The Wonder that is Scrivener: A Review

I was recently granted the privilege of using a hand me down Mac Powerbook from my kind hearted and awesome brother. Though the machine is old, slow and hasn’t much memory left, I am becoming a convert very fast and the reason for that is very simple. I now get to use Scrivener. Now, if you know me you will be aware of my constant complaints all over Facebook about this or that so called writing ‘Organizer’ on the PC. It has been an epic quest and like most epic quests it only seemed like a good idea at the time. It has been, in fact, a nightmare.

                Now just to let you know the level of quest it has been. Seemingly every day, while I should have been busy typing away at the new screenplay, or editing this or that blog post or what not (this includes the long delayed and often confounded update to Humans From Earth – available here on this blog) I have been diligently searching for some dumb PC program where I can throw the thoughts, research, idle musings, events, etc for these projects. I currently have – I think – five such programs installed on my PC. They all suck. And when I say they suck – imagine the oil pipeline blowout. Remember all of that inky black crap popping out of the ocean floor? Well now wrap your mouth around that. That’s how much they suck. With one notable exception – yWriter.

                yWriter is free, which is always good, and I believe it may have been developed by someone who actually writes which is also good. It isn’t a very robust program but it is very serviceable for throwing locations and characters and planning on whatever you happen to be working on. It is, however, strictly for fiction writers. Out of everything I have found it’s by far the best for PC in that it won’t drive you completely insane. There is enough involved in writing that WILL drive you insane that you really don’t need anything else.

yWriter is simple to use, pretty self explanatory and has just enough bells and whistles to be actually useful in keeping your head in the game. Unfortunately it doesn’t lend itself to easy transport of documents to any other platform where it more or less relies on the standard cut and paste method.

                I realized early on in my search that what I really needed was something fully adaptable with few constraints. Something in which I could find whatever I needed whenever I needed it. I needed something that could contain multiple nesting of outlines and files and all of them accessible quickly and visually. I am not a obsessive hoarder of notecards (in fact I have never met a notecard I could respect) or I might have fallen back on that old stand by. My trusted moleskine has a tendency to fill itself up with useless trivia, nonsensical musings and worse – tired, woeful journal entries that someone may yet have to dispose of in the hours after my hopefully distant demise. yWriter does a great deal of this but I have an exceptionally leaky brain and it couldn’t contain the overflow.

                I NEEDED Scrivener.

                I have been seeing taunting ads for it in my tireless and annoying search. I stared at the screenshots of it longingly. I wept. I bitched about my utter lack of funds all over Facebook to the point that most of my friends were probably at the point of reconsidering our relationship. I didn’t think it was possible but here it is and it is as wonderful as I envisioned.

                It is a little more complicated than yWriter but if you get through the tutorial you should have everything you need to understand how to use it. It is just an organizer which is sort of like saying Shakespeare was a scribbler. It is the organizer par excellence.

Basically, from the launch you can see the differences with anything available on the PC. Like yWriter, you start with a Project – which is whatever you’re working on – a novel, screenplay, what have you. There are several preloaded templates which are really nothing more than basic guidelines on how to assemble a manuscript as well as format guides on cover pages and the like. It’s handy but not really all that necessary. The files and documents are easily viewable in the left hand bar and can be collapsed and expanded on a whim – which is very nice for keeping things where they ought to be instead of bleeding all over the manuscript.

                After that you have The Manuscript which is the stuff you are currently working on. Inside the manuscript file you can have files for Chapters, Parts, Volumes, Stanzas or any other division you would like. Every division is customizable and open as though you were creating a new file. All in one place and all to your hearts content. Should you ever need a quick glance at the contents of your manuscript there are two nice little tools on the top bar which will permit you to view stuff either by corkboard (which assembles itself intuitively based on your outline and documents) or the Outline view. On the side bar, should you choose to open it, is The Inspector – which allows you to include non obtrusive document notes to whichever particular text document you have selected as well as edit the notecard that will appear at the top of the pile on your corkboard. It may sound a little complicated here but really it’s incredibly simple to use and once you get started it makes so much sense you may be filled with bloodlust over the ineptitude displayed by every programmer trying to make something similar for the PC. I still haven’t quite gotten over the bloodlust actually. I think they are all diabolically cruel people and deserve punishment. The nicest thing about it is that it tends to dramatically unclutter your actual document. You can now use that space to actually write rather than cram hand written revision notes all over.

                Beneath the Manuscript Folder lies the Research folder which is…uh. Words cannot express the joy. It works almost exactly like the manuscript folder but you can throw all of your notes – as many of them as you want – all of your research, pictures, web pages, anything that will help keep things straight in your head when you are working on the manuscript. It too has the outline view and the corkboard view, which is very handy if you have some inspiring snapshots to spur the thoughts on character or places or whatnot. You can look at them all – as many of them as you want or think you need – all on one page. If I were to have the actual corkboards represented in the research folder my room would smell funny and be covered in cork (meaning I would never find anything ever again – good ideas would be pinned under an abyss of paperwork until all the cork in the room would fall and bury me under it’s weight.)

