Product Review: Scrivener

We writers have multiple word processing options at our disposal, with perhaps the most prominent being Microsoft Word and Apple Pages for prose fiction, and Final Draft and Celtx for screenwriting. Both these and other software work quite well, particularly if you've already built up a collection of templates with standard manuscript formatting in place. Of course, the beauty of screenwriting applications like the ones mentioned above is that the program takes on the drudgery of formatting, letting you focus solely on the writing; this is because software like Final Draft and Celtx are dedicated to their mediums, rather than multi-purpose word processors that can more or less handle several creative writing platforms.

Now, imagine a piece of software that is both multi-platform and rigorously dedicated to the formatting specifics of each medium, and you will have a pretty solid understanding of what Scrivener, the award-winning "writer's writing software," is all about. Simply put, whether you're a screenwriter, a playwright, a graphic novelist, a prose fiction author, or all of the above, Scrivener is your one-stop shop for all your writerly needs. Best of all, the program really, really works. 

Admittedly, I've known about Scrivener for some time, but I never really explored it until now. I actually purchased it several years ago, and since that time it's sat dormant on my computer. My awareness of it was piqued once again when a friend began religiously singing its praises to me, and when I read this interview we ran last month with John Hornor Jacobs (conducted by Keith Rawson), in which the author identified Scrivener as his word processor of choice.

Revisiting the software, I remembered that my reasons for avoiding any kind of total immersion into Scrivener were: one, there's a slight learning curve to it, and I didn't feel I had the time to manage that; and two, I'd already established a workflow with Pages. Now, I see my fear of learning something new was just that, fear, and that my previous workflow was pretty clunky in comparison. I'm not knocking Pages in anyway—or any other word processor, for that matter—and I still use it for article writing (I'm drafting this review on it right now!). It's just that, even with my "short story" template set to standard manuscript formatting, exporting to different file types for submission has always presented a handful of problems and errors, and this is true of any platform, be it Pages, Word, Open Office, etc. 

This was the first thing that blew me away about Scrivener: like those aforementioned screenwriting applications, all standard manuscript formatting is handled during the export (or, as Scrivener's developers term it, "Compile") process. So, if you prefer writing with an 18 point Baskerville font, as I do, you don't have to worry about later changing it to Courier 12 point. Scrivener takes care of that. You don't have to worry about the spacing between your name/contact info and the title of your story. You don't have to worry about your word count being inexplicably moved to the line below your name (a malady I detailed in a previous column). Your headers won't fly off track. Everything you write will magically turn into a perfectly formatted, ready-to-submit document, because Scrivener takes care of it all. Check out this side by side comparison between Scrivener's interface and the exported DOC that I opened in Pages:

 

Furthermore, in addition to the expected file types (.doc, .docx, .rtf, .pdf, etc.), Scrivener will also compile your stories/novels into eBooks, deftly handling both Mobi (Kindle's format) and ePub (an open-ended format most notably used by Apple's iBooks). Which of course means if you're a self-publisher, your days of tedious formatting and file conversions are over.

And there's even more. Scrivener is so feature-rich, it's doubtful you'll ever use them all. But that's the beauty of the software: it can be tailored just to your liking. You can wholly immerse yourself in the various functions, or you can use the basic features. Either way, Scrivener works for you, not against you. 

About Scrivener

I'll talk a bit more about the extended features in a moment. But first, a little about the company behind Scrivener, Literature & Latte, straight from the mouth of its founder and lead Mac developer, Keith Blount (via L&L's About page):

Literature & Latte was founded in 2006 with the sole purpose of creating software that aids in the creative process of writing long texts...[W]e are now a (very) small team working to make Scrivener the best solution for writers of all disciplines for structuring and writing first drafts.

Blount adds that his team is "small in size, not stature," reemphasizing L&L's commitment to their product. He also states that Scrivener's genesis was born out of his own goal of writing a novel, and feeling frustrated by the available software at the time:

I was just a guy with lofty writerly ambitions...I developed Scrivener because I felt I needed a tool to help me really get a grip on my writing, notes and research, to organise it and start putting it all together like a jigsaw...

So, not only is Scrivener made for writers, it's made by writers as well. And, again, it really works. Trifecta!

Using Scrivener

As Blount states, the software is quite intuitive. That being said, you may want to familiarize yourself with L&L's video tutorial page, which features a wealth of helpful information. Here's a link to the primary introductory video; at about ten minutes, needless to say, it's fairly comprehensive.

