Review: Scrivener for Mac

I’ve been searching for the perfect writing software for awhile now. I know that this mythical software won’t improve my writing skills per se. But having the right type of writing software does help keep what I write and its structure organized while I work on choosing the precise words and setting them down onto the virtual page. As such, I’ve used several different applications geared towards writing professionals, and I think I have found the right application for both my writing needs and style. It’s called Scrivener and it’s published by Literature and Latte.

Over the years I’ve found that writing a book or novel requires much more than just starting at the beginning and working your way to THE END. Writing the first draft gets messy and sometimes authors don’t want to write the whole piece from the beginning. Instead we may want to focus on character sketches, world building, or we may just want to get the most exciting climatic scene written first. Using a traditional word processor where everything is entered into a single document, containing multiple non-linear thoughts on a myriad of subjects, is hard to do. MS Word was not designed for creative, chaotic writing that jumps around; it doesn’t conform to non-linear thought patterns. If I were using Word to do heavy writing, the moment I decide to skip 100 pages into the text to first revise a scene and then move somewhere else to jot a note about a character, I’d end up spending more time searching for the two locations than I’d spend actually typing in the text itself. That’s where modular writing and Scrivener come into play.

I first stumbled on modular writing during my Tech Writing career. This is a school of writing where you compartmentalize your writing in small chunks, or snippets. Each snippet focuses on one topic. You then string multiple snippets together until the whole story or manual is complete. I’ve never really been successful at using a standard word processor when doing modular documentation. While MS Word includes a “binder” feature that attempts to mimic this technique, I find it much easier to use a single-tasked, writing-focused software for modular writing. On the Mac, Scrivener is this perfect modular writing companion.

Scrivener is very flexible in that it allows me to organize each singular piece of work based on how I like my files organized and how I write. For example, I created a project file that contains just all my D*I*Y articles. I then created several
“inner folders” that allow me to organize each article by year. Inside each year folder are the snippet docs organized by a numeric identifier and the article title. This helps me quickly locate any of my past articles and gives me a quick overview of what I have already written on and when.

Contrast this organization to the project file that my novel is in. In this file, I created several chapter folders. Each one of these contains many scenes. Organizing things this way becomes important because as I edit the 50,000 words, I’m able to revise the story not only according to what is going on in each scene but where they should go. I can quickly add new scenes as I need them, reorganize existing scenes, and/or remove the ones that don’t help push my story forward (I dump unused scenes in a separate folder called NOT USED where I can always revisit/retrieve them later if I want to bring them back). Scrivener also allows me to convert the chapter folder titles to chapter headings that appear in the compiled manuscript when I’m done revising the work.

Document organization is only a small part of what Scrivener is capable of doing. Scrivener includes many templates with standard manuscript formats. So when you want to write a new screen play, you can pick from the standard format and never have to worry about whether or not you may be rejected due to formatting issues. The same goes for a novel, or a short story, etc. Simply start a new project file and begin writing. When you are done, use Scrivener’s Compile Draft feature to pull all the snippets into a single document. This feature exports only the snippets you want, in the order you want them to appear, into one of many formats (including RTF, DOC, or HTML) that you can then send off to an editor or a reader for review. The software even lets you design how you want that exported document to look by defining chapter breaks and fonts.

However, Scrivener is not wholly dissimilar to a word processor. It includes the ability to add footnotes, images, and text styles such as bold, underline, and italicize words just like other word processors do. In fact, it is the one of the only writer-specific applications for Macs that allow you to do this. One of the other writer-focused apps, Ulysses, does not allow you to bold or italicize words in their snippets because the designers’ philosophy sees the formatting as being “shiny” and having such features takes the focus away from writing.

Scrivener’s interface is also clean and simplistic. It includes tools that help you visualize the work as a whole when you are not writing. You can switch from a typewriter mode to an outlining mode that displays your work as one single outline. There is also a corkboard mode that displays snippets visually, as an index card storyboard. In this mode, you’re free to interact with the cards by rearranging their order to benefit the structure of your work. You can also display two snippet docs simultaneously in split-screen mode. Finally, it also includes a “full screen” writing mode for those moments when all you want to is focus on the words themselves.

The application also includes a lightweight revision tracker, for those times where you want to keep a history of changes to your work. You can easily roll-back to an earlier draft with the push of a button. The developers also included an extensive tutorial file that walks you through creating a new project file from start to a completed compiled manuscript.

Scrivener costs $39.95 and is only for Mac OS X. If you’re serious about writing screenplays, or novels, or want to dabble with modular documentation then I highly recommend you give Scrivener a shot. I love this app and have been using it for all my writing needs. I’ve even been recommending it to as many Mac-centric writers as I can. For more information on Scrivener’s capabilities, head over to Literature and Latte and watch the introductory video.

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