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Monday, December 17, 2012

Why I Use Scrivener

Scrivener is a word processing program for writers of book length work and screenplays. The first time a writer friend told me to try it, I deferred. After all, why would I want to use a strange bit of software when the rest of the world is using Word? The idea seemed to fall into the category of: why buy problems when they’re giving them away for free?

But there was a quote on the Scrivener website which kept niggling at me. “Scrivener is the first and only word processing program designed specifically for the messy, non-linear way writers really work.”

To write a novel is to take an unruly pile of ideas and stretch them into something sleek and linear. And here was a hint from the universe that it was normal to struggle, but that there might be a better weapon for the fight.

To acquaint myself with Scrivener, I watched a single YouTube video by the developer. (The amusing “novel” he uses for his example is worth the price of admission alone. I'll say only that a giant squid figures into the plot.) That gave me enough familiarity to become a novice user.

(Note: I use the Windows version of Scrivener, and the program was originally written for Mac. In fact, the Mac version has a few more features, about which I know nothing.)

Scrivener works like a very customizable master document (called the “binder”) with sub-documents  Sub-documents can be pieces of your manuscript or notes for your project. And these can be moved, grouped or nested as often as you wish. The pictured example is divided into sections by geographical location. The first section is labeled “Orlando, Florida.” But at any moment, a user can reorder chapters by dragging them around. Clicking on any of the chapters in the list on the left side of the screen will bring up that chapter in the document editor.

This is bulletin board mode. The chapter list is always there on the left. But the bulletin board alternates with a text editor or outline view. The user clicks on one of the choices visible in the upper right corner to toggle among them.

To see the novel as a continuous beast, one merely clicks on “manuscript” at the top, and there it is. But I never do that, because I’ve become enamored with jumping from chapter to chapter. You can see from my screenshot that I’ve given them all names. Scrivener understands that you may want to nickname chapters without those tags appearing in the final document.

The setup saves time in many ways. While writing, say, chapter four, I might include a detail which requires that I change earlier facts. With Scrivener, I don’t have to make a note to myself or lose my place. I can hop back to the earlier fact, fix it, and then click on chapter four again. When I do, I find myself at precisely the same place in the subdocument as I was when I left.

Also, there’s much less cutting and pasting when you can rearrange chapters at will.

When sub-documents are infinitely flexible, you can write text without even guessing where it will end up. I keep a folder called "for later." In that folder there are scenes and mini scenes which I hope to successfully fit into the book's chronology, but haven't yet. Before Scrivener, I would write all my "notes for later" in another computer file or in a notebook, and then often lose them. I don't lose ideas anymore, because everything pertaining to the project is in the binder. (Or it's in the notebook in my glove compartment. Until Scrivener is built into the steering column, that's one bug that won't get fixed.)

Outlining is another boon. The outline overlies the document. At any moment you can switch to outline view. Your chapters populate automatically, and there’s space to write yourself a description. I’ve used this to remind myself of what I’ve already written, or to remind myself of how I want a chapter to shape up. You can also color code scenes or chapters in outline mode (useful for multiple POV works) or label them any way you want. The software suggests “preliminary draft” “final draft” etc. But you can make your own labels.

The third view is bulletin board (shown above). Your outline text will appear there as well.

And I’m no longer afraid of using an unfamiliar file type to store my work, because that’s not what happens. Scrivener stores all of your subdocuments as .rtf (rich text) files, and then stitches them together when you want to see the whole manuscript at once, or when you choose to “compile” it into a document to be read in other software.

Each night when I’m finished working I “compile” my Scrivener manuscript into a new Microsoft Word doc. This takes about three keystrokes, and helps me remember to backup my work.

Learning Curve

It took me awhile to learn to navigate between outlining and text editor modes. And the art of compiling what you see in the text editor into a Word .doc precisely as you wish takes a bit of study. But the documentation is excellent, and the small group of people who work on Scrivener are as helpful as can be.

