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Why I'm a convert to writing with Scrivener

All I actually need to write a novel is a stack of identical A4 notebooks (makes keeping the wordcount easier), a good biro (fat enough not to get RSI), and a plotting grid. Oh, and piles and piles of scrap paper for all the notes and ideas and snaglists. A word processor is essential next, but the many "novel-writing" programs on the market seemed to be little more than toys dreamed up by non-writing geeks, to sell or give away to beginners writers desperate for ways to make the weird business of creating something out of nothing more manageable.

But Scrivener is different, and though I'm neither a techno-phobe nor a geek, I'm now a complete convert. It was born apparently from the different but not unrelated challenges of writing a PhD and a novel, and inspired by Hilary Mantel's description of how she works, and that pedigree shows. It's the only such program which I know is used by slews of other professionals for writing fiction, creative non-fiction and the more factual and technical kind of non-fiction, and I see exactly why.

It's available for Windows and Mac, with iOS available too, and a Linux version in the works. But, like any powerful, flexible program, it gets a bit of getting used to. So I'm going explain how it works as a way of explaining why I think it's worth sticking at, and some ways of getting to know it. I haven't used everything it does, but this is how it's looking to me so far.

First, the essence of Scrivener is that the basic unit is a "document", which is just like any word-processing document. A document could be one word, one "beat", one scene, one chapter, or a whole novel. The big difference is that Scrivener will display your documents seamlessly, in "Scrivenings" mode, one after another so you can read them as a single document with the join between marked or not, as you choose. You can work on a whole chapter, say, while also being able to handle or move the individual scenes separately if you want to.

Second, each document has a set of associated meta-data, which it always carries with it, but you don't have to see if you don't want to. The standard meta-data includes what's on the famous "index cards": a name for the document, and a synopsis of what it contains, and as much or as little as you like of colour-coding (for, say, the setting of each scene, or the point-of-view) and stamping (marking, say, whether a document is a rough-cut or a final draft).

You can also have custom metadata: I'll often use that to track things which get in a horrible muddle so easily, such as the date or time of the scene, or the ages of the main character. Attached to the document is also other data: your editorial comments like balloons in Word, footnotes, references, images, keywords, notes on the document, notes on the project, a list of any "snapshots" you've taken before you embarked on some revisions.

Third, there are three main ways to see any "project":

  1. as a document or seamless run of documents, looking like any other word-processor, with as much or as little of the meta-data, and outliner detail as suits you. You can work on a "full screen", where you see nothing but this blank page, and just type.
  2. as the famous "cork-board" where you can brood over your index cards, each with its synopsis, stack them in hierarchies, rearrange them. You can colour-code them for different characters or points-of-view,  settings or timelines. You can mark their status - drafted, finished and so on. I even have index cards for important things which are happening off-stage, just as I do on my old friend the Planning Grid
  3. as an "outline", not unlike the file tree you're used to in Windows, which displays what's written on your index cards in their hierarches, collapsed or expanded as you like. Each document's entry in the outliner has an icon for whether it has a synopsis, and whether there's any actual text in the document, and shows the colour-codings from the meta-data. You can also choose what other meta-data you want to see: I use it to track individual and cumulative word counts, and those pesky dates and ages.

If you're a splurgy-free-writey pantser, you can hide everything else and work on a blank document, typing for as long as you want - think Howl -  and only later "split" it, with a right-click of the mouse or a keyboard shortcut, into separate documents. You can then fill in the meta-data with whatever notes you want, to remind you of what each document is, and start moving things around. And of course you can go on splitting or joining things as you go, if things change.

If you're a pattern-thinker and planner and need to get the structure right first before your imagination can start to run, you can plan and think and brood, moving your index cards or the elements in the outline around until it all works. You can look for the balance of settings or story-threads or points of view, you can see where the gaps are and what you haven't decided yet, and get a feel for the pace and shape of it all.

If, like me, you're a planster, then you don't actually think in terms of either planning or pantsing, but regard everything as a form of imagining-on-paper. Scrivener's brilliant for us, because you can swap between different ways of working all the time. When I'm on a roll and a scene is pouring out of my fingers, I let rip. It goes where it will, and maybe not where I thought. And then I look at it, decide what it is, whether to split it into different documents, and give it the meta-data to suit. Then I can start fitting it into the novel, and fitting the novel to it. In the outliner I can easily find the places where I need to nip back and tweak something in the light of this new stuff.

If you write out-of-order, then you can do that, using separate documents, either planned or pantsed, using the meta-data to keep track of what each one is, and fitting it all together at the end. And Scrivener is good at tracking what you've done so far, and what you haven't.

If you plan a little ahead but not beyond that, then it's just the same: you can work out a clear idea of the next few chapters, and if you do have a idea for something much further ahead, drop an index card in there for now, and know that when you get closer, it'll still be there, and you can build the rest of that stage round it.