                Scrivener is primarily a fiction writing organizer. It can prepare a manuscript for transfer to a more robust and dedicated writing program such as Word or Final Draft for final review and editing. My initial experiments with a demo version of Final Draft 8 produced a few mixed results on this transfer. While you can write in screenwriting format directly in Scrivener, the particular coding does not transfer completely – meaning the characters, locations and such will not transfer to Final Draft (or at least they don’t on the version I worked on.) This is unfortunate as it means that spitting out the wonderful reports that Final Draft is capable of will not function and considerable editing will need to be done. What’s more the notes and documents that may form the skeleton of a work will also not transfer over. This is a big drawback in terms of its functionality as a launch pad for screenplays. However, with the additional windows and functionality of the Mac as opposed to the PC it’s pretty easy to switch back and forth between the two programs.

                Formatting with Final Draft is not adequately preserved when transferring BACK to Scrivener, which is also a bit of a drawback. If you work on your drafts in Final Draft and then want to keep tracking the revisions with Scrivener you’ll be spending a lot of time reformatting things. If, however, you can deal with your Scrivener copy looking a bit different from the fully formatted Final Draft then it could work fairly well to track revisions, particularly when you use the ‘snapshot’ function to preserve earlier drafts of the manuscript. Given the complete inefficiency of all the other programs I have attempted to use (Liquid Story Binder, Dramatica, StoryView, WriteWay, and yWriter) in transferring files to and from the organizer I can honestly say that it’s the best I’ve seen.

What Scrivener does exceptionally well is stay out of the way. Everyone’s writing process is different and rather than imposing the structure of another writer on you it allows itself to bend to your will and the way YOU work. Most of the other programs I’ve toyed with create character dossiers like you might role up a character in D&D. They are obnoxious, unnecessary and irritating with their insistence on questions regarding your characters. If you happen to be someone like me you enjoy having your characters reveal themselves on their own terms and at their own speed, not in a sort of police procedural dossier where you jot in their height, weight and eye color. The same goes for locations and objects. Because there are no questions being asked about these things the freedom to create them comes on as you create them, piece by piece. On the down side Scrivener does not have the ability to track your characters, locations (except insofar as you have set them up for you to track) It will not have character lists or reports or the like the way some other programs might (yWriter actually does a pretty good job of this). But because it is such an efficient organizer you should not have a problem keeping things straight on your own.

                Hopefully, in the future, the makers of Scrivener (Literature and Latte) will provide a little smoother transition and additional functioning with Final Draft and other dedicated writing programs. It might also be a great idea to add a few more preloaded templates for blog entries, journalistic articles, etc. I can see the organizing potential for something like Scrivener being extremely useful for these endeavors. Of course, if they do add some of these functions you could expect a bump in price which is currently a somewhat guilty steal at $60.00 (I purchased the software copy otherwise the downloadable version is about $50.00.

                All in all Scrivener has the potential to be one of the most dazzlingly useful writing organizers mankind has ever seen. If they keep up the kind of attention to detail and great work as this version it could easily be a standard for anyone who writes anything. A roll out of version 2.0 is coming out soon but they seem to be fairly cagey in regards to some of the updates going into it. Personally, I am pretty excited to find out.

Categories: Writing | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “The Wonder that is Scrivener: A Review

  1. Thank you puckishwird, initially for your Scrivener desire, and then for posting the story! We are being less cagey about Scrivener 2.0 now:

    This section may be of particular interest to you:
    “b. Improved Final Draft Support
    Scrivener 2.0’s support for the Final Draft 8 FDX format is much improved over that of 1.x. When you compile a script from Scrivener to the FDX format, all of your index card synopses will become scene summaries in Final Draft, titles will appear in the Final Draft navigator, and comments and footnotes will become scene notes. You can even define sections of dialogue in Scrivener that should become dual dialogue in Final Draft. Scrivener also has a new “Import and Split” feature that can be used to split up imported text documents, and when used with FDX files it will split them up by scene and import the scene summaries as index card synopses, so round-tripping with Final Draft is much easier.”

    We are going to be keeping the price at $45.00 though. $25.00 for an upgrade from 1.x to 2.0 unless you qualify for a free upgrade; essentially if you purchased Scrivener 1.x on or after 1st August 2010. Scrivener 2.0 for the Mac will be available towards the end of October 2010.

    Scrivener for Windows, which we intend to release in early 2011, will be $40.00.

    Thanks again for you blog post. I hope that you enjoy using Scrivener 2.0.

    All the best,
    Scrivener, Literature & Latte

    • Thanks for the updated info on Scrivener 2.0. I really appreciate that and am looking forward to 2.0 even more now. It really is the best product i’ve tried and as i mentioned, i tried alot. And that’s terrific news about the Windows version. Now i can get my technophobic writing partner onboard, hopefully.

  2. Scrivener has many more features than I figured. In particular the research folders sound like a fabulous idea. I hope you enjoy Scrivener 2.0 just as much.

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