The retail price of Scrivener is $40. (By the way, I receive no benefit for writing about this product. I'm preaching from the choir loft on this one.) I paid a bit less because I took advantage of the NaNoWriMo discount. The software has a "household" licence, which means that for one price I have the software on both my laptop and our kitchen machine.

I tried the free trial version first. It contains the full program, but expires after thirty days. If it's any clue to how helpful I found the software, you should know that I paid for mine when there were still twenty six days left on my trial.

Happy scrivening!

Sarah Pinneo
is a novelist, food writer and book publicity specialist. Her most recent book is Julia’s Child. Follow her on twitter at @SarahPinneo.


jhutcheson said...

I started using this program two months ago and LOVE it! You mentioned in your post that compiling your document to be opened in Word was as simple as three strokes. This is the only component of Scrivener I've had trouble with. Would you mind sharing these steps? I would feel much better if I knew that when I finish my WIP, I'll be able to open it in Word.

Unknown said...

Just recently I've seen flood of new endorsements for Scrivener, and I was already deliberating a purchase. Definitely going to give it a shot. :-)

Ryan S. Kinsgrove said...

Not sure how I would feel about that. I'm very aesthetic when it comes to my writing. I love the feel of my pen against paper, and the constant flutter of pages when I'm trying to remember what I wrote. The pain in the ass about that, though, is typing the thing after it's done. I'm trying to correct that by typing what I write each day.

The Scrivener programs sounds like it would be very helpful however, as I'm often surrounded by my notes and scribbled scene lists and such, so I'm might have to look into it.

And, if you would be so kind, feel free to check out my blog @ http://writerspsychosis.blogspot.com/

Stina said...

I love the program, but that's because I do a lot of planning of my novels. This makes it easier to keep everything organized and quick to access. I wish it had something like Tracker, but I guess I can't have everything.

Sarah Ahiers said...

i'm one of those linear writers mentioned above, so i always assumed Scrivener wouldn't do me any good. But now i wonder if maybe it would help me during revisions...

Sarah P said...

@jhutch: all you have to do is choose "compile" from the "file" tab. A dialog box appears. You choose your file type at the bottom (Word doc, PDF, RTF, etc.) The press the compile button and save to your favorite folder.

Unknown said...

LOVE scrivener! I have moved from dozens of paper strew about the house to a contained (and frequently backed up!) WIP. I am writing instead of chasing down thoughts.

The FICTION format is also great for
-- notes from educational classes
(CHAPTER is class name,SCENEs are highlights, resources, quizzes, assignments)
--Project Management
Chapters are the main category of a overall project, with scenes being ideas within the category, timeline/checklist.

It is the most useful time management, organizational and writing project I have ever encountered.

Unknown said...

I love Scrivener because I can write on my Mac laptop, then go upstairs to my WIndows desktop and pull up the exact same document in the same form, and then I can import it to all kinds of manuscript types that would work on either system. Not to mention I can store all the random Type A research materials I gather before one word ever hits the screen. I'm definitely a fan and enjoyed reading your post!

DamienK said...

After reading your article I downloaded the trial version. I watched three video tutorials and spent about ten minutes with Scrivener before I bought it. This program is astounding and gives you absolute control over whatever you're writing. Even after using it only a short time, it makes writing in Word feel like I'm writing on papyrus.

Sarah P said...

Nice, Damien! I had the same reaction. I sound like a pusher lately...

jhutcheson said...

Thanks, Sarah!

Claire Merle said...

Thanks for telling us about this Sarah. Will have to look into it! I've got about twenty files already for my WIP for different stuff. If Scrivener can give me layers, so that I can kind of stack all the info relevant to one scene -- backstory, world building, other POVs -- that would really useful.

Michael Alan Peck said...

There are few things in this world I'm cult-y about. One is a low-carb diet. Another is Evernote. The third is Scrivener.