If you have worked on an extended writing project – be it a novel, screenplay, memoir, or dissertation – you have likely encountered the limits of Microsoft Word. Despite continual refinement, the word processing standard tows legacy features for which writers have little use. Literature and Latte’s Scrivener 2 cleans the brush and reconstructs the word processor from the foundation up.
Starting from the philosophy that long texts are comprised of short texts, Scrivener enables you to collect research, create and manipulate chunks of text, and compile fragments into a cohesive manuscript. That manuscript might be a traditional Word document or PDF, though Scrivener also supports more exotic formats, including MultiMarkdown, Final Draft (for scripts), and ePub.
As a software category, word processing for writers is a mature one. Playwrights and novelists may also choose from StoryMill 4 or Storyist 2. Minimal mark-up purists may gravitate to Ulysses III, and those looking for sophisticated versioning may consider Draft. Scrivener pushes the boundaries of this space by accommodating just about any kind of writing method and project. It will not supplant Microsoft Word – nor does it try to – but Scrivener creates a simple, versatile, and refined alternative for writers.
Although Scrivener is cross-platform, I tested the more mature and feature-rich Mac version. (Literature and Latte are, however, working to achieve feature parity). Installation is as simple as drag and drop, and upon first launch you will have the option to either start fresh or choose from a host of templates. These range from the expected – Novel, Short Story, Screenplay, or Poem – to the eclectic, such as Undergraduate Humanities Essay, Comic Script, Recipe Collection, or BBC Radio Scene Style. From the Project Templates, you can also access Scrivener’s exhaustive documentation, including an interactive tutorial, a 540 page user manual, and YouTube video tutorials. I chose to write this review using a Blank project.
The central interface of Scrivener is similar to that of StoryMill or Storyist, foregrounding the manuscript in the Editor, with scene synopsis, stats, and metadata in the right-aligned Inspector, and text hierarchy in the left-aligned Binder.
Unlike its complicated competitors, Scrivener has just three leaves in its Binder: Draft, Research, and Trash. You can add texts to Drafts via a plus button, and rearrange order and hierarchy by dragging items up, down, or onto one another to create groups of texts or Documents. (You can also use traditional folders). Think about any text in the Drafts folder as a sheet of paper with an index card bearing its title and synopsis (if assigned). Instead of parsing bios, timelines, and checklists like competitors, Scrivener liberates users to drag-and-drop files and URLs (as fully-rendered web pages) into Research.
Where to start…
When I began to write this review, I didn't know where to begin: Did I want to start by describing the structure of the software, or create a kind of narrative around use? By breaking each topic into its own text, I manipulated those texts via index cards (I used the synopsis field for keywords) from the Corkboard or Free Form views. I found that I preferred the Free Form view because I could manipulate index cards without changing order (as with Corkboard); once I was ready to calcify my arrangement, I could simply click Commit Order. With either view I found that I could edit the contents of cards as I rearranged them.
As I’m so used to Word, I had to rethink how I thought about a document. Instead of thinking of a single continuous text, I had to think about each idea – roughly, a paragraph – as its own text. I often lapsed into my old Wordy ways, but thankfully Scrivener makes it easy to split texts (Command + K). The Scrivenings view helped me make the transition because it formats texts into a cohesive document. Once I began to acclimatise, I found benefits in thinking of one text as many. For example, with Split view, which cleaves the Editor into vertical or horizontal halves, I realised that I could curtail repetition by comparing paragraphs side by side.
Split view is even more powerful when you think extra-textually. For example, during product testing, I created screen captures. Writing in Word, I am accustomed to toggling between an image editor and word processor. With Scrivener, however, I could drag and drop all of my screen grabs into Research, and, using Split view, open a screen cap below a piece of text. When you think about all of the kinds of research you can add to Scrivener, options dilate. If, for example, I were writing a piece of literary criticism, I could open a book from which I was quoting in my text.
Many texts – one manuscript
Scrivener is not only a powerful document manager – it is also a capable word processor. Like iWork , Scrivener relies upon an Inspector for key functionality such as adding comments and footnotes, assigning labels and statuses, and entering synopses, keywords, and metadata.
Although the software is somewhat limited in Style Sheets, it compensates with clever features for both fiction writers and researchers. With the Name Generator (Edit/Writing Tools), novelists can generate names via gender, alliteration, and obscurity. When working in a web browser, a researcher can access add/emend drafts from the Scrivener Scratch Pad (Command + Shift + Return).
Just as Scrivener provides more than one way to manipulate texts, it offers more than one way to edit them. I liked Snapshots (think: versions), which enabled me to take and compare two snapshots of a text. The only catch: You have to remember to take a Snapshot. You can also use Revision Mode (Format/Revision Mode) to add a stage of revision. Although Revision mode will highlight textual additions, unlike Track Changes it won’t show cuts. A related limitation arises if you drag-and-drop a Word document with Track Changes into Scrivener: Although you will see comments, you will lose emendations. I certainly do not expect perfect interoperability with Word – but I do hope that future updates bolster Scrivener’s existing collaborative editing capabilities.
Where Scrivener most impresses is when it comes to stitching texts together into a cohesive manuscript. Imagine that, up to this point, my review resembles a dozen or so fragments – certainly not fit for publication. Enter the Scrivener Compiler. Culling anything inside my Drafts folder (and excluding the screen caps in my Research folder), the Compiler assembles all of my texts into a manuscript – and with a remarkable level of control. If I want to leave out a paragraph, I can untick a box. Or perhaps I want to change the typeface throughout, or add a page break between sections; I can manage all of this from one screen.
Most importantly, I can create nearly any kind of document, including various text files (PDF, Rich Text, Plain Text, Word, or Open Office), eBooks (Kindle, iBooks, or ePub), or web pages.
Whether you are writing a novel or a review of a word processor, Scrivener is a reliable companion for your journey. If my experience proves the least bit representative, using Scrivener will take some acclimatisation. Most writers are accustomed to contorting their writing around their word processors. Using Scrivener will demand trust – trust that you can step away from Word, and trust that those fragments will coalesce into a manuscript. Rest assured, you can, and they will. (And where they have not, I cannot fault the software).
Scrivener 2 secures our Best Buy award because it does two things: It provides an inexpensive and flexible alternative to Word, and, more importantly, it reorients the writing process around the writer. If you are a writer working on a Mac, there is no reason not to try the 30 day free trial today.