Tools for Writing 4 – Scrivener

This time in Tools for Writing, I’ll be looking at another Mac product, Scrivener from Literature and Latte.

This is not freeware and costs USD $39.95 at the time of writing, but it’s still within the budget of most writers and it has advantages over the products we have been reviewing like RoughDraft 3 and Jer’s Novel Writer, in that it is both supported and subject to further development.  Scrivener is available on a 30 day trial as a download from the website, so you can try it before you decide whether to buy.

Main Window (click to enlarge)

The initial interface presented by Scrivener is relatively simple, showing a rich text editing window together with a structure pane to the left.  The name of the item being edited is shown above the editing pane together with forward and back button so that you can skip back and forth between items like a browser.

There is a button bar across the top with view and search options and a status bar at the bottom which controls the viewing scale and shows the word-count and target.  This simple interface hides a great deal of functionality, preventing Scrivener from appearing daunting to the novice.

As blocks of text are created in the tool they appear on the left in the outline.  How you structure these is up to you, but you can create folders and sub-folders, text files and sub-text files within that structure, allowing you to break up your work into chapters, scenes or whatever makes sense to you.  Rearranging your work is then simply a mater of dragging and dropping in the side-bar.

Outline View (click to enlarge)

If we then move to the Outline View we can see those items represented in tabular form, with various attributes held against them.  This includes as default the  item type, synopsis, assigned label and status, but can also include elements like word-count, creation date and progress bars.  From this we can see that Scrivener is also a powerful tool for managing writing projects.

This is a good time to introduce Scrivenings.  The concept of Scrivenings is initially hard to grasp, but if you think of them as a stream of text blocks stuck together so that you can edit them as a continuous stream you will not be far wrong.

There is a feature similar to this in Jer’s Novel Writer, but the implementation here is smoother, allowing you to pick and choose which elements you want to edit.  For instance, if chapters 2, 5, 7 and 12 deal with the arc of a certain character, you can highlight those and edit them as a single stream of text, ignoring the chapters in between.

The Cork-Board (click to enlarge)

That brings us to the Cork-Board, which is a way of looking at elements as if they were inscribed on 3×5 index cards pinned to a cork-board.  Of course, the board in virtual, but the ability to re-organise the cards into the order you want and to add notes or synopsis text is still there.  Any changes made in the cork-board such as moving a card into a folder (shown as a card stack) or adding a new card are reflected in the outline on the left.

This is also where Labels come in useful.  Labels are arbitrary text which can be used to categorise your text items or folders.  The might reflect a particular arc in the plot, an underlying theme or simply segmenting your work into chapters, themes, concepts and ideas.  When you create a label you assign a colour to it and it is this colour which is then used for the virtual pin for the card on the cork-board, making the labels intuitively visible.

All these features provide the writer with the ability to organise their work within Scrivener, and are a huge boon to large writing projects, regardless of whether you approach those as scenes within acts within parts or as blocks within chapters within parts.  It is extremely flexible and powerful.

All this is very well, but what about the writing process itself?

Main Window Showing Meta-Data (click to enlarge)

Scrivener is no slouch here either.  By clicking on the blue Inspector button the right side-bar appears containing the meta-data for the text block.

There is space for a synopsis, label and status informations (very useful for keeping track of your editing), formatting information and a panel for document notes, key words and URL type references.

Notes is perhaps the one place where Jer’s Novel Writer trumps Scrivener, as JNW supports margin notes which Scrivener does not.  You can insert annotations and footnotes into the text, but these are inline with the document, not separated in to a margin.

The reason for this is apparent when you consider that Scrivener’s underlying file format is RTF, a format that does not support margin notes.  Personally I would rather have a file format that’s neutral and forego the margin notes, but that’s a personal view.

Scrivener is a pleasant application to use and I haven’t found that having the outline to the side or the meta-data to the right distract from the writing – indeed, it helps me to keep track of where I am.

However, for those that want a distraction-free writing experience there is a full-screen mode that gives you full control of what is visible, including custom background transparency, page width, text zoom size and visibility for key-words, notes and meta data, all controlled from an auto-hidden menu bar.  It leaves a very uncluttered space in which to write.

