Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Scrivener review

Scrivener is a text editor by Literature & Latte, geared towards writers and has quite an impressive number of features, but remains extremely easy to get started and continue to be very useful. It is a Mac only program at the moment, but there is a Windows version in the works.

The features I will focus on is the editing, document notes, outlining, exporting/printing. I won't be talking about how you can use it for scriptwriting, look at statistics and targets or its full screen modes. Frankly I never used those features, and in all honesty, I didn't much like the full screen views.

What I liked, actually loved, was that you could sit down and be writing your story within seconds of starting the program for the first time. I have used other programs that force you into a certain structure and wizards to create your world, characters, chapters, etc, etc, add nauseum. Not so with Scrivener. You start the program, choose a template or just a blank project, give it a filename, and Bob's your uncle. You are writing your next bestselling novel within seconds.

At the left side of the program is your binder. Think of it as a mini file system that consists of one or more documents (your story sections) and folders, which can contain additional sections or folders. It really helps keep things organized, but doesn't force a structure on you. Note that when you create a new project, it will create an untitled document for you. Automatic, easy to use.

On the right side is your Inspector, which can be used to keep notes on your current document.

It the middle is the actual document, where you can do all the regular stuff like change the font, add tables, and images. No matter how many features a program has, if the core purpose of the program isn’t any good, the whole experience goes out the window. Editing the document in this case, is top notch. It gives you a word and character count, lets you zoom the text in and out with a single keystroke (a huge feature for me). You can select your font face and size, spacing, tab settings. Much like you would a word processor. I didn't find working with tables to be much fun. They work seamlessly for the most part in MS Word, but in Scrivener, they were hard to work with.

So it's easy to get started, but what about keeping yourself going? Can Scrivener help you stay organized? I would have to answer yes, very much so.

Some writers can just sit down and use MS Word to type out their 100,000 word novel. Not me, I like to break things up. Scrivener will let you organize the story to whatever grain you like. If you want to break it into chapters, you can do that; then if you decide to break it down further, into scenes, you can do that to. In fact, you can even write out large pieces of your story, and when it gets too big to wrap your head around, with a single keystroke, you can break it into separate documents.

If you are the type of writer that prefers to use a bunch of index cards to outline your story before writing the meat of it, the corkboard view mode is your answer. It is a layout of index cards, each card had the title and synopsis you have written on it. You can arrange the events however you like by dragging the cards around. Your story will be organized under the covers. In other words, each section is tied to the index card.

The other fantastic feature I would like to touch on is the outliner mode. When your story grows to a very large size, you need to be able to keep track of what stage each of the scenes or chapters are at. The outliner will show all your documents in single row format. It will also show the synopsis if you have typed one. You can assign each row a status like, "To do", "First Draft", "Revised Draft", "Final Draft", "Done". You can also change those defaults to whatever you like.

Exporting is one of Scriveners strongest points. You can export in a number of formats including Word .doc and .docx, .pdf, .rtf, .txt, .html, epub (iPad), mobi (Kindle) and a host of others. You can have export change the font to something other then what you were editing in. You can have it change underlined text to italics or vice versa. You can assign a title page or generate a table of contents. It's just so flexible, letting you edit one way, and if you choose, make the final copy conform to a particular publishers manuscript format. For example, I like to type my story using double space courier font. I also like to underline for things that will output as italicized. The reason for that is it is easier to read and proof as I am writing the story. When I export to a final format, like PDF or epub, I want to use a nice looking font, and I want anything underlined to be converted to italics. Export does this for you, and much more.

All in all, a fantastic program. Great for both the beginner and experienced writers.


  • You are up and writing right away.
  • No messing with clunky wizards, no forced structure.
  • Very easy to create your own structure.
  • Easy to outline and manage the state of your sections/chapters/scenes.


  • Autosave saves to your current document, which is an unsafe operation. It should save to a temporary file, and only save to the main file when you save manually.
  • MS Word .doc export is really just an RTF file renamed. You need to pay attention when making edits/comments and re-saving the word file. I had a friend loose his changes, but might have been an Open Office oddity. Using MS Word to edit and save seemed to work fine.
  • With such a wealth of options, it can be a little complex.
  • Once I upgraded to version 2.0, my 5000 word story with a few notes attached to it started freezing up the program for several seconds at a time. This worries me since once I get to a story that is 100,000 words, and lots more notes, will it kill the performance of the app?
  • You have to click each section you want to export, no keyboard shortcut. I'm a heavy keyboarder, and avoid the mouse whenever possible. Better on the wrists/hands/elbows.