Scrivener. I’m going to declare that it’s one of my favourite writing apps. (I’m also going to declare that this is not a paid post and I don’t have any association with Scrivener, apart from being a fan.) So now that’s out of the way, I can explain what Scrivener is and how it works, and why you might find it useful if you’re in the business of research or writing. If you’re reading this, then maybe you’re writer or interested in creativity. If so, have a look at this post on creativity and creative thinking.
Scrivener is a wonderful tool to help you manage large, complex writing projects. Think: academic thesis, novel, white paper, essay, research proposal, script and so on. I just bought the most recent version, Scrivener 3, and I immediately thought it would make a useful post for my blog to share my views on it.
Scrivener runs on Mac and iOS devices and there is a Windows version, although this one isn’t currently available in the new iteration, Scrivener 3. The new version brings a substantial amount of updates. Just briefly, these include a redesigned main window, more writing statistics, new Bookmarks feature, new search tool and improved compile feature for when you’re ready to create a final document. But let me cover the basics before drilling down into the main features.
Here’s a snapshot of what you need to know about Scrivener if you’re new to it.
- Write, edit and save resources together for your project.
- Text editing features and modes to suit your project.
- Set and track your writing progress.
- Import other files needed for your project.
- Desktop (Mac and Win) and mobile (iOS only) version.
- Create your own document templates and icons to suit your project.
- Sync via DropBox.
Why do I like Scrivener? I’m a writer, but that’s quite obvious given you’re reading this on my blog. I’ve written two university dissertations — one for my undergraduate Honours program and the other was my Masters thesis of 80, 000. That’s a lot of words and ideas and chapters and section to organise. I didn’t have anything. like Scrivener available then. Instead, it was just a matter of having separate Word files for the chapters and keeping a very tight handle on my overview document to record the sections and a lot of opening and closing files to work on different sections, sometimes at the same time. Oh how I would have loved to have had Scrivener to help me organise my research material and my written work.
I discovered Scrivener some years ago when I was researching a story on brainstorming and productivity apps. The team behind Scrivener, Litterature and Latte, also have a neat little brainstorming app called Scrapple. I downloaded Scrivener and used the trial version and had to have the full paid version. Like a lot of journalists and writers, I’ve tried my hand at other writing projects — that novel idea that won’t go away, that screenplay idea that keeps bugging you, that crazy idea to go back to uni and tackle another thesis. Each time I’ve worked on a new, large writing project, I’ve turned to Scrivener. Now these projects might not have got off the ground, but at least I enjoyed the process using a well-designed and intuitive writing program.
It’s time to turn to the program in a little more details so you can get a sense of how to use it and its main features. I’d recommend installing the free desktop version, which works for 30 days of use. Red this carefully: If you use it once a week, for example, it will stay functioning for 30 weeks. Not bad, eh? There is no free version of the iOS app, so this is desktop only.
I highly recommend using the included interactive tutorial as well as the video tutorials. You don’t need to buy any Scrivener guides, in case you start googling for help, you’ll find a bunch of these. And ignore the critics on forums that tell you Scrivener is too difficult to get a handle on without a guide or course. If you devote an hour or two to working your way through the tutorials, I think you’ll be able to start using the program right away.
Here are some of the useful features that help to organise your writing and editing.
Like the name suggests, it’s a virtual binder, or folder, that keeps all of the document’s section together and lets you easily navigate between sections and move pages from section to section. All of your documents for a project will sit in the main Draft folder at the top of the Binder section. The Research folder, at the bottom of the Binder, is where you keep all of your support material including documents, PDFs, images and videos.
This is the main window that you’ll be working in for writing and editing your material. Just click on a document in the Binder and it will open in the Editor. It’s got the usual editing features and a few extras. Suggest you spend a bit of time playing with the sample copy in the interactive tutorial so you’re comfortable with the Editor and some of the tools.
The Editor has several different views which, depending on how you’re working, can let you move from section to overview of your document. Single Document, as the name suggestions, lets you work on one document at a time. Corkboard Mode, one of my personal favourites, shows all the subdocuments as index cards on a corkboard. Outliner mode also shows the subdocuments. Scrivenings mode lets you work on several documents together such as several different scenes for a chapter of a novel.
