Scrivener Brings Out the Scribbler

| In-Depth Review

Scrivener is a writer's tool that assists with a wide range of writing tasks, not just a novel, that can benefit from organizational support. It provides features missing from a conventional word processor and focuses on the task of helping the writer manage text and ideas during the creative process. This review of Scrivener is the second in a series of reviews of Macintosh software for writers.

The first application reviewed in this series was StoryMill. If StoryMill took a very technical, methodical and structural approach to writing a novel, then Scrivener walks down a different, more relaxed path with cork boards and help with the tactics of text manipulation. You won't find time sequencers, character building and cataloging or cliche finders because the app can tackle a broader range of projects. What you will find in spades is help with managing the text of your document -- or story.

While StoryMill allows the writer to just jump in and start writing in the word processor, it's a bit like jumping into a nuclear submarine in a movie. You might be able to get it on its way, perhaps submerged, but there's that nagging feeling that you're in over your head for awhile.

Chapter 1

Dig In! Chapter 1

With Scrivener, the immediate focus is on writing. The typeface is defined in the preferences so that the screen remains clean, devoid of rulers (by default) and tab markers that can distract one from the pleasure of writing. After all, if one wants a smorgasbord of visual clutter, buttons, pallets, rulers, tab markers, and font controls, one can always use Microsoft Word. (However, a conventional formatting ruler can be displayed.)

Also, the immediate availability of the text is important. As soon as the user creates a new project, the center pane is ready to receive the writer's text with a blinking cursor. That's also true of StoryMill, but StoryMill forces the user into double-clicking on a chapter title before all editing power is in place and menu items (like split screen) become undimmed. In that sense, Scrivener is slightly less complex visually and more immediate in its approach to the user, something many writers will appreciate.

Features

The design goals of Scrivener are made very clear in the Overview and Concepts section. This is found in Scrivener's Help Menu which points to a Reference Guide:

  • The software should allow the writer to use many of the formatting features familiar from word processors - different fonts, italics, paragraph styles and so on. It is up to the writer to avoid distractions, not the software.
  • What looks good in print is not always the best way of viewing something on the screen: the software should allow the user to completely reformat the text on export or for printing without affecting the original (thus making it easy to export a manuscript in a format suitable for an editor and then export it just as easily in a format more suited to publishing on the internet).
  • There should be a synopsis linked with each document, which can be viewed with other synopses to get an overview of the project as a whole.
  • Linked to the above, it should be easy to view the project as an outline and use drag and drop to restructure the project. Moving between the outline and the text itself should be fluid.
  • It should be possible to view individual "documents" either as discrete chunks of text, or combined with other (arbitrary) documents. Thus, for instance, a chapter could be viewed as a whole, or each scene could be viewed individually.
  • The user should be able to view more than one document at the same time - for instance, the end of one chapter alongside the beginning of the next, a character sketch alongside a scene in which that character appears, or a research document alongside the writing it is being used to support.
  • The software should be capable of storing and displaying common research documents, because writers do not just use text - they also refer to images, web pages, recorded interviews and other media.

Research

Doing Research

These are great goals for a writers tool. However, from 30,000 ft, Scrivener may not appeal to writers who not only want to scribble and fidget and organize, but also want the app to provide more novel writing horsepower. It's like the difference between snorkeling and scuba diving. When snorkeling, you just jump in and splash around. Scuba diving requires one to attend classes, learn a lot of science, work with an instructor, exercise dramatically more caution and expertise, but the rewards are greater.

In Scrivener, the key element of a project is a virtual "binder." Think of it as a conventional three-ring binder. It's a holder for both your manuscript as well as supporting research, such as URLs, images, PDF documents, and so on. Scrivener is not a page layout program. It's a writing tool for chunks of text and layout isn't realized until the document is exported. However, inline formatting is available, such as bold, italic, and so on. The key concept is organizing chunks of text into the desired order, but visually as opposed to automated assistance.

One of the most visually interesting features of Scrivener is the Corkboard. Every text section is linked to both an index card on the cork board and an entry in the Outliner. That way one has several ways to seeing and organizing pieces of text.

Corkboard

The Corkboard

Like StoryMill, the right most pane, brought up with the Inspector, allows one to create metadata associated with the text. Notes can be created, graphics dragged in, and the Corkboard title created.

A really useful feature is the ability to snapshot one's work. Often one wants to experiment, but if the writing detour is a bust, one can return to a previous snapshot.

Scrivener is strong on the tactics of manipulating blocks of text for the storyteller. Split screen is immediately available. Text blocks, call them scenes or acts, can be rearranged, split, merged, and text can be converted to ALL UPPER or all lower case. Like most apps of this type, there is a highly customizable full screen mode that, if desired, keeps the cursor in the middle of the page while the page scrolls upwards.

Full Screen Mode

Very Customizable Full Screen Writing Mode

No program like this can be viable unless it has strong export options to meet the needs of the publisher. Output formats include: rtf, rtfd, doc, docx, odt (Open Office), txt and html.

Like StoryMill it has project statistics, but only available as a menu item, and a customizable Toolbar for just the right set of quick access tools.

There are a few other fine details of text management that I've glossed over, but the goal here is not to catalog every feature. Rather, it's to give you an idea if this app might be the one you're looking for. For example, I cannot overlook the amazing detail for colors available in the preferences. I believe, like the developer, that color is a key tool when it comes to visually managing a lot of text.

Color Choices

Strong Color Customization

In summary, Scrivener has the virtue of being focused on the act of creating and managing text as opposed to the global structural tasks of creating a novel with associated timelines, characters and locations. Because every writer works in a different way, there will always be difference in design philosophies to meet different markets. Testimonials, in that regard, are to be expected from every writer whose personality fits with the app in question.

