Software for Writers: Part 1

Software for Writers - Part 1Scrivener is a popular piece of software for writers, and for good reason. But I’ve also heard many people talk about using Evernote for writing, and Ulysses is going from strength to strength with the release of their new iOS app for iPhone, iPad and iPad Pro. So which is the best?

Logos - Scrivener, Evernote, UlyssesAha! That was a trick question. I’ve used all three applications extensively, and it’s like comparing a hammer, a screwdriver, and a hot-glue gun. They kind of do the same thing, but in different ways. Each tool has strengths and weaknesses depending on your needs.

“It’s like comparing a hammer, a screwdriver, and a hot-glue gun.”

It’s the same with writing software. The applications I’m going to discuss all have an editor pane that lets you write. But they handle the process of writing quite differently. Rather than try to convince you that one tool is better than another, I’m going to cover the pros and cons of each, and discuss what kind of writer I think is most likely to benefit from using them. I’ll also throw in links to other resources that might help you make up your mind which tool is right for you.

To prevent you from slipping into a review coma I’ve split this post up into three parts. Today I’ll limit myself to Scrivener. Part 2 will cover Evernote, and Part 3 will focus on Ulysses.


Scrivener - Example Screens
Scrivener – a complete writing studio.

Scrivener LogoScrivener, by Literature and Latte, has many passionate advocates among its users. Their testimonials page just seems to keep growing. It sells itself as a complete writing studio, and it’s easy to see why. It’s available for Mac and Windows, but I gather the Windows version still lags the Mac version in features. Scrivener comes with a 30 day free trial, and costs a one-off $45 US for a full license.

What’s great about Scrivener

Scrivener is almost ludicrously powerful. It stores your writing as ‘scrivenings’, which are actually individual files in rich text format. Each document (sorry — I can’t bring myself to call them scrivenings) has a title and a synopsis, and you can attach notes, pictures, keywords, a status, word count targets and so on. Your documents live in the Binder, which is basically a hierarchical representation of the files in your Scrivener project. You can nest documents within documents within documents if you like, which gives you great flexibility in arranging your work.

But the real magic of Scrivener lies in the way you can visualise your documents.

Scrivener - Cork Board Mode
Scrivener in cork board mode.

You can switch to cork board mode, which lays out index cards with the title and synopses of your documents, or outline mode, which displays the same information in a configurable series of columns. These are views of the underlying documents, so changes you make to a card on the cork board will show up in the outline, and vice versa.

Much of your work, though, will happen in the scrivenings mode. This gives you the editor pane, and allows you to move seamlessly between selected documents as though you were scrolling through one long Word file — but without the lag! In this mode you can see the Binder on the left. If you move a document in the binder from one place to another, the text is spliced neatly into its new spot in your manuscript. The same thing happens if you move a card on the cork board. It makes rearranging scenes in your novel a breeze.

Scrivener has other great features, like the full screen composition mode, which hides the Inspector and the Binder and just leaves the text of your current document on the screen.

Scrivener in Full Screen Mode
Scrivener in full screen composition mode.

You can set a custom background, and configure the font and line spacing and pretty much anything else you see fit to change. Scrivener also supports comments, similar to Word, so you can make notes for yourself or get editorial feedback from someone else. When you’re finished writing your masterpiece, you can export it into a dizzying array of formats, from docx and pdf to ePub and mobi.

Scrivener QuickReference PanesScrivener is also brilliant at keeping all of your research material in one place, alongside but separate from your manuscript. This material isn’t included in word counts, and doesn’t get exported with your manuscript. You can save copies of web pages to peruse offline, store pdfs, or just paste text from here, there and everywhere into documents in your research folder in the Binder. You can open your research items in separate QuickReference panels, which can move around so they sit out of the way but accessible while you write. Perfect for referring to a photograph or clipping from a Wikipedia article.

What’s not so great

Like any truly powerful piece of software, Scrivener has a steep learning curve. In a recent interview for the Australian Writers’ Centre podcast, Graeme Simsion (author of The Rosie Project) said he didn’t want to spend the time it would take to learn to use Scrivener — and he’s not the only person I’ve heard say that. There are plenty of tutorials around online, and even a few people whose business model seems to be built around teaching writers how to use Scrivener. But in one sense that’s actually a symptom of the problem. Scrivener is many things, but it’s not always intuitive.

Another shortcoming is the comparatively poor support for sync between devices. Scrivener has tutorials on how to sync with Dropbox, so you can open individual files in another application like Index Card or Simplenote on an iPhone or iPad, but I’ve found this to be clunky at best. And because the documents are stored in rich text, you need an editor that can deal with this file format. Surprisingly few of them do. It also means that working on a single Scrivener project on two different computers, like a laptop for the road and a desktop for home, can be problematic.

“Like any truly powerful piece of software, Scrivener has a steep learning curve.”

(The latest version of Scrivener for Mac included a new project format, aimed at improving syncing for when the much anticipated iOS app is released. Still no word on exactly when this will happen, but Keith’s latest blog post suggests it’s not too far away.)

The Scrivener project format has another drawback that might affect some users more than others: you can only have one project open at a time in a single instance of Scrivener. If you’re working on your amazing novel and suddenly have an idea for a brilliant blog post, you need to fire up another instance of Scrivener and open your blog project just to jot down two or three lines.

Who is Scrivener good for?
  • You like to plan your novel

Scrivener’s strengths lend themselves towards plotters over pantsers. That’s not to say if you write by the seat of your pants you won’t get value out of Scrivener — far from it. But if you like laying your scenes out on index cards and shuffling them around, if you like to see your outline scene-by-scene before you start writing, chances are you’re going to love Scrivener.

  • You do almost all of your writing on a single computer

Yes, you can sync the rich text files to other devices, but it isn’t always smooth. And yes, you can copy your whole Scrivener project to another computer and work on it there, but that’s a hassle, and the developers explicitly warn against storing your project on a networked drive or shared filesystem like Dropbox and opening it from more than one computer.

  • You only have one or two large projects on the go at a time

If most of your writing happens within a single project, Scrivener will suit you well. If you tend to hop between smaller writing jobs, or switch between projects frequently, you may find the project structure of Scrivener limiting.

Looking for more Scrivener goodness?

I’ve written about Scrivener previously, covering everything from laying out a three act structure on the cork board to how to manage your backups, or even getting Scrivener to read your writing back to you out loud. Feel free to poke around.

If you’re interested in Scrivener but are daunted by its complexity, the Australian Writers’ Centre has an online course called 2 Hours to Scrivener Power run by author Natasha Lester. Natasha also has several excellent articles on her blog about using Scrivener that are worth checking out.

Finally, if you want to dive deep into Scrivener and become a power user, you can go directly to the source. The developers at Literature and Latte have a series of video tutorials covering many of the more complex features in depth.

Up Next…

In Part 2 of this series on software for writers I’ll be taking a look at Evernote, so stay tuned!