Scrivener (updated)

Many of my writer friends have recently switched from WordToolOfSatan to Scrivener. Since the always trustworthy Holly Black and Lili Wilkinson recommend it so strongly I decided that I would give it a go.

I’m here to tell you that I am in love. Scrivener is the first writing tool for computers that I have ever fallen for.1

Before you race off to get a copy here are two key points about Scrivener:

  1. It’s only available for Macs. It’s now available for PCs too.
  2. It is not a word-processing program; it’s a program designed specifically for drafting long documents (such as novels).

The second point is important. A few people I know who’ve tried Scrivener have given up on it because it didn’t do everything they expect a word processing program to do. They were annoyed by the absence of visible page breaks and all the fancy formatting they’re used to in Word.

What for them is a bug is for me a feature. I love that Scrivener has none of the distracting frufru-ness of Word. I have no interest in seeing page breaks. Scrivener gives me a word count which is all I need.2

Here are the three main reasons why I love Scrivener:

1. It allows me to have one interface where I can see all the documents I use when writing a novel.

When I write a novel I have my main document which is the novel. Then I have a whole bunch of other documents (eighteen for the fairy novel—which is considerably less than I usually have) which are usually notes and research for and about the novel. For the Fairy novel I had notes from my editor and others, a list of kinds of fairies, a rough chronology, a spreadsheet3 notes to myself about what I needed to do with various characters, scenes, chapters etc.

This is what it looks like when I’m writing a novel with Word:

A big ole mess.

Scrivener allows me to have all those documents clearly visible while I work so that any set of notes or ideas or research is one click away. Not only that, I can see exactly where each document it is. I don’t have to go madly searching through folders.

It also allows me to import webpages, sound, and image files. I found this extremely useful when working on a short story, “Lammas Day” “Thinner Than Water”, based on a bunch of old English and Scottish ballads.4 I could listen to the ballads being sung, read the various different versions, all while working on the story.

Here’s how all my documents look like brought together by Scrivener:

The left-hand side bar reveals all my documents. The ones at the top are the various chapters of the novel and then below that is all my research and notes. See how neat and tidy that is compared to the Word mess above?

Notice also the neat split screen function, which allows you to look at two documents at once. While working on “Lammas Day” “Thinner than Water” I had my story in the top half and different versions of the ballad in the bottom half of the screen. Like this:

2. I can flip back and forth between working on one chapter at a time to working on the whole novel.

This function has been a revelation. I’ve written all my novels to date as single (vast) documents. Word does not take kindly to large documents. But the one time I experimented with breaking them up into separate documents for each chapter it was a nightmare.

Word did not allow me to search & replace every document that made up my novel. So some of my chapters would have the original character names: Raisin, Bert and Maria, while others would have Reason, Tom and Jay-Tee. Maddening. There was no clean non-buggy way to work on a novel as one document (to make S & R changes etc) while also working on each chapter individually.

In Scrivener all you have to do is press one button and all your many documents are one document. Brilliant! So for the first time I’m able to write a novel with each chapter as a separate document. So far I love it. The flexibility of being able to go back and forth between one long document and smaller chunks is brilliant.

3. It allows me to block out all distractions and just write.

The full-screen button is my favourite. All the clutter goes away and I’m left with just this:

The one document I am working on. Bliss! This mode means I write more and bugger about on the internet less. I suspect this says more about my lack of will-power than it does about Scrivener. Whatever. I loves it.

I’m just beginning with Scrivener, thus far I’ve written only one story and part of one novel. But I’m really loving the different perspectives this software is giving me on my work. It’s a much cleaner interface than Word or any other program I’ve ever used. It feels like I can see through to my words in a way I couldn’t before.

But there’s still a lot for me to learn about the program. I’d be curious to hear about your experience with Word, Scrivener or whatever writing software you love/hate. I’m especially curious to hear from Scrivener users who want to point out other cool features to me.

: I’ve yet to figure out the keywords function. If someone could clue me in, that’d be grouse. I have a feeling it’s very useful.

