Scrivener: The Ultimate Multitool for Writers

by Joel Friedlander on August 10, 2011 · 29 comments

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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!

  1. Quality of Thinking and Execution
  2. 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:

    • Backup

      scrivener-backup

      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

      scrivener-sync

      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.

  3. Controlled distraction
  4. 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.

    scrivener-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.

  5. Research, all in one place
  6. 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.).

    scrivener-research

    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:

    scrivener-music

    For those who need it, Scrivener also supports Footnotes and Comments, which it exports nicely.

  7. Versatility
  8. 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:

    scrivener-cork

    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.

  9. Powerful Export
  10. 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.

    While I wouldn’t publish an ePub or Mobi straight from Scrivener to BookBaby or Goodreads, for example, I do use this capability to share my files with reviewers in the formats they prefer.

    Here’s the “Compile” view, with many more options in the “Format As” menu:

    scrivener-export

In Conclusion

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.

AustinBriggsAustin 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

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    { 27 comments… read them below or add one }

    Ioa Petra'ka September 8, 2014 at 11:40 am

    We actually do have an unofficial native build for Linux. You can take the WINE route as well, and I hear with the latest version it is very simple to do so—no tweaks necessary—but if you want to run it using the native Qt system, we make .debs and tarballs available on our software forum. We treat it as a perpetual unsupported beta. You get to use it for free, but it’s an as-is kind of arrangement.

    Reply

    wednesday September 7, 2014 at 5:32 pm

    Hi, Joel. I know this article is three years old, but I thought you might like to know Scrivener works on Linux if you run it using WINE (an add-on program that lets you run Windows software in versions of Linux).

    Reply

    Michael Brein September 18, 2011 at 11:44 am

    TEMPLATES CENTRAL? I am very appreciative for this article on Scrivener. I am just staring with it and feel that it is just the best thing out there! Now, here’s an idea: Wouldn’t it be great if we could go to a “Templates Central” (or some such other) where users of Scrivener could ‘donate’ or ‘gift’ their custom-made Scrivener templates (such as Tony McFadden and others have done on a helter-skelter basis) so that other Scrivener users could use them or modify them to suit their purposes? Such a library or repository could ‘host’ these templates. Of course, some sort of a disclaimer could be posted. Scrivener seems so ripe for this sort of thing, akin to ‘apps’ we might find for our iPhones or iPads, huh? The Scrivener website would, of course, be a perfect place for such a thing, but in the absence of that, anyone could to this.

    Reply

    Dave December 21, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    I just set up Scrivener to back up using Dropbox. Great tip!

    To Michael — “Templates Central” is a great idea. I’ve scoured the Web for Scrivener templates beyond the ones that come with a basic installation, and they aren’t very easy to find. I’m sure if L&L made a place on the forums to post templates people would share them.

    I wish the Windows and Linux (beta) versions had that mobile sync feature!

    Reply

    Rich Shields August 27, 2011 at 11:53 am

    I have been using Scrivener for about two years. It is great. My primary use is editing a magazine for our national church body. Scrivener has allowed me to pull all articles, etc. into one place, and edit cleanly. Great tool, great time-saver. I am very particular about commitments to software. There are five tools that are right at the top of the list: Scrivener, Mellel, Tinderbox, Accordance, and Nisus Writer Pro. Top notch, quality programs that do what they claim, and more!

    Reply

    Anthony StClair August 23, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    Given the recent piece and discussion about using InDesign for writing, this is a most timely piece! I had not looked much at Scrivener yet, but now am going to. The structure and organizational aspects are more nuanced than I realized, and I can see where that’d be a big help. I also like the template/export options — very handy depending on what you need.

    Reply

    Roger C. Parker August 13, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Dear Austin/Joel:
    Thank you for sharing this illustrated & insightful post.

    I especially like the way you focused on the 5 most important features, from your perspective, rather than providing an endless bullet list of features without relevance or context.

    I’m really looking forward to exploring and learning more.
    Roger

    Reply

    David Allen August 13, 2011 at 2:38 am

    I have been using Scrivener for some time now and I love it. I have used it to write about 150,000 words and loving all the features. The name generator is excellent and I like having the research readily available while I am writing.

    Reply

    Susan Russo Anderson August 12, 2011 at 10:21 am

    I’ve been using Scrivener for three months now and I absolutely love it. Since using it, I’ve almost doubled my daily word count on my main project from 773 words per day to well over 1500 words per day, and this count does not include writing posts for my blog and doing book reviews at sites like Goodreads. Although it is feature rich, I’ve probably just scratched the surface, but I highly recommend it.

    Reply

    Marie Loughin August 10, 2011 at 10:25 pm

    Thanks! I’ve been curious about exactly what Scrivener does. Sounds interesting. If it’s not tooo pricey, I might just buy it.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander August 11, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    Marie, should have mentioned that, but it’s $45, quite a bargain.

    Reply

    Linda Burke August 10, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    My favorite feature is the typewriter mode which keeps the typing line in the middle of the screen.

