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This Writing Life: Playing Around With Scrivener

29 February, 2012

Talking about writing methods and computer software aimed at writers seems to be one of those perenially popular topics. I’ve touched on it a couple of times, in mentioning other software I’ve found useful, but today I want to talk about Scrivener.

Scrivener is one of those pieces of software that tends to provoke slightly fanatical responses. It’s not uncommon to hear writers saying that Scrivener has changed the way they write, dramatically improved their plotting, stopped them drowning under bits of note paper, reduced their blood pressure, improved their sex life etc. etc. (I always wonder if some of that is because it was originally a Mac-only piece of software, and Macs frequently seem to inspire the same fanatical devotion…) You’re not going to get that here, because Scrivener hasn’t drastically changed my life, but it does do some really useful things that are making writing my newest novel very pleasant.

First off, let’s have a look at the basic interface:

I’m not going to go into huge detail about how Scrivener works, because its own website does that nicely, and there are plenty of YouTube videos/helpful blogs that cover all the basics. You can see a few of those really useful features here, though. There’s the text of my novel in the middle. Every scene is broken down into a separate file, and arranged by chapter into folders (which you might be able to see on the left hand side, depending on what the resolution of this picture turns out like). In the top right corner is an index card, in which I’ve put a brief description of what happens in this scene.

And in the bottom right? There is something I LOVE. The Project Targets box tracks both your total word count, and your daily word count (or your ‘session’ count since you last closed Scrivener). The ‘session target’ handily tracks word count across all your scenes and chapters, so even if I write 500 words in one scene, then move on to the next, that count will keep going up, and I’ll know how many words I’ve done overall that day.

Next up, the corkboard:

This is one of the features that I think will be most useful for outliners. Here you can see all my chapters laid out as index cards, with my short synopsis on each one. I’ve even assigned coloured corners to each, depending on the POV character (of which I have five). You can see these cards either for each chapter as a whole, as I’ve done here, or for all the scenes within a chapter. You can also drag them around to change their order. Being an outliner, this is another feature I’m making the most of. I tend to make up all my virtual index cards and one-sentence synopses first, so that when I arrive at a blank chapter, I can see exactly what I’m going to be writing.

Finally, another outline view:

In this view, you can again see all your chapters, or all your scenes, or both. There are dozens of columns which can be added to the outline, with all sorts of information – I’ve picked chapter name, synopsis, label (with all the names of my POV characters and their respective colours) and the total word count for each chapter. Again, there’s all sorts of useful stuff here. I can see at a glance how many chapters each character has, or if some characters are repeatedly getting really short chapters. I can look through my synopses to find a particular event, and remind myself what order everything happens in.

I should add that I’ve only scratched the surface of Scrivener’s features. There are some I don’t currently have any use for, like the ability to upload research images. In fact, I haven’t really got any of my research or planning on here at all (that being all hand-written in a notebook) except a list of character names. Still, there are so many handy things in Scrivener that I can’t imagine wanting to switch to another program, at least for this novel (every novel wants to be written differently, so in the future, who knows?). There’s also an excellent ‘compile’ function, which turns your dozens of scenes and chapters into a beautifully formatted manuscript, ready for submission – I’ve used this already for a different novel and a short story, and it certainly beats fiddling around in MS Word with fonts and margins and spacing.

Has Scrivener changed my life? No, but is has made it much easier for me to do some of the things I was already doing, like planning scenes in advance and keeping track of daily word counts. Will it change yours? Well, maybe. It’s now available for both Mac and Windows, and you can download an excellent 30 day trial from the Literature and Latte website (that’s 30 non-consecutive days, so it would last you 30 months if you were only opening Scrivener one day a month), so you really have nothing to lose in giving it a try.

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11 Comments
  1. 29 February, 2012 3:23 pm

    I enjoy using it, too. Word was just so cumbersome—you either had one huge file or lots of small ones. Both were a pain to work with. I love being able to click from scene to scene without having to open tons of files or do a “find” in a large document.

    • 1 March, 2012 12:21 pm

      Yeah, that’s definitely one of the major advantages. Although I didn’t realise how much of a pain working with a single long file was until I stopped needing to do it!

  2. 29 February, 2012 5:56 pm

    Hmm — good article. I’m tempted to give it a whirl, but I know I would spend a ton of time just playing with the features instead of, you know, writing.

    • 1 March, 2012 12:22 pm

      That is one of the dangers with any writing software, which is why I haven’t explored all of its functions yet. I’m just sticking to the simple stuff so that I don’t get too distracted!

  3. Nicky permalink
    29 February, 2012 6:20 pm

    I never heard of this Scrivener, but it seems interesting. I’ll give it a try as soon as I can! And you have turned into a word counter ever since NaNoWriMo, right? I know I have. (It’s like an addiction!)

    • 1 March, 2012 12:24 pm

      Word counting really does turn into a bit of an addiction after a while! I think I started paying attention to word counts when I realised there was an optimum length of a novel, and it was generally measured by word count rather than number of word processor pages. But yes, now I’ve started, I really can’t write anything without thinking about word counts!

  4. 1 March, 2012 12:44 pm

    Great intro to the program here; thanks for the info! I’ve heard of Scrivener and have read information and opinions about it in several places, but your post here is the first to make me see several advantages for my own use and really make me want to try it out. Unfortunately I’m currently doing about all my computer work, including writing, on a Linux machine. So I doubt it’s available on this platform, but I’ll have to investigate and make sure.

    I do have Windows XP on another (much older) computer, though, so I can at least try it out on that — if I’m ready to risk possible addiction, and willing to potentially exchange some inconveniences for others. Much to ponder. What technology will win in the end? Stay tuned . . .

    Sorry, I really got into a cliffhanger mood there for a minute.

    • 1 March, 2012 4:44 pm

      Glad the post was useful, Joseph! I think there may be a Linux version in the works, but it’s still a bit of an experiment at the moment. That said, Scrivener was Mac-only originally, and is relatively new for Windows, so I think a full Linux version will only be a matter of time.

      I’ve yet to find a piece of writing software which doesn’t have SOME inconveniences. Scrivener is great in many respects, but it has its little niggles like everything else.

  5. 12 March, 2012 1:13 am

    I downloaded the trial version of Scrivener and began toying with it in the fall of 2011. I initially used it for outlining, I loved the corkboard feature. I then decided to give it a try for NaNoWriMo 2011. It was the first year I finished. Attribute it to the intuitive interface, great tools or just having all your writing, characters and research in one program. I love writing in scenes and being able to drag and drop these as I need to rearrange my story is priceless. There is a free trial so why not give it a shot!

    If anyone decides to buy Scrivener I was given a limited use coupon here http://smworth.blogspot.com/2012/02/scrivener-coupon-codes.html You’ll get 20% off – until it expires. Enjoy!

    • 13 March, 2012 2:12 pm

      It’s great to hear about other people who are finding such success with Scrivener. Its potential for outlining really is fantastic.

      Thanks for sharing your promo code. I’ve already bought a copy, but hopefully someone here will be able to make use of it.

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