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I heart Scrivener

January 26, 2009

I’m a fairly disorganized person by my nature. I’m easily distracted — though I’ve never been formally diagnosed, I’m fairly certain I have ADD. My thought patterns will often skip from one thing to the next, and sometimes it can be hard to focus in.

I personally think a little mental anarchy can be good for creativity. I think it allows you to make unique and interesting connections, to synthesize old ideas into new in surprising ways (sometimes surprising even to myself, for my part). But at the same time, it’s hard to sit down and actually put things together one after the other; worse yet, it’s sometimes hard for me to keep track of where I keep all my ideas.

I have dozens of spiral notebooks and idea journals with only a few pages written upon apiece. I keep trying to get in the habit of carrying a notepad with me for when inspiration strikes, but ultimately that only results in barely-used notepads being left all over the place. I have a lot of ideas that I want to help shepherd into fully-fledged stories, but often I’ll completely forget them until I stumble across a notebook during a move or a cleaning binge. (Such a discovery will usually result in the end of said binge, as I suddenly become involved with the idea again.) Or I’ll have a great idea for a story moment that I totally forget about, but later I come across it and wonder how it’s possible to forget it since it was the solution to a major story problem.

There’s also the matter of organization. Even once I’ve got all the ideas and I think the story is there somewhere, I have a lot of trouble putting the pieces together. Like the notebooks and journals, I can’t count how many stacks of index cards I’ve bought, thinking I’d write down scenes and pin them to a corkboard and shuffle them around until the goddamn thing made sense, just like the real writers do. (I’ve even bought a corkboard, still in near-mint condition.)

But I don’t like writing by hand. It’s too slow, too clumsy. I’ve been using computers since I was three years old (and happy 25th, Apple!), I type WAY faster than I can write by hand. Cursive never took and my attempts to write that way are sheer chaos. So I prefer to work at a keyboard.

I’ve tried lots of writing tools, the ones that do the digital index cards, the ones that are supposed to help you plot the whole damn thing and have it practically ready to print when you’re done, and when it comes to writing software — really, when it comes to any software — the best program is the one that gets the hell out of your way and facilitates what you want to do. To date, the only specialized writing software I’ve really found worthwhile beyond Microsoft Word (though I’m now using Pages, it’s essentially the same thing) has been Final Draft.

I’ve been a user since Version 3, and I just love FD. Its attempts to add fancy feature sets have been spotty. The “reports” it generates can be useful, but the included auxiliary program, Final Draft Tagger, is so buggy and unreliable as to render it totally useless. But the software’s raison d’être, which is to conform your writing to accepted industry screenplay format, is a workhorse that never lets me down.

More importantly, for me, it’s functionally transparent. I don’t have to stop what I’m doing to pull down a menu item, I don’t even have to use hotkeys. If I’m not typing words, I’m either using ENTER to move to the next line, or TAB to change the input type (from “Action” to “Character,” for example, or “dialogue” to “parenthetical”). I forget that the software is there, and I just write.

A few months ago, some folks on Twitter started raving about a program called Scrivener. I checked out the webpage and wasn’t really convinced. To me it looked like just another word processor with a few extra but largely unnecessary features. Between Word/Pages and Final Draft, I figured I had it covered. I wasn’t sure I saw the benefit of a lot of the features, especially a “full-screen mode,” the prominent advertisement of which I found somewhat inexplicable. But people kept taking up the recommendation, trying it out, and raving and recommending it themselves, so I figured I might as well check the thing out.

Even after downloading, I sat on the demo for several weeks before yet more people’s positive tweets compelled me to sit down and go through the software tutorial, which walks you through the feature set and gives you a sense of what Scrivener can do.

Immediately after I finished the tutorial, I paid my $40 to get the full license — I still had 29 more days of the demo1, but I knew it was $40 well-spent. That was two days ago, and now here I am, coming full circle to recommend it to my fellow (Mac-based) writers out there.

And here’s why.

Scrivener is, in fact, not a word processor. It is actually a database management tool disguised as a word processor. Within Scrivener you can create multiple discrete documents — different chapters of a novel, or scenes of a screenplay, or each one can be a character bio, or each one just a little doodle of an idea — and you can view them together or separately, create as many as you want for whatever uses you want, all organized into folders as part of a “Draft.”

You can also import reference material such as images, video and audio files, even web pages. Once imported, they’re kept locally within the Scrivener (“.scriv”) file, which means you can take the .scriv to any computer with Scrivener installed, and all your content will be there. You can choose to associate the reference material with certain documents or drafts — for example, Anthony likes to use certain songs as inspiration for certain scenes in his writing, so he could have the songs directly accessible from the relevant document. Likewise you can associate documents with one another, so that you can connect, say, a character bio to a scene including that character, in a sort of interconnected pseudo-Wiki to help you keep track of all your thoughts.

This all exists and is easily manipulated within the Scrivener interface, but if you look under the hood, the .scriv file is really an archive file, like a .zip, and Scrivener is the UI to dynamically adding, rearranging, and viewing the content within the archive. It does the work of creating a file structure and all of that behind the scenes, making the creation, addition, or connecting of content dynamic and creative rather than a lot of “housekeeping.”

I love that. I love that I can just throw everything I’ve got at Scrivener, and although it may be a bunch of different documents, different resources, it’s considered a single file by Scrivener, one which I can easily move around and be sure I’m not losing any of my work. I can shuffle and rework at will without worrying if I’ve forgotten something or buggered the organization, as I would do if I were maintaining the file structure myself.

