I have spent my life dreaming of a clutter-free desk. Alas, I am a writer, and behind every piece of ‘finished’ writing I produce, there are hundreds of scattered post-its and index cards, scads of pictures, research binders, books, and file folders, all of which find their disorganized home on my desk or nearby surfaces. If only there were some sorcerer’s stone that would transform my dream into reality at the wave of a hand. Well, maybe there is, and maybe it’s called Scrivener writing software.
Overview. First off, Scrivener software is not a word processing program; it is both more and less than that. Word processing software allows you to ‘process’ words visually; to put them on a page, and (when the software is cooperative) to have extensive control over how they appear. The gold standard in word processing software is WYSIWYG–What You See Is What You Get. For Scrivener, the better acronym is WYWIWYG—What You Want Is What You Get. Scrivener’s emphasis is not on how words appear on the page, but on facilitating the chaotic process of putting words into meaningful order.
The Interface. Scrivener provides an interface that organizes a number of disparate ‘texts’, notes, comments, and markers into a tidy and largely intuitive package. The Scrivener ‘window’ has a place for the current work in progress, for a related synoptic index card, for a more formal outline, for research and photographs, for character sheets (templates provided), for comments and notes, for older archived versions, and more. The Scrivener window is structured so that a number of these ‘texts’ are visible at the same time—text sections, index cards, keywords, notes, research information, earlier drafts, relevant reference files. Others are one click away. This makes the big picture and the individual sentence visible at the same time. This is liberating. It lets the writer focus on an individual passage, without losing ‘sight’ of the necessary related references that give that focus its inspiration and credibility.
Cork Board Editing and Making a Change Only Once. When it comes to ‘re-writing’, or editing, Scrivener can make changes simultaneously in related documents. This is magic. Imagine that you have a multi-chapter work in progress and for each chapter you have a corresponding summary index card, an outline entry, some inspirational research and photos, and somewhere a stash of notes about what kind of fixing it needs. Imagine you put paper index cards on a big board and you move the cards around, ‘fixing’ your plot arc. Great. Now that you have the cards in a better order, you get to spend hours revising all of your various documents (whether in printed form or in computer files) to align with the new plot sequence. In Scrivener’s electronic ‘corkboard,’ when you move the index card of a specific writing section to a new position on the board, the corresponding section of text moves to that new spot. The notes, photos, references, and other information happily go along for the ride.
Editing Sequentially and Non-Sequentially. Scrivener also facilitates non-sequential editing. For example, to edit all sections of a large work that are in a specific character’s point of view, you can simply select the relevant passages to appear in the editor, or you can establish groups and categories for the sections (e.g point of view, scene location, state of draft) and then sort or display according to those categories. The relevant scenes appear, without flipping pages or scrolling through all the intervening text.
Saving and Snapshot Versions. Scrivener auto-saves even more compulsively than those of us who have lost work. It also provides a ‘snapshot’ tool to facilitate saving, comparing, and even reverting to earlier drafts of the same work. It stores the older versions of text right ‘next’ to the new version. So when you decide you murdered one darling too many, the snapshot is at your fingertips without hunting through a dozen old long document files.
Compiling (not just Printing) to Various Formats. Scrivener can also ‘compile’ (output) your work to a number of file formats or send it to your printer. This is where WYWIWYG comes into play. When you work in a word processor, if you want to change how your writing looks, you have to make all the individual changes. Reformatting a word document for export to a pdf or an epub file (or sometimes, just for a printer with different margin tolerances) can take hours of tedious fiddling with font types, font sizes, kerning, and paragraph formats. In Scrivener, what you see on-line is not ‘what you get’ when you output. You can set the on-screen font size and window size to suit your failing eyesight and miniscule computer screen. To output your writing, Scrivener takes that text and ‘compiles’ it–formats it according to presets (e.g. novel, screenplay, ebook) or according to whatever detailed font, heading, page break, page size settings you tell it to. This means you can write a work once and, without changing a thing in the text, ‘compile’ it in a format for submission to an agent (with acceptable fonts, character sizes, page margins, chapter breaks, header styles, etc.) or you can click a different setting and ‘compile’ it directly to an .epub file. While I don’t yet have a MS ready for true final output, I played with the compile feature. Using the Scrivener default settings, I compiled an epub file of a very large complex work in roughly five minutes. The result—a file that my ereader recognized, with functional active links for the toc and endnotes, and which looked like an ebook should. Outputting to pdf and .doc files is as easy.
Cons. What can’t Scrivener do? Well, so far adding illustrations has not proven straightforward. (I’m still experimenting.) Links to images, even images themselves, can be inserted into the text, but they are treated as references more than as integral parts of the text being written. This will probably not bother fiction writers. Scrivener has also proven touchy on importing files that have ‘track changes’ on (the changes and the current text get garbled together). I will also admit that while snapshots don’t disappear, if you merge, move, or separate sections, finding the relevant snapshot can take more than one click, and sometimes some searching.
Works for Pantsers and Plotters. But, the real question for a software program for writers, is whether or not it works for writers as well as writing. Obviously, for ‘plotters’ who create (and follow) extensive outlines, this software is a dream come true. It facilitates multiple levels of organization (and control); the writer simply fleshes out and implements the established structure. Now I know all you pantsers out there are probably thinking ‘there is no way I would ever benefit from all those nifty organizational features since they would kill my freeform writing process.’ Take it from a fellow pantser, it works for the unstructured as well as the structured writer. Scrivener does not require a writer to do any organization—you can sit down and write, with just a blank page and nothing else in sight. Then, when you’ve pantsed your way to a complete draft, all those organizational features make discovering and finetuning the plot structure far easier. Just turn on the corkboard or outline view, and you can see the inherent structure of the work and manipulate it large-scale before you use all the time-saving editing tools for the revisions.
The Verdict. Scrivener has made a believer out of me. When I started using it, I intended to test it on some throwaway short works. After only a day of ‘testing’ its capabilities, I moved my very complex nonfiction WIP (eight chapters, extensive footnotes, numerous illustrations, tables, and references) from my big name word processor program into Scrivener. My desk is still cluttered, but it’s getting better. So, if you long for organization, the end of clutter, the ability to make a change only once rather than in every related file or piece of paper, Scrivener just might be the writer’s magic sorcerer’s stone.
How to get a Discount! For the Mac version, Literature and Latte has kindly agreed to offer WU readers a 20% discount (bringing the $45 US retail price down to $36). To get the discount, when you get to the checkout page, enter the code “WORDSWITHJAM” in the Coupon Code box in the upper right hand corner. The discount code will be good for a while after this post, but not forever, so don’t wait too long! (BTW, this is the same discount offered in the magazine WordswithJam (which is also worth a look.)
Nuts and Bolts
I tested the Mac version. A Microsoft version is just reaching the end of beta testing (the current Beta should run through September). Give it a try for free! If all goes well, the release date of Scrivener for Windows 1.0 is thus in the very near future (think weeks, not months, and cross your fingers). If you want technical details, please go to the Literature and Latte website. They also have nifty video tutorials and offer a very generous free trial period. And for anyone interested, another WU contributor, Yuvi Zalkow has included a video about Scrivener on his blog.
Photo Courtesy of tomas carrillo at Flickr.com.