If you're revising an existing novel, you can import it into Scrivener, chop it up into sections and label them, and then start moving things around. 

Or if you're re-writing from scratch, but will want some stuff from the old version, you can start and plan a new Scrivener project, and just bring in what you find the new version asks for from the old version.

So, Scrivener works how you work. And, whichever of the three main views you're in,

  • you can choose how much of all the other material you want to have alongside it: you can have or not have a LH side-panel showing the "binder" of all the documents which looks a bit like an outliner, and the collections; you can have or not have a RH side-panel showing all the notes and meta-data.
  • You can make a "Collection" of any set of documents that's useful, without them actually moving from their place in the draft gathering of all the documennts, say, in a certain voice, or all the letters someone writes, or all the scenes with a particular setting. You can then look at them individually one by one, or in a sequence, to get the voice, the plot-mechanics or the details of a setting consistent.
  • You can work with a split screen - two windows, essentially - each showing a different document or set of Scrivenings, or the outliner, or the corkboard with its index cards.
  • There's a full range of WP-type features: fonts and colours and sizes, margins and headers, search and replace, target-setting and measuring, script formatting for different forms and industries, digital and print.
  • As well as normal searching within a document, you can do a search of the whole draft. If you do, Scrivener automatically makes a collection of the documents containing the search term. You can then look at them either singly or in a single Scrivenings sequence, while they in fact stay in their place in the draft. No more tedious leaping about in Word and losing your place. 
  • You can of course also use documents themselves for planning and notes, import all sorts of files including audio, video and images
  • Scrivener constantly saves itself, so computer crashes will never lose more than a minute or two's work - and if you keep the files in your Dropbox, they'll be automatically backed up there, with the last 30 days of versions.

But you can work all that out for yourself, with the free trial they offer. I should say that it does assume that you'll be exporting the whole thing at the end, for final tweaking and formatting in Word or suchlike, and it's not so easy to to-and-fro between them. But it's still so worth it, so I want to finish by suggesting

One way of getting to grips with Scrivener:

First, I'd suggest not starting to learn Scrivener on a brand-new, full-length project. It's like trying to balance on two different gym-balls at once: asking for trouble.

Be patient. It's worth it. If you want to do something in Scrivener because that's how you work, it's worth bothering to try to find out how to do it rather than just sighing and giving up. Literature and Latte, the parent company of Scrivener, has good support and good forums where you can ask for help or for suggestions for a way to do something.

Yes, fiddling with it can also be a way of putting off the actual writing, if you let it. But, hey, we're grown-ups. Go into full-screen, and if you want to keep a picture or synopsis visible then have the little floating panel of this document's meta-data beside it; then get on with writing. With Scrivener you can always do the fiddling later, when you know what fiddling the project actually needs.

Get hold of Scrivener for Dummies. The Scrivener manual itself is a model of its kind - very clear, and also stylishly written. But more help - especially in an actual, paper book - is never a bad thing. Mind you, the Dummies book occasionally fails to highlight the minor differences between Mac and PC versions (I gather the Android/Linux version is on its way), and the minor deficiencies of the PC version. (Not that they're many- I use the PC version, and have found scarcely any lacks. ) But it's still very good.

ETA 12th April 2020: the new Windows version, Scrivener 3, which is in the final stages of beta-testing, will have completely caught up with the Mac version.

Start with a small document; a synopsis, say, and use it to explore how Scrivener works best for you. If you think of each index card as a plot-point you want to put in, each document might only have a sentence, but you'll get used to handling things in Scrivener-y ways. Or splurge your synopsis and then split it into documents with their meta-data, and see how that's expressed in the Outliner or the corkboard. And if you do write a synopsis, you could use the structure you establish as the basis for the actual book-project, too.

Try planning something that you're thinking about vaguely, just to get an idea of how the outliner and the corkboard can work for you. I used it to think about a non-fiction project I'm brooding on, and learnt a lot, because the chain of thinking and connection was easier to think about, and set down. But I've also used it to plan a novel.

Try using it on an existing project. You could import the text of a novel and split it up, with a view to re-working it. Or you could do what I'm doing at the moment, and re-build a novel: I started a new project, and thrashed out a structure for it, with an index card for each thing I knew needed to be there. Now I'm working my way through, writing new stuff, bringing in bits of old stuff where I want them, and moving stuff around without ever getting lost, because any chunk of text has its own labels and identity, which never leaves it.

So that's how Scrivener seems to me. You can download a free trial, which lasts for 30 days, but they can be non-consecutive days, so that's a decent chance to get to know it. And the licence covers installing the software on two machines as long as it's the same operating system. So why not give it a go?