When people talk about applications that get them excited, word processors tend to fall near bottom quarter of the list, and that’s probably being generous. Part of that is due to the way our tools force us to work. After ten minutes of fiddling with margins, and typing your name and working title to goose the word count ticker—you’re left with a blank page, your thoughts, and a mile between you and the end of the first page. It doesn’t feel great. Most word processors are designed for businesses and take their cues from typewriters, where the words you type are collected in a linear stack of digital paper. While it’s possible to shuffle those papers around a bit, there’s always a nagging feeling it isn’t designed for creative writers. Scrivener gets me excited it because it takes the traditional word processor paradigm and implodes it.
Scrivener operates on the idea that writing doesn’t emerge into the world fully-formed. Each paragraph, chapter, sentence or scene is important, but rarely arrives in order. Instead, Scrivener lets you subdivide your documents to plan (or not plan) your document as much as you want. Breaking your work into smaller, more manageable pieces helps make it easier to write that novel you’ve been talking about, or that play you had the idea for two years ago, or that essay due two weeks from yesterday. At first it can feel like you’re turning the creative process into a task management system, but by focusing on scenes, arguments, or chapters individually, you can take the focus away from what you think the finished product will turn out to be and let the connections emerge through experimentation.
Each new work you create is called a “project” that can hold most any digital material you might use in the your writing process, with all the writing and research collected together in a sidebar called the Binder. This gives you quick access and visibility to each section of your work. How often have you written a story or an essay where you have your research PDFs in one place, your character descriptions in another, and your outline in a separate document? In college I was guilty of pushing my outlines a page or two below the body of my essays by hitting the return key about 15 times. That rarely worked well as an organizational tool, and even then I was always wishing for something different. Enter the corkboard.
By far, my favorite Scrivener feature is the corkboard, where you can plot out each part of your project on notecards that can be rearranged as your work evolves. It works just like a physical corkboard, except here each index card automatically corresponds with a document in the binder. Because you can easily visualize each section of your project, it’s easy to navigate without getting lost. I started structuring this post by making each point I wanted to make an index card and expanded on each idea. By double clicking on an index card, I could start writing on that topic directly in my main draft. The creator of Scrivener describes this as like having an index card paper-clipped to the document; easily moving whole swaths of a document around with a quick drag and drop is strangely liberating and makes experimentation a lot easier.
Each tool included in Scrivener is designed to be scalable. even though the application is meant for longer documents, the binder and sectioned style works for shorter pieces, too. Here is a screenshot of my Binder by the time I finished writing this blog post.
In this case, each page in the draft section started as a paragraph or two-long topic, but the sections naturally evolved, split into separate documents, or were deleted. Furthermore, the sections can be dragged and dropped anywhere else in the document, leaving you free to experiment until you find the right arrangement. Also, having a trash section is a revelation. How often have you deleted whole paragraphs of text, only to have second thoughts when you want to retrieve that one great sentence that suited your argument?
After you’ve gone through a few drafts, several rounds of edits, and several gallons of coffee you’ll probably want someone to read your work, and that someone is probably using another computer. Using an unfamiliar writing application might raise some concerns when it comes time to open your document on another person’s machine. When you’re ready to send your document out into the world, there is an almost too-featured compiler that will export your masterpiece in formats ranging from Word to Final Draft.
Writing about a writing tool goes a few meta-levels past my comfort zone, and so did Scrivener’s initial learning curve. When I opened the program for the first time I was overwhelmed and walked away for a few months because I had no idea where to begin. There’s always something intimidating about having a blank page staring back at you, but combine that with a button-filled application and it’s easy to come down with writers block. I initially tried the interactive tutorial, but it proved too extensive the initial tour I was hoping for. The turning point really came when I started watching their YouTube tutorials, which tend to be brief and let you see the processes in action. This is especially helpful since the program does not prescribe any particular workflow.
A short blog post like this can’t begin to explain all the different ways to use a program like Scrivener; nothing will beat trying it for yourself. Scrivener is available for Mac OS X and Windows, but not all of the features have made it to the Windows version, yet. The app is $45 and you can trial it for 30 nonconsecutive days at LiteratureAndLatte.com. If it turns out Scrivener isn’t for you, but you want to try out another writing app, they even include links to many of their competitors websites on their Links Page.