Scrivener, my writing tool of choice

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when I was eight years old, I attempted to write my first story on my grandfather’s old typewriter. I quickly learned typewriters are not very forgiving when it comes to typos or rewrites. Nowadays I use Scrivener for writing, and maybe you should too.

The tools of the time

When I started writing on my grandfather’s typewriter, computers were pretty scarce. Although there was an actual Apple-II in our home, and the thing did have a word processor, I was enthralled by the typewriter. I also felt like I had a story to tell. When you’re eight, and you don’t know what you’re doing, you can quickly write yourself into a corner. In my case, it went nowhere after one-and-a-half page. The thing was, I couldn’t change things, I had to start all over again. The type writer made my writing an all or nothing proposition.

Typewriters conjure romantic images of writers in the throes of their writing arts. In reality, they’re inflexible and they make the editing process very time consuming. I learned to appreciate the advantages of using computers for writing. They are infinitely more forgiving of mistakes, and you can revise your story without penalties. Yes, typewriters force you to think before you write, but when you’re learning, you want to fiddle around with your story, add stuff, move sections, and maybe overhaul it completely. That’s where word processors shine.

In short, don’t be a Luddite. Embrace the tools that are available to maximum effect. More on this later.

Enter Scrivener

I used to write in Word Perfect 5.1, mostly school assignments, but also some stories (which, again, I never finished – that was a habit of mine). From there I moved to Microsoft Word, given that Word Perfect 7 sucked. Word was a pretty painful experience in the early noughties as well, but slightly less so than WP 7.

At the same time I started programming, and there I came into contact with so-called Integrated Development Environments, or IDEs. You see, programming shares some traits with writing, as I’ve argued before. One of those shared traits is that you write text (structured text, which you call source code), the other is that a set of source code files forms a complete product.

Writing is in some ways the same. I used to write a single story in a single Word document, then switched to one document per chapter, then back to a single document. Next to the story itself, I also had a bunch of supporting documents with all the background information and world building. It got pretty unwieldy, pretty quickly, especially when making big changes.

I missed the functionality that an IDE could offer: working with multiple documents in a single project, editing each individually, but also able to see it as a whole.

And that is exactly what Scrivener offers: an integrated environment for a writing project.

A writing project

Nowadays I write not just stories, but entire novels. These stories contain tens of thousands of words spread over dozens of chapters. My latest book is 100,000 words, spread over thirty seven chapters, resulting in a 485 page manuscript.

Scrivener can manage all of that. It offers not just a way to edit text documents, but also a tree view of your whole writing project.

Project view

I have each of the thirty seven chapters in a separate file. On top of that I have some 50 images inside the project (for inspiration, research, and there’s even a map). Then there’s a description of each character, a breakdown of the plot, and a lot of documents on the world and its factions.

In total I have 151 documents in my project. That’s not something you want to manage in Word.

Why one project matters

Okay, a tree structure, that’s nice, but so what? Well, a big advantage of having all of this information in one project is that you can do a full text search on all your documents at once. That can be handy if you want to find all references to a certain character or place.

A second advantage is that Scrivener allows you to see multiple documents side by side. I usually have the chapter I’m working on in the center, my project tree view on the left, and my outline and some images on the right. Those images are sometimes of the characters, or of historically accurate clothing pertinent to the scene, or maybe just some inspirational pics that match the vibe I want for the scene.

When you start editing, it can be quite handy to work in a single project. I have a tendency to move entire scenes around, or split them up. With separate word documents per chapter you keep having to renumber. Scrivener has no such problems: click-drag-and-done.

Compiling

Another thing that a software IDE offers is a compiler. A compiler takes all the source code and turns it into a finished product. It’s not unusual to have different so-called compiler configurations in your software project. They result in different types of software, for example one with extra debugging information inside.

For writing, Scrivener offers something similar. You can generate different output documents: Word documents, PDFs, Epubs for your e-reader, Mobi documents for your Kindle, and even web pages. On top of that, you can customize your compile, formatting the output as a manuscript for a submission package, or just a regular document for your beta readers.

All in all, your one-stop-formatting shop – for writers anyway, do keep in mind that actually going to print with a novel is a whole different ball game.

Multi-channel

I used to want Scrivener, but couldn’t use it, because I didn’t use a Mac. I started using it when a Linux version arrived several years ago. Nowadays there’s a Windows version and MacOS version, but no more Linux support (too small a customer base I suppose). Luckily I work on a MacBook these days.

On top of that, there’s now an iOS version. I used to shrug at that, but then my daughter was born. I don’t want to be that parent that sits next to the playground with their iPhone while their child causes havoc, but I’m also trying to avoid helicopter parenting. So, the compromise is I spend some time on my phone while regularly checking for misery and havoc.

And so, now armed with the iOS version of Scrivener I can write while at the playground. I use this for world-building and editing; actual story writing requires full concentration which a playground doesn’t offer, but any extra minute I can spend on a story is welcome.

Add to that the excellent dropbox sync support, and I can now work reasonably seamlessly between platforms. A win, I say.

All in all, I’m now using an advanced multi-document writing project solution that works on multiple devices and syncs between them. That’s a lot of steps up from my grandfather’s typewriter.

Conclusion

We live in times of advanced technology. When you write, use that technology to its fullest, I say. And Scrivener is the advanced tool for writers.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands