In my years as a writer, I’ve written stories and novels on:
- Construction paper
- Notebook paper
- Post-it notes and index cards
- X386 spreadsheets
- DOS word processing programs
- Notepad and Wordpad
- Raw HTML (see Notepad)
- Microsoft Word, OpenOffice, Apple Pages
But my Twitter feed remains agog with tools like Scrivener and similar — programs designed for the professional writer. Note taking, annotating, reorganization, color coding, compilation. Neat things. So, having a gift card and some codes for price reduction, and having used up the last of my post-it notes on plot diagramming the last WIP, I downloaded the iPad and iPhone versions of Scrivener to try out.
The facts were these …
To be clear, I did not attempt to write a new novel in Scrivener. It came too late for this year’s NaNoWriMo effort, and I’m too busy editing to start a new novel on it. I expect this may influence my opinions slightly. Instead, what I did try:
- I did try writing a short story in Scrivener.
- I also tried porting over one of my alpha drafts to see if it would make my writing life easier.
- I also (also) ported over novel bibles, albeit in copy/paste fashion.
Conclusion 1: it’s not meant for existing projects. (At least not mine.)
While Scrivener does indicate that you can port files from other locations, I found the interface to do so to be pretty painful. It took approximately 29.5 tries to port over a single book, and it arrived as a flat file. If the benefit of Scrivener is that everything has been broken up into small, discrete chunks for easy editing and reference, it failed me here. I’d need to slice and dice on my own time.
Considering my WIP is around 120k, this wasn’t going to happen.
Conclusion 2: it’s not going to replace my white space.
It’s not so much that I couldn’t write in Scrivener. It has that capacity. Indeed, there’s plenty of room. For writing a short story, it was reasonable enough.
That said, I’m the sort of anal-retentive person who (a) likes to format as I’m typing, (b) likes to do bizarre typography, and (c) spells “anal-retentive” with a hyphen. This version didn’t have those capabilities. Scrivener is designed purely for getting the words out. That’s important for a lot of writers! But that’s not really me. If I can’t edit on the go, up to and including rearrangement or specialized placement, it’ll drive me nuts.
I’m also finding that I dislike the compilation process. If I want to send out a draft to a beta reader / gamma reader (or, in rare circumstances, an editor), I just want to click a button and go. Meaning: I want the story in one document that I can either punt out to a storage space or attach right to e-mail.
This is the opposite of Scrivener’s design point. They want that separation of chapter, separation of scenes. They want you to be able to switch scenes via drag and drop. There’s a certain appeal to this when you’re stil getting sorted, but I’m past that stage. At least, for the current works in progress. It wasn’t so bad for a single story … but then, I could just as easily print to PDF from Word or Pages.
That said …
Conclusion 3: it’s flexible for notes and organizing.
As I write a novel, I build a world-bible in a second flat file. Table of contents, character notes, geography, conflicts, history. While there’s a benefit to keeping the novel text together, this note-taking approach is poor at lookup. (“I think I left my timeline on Page 25 … but now I can’t find it …”)
Conversely, in Scrivener, I now have a ready set of virtual index cards, color-coded by narrator, labeled by draft, flagged with icons to represent turning points, and a large note area to scribble future work items (my editing notes, comments from beta readers, and reminders regarding story points). I also have a research folder for character development and world building. It’s easy to lose one’s way in a large manuscript,and I’m finding Scrivener may help with that.
And there’s a nice value-add in syncing across devices. I have ideas in a lot of locations–I’m not always near a desktop computer or notebook. Snapping something via phone for later’s helped quite a bit. I’d prefer more options than DropBox, but as cloud-based services go, it gets the job done. Although …
Conclusion 4: it has its limitations.
I ran into a pretty nasty cloud-based sync error right off the bat. I tried making some edits from phone, then forgot to sync before I swapped to tablet. Created a bunch of new files on the tablet. Everything went into a mess of a “sync error” folder. Some files went missing altogether. So if you’re going to work with Scrivener in a multi-device format, mind your synchronicity.
All writers and would-be writers spend a lot of time building up habits. (OCcasionlly, they’re good ones.). The type of writer you are may influence the degree to which Scrivener is right for you. After some experimentation, I can say pretty safely that Scrivener is not a great novel-writing tool for me. I concede other people may find it more useful than I do, and I certainly won’t dissuade you! But I’ve spent too long with full-fledged word processors to go back to raw white space.
What it seems to be, though, is a fantastic novel planning and plotting tool. That’s something that’s long been missing from my arsenal. And I’ll be really curious to see how it holds up to a new WIP. Once I’m through another round of editing and comments (and get some new query letters typed up), I’ll try moving a new project over here — just to see if it makes a difference.