Documentation

When you first launch Scrivener, there's no avoiding an extensive tutorial written as a Scrivener document. It can get a little wordy in places, and the keyboard options for some commands makes for technical looking text, but on the whole, I found the tutorial to be pleasantly written and easy to absorb, bite by bite.

The tutorial is written in such a way that one can practice manipulating the tutorial text (without destroying a master copy) and see the results right away.

In addition to the out-of-the-box tutorial, there is a Reference Guide found under Help -> Scrivener Help and an Online FAQ. Also, the home page has a video introduction which is excellent and should not be ignored. However, there is no formal PDF document that's a conventional manual with an index, etc.

I found the tutorial for Scrivener more conversational than StoryMill. It has a lighter, more human touch while StoryMill's approach is less passionate, more clinical.

The Scrivener Website has to be one of the most beautiful I have ever seen in terms of layout and artwork. However, one shouldn't be deceived into thinking that the enormous visual and artistic talent translates into world class software -- Scrivener is merely mortal, by analogy, has limits, and puts its pants on one leg at a time.

Nits

One of the things that drives me crazy is text that has a mind of its own. Microsoft Word is famous for that, but I did run across an instance in which I set the default format to be left justified in Scrivener, and no amount of manipulation could get some text I input to move to the left -- at paragraph start. That's because the font formatting prefs only apply to new documents. No matter; text should be easy to move, indeed force, around, and it was unnerving. The plus side, however, is avoiding the dreaded and unwanted auto, global reformatting of text.

Writing Wide

"Writing Wide"

Summary

This software, from my perspective, is designed for writers who need some organizational assistance, but don't want to be confronted by scuba lessons and nuclear propulsion technology. It's gentle yet (very) flexible software, in that regard, and the friendly, amiable tone of the author reinforces that. You'll need to read the tutorial to be effective, but you won't be overwhelmed out of the box.

The publisher, Literature and Latte, also has a very relaxed, self confident approach to its product. You'll find a comparison page that describes most of the competitors, something rarely done in Mac developer circles. The single paragraph descriptions aren't detailed, but their very existence affirms that there are many different kinds of writers. If you're the kind who needs a different tool, Literature and Latte doesn't want you to waste your money and be the victim of an unhappy fit.

You can launch and use Scrivener 30 times for a free trial. If once per day, that's thirty days. That's more than enough time to find out if this is the app of your dreams. It requires Mac OS X 10.4, Tiger or later. A generous household license is standard.

What I miss in this app is a formal but simple mechanism for defining characters, timelines and locations for a novel. Those capabilities are in StoryMill and for its enormous organizational power, one pays only a little more. On the other hand, one could say that, for Scrivener, one is paying for a broader approach, elegance, a more pleasing visual approach, detailed text management and better approachability as a Mac app. The extreme focus on those attributes will make it insanely great for some, but unsettling for others.

Somehow, however, subjectively, I felt a less technical look and feel. By that I mean that despite the almost embarrassing riches of preference detail, in my opinion, the structural and strategic elements of a novel, if that's the chosen project, play second fiddle to too much customization -- to the point of distraction. Perhaps that was customer driven. When you walk down a specific road, you gain friends on that path.

Next up: Ulysses from the Blue Technologies Group.

Product: Scrivener 1.5

Company: Literature and Latte

List Price: US$39.95

Pros:

Friendly, informal, approachable app. Strong on manipulating text instead of formatting it. Excellent tutorial. Excellent use of color as a visual tool. Very customizable.

Cons:

No formal character, timeline and location organizational tools for a novel. Overkill preferences symptomatic of mild imbalance that favors text tactics and app customization over big picture strategy for novel writing.

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Comments

Josh

I think one Pro that you left out is that Scrivener is more general purpose than Storymill.  I’m a gradstudent and I’ve used Scrivener to write the first 2 chapter os my PhD thesis, and I can’t believe I was able to write my MS thesis without it.  Storymill is more geared to people telling an actual story and is not well suited to my needs. 

I didn’t have to worry about timelines, or character sheets, but I did have to catalog a large amount of research data culled from PDF’s, websites, and my own earlier writtings.  Scrivener has probably saved me several weeks of sitting in front of my computer, fighting with Word (WTF is it with MS products randomly reformatting entire documents?) to keep my formatting consistent.

jcscrib

I use both Scrivener and Story Mill.  They are very different, but I like them both.  I often write plays and Scrivener has that format, while SM does not.  The reviewer apparently doesn’t notate, since he failed to mention this feature.  Both have their own brand of notations, but neither is quite as good as in Jer’s Novel Writer.

Otherwise, Scrivener and Story Mill stand alone at the top of writing software for the Mac, with Scriv an inch or two higher, due to typewriter scrolling and auto caps, and a more versatile split screen.

natte aap

I’m testing scrivener and storymill at this moment. I even make an axcell sheet to jot down my thoughts in a matrix and thusfar I found no big differences that can not be detoured in the other program.
For instance. No character or locations in Scriv. True, but you always have the ability to make a new folder in scriv and name that character or locations. It appears in the binder and you still have direct acces to it.
The thing that drives me mad in Storymill though is that you have to input the needed data of characters and locations secondary. Which means you have to do it in another pane then the one you write your character description in.
All in all, at this moment, SM looks a bit more “organised” with the typical setbacks of being over-organised (secondary input) and scriv looks a bit too unorganised at times. It would be nice to have the option to have a more organised feel in scriv.
I tend to lean towards scriv for the moment.

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