  1. I’ve had some really beautiful pens. []
  2. It actually does give you a page count and other stats if you so require. []
  3. which unfortunately can’t be imported into Scrivener []
  4. It comes out around September next year in an anthology called Love is Hell. Scott also has a story in it. The anthology is a follow up to Prom Nights from Hell which had stories by the likes of Meg Cabot and Stephanie Meyer. []


  1. Dawn on #

    Hm…looks promising. 🙂 On Word it just looks waaay too scary. Daunting.

  2. Kadie-Wa on #

    Oh wow, that makes a big differance! I want one now!! Too bad I don’t have a mac. They orginize so well. *puffs with jealousy*

  3. romblogreader on #

    Looks very cool. 🙂 As a PC person, may I recommend Page Four? It doesn’t have all the functionality that Scrivener seems to, but it’s a nice, light, many documents visible/workable at once alternative to Word.

  4. dragonfly on #

    i have never ever ever had good luck with a mac. one time one literally ate my disc. it went in like a normal disc and came out with scratches and gouges in it, plus no information on it. bye bye chemistry lab…….but i’m not bitter. *sigh*

    it looks like a cool program, though. less stress is good.

  5. Gina Black on #

    I love Scrivener. I’ve been using it for about a year. I use the bits on the right (the inspector?) too. I keep notes there, even pictures, and I use the synopsis cards for keeping track things like what day it is, subplots, and things I need to keep track of for continuity.

    Using scrivener makes it so much easier to bounce around inside my story without losing my place. It’s a totally groovy program.

  6. Cat Sparks on #

    Welcome to the Scrivvy club! Margo put me onto it sometime earlier this year and as a result I am approximately one month off finally finishing my fricken novel. Without Scrivener I honestly believe I’d still just be talking about that goddamn book. I love Scrivener heaps. I love it so much I sent a gushing fan letter to the dude who invented it. How embarassing.

  7. Rebecca on #

    raisin? raisin?  hee! 😀 😀

    i’ze not fond of word. but it is all i can haz. when i gradjooate colleje, i’ze getting a mac. thenz i get scrivener and then i happydance. yayz!

  8. Naomi Novik on #

    I am so bitter it is only available for the mac. :'(

  9. Mark on #

    That actually looks like it would be really useful for my next term paper.

  10. gwen on #

    I’ve been using Scrivener for a little more than a year now, and I really love it. I’m glad to see so many people who love it, too. The fellow who wrote the program is a nice guy as well, and has always provided fast, personal, accurate support whenever I’ve needed it.

  11. emmaco on #

    i wish i’d had this for my thesis, it looks very cool indeed. probably not worth doing another long document for, though!

  12. emily on #

    i don’t really want scrivener, because i generallly don’t write long documents. what works really well if you are trying to make something pretty (like a brochure, a fancy report, or a flyer) is pages, the mac version of word (yes, another mac-only thing. sorry!) it has a lot of templates, much more than word. it has ones for 3 different types of posters, travel journals, photo journals, several fliers, invitations, 2 postcards, school reports, and a template for quizzes. pages is really bad for a lot of writing, if your not concerned how it looks like. so you wouldn’t want to use it for a rough draft. but if your making something that needs to look well laid out, it’s amazing.

  13. Justine on #

    Gina Black: I use the bits on the right (the inspector?) too.

    Yup, that’s great too. And if you’re writing a multiple pov novel it’s wonderful being able to label each chapter (or scene) with the correct pov.

    If I’d talked about all my fave things the post woulda been ten times as long.

    Cat Sparks: I love it so much I sent a gushing fan letter to the dude who invented it. How embarassing.

    That’s nothing! I posted my gushing fan letter publicly on the Scrivener forum.

    Gwen: the fellow who wrote the program is a nice guy as well, and has always provided fast, personal, accurate support whenever I’ve needed it.

    Yup, he’s amazing. I had a prob and he got back to me about it in half an hour.

  14. Adam Israel on #

    I’m another huge fan of scrivener. I evangelize it to all of my writer friends. It works well for writing short stories, too. I love being able to track character bios, research notes, outlines and feedback all in one place.

  15. Patrick, The Space Lord on #

    That looks more like a basic text editor as opposed to a word processor. I’ve never had problems with word, though I haven’t tried to combine all the chapters of my WIP either.