    Reply

    Austin Briggs August 12, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    Hi Linda, I agree, that feature is addictive. It’s one of several features that has become my ‘quality standard’ when I try out other programs.

    Reply

    James August 10, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    Excellent review–I agree about those five features, too–especially #4. I’m a regular user of Scrivener, and it keeps getting better. Like any writing tool, I always recommend that a writer take a bit of time to try it–though it might not fit your way of writing, you might discover better ways!

    Reply

    Austin Briggs August 11, 2011 at 7:48 am

    Hi James, thanks for your nice words. I agree with you, I was really torn between 3 writing programs and spent at least 6 months in each – Scrivener, Ulysses, and Jer’s Novel Writer.

    All are excellent. Scrivener’s just most intuitive for me. Sometimes I feel Keith has read my mind before creating his program :)

    Reply

    James August 12, 2011 at 11:29 am

    Ha! That’s how I felt. When I get that feeling when using a software program, I know I’ve found something great.

    Reply

    Martin BB August 10, 2011 at 6:47 am

    To my mind, the most remarkable feature of Scrivener, and the reason why I use it, is the ability to keep one’s writing in very short sections, yet combine them on the fly in a single pane when one wants to read the whole thing (the “Scrivenings” view). I write non-fiction, and presenting information in the best order is very much at the core of what I do. I now write so that every single paragraph is a separate section (or document) with its own name (so that I can see what it is about at a glance). I can then move them about easily to achieve the best flow. Magical!

    Reply

    Austin Briggs August 11, 2011 at 3:30 am

    Hi Martin, I can see how this would work for non-fiction. In fact, this approach could also be great for technical blogs – I wrote my article this way.

    For fiction though, I’ve been going the other way… I went from scene elements to scenes to now a chapter per section.

    Reply

    Tony McFadden August 10, 2011 at 3:40 am

    100% agree with those five, and there are a dozen more. Research within the project, cork board and the ability to spit an ePub draft version of my document to my iPod Touch or iPad are my top three.

    I don’t write with anything else now. I’m evangelical about this tool, and built a 4 part novel template (works for Mac and PC) that your readers are free to download, if they wish. http://bit.ly/p2rcXA Or not.

    Reply

    Austin Briggs August 10, 2011 at 6:11 am

    Hi Tony, thanks for the template – I also use that 4 part structure so it feels very comfortable.

    I’ve downloaded and made it work after deleting the .xml extension that OS X assigns to it automatically.

    Nice! :) The chapter guide, and the Questions to Answer are very helpful. I’ll use it.

    Reply

    Tony McFadden August 10, 2011 at 6:15 am

    Glad you like it. All from Storyfix.com, a highly recommended site for writers. Carved years off my learning curve.

    That xml thing is annoying. Don’t know why it does it. Enjoy.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander August 10, 2011 at 10:42 am

    Tony, that’s very generous of you, thanks on behalf of all readers here.

    Scrivener seems to be one of those tools that inspires evangelism and fierce devotion, so I’m glad to be able to show a little bit of the program here. I’m also curious if authors have found the tools in Scrivener robust enough to use as an ePub generator without the need to go back and edit or clean up the files later.

    Reply

    Austin Briggs August 10, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    Hi Joel, personally, I’d never just trust an automatic ePub generator for the professional release. I may be wrong. But having worked with book designers, I know the difference a professional person makes.

    For my pre-production use however, Scrivener’s converters have been adequate.

    Reply

    Kent August 10, 2011 at 2:43 am

    Thanks for your useful (and enthusiastic) Scrivener comments. I’ve read that the Windows beta can be loaded in Ubuntu Wine, and in fact there are user comments about it on that platform. As a writer I’d LOVE to give it a try, but after half a day attempting to get loaded I’m starting to despair. Most of the online instructions are either garbled or have big holes in the procedures. Perhaps you have a suggestion or two?…

    Reply

    Austin Briggs August 10, 2011 at 5:51 am

    Hi Kent, thanks for your nice words. I’ve only tried the Windows beta on actual Windows — haven’t used Linux for a while now.

    You may want to address AmberV who administers the help forums (http://www.literatureandlatte.com/forum) – he’s an amazing expert and can be a great help.

    Scrivener is worth the trouble if you can make it work on Ubuntu.

    Reply

    Ioa Petra'ka August 10, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    In addition to WINE, we do distribute unofficial native Linux builds as well, and in fact on the said forums you’ll find a Linux sub-forum in the Windows section of the board with other users. There is one enthusiastic fellow who has been packaging our builds into .debs which I hear work nicely with Ubuntu. That might be a better route than WINE, though there will be a few things you miss out on that require a Windows infrastructure. As I say, it is unofficial and community supported. We are stuffed just keeping up with the Mac & Windows in terms of support. Some day it would be lovely to have an official branch, and since the Windows code is QT, it literally is just a compilation switch for 95% of the code. The Windows team actually works on Linux as their primary development environment.

    Reply

    Austin Briggs August 11, 2011 at 3:27 am

    Hi Ioa, thanks so much for your competent answer. Great to know this is happening!

    Reply

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