Why I Quit Word and Adopted Scrivener

We had an old-fashioned typewriter when I was a kid. The kind with round keys you had to thump. The little hammers would erupt from their resting places to bash their faces against the ink ribbon. I adored that typewriter. I loved the sound of the keys. I loved the clickity-clackety rhythm of typing. I even loved the cheery bing when you reached the end of a line. I couldn’t touch-type back then, but I couldn’t really spell either, so it didn’t matter what keys I was hammering. The experience of typing was a joy in itself. Intelligible output? Let grown-ups worry about that stuff.

Even after we got our first computer, and later our first word processor, I still liked the tactile quality of the keyboard. In fact, it’s one of the things I like about my current laptop. Of course, I’ve learned not to mash the keys quite so much in the intervening years. And my spelling has improved dramatically. Well, maybe not dramatically. Okay, just a bit. But that’s the beauty of word processors, isn’t it? The dreaded red underlines to catch all but our most embarrassing typos. (You know the ones I’m talking about.)

So, like most of the rest of the world, I learned to use a word processor and it became my automatic writing implement for almost every occasion. (I still write on birthday cards by hand.) Business letter? Fire up the word processor. Research paper? Word processor. Novel-length manuscript? Word processor. It’s like the Swiss Army Knife of text manipulation. But have you ever tried to build a house with a Swiss Army Knife? (And if you have, did they manage to re-attach your fingers?)

“It seemed too good to be true. Here was an award-winning piece of software designed to let you write as a writer, not as a mere processor of words.”

I began to stumble over the limitations of Word (which, let’s face it, has become the de-facto standard for word processing for most of the world) when the manuscript I was working on started pushing the 100,000 word mark. The file was taking ages to open, and even longer to scroll through pages and pages and pages to find the bit that I wanted to work on that day. Even jumping directly to the end of the document seemed to call for a fresh cup of coffee while my poor little laptop (since replaced) chugged and whirred to itself like a less-charismatic R2-D2. Sure, you could blame the laptop. To tell the truth, at the time I did blame the laptop. But I wasn’t compiling gigabytes of source code here – I was scrolling through a text document.

The next thing I noticed was that after 100,000 words I lost the comforting little word count I’d positioned in the footer. The ever-climbing number that used to coax me onwards. (You can make it! You can make it!) Later, when I passed 80,000 words, it cautioned me. (Easy there tiger. You planning on finishing any time this year?) Then it vanished. I had to run a word count over the entire manuscript, which — you guessed it — took ages, and horrified me with the amount of flab I was going to have to excise from my precious word-baby.

I finally ran out of steam somewhere after 140,000 words and girded my loins to prune and graft my behemoth from an overgrown bramble into a beautiful topiary swan. But holding down a trackpad button with your thumb to select text while you scroll through several pages using your fingers isn’t as easy as it looks. And it doesn’t look that easy to begin with. Then I had to go back through the whole document and re-number chapters by hand. (There may be a Word-ninja trick to do this by magic. I tried using numbered lists, but that just resulted in having Chapter 13 c iv.) Before long I wanted to take to the manuscript with a real hedge-trimmer and be done with it.

In my frustration I dallied with specialised novel-writing software. I won’t name names, because the other programs I tried did have their strong points, but in each case I found one or two problems that made me mutter into my beard and fire up Word yet again.

Then something wonderful happened. I was working on an outline for the next novel, and I consulted my close personal friend Google about programs that would allow me to write and shuffle virtual index cards. And so it was that Google introduced me to Scrivener, by the talented folks at Literature & Latte. I clicked on the website, watched the introductory videos, and waited for the other shoe to drop. It seemed too good to be true. Here was an award-winning piece of software designed to let you write as a writer, not as a mere processor of words.

Scrivener creates order from chaos
Scrivener creates order from chaos

I downloaded the free 30 day demo and imported the skeleton of my new manuscript. This was a simple process, unlike my experience with other writing packages. Once completed, I could lay out my index cards on the Corkboard, arrange them in different ways, see which piece of the story fitted where.

Scrivener in Corkboard Mode
Scrivener in Corkboard Mode

Then I could look at the contents of all the cards in Outline Mode, get a feel for the linear flow of the story, measure the pace and plot development.

Scrivener in Outline Mode
Scrivener in Outline Mode

Finally, I could switch to Document Mode and see all of my separate documents sitting happily in their chapter folders in the Binder running down the left side of the screen. And in the centre pane I could write. And write. And write.

Scrivener in Document Mode
Scrivener in Document Mode

Don’t like this piece here? Just click on its icon in the Binder and drag it from one folder to another. Done. Or switch back to Corkboard Mode and drag its index card to a different spot. It has the same effect. Either way, the text associated with that section of your document is painlessly reassembled in its new position. And what about chapter numbers? Couldn’t be simpler. You can call the folders what you like, and ask Scrivener to use chapter numbers instead when you compile your document for export. It will take care of the numbering for you.

I paid for my full copy of Scrivener before turning in for bed that night, and I haven’t looked back since. Not only does it solve those annoyances I had with Word, it has scores of features that continue to surprise and delight me. Like the project templates for fiction writers, complete with character sheets to fill out, and places to store your snippets and research notes. Like the full-screen editor mode that limits all distractions and leaves you with nothing but your words galloping across the page as fast as your fingers can type. Like the ability to set word targets — for the entire project, for a single document, or for your current writing session.

Scrivener in Full Screen Mode
Scrivener in Full Screen Mode

I even get Scrivener to read my writing back to me. Not only because I’m narcissistic, but because I’ve heard from several sources it’s a good way to catch awkward phrases, and most of those embarrassing spelling mistakes I mentioned above. When I posted on twitter asking whether there was a way to set a shortcut key for this feature in Scrivener I received a prompt reply saying that there wasn’t. But the helpful chap went on to tell me how to do it from within OSX instead. Which I did.

That brings me to the one downside to Scrivener. It is at its finest on a Mac. Well, it’s not a downside for me. I have a Mac. But it might be a downside for you if you aren’t so lucky. There is a Windows Beta out at the moment, so we can always hope that the situation will be remedied soon. But until then, I’ve been known to tell people that for this software it’s worth making the switch.

(This blog post was proudly composed on Scrivener 2.0.5 for Mac. Images used with permission.)