    As a computer geek, I am often working with GB sized log files and I use TextPad.exe. It can pretty much handle anything.

    BTW – is that just Word for mac that is being complained about or is it PC word too? I’m still learning to be more mac savvy these days and haven’t used word on mac to see if/how different it is from the pc version.

  16. Kenina-chan on #

    Yummy, I’m glad I have a mac.

  17. Kristine Smith on #

    I like Scrivener, tho I have yet to use it to its full potential.

    My favorite feature so far is the index card board, where I can write quick character sketches.

  18. Kristine Smith on #

    An update. I hadn’t used Scrivener for some time–when I opened it this morning, it asked me if I wanted to update to version 1.11 (I had version 1.03). I updated, at which point Scrivener asked me if I wanted to open the Tutorial because I apparently had never used Scrivener before. Except I had–the files were just made using the old version.

    I went roundabout and opened the .scriv files via Document. Scrivener asked me if I wanted to update the files to the new version. I was then warned that I could not try to reopen the updated files with an older version in the future. If I did, Scrivener would update the files again, and likely corrupt them.

    Anyway, I updated the files. So far, I can’t get my character sketches to display on Corkboard. The text is still saved, because it shows up when I mouse over the character names on the sidebar. But I can’t open the corkboard itself.

    still working through it.

  19. Susan Marie Groppi on #

    Patrick– The scrivener documentation actually says, i think, that it’s a text editor, not a word processor. But a text editor with special features designed to help out the authors of book-length works.

  20. Caroline on #

    I have yet to find anything better than loose leaf. I write all my first drafts in pen, then grudgingly type them out.

    I can see that might not work so well for novels though….

  21. ysa aka y on #

    You said in part “For the Fairy novel I had notes from my editor and others, a list of kinds of fairies”. At first glance I thought you said “my editor and mother” and thought “WOW! Your mum helps you write!” I am not sure that I could let my mum do that, were she still around because of all the gratuitous sex and violence in my NaNo. I realized it was “others” instead and now I am speculating on who these “others” may be. Aliens? The Quokka Liberation Front? Werewolves? Inquiring minds want to know!

    PS: I hate Word with the heat of a thousand burning suns, too, but I am not able to upgrade to happy Macland right now. Boo hisss!

  22. Barratt Miller on #

    this made my day. i downloaded a free trial of scrivener, and it is all things beautiful and wonderful. i can use it for drafting novels (joy) and for writing fancy term papers. 🙂

  23. lili on #

    scrivener rocks. i have writ a novel and a half on it, and it makes the whole process so easy i feel like i’m cheating.

    i use the inspector when i’m editing too, to put reminders about all the stuff that needs to be added/changed for that chapter, and then delete them as i go.

    also, i have a scrivener file to store all my short stories (all=2.5), so when someone says ‘do you have a short story’ i know where to find them all.

    AND finally, i love the ‘targets’ function, so I can say i am writing 2000 words today, and i’m not allowed to watch 30 rock until i do.

  24. Lianne on #

    I use Open Office on my laptop cuz Word 2007 is currently out of my budget and i can’t find the word 2003 cd.

    Open Office isn’t as pretty (or as advanced) as word 2007 but it does what i need it to do so i’m not complaining.

    Scrivener sounds fantastic though.

  25. adrienne on #

    Ooooh, it’s so streamlined. And pretty! And if it’s working for you, I just might try it. But how do you send it in to your editor? Does it convert to a word file? And, for those of us whose novels lean dangerously close to the novella, is there a way to see how many pages the document is?

  26. Herenya on #

    Why is it available for macs only? *is very unhappy* WHY???

    I use word, which works well enough. (especially after having written by hand for a couple of months – definitely enough to make one appreciate it). However, I do find it frustrating having to open several (some of them rather lengthy) documents and then constantly flip between them. I’ve often thought there must be a better way! And I only use page breaks to divide up my documents so I can find things (like particular chapters) in them; the rest of the time I use views where they are basically irrelevant.
    Scrivener sounds fantastic. I’m terribly annoyed.

