scrivener enables me to keep a going research library relevant to each project. Below is a sample Research folder screenshot. The program keeps and displays all sorts of materials (PDF’s, Web Archives, text snippets, photos, videos, music files, etc.).
In the past, I’d use a combination of bookmarks, MS Office docs filed in many folders, and database apps. Scrivener enabled me to bring both writing and research into one place.
And look at this cool thing: you can have your bit of research and your writing all in one screen:
For those who need it, Scrivener also supports Footnotes and Comments, which it exports nicely.
One thing keeping me within the program is how well it adapts to my needs: it’s an open-ended experience.
At its core is the index cards metaphor. Many years ago, I used such cards to outline my stories, marking various sub-plots and character arcs in different colors. I’d spend hours rearranging the cards on the floor or on a corkboard, clipping draft pages or character sketches to them. I had special relations with my cards. I loved them.
With much delight, I discovered that I could use the exact same approach to grow my story in Scrivener:
The Corkboard pictured above—where you can do all the good things that come with this analogy—isn’t the only way to plan a story. You can also use an outliner, or simply build your chapters in the Binder view.
You can divide your writing into small scenes and move them around. You can organize them using the Folder metaphor (which I prefer), or in the keyword-based Collections menu. You can read your texts as a continuous manuscript (using “Scrivenings”) without touching their place in the project.
You can do whatever you want, it seems.
This is a site dedicated to book design, and I’d like to mention that Scrivener enabled many grades of export power and complexity. I write novels, so I usually use the Standard Manuscript Format with a Word export.
However, Scrivener is one of the few applications that natively support the MultiMarkdown export for complete control over the final product.
Here’s the “Compile” view, with many more options in the “Format As” menu:
I mentioned here only five things that are key for me. Scrivener has much more to offer: it’s capable of drafting simple novels, research papers, mathematical formulae, movie scripts and poetry.
To round this off, Keith and his small team are a friendly bunch of writers, and their community is responsive and helpful (although sometimes sarcastic).
If you haven’t done so yet, go and explore more at their home base, Literature and Latte. You may like what you find.
Austin Briggs is the author of Five Dances with Death. He spent over 10 years researching the history of the Aztec Empire and the Spanish Conquest with a dream of creating a historical fiction series that would fascinate readers who like a good history-based tale. You can find him at www.austinbriggs.com.
Photo by Rev Dan Catt