Since Scrivener deals with numerous mediums, to start a project, you must choose a template. If you're writing fiction, as previously mentioned, your choices of font and spacing are left open to personal taste. If you're a screenwriter, Scrivener utilizes the industry-standard interface, so there's no learning curve if you're coming from Final Draft, Celtx, or another comparable program. Regardless of medium, you're able to split your scenes into separate "documents" that are organized within the main project folder, which you can rearrange via a "Corkboard," or via the "Binder" pane on the left side of the main window (see photo below). Note too that if you're working on a novel, you can further break up the story into chapters or even parts.

Everything about Scrivener is customizable. My Binder and the overall layout you see above isn't too far off from the standard Short Story template, with the added modifications of a "Notes" folder and a "Themes/Moods" check sheet, which I based off of the Character sheet provided by the developers (see below). The latter sheet template helped me to reconnect with one of my stories. In filling out the information, I remembered the main objective of my protagonist, what was driving him to make particular decisions and behave in certain ways. It seems an obvious thing to do—delving back into character to regain enthusiasm for a project—but it was only by working with a check sheet that I was able to get to this point. These sheets are now an integral part of my workflow.

Now, let's talk about those "notes and research" features I alluded to earlier. Like the character, setting, and themes/moods check sheets, this aspect of Scrivener has changed my entire writing process for the better. It used to be, if I had a story that required some initial research, I would save said items (photos, links, scraps of text from Wikipedia and other articles, etc.) in a separate document. Invariably, I would close this file and forget about it, only to stumble upon it long after my story was completed, and wonder why I never included a particular interesting fact in the work itself. But with Scrivener, all that research is housed within the project Binder, readily accessible and visible, so I won't forget about it. This is especially handy since, sometimes, I compile heaps of research long before I ever sit down to write the story, which, when working in Scrivener, requires me to make a brand-new project file. The photos, text and whatnot get saved here, and when I eventually come back to work on the story, all I have to do is go back over my research, then click the Story folder, make a new scene, and start writing.

Again, the examples I've provided demonstrate how I use Scrivener, but that may not be the way you use Scrivener. Blount states that his software was never meant to be "all things to all writers," but because of its rather elastic interface, I feel Scrivener actually achieves this goal. From basic functionality and beautiful formatting to expansive research, note-taking, and mapping capabilities, Scrivener is sure to please just about any writer, regardless of medium.

Where To Buy

Scrivener can be purchased directly from Literature & Latte's webpage. It costs $45 for Mac, $40 for Windows (student discounts are also available). If you'd like to try it out first, there's a 30-day trial available here. What's awesome about this is, the trial is not date-stamped and lasts for 30 days of actual use—so if you play around with Scrivener for a day, then forget about it for a month, when you come back you still have 29 days of use left. Pretty neat, huh?

For those of you wondering if Scrivener has any presence on mobile devices, the answer, as of right now, is no. But, the developers are hard at work on an iOS version for iPhone and iPad, and you can read about the app's current status here. In the meantime, there is a work-around for those wanting a mobile option for on-the-go writing, and it's super easy. Check out this video tutorial for more details.

Finally, if you're interested in brainstorming/idea-mapping software, check out L&L's sister product Scapple. I have no hands-on experience with this one, mainly because I don't really pre-plot, but the interface looks pretty cool.


Who else out there in LitReactor land is in love with Scrivener? I personally found zero things to dislike about it, but do you have any objections to the software? If not Scrivener, then what's your word processor of choice, and why? 

As always, if there's a writerly product out there you'd like to see reviewed, send an email to tech@litreactor.com with a link to the item in question. 

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Comments

James T Wood's picture
James T Wood May 21, 2014 - 1:23pm

There are some huge caveats for the Windows version. It's not the same as the Mac version, though it is similar. This app was designed for the Mac and then ported to Windows, so the PC users out there have fewer features, less support, fewer tutorials, and lag behind on releases and updates. 

konzill's picture
konzill from Sydney is reading Writing the Natural Way May 21, 2014 - 4:29pm

My platform of choice these days is Android. My tablet is what is almost always in easy reach, and where I do all of my writing. At the moment this means I won't be using or even looking at this software. As I have no plans to get any of the sytems that its officially supported on. 

