Writer’s Corner: Scrivener – a review

So, there’s this question you sometimes get when talking to other writers that always used to bewilder me.

“What do you write on?”

As far as I was concerned, the only two real responses to that were either ‘pen and paper’ or ‘erm… a computer?’. Truth is, I’ve never really considered writing my creative work in anything but the mainstream office programs (and as a staunch Microsoft girl that has basically meant Word, or on the odd occasion Notepad when I was feeling adventurous). I’d say I’m about a 15% paper, 85% Word sort of a girl. I never really stopped to consider changing that.

In the past, the few times I’ve looked at programs for writers I’ve always come to the same conclusion – not worth the money or the time it would take to learn them. Most of them are pretentious and so flipping convoluted they just aren’t worth the time they take to learn. So, when a (very) drunk customer the other day suggested I check out the Literature and Latte website, I wasn’t exactly in a hurry to do so. But, I’m a ‘cover all the bases’ sort of a girl so, about a week ago, I followed her slurred advice and fell across Scrivener.

I was instantly drawn to the program from the off. It has three massive upsides.

1. It’s written by writers.

This isn’t a programme written by a load of computer nerds who’ve never written a book in their lives. This is written by people who get it. Who’ve stared at a blank page for hours wishing for inspiration. Who have also sat cross-legged at midnight on the floor with a cold coffee surrounded by colourful flashcards, trying to reorganise the progression of his/her plot. Who have scrolled up and down their word document so many times they got dizzy and then forgot what the hell paragraph they were looking for in the first place. Or worse, have just lost a chapter because they have so many files in their novel folder they deleted the wrong one by mistake (or maybe that’s just me).

2. It’s affordable.

£27 for a licence isn’t bad. And I have time for any program designer who gives you 30 days ‘active use’ trial as opposed to the ones who give you a month whether you use it every day or only once.

3. It’s well reviewed.

Including here.

Scrivener is user friendly and easy to learn. The tutorials are written in plain English and clearly by an author with a sense of humour. It’s adaptable, meaning you can change it to suit how you write. I adore the Corkboard. I’ve only been using this programme a little over seven days and it’s already made a massive difference to my approach to my books. The project I’m working on at the moment is a draft revision for final publication. With Scrivener, I’ve been able to colour code plot arcs and story-lines so that not only can I visibly see on my corkboard where my progression slows, or where it becomes too heavy in one particular ‘infodump’ but I can also spot inconsistencies. Gone are the days of scrolling up and down a 400 page document, or worse, opening sixteen different drafts to find what you are looking for. The Binder on Scrivener allows you to arrange your book as you like. Chapters can be split into scenes if, like me, you still have areas where you are not sure where you want to place your chapter splits yet. You can save multiple versions of the same chapters and use the split screen option to compare and contrast (particularly useful in the drafting process I’m in, taking old chapters and updating them for a different prose POV).

But what’s really nice is seeing your whole project in one place. With the ability to option sections in and out of the compile (where the programme links together all the sections you mark to form you one document that contains your book), you can keep so much more in your binder. I have folders full of character sheets and information. You can store images, research, web-pages, old drafts, notes to self. You can even scan handwritten copy and upload that too.

It has unexpected upsides too. Its ability to track words you use most commonly means (at least for me), I’ve been able to spot themes and common running metaphors that I wasn’t even aware I was using and then go back and refine them professionally.

As a screenwriter, its a tool whose value I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully appreciate. It makes formatting a doddle with a user friendly and quick method for switching between the different tab levels associated with this style of writing.

Of course, nothing is perfect and there are downsides. The right-click options on words are ridiculously long and very often when you click something (particularly when changing status/label) the programme will completely ignore you and you have to try several times before it’ll register the change. And even with the dictionary switched to English UK, it has some, shall we say, interesting ideas about spelling so watch that (though with time you can built your own dictionary up). It has some weird quirks with formatting too, particularly with copied in copy. And once the document is compiled, there’s probably still a couple of hours work in adding chapter headings and specific formatting before a document will be ready for presentation.

But to be fair, that’s not what I’d recommend using Scrivener for. Scrivener is not for people looking for a program that will format their stories into a final publishing layout (though conversely, I’d say this is the perfect program for screenwriters wishing to do that). For that, I’d still say compile into Word and use our old favourite. But this is a fantastic program for people actively writing. It’s a great place for ideas to be organised in a very visual way so that you can see what is going on. (particularly for those NaNoWrMo writers out there).

I never expected this program to make much of a difference. I’ve found myself amazed. My writing productivity has doubled and I feel so much more confident about my work. I think I’ll find it hard to go back to writing in Word and am already transferring other projects, old and new, into Scrivener binders. As a result, I would highly recommend this program. I realise it will not be for everyone. For those of you who like to start at page one and just go, it’s probably a waste of time. But for helter-skelter plotters like me who like to dart about, or who like to be able to see all the threads in their work, this is definitely worth a try. Below is a link to the website and just try it. 30 days is a free trial and just see how you get on. If you are anything like me, you’ll never look back.


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