Writing an article, a novel, or a research paper can be a daunting task. Collected information has a way of getting lost amidst dozens of folders, outlining notes vanish mysteriously, and the very thought of starting a large writing project seems paralyzing, especially when sitting in front of the blinking cursor on an empty screen.
While it can’t do the actual writing work for you, Scrivener can help you to manage your project with ease, keep everything together and support your individual writing process – no matter if you are absolutely organized or love the chaos. The following review will give you a first hand insight into the mighty piece of software, enabling you to get an idea of what it can do for you and hopefully motivating you to pick up the pen – pardon me – the keyboard, again.
What Does It Do, and Who Is It For?
Scrivener, by Literature & Latte, combines the features of a word processor with the power of a digital organizer and project management tool. Imagine your desk during a writing project: yellow stickies cover your monitor, notes are strewn across the desk, photos are peeking out from folders, and somewhere in this chaos is your notepad that has that essential idea from last night jotted down.
With Scrivener, you can put all this information into one single piece of software and get it off your desk: text, images, web references, PDF documents and even audio clips.
Scrivener does not limit you to a specific writing method; it is intended for a very large user-group, ranging from novelists and screenwriters, academics and students, through to journalists and technical writers. To appeal to all these groups, Scrivener offers you a broad selection of tools – outlines, virtual corkboards, information storage capacities, internal linking – that you can use or discard depending on your very own writing style.
Every time you open Scrivener, you are greeted by a start up screen offering various options. If you haven’t created a project yet, you can do so now.
After entering all the necessary data for your project, the actual working area opens up. Scrivener is divided into three main areas: the left pane displays your project’s structure with the actual writing parts (chapters etc.), researched resources (links to web pages, PDF documents, images) and whichever other content you choose to include in your project.
The middle part of the window is where the writing takes place, but depending on your selection it can also show the cork board with your content displayed on little index cards or it can display the outline view. Every one of the three views allows you to edit content directly.
The right pane holds additional information for your selected content: the top index card provides a synopsis, the General tab allows you to label and categorize your content and below that you can add notes, link to resources and provide keywords.
The Outline and the Cork Board
You can manage and enter your content any way you like – Scrivener provides the tools for structuring, but it doesn’t force any specific structure on you. Depending on your own taste, either the outline view or the cork board view will appeal to you more. Both allow you to quickly lay out your project. If you don’t know how to start your novel or article yet, but have a clear idea of the middle part, then write that one first. You can re-order any content at any given time by simple dragging and dropping.
You can link content to content, to research or to external sources. You can qualify parts of your story by status (Draft, Revised, etc) or by type (chapter, volume, concept, and so on). Really, there are no limitations as to how you can arrange your content and so Scrivener adapts itself to your writing style.
Writing in Scrivener is like in any other word processor – simply start typing. While many writers will prefer the plain text style, you can always bring up the Ruler and add more styles to your text. You can also highlight it and, a feature I especially like, you can add annotations to your text which will appear in red.
If you enter the Ghost Notes mode, the annotations will pale as soon as you move the insertion point away. They are less distracting this way, but can still be found quickly. While you can of course always add notes to the document notes pane on the right, sometimes you want to address a specific sentence or paragraph in your document and it’s much easier to just write the note down with it. In the preferences you can specify whether you want these notes to be exported and printed with the document or if they will only be visible during the editing process.
Now, what if you need to refer to some research you’ve done, or to another chapter, while you write your current text? Nothing easier than that: Scrivener offers you the ability to split the screen (vertically and horizontally) to fit more content there and save you from switching back and forth between documents all the time.
But you haven’t seen the best part yet – full screen writing! If you have ever used WriteRoom, you will be familiar with the concept: there’s nothing on your screen except your text. No menus, no distracting graphics. I find this working environment especially useful if you need to stay in a certain mood for whatever you write.
Imagine a love scene or the dramatic revelation of the plot you’ve been building up throughout your story – the only thing you need and should concentrate on are your words on the screen.
You can adjust the full screen view any way you like. While hovering at the bottom of the screen with your mouse pointer, an options bar will fly up, allowing you to show the keywords HUD and the inspector. In addition, you can adjust the transparency of the black background overlay, the width of the page you are working on and – very, very cool for when it’s getting late at night and everything starts to blur before your eyes – you can increase the text size.
Another helpful feature is the word and characters count. Articles often require a minimum number of words or they are limited to a maximum. If you are a participant of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), the number 1,667 has meaning for you (it’s the number of words you need to write every day on average to successfully complete NaNoWriMo). Except for the cork board view, Scrivener always shows you the word and character count, helping you to stay on track. You can even set word goals in the outline view.
Scrivener is not just a tool for novelists, but also for scriptwriters. All you have to do is change the writing mode to screenplay and Scrivener immediately provides you with pre-formatted options. You start by describing the shot.
After that, it’s just a matter of key-combinations or quick manual picks: you can set the characters names, enter dialogues, actions, parentheticals, transitions … you name it! Not sure of how you can use the files after you are finished? No worries, Scrivener lets you export your play into FinalDraft format.
Most writing projects will require some amount of research. Often, we will find valuable information online. While you can bookmark pages and come back to them when your story needs it, you also access the information in a much simpler way: simply drag and drop the website into the research folder in Scrivener’s left pane. The application will automatically create a link, which you can rename to your liking.
But you are not limited to web pages: you can also import images, PDF files and even audio clips. Especially for larger writing projects where you have to research locations, people, and whatever else you need, it’s a real time saver to have all the information accessible right from within Scrivener.
So you are finished with your writing project and need to export it to give it to your editor or someone else to read and publish. Scrivener offers a wide variety of export formats, ranging from RTF, Word and HTML through to FinalDraft, OpenOffice and plain text. You can choose whether or not to export notes and meta-data with your document. As you may have spotted on the screenshots, there are additional export options in the right pane of the Scrivener window, allowing you to insert a page brake before a new chapter or to exclude certain text parts in your drafts.
That concludes the really-quick-introductory-crash-course on Scrivener. It’s not exhaustive, since there are many, many more useful options that can’t all be covered in one review. It starts with keyboard shortcuts and ends with preference settings that allow you tweak the application even further. You will discover many of these options as you are working with Scrivener and, if you ever get stuck, be sure to check out their active and extremely helpful forums.
I hope that this short overview has given you an impression on how Scrivener can help you with your personal writing projects by adapting to your own style instead of forcing a specific method on you. And if you find that you need a more structured and guided approach, you can always try out StoryMill, Contour, CopyWrite, CeltX or Montage. There is a 30 day trial period for Scrivener and the developer really means 30 days of use, not just 30 calendar days from the day you open the app for the first time. That should be plenty of time to give it a try, and don’t forget to have a Latte ready for when you’re writing!