It’s starting to sound like a game of Cluedo, all we need is just a Mr Green, but the thing is that these tools really are named for their function. The small blue i icon on the top right-hand side of the toolbar will open up another option for text editing.
From The Inspector, you can add notes, bookmarks, footnotes and other editing notes relation to a particular section. If you need to add further research or suddenly have a brainwave while writing, you can open this and record it so it’s not lost. Then close and continue with the writing.
Need to write without distractions? If you’re a fan of programs such as Omniwriter or CalmWriter, then with feature will be your friend. Take out all the clutter and just write. Can’t promise it will keep you away from Facebook and the domestics that suddenly look appealing when there’s a heavy writing to be done.
Skip forward through all the writing and editing phases and eventually you’ll want to pull your work together for publishing. Scrivener has a useful compile feature that lets you put together your final document from the relevant files that you have finalised. You can choose one of the pre-set formats such as manuscript or create your own format that suits your end goal.
Get started with the pre-installed interactive beginner’s tutorial. Here are step-by-step instructions to help you move from complete newbie to comfortable user in a morning.
- Download and install Scrivener.
- Open the program and click on Interactive Tutorial from the Project Templates window.
- Save the tutorial onto your hard drive.
- Read the welcome page and then start at the beginning using the ‘Start Here’ menu on the left-hand side that will take you through the program’s features and how to use them.
- Work your way through each section from orienting yourself with the main window and the features to the editing features and how to compile a draft at the end.
- Now it’s your turn. To start your own document, go to File > New Project and pick a template or choose ‘Blank’ if you want to design your own. Save and name your file.
- If at a later date, you want more advanced help, return to the tutorial and go through the ‘Going Further’ and ‘Tips’ section at the bottom of the Tutorial ring binder.
If you’d like to try Scrivener for yourself, it’s suggest trying to free version. I’m a believer in paying for what we use — newspapers, apps, streaming and so on, so I do encourage people to pay for programs that they like and use. But free versions are a helpful way to try a new program and see if it’s suits your needs before committing any dollars to it.
If you don’t currently have a large project that you’re working on and you still want to try Scrivener, I’d suggest that you go to the Press Kit page and download the sample projects. You will find lots of content already included can then see how Scrivener looks in all its glory. Or adapt the tutorial (see above) and play around with it to get a handle on how to use Scrivener.
Don’t be put off by the complexity of Scrivener. I see it like a concertina-folded book where you just pull out each new page when you’re ready. Just start by creating a document, writing and editing and then add complexity from there by using more features as you go.
A quick detour into the history of the program tells us that it was once just a Mac desktop program but, as with most programs these days, there was a need for a tablet and smartphone version.
This took some time to create. It’s not easy to take a program like Scrivener, built on functionality and organisational features, and simplify and shrink it. Reduce too many features and it’ll be a shell of it’s desktop self; leave it too similar and it’ll be bloated on a mobile device.
Fast forward to today and after many years of waiting there is a companion app (only iOS at the moment) that brings many of the desktop features to mobile (iPhones and iPads) devices. I’d recommend buying through the Litterature and Latte site because it can mean less potential issues if you upgrade to future versions. Note that you do need to buy separate licences for all — Mac, iOS and Windows — versions if you need to run it on different platforms. Desktop licences are AU$45 each and the iOS licence is US$20, but there’s a bundle discount that will give you all three for US$75. If this seems a bit steep, you can probably live without the mobile version unless you plan on doing a lot of work on an iPad.
So there you have it. It’s a wrap on Scrivener. It’s certainly not the only way to write, but I’m yet to find another program built from the ground up with the task of writing and editing in mind, and making this as simple and intuitive as possible. I still use office programs, Pages and Word, for small writing tasks, but anything requiring multiple sections that need to be linked to research documents, I’d always choose Scrivener.
If you’re interested, have a look at the website and play around with the tutorial. I haven’t used the iOS version all that much, but I’m going to try it out and if I like what I find, I’ll plan an upcoming blog post or an update to this one on the mobile version in more detail.
Now I’ve got no excuses to start that novel, have I? Okay maybe just the usual ones that include find oodles of time, generating some inspiration, having a truckload of belief and everyday discipline to see it through to the end, or just to a first draft. At least with some lovely writing and editing programs, it can make the process enjoyable. There’s a lot of well-designed and affordable software that can help get the job done. I believer that it’s important to have the right creative and functional tools for any process.