There is also the option to edit text in a separate application if you wish, which was a welcome addition and made the product feel open and non-prescriptive.

One of the capabilities I mentioned in my review of RoughDraft 3 was the ability to search across multiple documents for a specific piece of text and I am pleased to report that Scrivener implements this well.  Tapping a string of characters in to the search box on the menu bar immediately narrows down the documents in the sidebar that contain the characters.  It’s fast and intuitive.

Better than that, you can select from the drop-down whether you want to search the whole document, the synopsis, the title, the notes or a range of other options including whole or part words and whether you want other folders than the draft folder to be included. The only thing missing is the scrollable list of matches that take you straight to the search match which I really like in RoughDraft.

Scrivener files are structured as projects which are saved as a .scriv file, which looks like a proprietary file format but isn’t since internally Scrivener saves files as RTFs but within its own folder wrapper which it calls a project.  It is possible to recover the RTF files from a Scrivener project, though this is not recommended except in emergency since all associated data for that project (notes, labels, etc) may be lost.  Still, it’s nice to know it can be done if needed.

There is a simple facility for getting your work out of Scrivener if you want to, which is to Export to a folder.  If you do this you can select the target format form a drop-down including RTF, Word .doc, HTML, Plain Text and most other useful formats.  It’s then easy to pick these files up and edit them with something else if you need to.

Within Scrivener there is the ability to snapshot of selected documents.  This provides an immediate backup for when you want to make major changes but you want the option to revert to where you were.  It’s a useful capability, but for true back-up you would need to archive the files to a separate disk, preferably on a different machine or a portable drive so that it can be stored elsewhere.

Compile Draft (click to enlarge)

When you come to finally produce your draft, Scrivener has a Compile Draft feature for just this purpose with a huge range of options.  You can optionally include meta-data, notes, synopses or any other element, there are built-in page breaks, font choices, line-spacing and many other options. The only down-side may be that it may take you a while to set all the options to get the manuscript just how you want it.

While Scrivener initially seems a simple enough product, there are features I haven’t even discovered yet.  It doesn’t take long to realise that it’s a hugely powerful piece of software.  That power might have been overwhelming, but it really isn’t.  It’s more that as you need something you realise that Scrivener does it and you just didn’t realise.  It’s highly focused on supporting the writer through large fiction projects (though this review was written with it) and superior to MS Word in almost every respect.

It is, unfortunately, OS-X only and that limits its availability, but if you have a Mac and you’re writing with something other than Scrivener, especially Word for Mac, you should seriously give this a try.

You won’t regret it.


  1. #1 by Anne Lyle on November 23, 2010 - 9:11 am

    Hi Mike

    Now that the Scrivener for Windows beta is out and the full version imminent, maybe you want to update your closing remarks?

    Otherwise an excellent tour, very detailed and thorough!

  2. #2 by Mike on July 8, 2010 - 11:34 pm

    Hold that thought…..

  3. #3 by Alexandre Mandarino on July 8, 2010 - 10:47 pm

    Excellent review, as the other ones before. I really like Scrivener, but I need to use a PC, for many reasons. Do you reckon Writer’s Cafe would be a good enough alternative to PC users?

  4. #4 by Michael Fisher on June 27, 2010 - 9:32 pm

    I love Scrivener. I use it to organize all of my writing projects — mostly sales copy for my various websites and product launches, but also for my literary endeavors, my correspondence, etc.

    I’ve created substantial “template” files, stocked with core reference materials, and I use these as jumping-off points whenever I dive into a new project.

    The program is easy to use, highly intuitive, extremely customizable (I had to change the background color and default font to suit my tastes), and just altogether excellent in every way.

  5. #5 by Ron Bissell on June 23, 2010 - 11:26 pm

    Great application. I use it for all my writing. I recommend it whole heartedly.


  6. #6 by Ivan Pope on June 23, 2010 - 1:33 pm

    I use it, I love it. It changed my writing life, i.e. it allows me to stay in control of longer writing projects and to experiment with structure, moving things around at will. I don’t use any of the outlining or corkboarding tools, but still love it to bits.

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