One way Scrivener uses this to its advantage is with the “snapshots” feature, a smaller-scale version of OSX’s “Time Machine” function. If you’ve got a document that you want to try something new with, but you don’t want to lose your old version, you just create a “snapshot,” and you can call up or restore any snapshot at any time. You can have an effectively unlimited number of snapshots because in truth, the software is just doing an incremental save, and putting the older versions somewhere safe within the database. But from the point of view of the user, you can be sure you’re always working with the latest version, with the older versions right within reach. No more confusion over which version of the document is the most up-to-date.

Also, the fullscreen mode is, indeed, fantastic. As I said, I’m easily distracted, and while I’m writing it’s all too easy for me to go clicking on the Safari icon and checking my e-mail instead of getting the words down, or opening any other program and finding any other excuse. There’s so much on my computer I can be doing, I feel like I should be doing more things at any given moment.

So I set the fullscreen preferences in Scrivener to display green text on an otherwise black screen. The toolbar is invisible, as is the mouse arrow (unless I move it), and my fully-loaded laptop suddenly becomes a simple, old-school word processor.2 The psychological value of the visual simplicity is hard to describe, but try it and see if you don’t notice a difference in how much writing you can get done that way. I’ve actually written this whole post in Scrivener’s fullscreen mode, and enjoyed the experience tremendously.3

I’m not going to go into a full blow-by-blow of how to use the app, because there’s a tutorial for that. If you’re serious about writing, it will be well worth your while to download the free demo, and take 30 minutes or so to work along with the provided tutorial file, to get a sense of what Scrivener can do. Even try the demo for the 30 days before you make up your mind. I would guess you would quickly see how the program is worth your $40. For me, it’s exactly what I’ve always needed.


  1. I discovered afterward that Scrivener’s 30-day demo is “30 days of using the program.” A day only counts toward the limit if you fire up the program on that day, rather than it counting 30 calendar days from first use. So if you only used Scrivener every other day, the demo lasts 60 calendar days, etc. So no need to worry about firing it up to have a play if you “won’t have time” afterward — unlike other software, the demo works around your schedule. And for the record, yes. I still would have bought the license on day 2 even if I had known.
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  3. Fullscreen mode also has a “typewriter style” carriage return, in which the line of text you are currently editing is always in the middle of your screen, as opposed to most word processors where you write your way down to the bottom of the screen and stay there. It sounds like a small thing, but as with fullscreen mode in general, it’s surprising how much you appreciate it once you start rocking and rolling.
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  5. There is another program which is just a word processor in fullscreen mode, called WriteRoom. WriteRoom’s default scheme is the green on black, which is what compelled me to set up Scrivener the same way. If you just want the “distraction free” writing without all the other features of Scrivener, WriteRoom will get you there, although considering the pricing (WriteRoom goes for $24.95), I feel like the extra $15 for Scrivener is worth it. They’re from different developers, as far as I can tell, so it’s not as simple as upgrading if you change your mind.
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From → technology, writing

6 Comments
  1. Dean Lines permalink

    man… makes me want to get a mac just for that app alone. Paragraph 3 and 4 of your post rang so true to me it was scary. Even in the details…

    Good job.

    Hope it helps with the writing.

  2. Rin permalink

    The way how the 30 day demo is executed sounds sweet. I’m gonna have to check it out.

  3. cyi101 permalink

    Wow, what an amazing review. That summed up all the problems I have with writing right now and sounds like the perfect solution. Oh man, I haven’t been this excited about an app since I first got After Effects. If this ends up changing my life, I’m going to thank you (and your twitter post) completely!

    + Chris
    / http://www.chrisyi.com
    / http://www.twitter.com/chris_yi

  4. Dorkman permalink

    Dean: There are a number of people on the Scrivener forums who say they got a Mac just to use the program, and are happy with that decision. ;)

    Chris: One of the things that makes Scrivener a great app is that the developer is primarily making it for himself, to help organize his own writing. So it’s designed with the needs of the writer in mind, instead of the flashiest features most likely to sell. Good luck with your writing, it’s definitely already changed the way I work.

  5. TheGamut permalink

    If they could only do that for composers.

    i=u except i involves recording music instead of writing (and i is like 11 years older or something). I have ADD, but it’s actually a symptom of something else. Without Outlook to keep track of everything I do at work, i would be totally lost. (It’s also all kept in one single file, so easy to move from computer to computer.)

    I have over a thousand files of just clips. I have one completed work that is something I made in Elementary School. I don’t think a little, corny, 45-second ditty counts. I also don’t considered the a gratis commissioned stuff I did for my sister’s LARPing as completed works, either. I also don’t consider remixes or re-visualizations as my work. This is also not counting recordings of me playing other people’s compositions.

    I’ve looked at scoring, mixing and sequencing stuff, but none of it helps me manage the files all over the place. (In fact, Sonar just scatters them even further.)

    Still, I’m sticking with PC because I also need the engineering software. (That’s the stuff that makes the roads, hybrids, buildings, water supplies, wildlife restoration, pollution scrubbing, etc.) I also need to have full hands-on control of the hardware selection. (I was born into a DOS world. Everything was hands-on.)

    If anyone knows of a good Windows software package that organizes music like Scrivener, please to let me know?

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