 

 

James Storie's picture
James Storie from Alabama is reading The Fireman May 22, 2014 - 1:30am

I have been using Scrivener for a couple of years now and love it! Because of all the features it does have I ended up buying a dummies guide book to it. While the video tutorials are really good, I like having a reference book if I need to go really deep into the program. 

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer May 22, 2014 - 8:38am

I use an Alphasmart NEO for first drafts and then transfer it to Microsoft Word. I don't really outline or plan. Scrivener has a lot of cool stuff that I would pribably never use.

Camilo Colorado's picture
Camilo Colorado from Menlo Park, CA is reading Beloved by Toni Morrison May 22, 2014 - 12:46pm

I have most of my work saved as .doc or .docx files.  Is there a way to import to Scrivener?  I am sure there is but I just wanted to check.  I would be using the Windows version.  How far behind does the Windows version lag behind the iOS version?  Thanks for any help.

Hook's picture
Hook May 22, 2014 - 4:21pm

Feature set looks great, but lack of collaborative tools makes it a non starter for me.

 

James Storie's picture
James Storie from Alabama is reading The Fireman May 23, 2014 - 2:04am

Camilo, Scrivener will import those file types. I use the Mac version, but I don't know just how far behind the Windows version is. On there website I think there is a break down of what the Windows version has. 

ekratz's picture
ekratz from Philadelphia is reading Lord Jim May 23, 2014 - 3:48am

I started using Scrivener a while ago. I found it helpful to take a wiziq course given by  Gwen Hernandez, which was a great quick start.  It wasn't very expensive less than $50 and covered everything.

 

Jimi B. MacLeod's picture
Jimi B. MacLeod May 26, 2014 - 7:07am

I really liked your program, until I went back to my Mac. I moved and reregistered all my other software with no problem, but when I was ready to move scrivener I found out I would have to re-purchase the soft ware, no transfers. Every other piece of software I use transferred with no problem, no re-purchase, and no hassles…
You know what? Your program is not ‘THAT’ great; I have replaced it with another… that will transfer to another computer if necessary… I wish I had known about your money grubbing attitude before I wasted money on your software.

cshultz81's picture
cshultz81 from Oklahoma is reading Best Horror of the Year Volume 8 June 11, 2014 - 4:35pm

Jimi,

It's not my software. I am enthusiastic about it, but I did not create it and I'm not affiliated with the company in anyway. I would recommend taking your issues directly to Scrivener.

sworth1's picture
sworth1 January 8, 2015 - 12:30pm

I have been using Scrivener for a couple years now and can say it is definitely worth trying. My planning and organization skyrocketed once I started using this for my writing. Considering there is a free trial, you can’t go wrong. And if you decide to buy it, you can grab 20% or more off it now:

http://smworth.blogspot.com/2014/12/2015-coupon-codes-for-scrivener.html

vontastic's picture
vontastic February 18, 2015 - 4:12pm

I feel this program is one of those "wow, neato!" things for hyper organization tech geek types who truly  get excited by stuff like automatic tabbing. If that's you, go for it. But I am no fan of added layers of complexity. Tried it. Gave it a shot. But I'm good with black coffee and basic word processing. However, for formatting and exporting ebooks this is a helpful program. (if you have a week to learn it. Or a friend to do it for you, like I did.) Scrivener is too laborious and unfun for me. I love writing because it's a chance to just flow. For me, scrivener makes the process of writing-- which is really straightforward-- much more complex and disjointed than it has to. The level of annoying commands and tricks to learn reminds me of programs like Mail Chimp that are supposed to improve office workflow, but just give everybody a headache. anything that makes me watch a video to tell me how to work it is not happening. I'd rather use the time to write. However, I don't get off on technology much, and never thought word was anything short of fine. (other than the damnable outline wizzard). I'd say check it out and make your own decision. Might be worth it if you're banging out ebooks fast. Everybody seems to be celebrating this program, but don't feel left out if it just seems nerdy, cloying, and redundant. Maybe it's a style thing. I could picture whoever writes those "Rich Vampire Girls in New York City" YA fiction books creaming over this program. But I really can't picture Hemmingway tuning into a tutorial on how to interspese the right return key stroke notes to define separate chapter headings within a multi-platform export function.  Then again, Hemmingway shot himself and Rich Vampire Girls In New York City books make millions. haha