  27. Diana on #

    I use Word for Mac and I don’t have all those templates that Emily is talking about. Also, I’m in the midst of trying out Scrivener (for the second time — Gina tried to hook me on it a year ago and it didn’t stick) but so far, it’s not sticking for me this time either. I don’t usually keep a lot of files open as I write, but I LOVE having pages, and I don’t have pages here. I have no idea whether I’m looking at the beginning of a chapter or the end. It makes it very hard for me to “see” the pacing, if that makes sense.

    My trial goes on for a few weeks more, but I’ll be out of town for most of them.

    In all my years using Word for Mac, all my manuscripts, I’ve never had a problem keeping my entire manuscript in one file (knock wood). Splitting them up into chapter files also wouldn’t work for me.

  28. celsie on #

    Drat, and just when I thought I could live without a mac.

    I found out about this program about a year ago when I first learned Holly liked it. I haven’t found a mac yet, and with such an in depth look at the program, you’re making me crave a mac again!

    I dabbled with q10 during nano, and liked the mandatory full screen mode. It also made typewriter noises as you typed. I had two problems with it, I use italics for character thoughts, so when I switched over to word, I had to comb through the document to find all the ‘thought quotes.’ search didn’t help, because I found all of the normal apostrophes.

    I used open office’s writer after that, because I couldn’t find a copy of word that would transfer to my archaic laptop. Off nano’s forums, I found out word has an outline feature, which makes it really convenient to separate chapters and scenes.

    i tried ywriter too, but wasn’t impressed.

    Lucky you with Scrivener! Oh well.

    I’ll have to go pick up prom nights from hell. I got 21 proms, and didn’t realize there was a similar compilation out by the other half of my favorite authors.

  29. Little Willow on #

    The WordToolOfSatan sounds like an old time gospel or choir song with lots of handclapping and stomping.

    Oh, the word tool of Satan, it’s a-
    Comin’ for you, brother! It’s a-
    Comin’ for you, sister!
    Just! Say! No!

  30. Effie on #

    Word will actually do most of what you’re talking about here if you take the time to learn how to do it. Master document function will break a ms up into chapters for you and you can work on individual chapters or on the whole document at once. On the drop down menu under “View,” you’ll find a number of fun tools, like a Document Map that allows you to hop around in your document easily and a Full Screen function that does the same as the Scrivener full screen function. Not trying to convert you back to Word but offering for those who are coveting but can’t have Scrivener. If you are stuck with Word, it’s really worthwhile taking the time to play around with it and learn its many functions. You can do a lot with Reference, Frames and Track Changes tools to keep a project organized.

  31. Justine on #

    Effie: I have been using Word for close to twenty years. I have tried all the things you have suggested and they are all kind of broken. Word was never designed for Macs and have never worked for me on them. Well, not since Word 4 when it was simpler and leaner. I’m thrilled it works for you, but way more thrilled that I’ve found scrivener.

  32. Katie on #

    I am jealous. I hate microsoft.

  33. Justine on #

    Lisa Yee: I does not wish to be unkind, but, um that kind of looks like a user error . . .

  34. Lisa Yee on #

    Well, I suppose it could be considered a user error. However, i think that scrivener should come with a pool boy who could prevent that sort of thing from happening.

  35. Stephanie on #

    I owe my novel draft to two things: Novel in 90 and Scrivener.

  36. Mitch Wagner on #

    I just discovered this blog due to a link from Scalzi’s Whatever — great blog you have here.

    And I cast another vote for Scrivener — I’ve been using it for several months and written about 25,000 words of a novel in it.

    I have only one concern with it — I’m a little bit fanatical about standardizing formats for word-processing files. Some science-fiction writers will occasionally try to access a story they wrote twenty years ago in a word-processor that doesn’t exist anymore, and they find they can’t open the file. I’m worried about that happening with Scrivener. For that reason, I’m thinking of switching at some point to plain text files for drafts, then importing to Word for the final draft.

    OTOH, Scrivener is just so damn good, I’m in no rush to make the change.

    The New York Times reviewed Scrivener a day or two ago. Your review is better.

  37. Christopher Miles on #

    @Mitch Wagner: Scrivener doesn’t use a proprietary file format; the .scriv file is essentially just a folder containing all the project files, so even if the program is no longer installed, all the content is still accessible as text files. Admittedly, text files with fairly unhelpful file names.

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