A short review of Scrivener

I test-drove Scrivener during last year’s National Novel Writing Month; discovering this app was the best thing about NaNoWriMo 2010 (which I otherwise torpedoed). Anyway, I liked enough of what I saw in that test drive (on an XP PC) to have forked out since for the total experience (on Mac).

Scrivener is an app for writing long documents, like books. It works like a virtual binder where you keep all the different parts, like chapters, in different folders. But you can also park research documents and media here, and leave notes and tags on anything and everything. You can compare different versions of a draft, take periodic snapshots of the whole thing to revisit prior versions after drastic edits, and keep the big picture always in view. This big-picture background feature of the app’s design is helpful for organizing and re-organizing a big writing project. I sometimes treat essay composition like Lego, moving pieces of analysis around to fit in different places for an argument, and the Scrivener interface has helped me scale up that approach for longer work.

The other functions I find especially useful are screen splitting and quick-reference boxes (which I didn’t discover during the test drive). This screenshot shows the editing screen split horizontally, with two quick-reference boxes that I’ve set to “float” – to stay on top of the editing window.

In the top editing window, I’m compiling the master bibliography from references as I proofread the draft in the bottom window, chapter by chapter. The quick-reference box at left shows a previous Word draft of the bibliography, for copying any existing reference entries from it. The quick-reference box at bottom right is a PDF of the specific “Harvard” citation style guide I’m using; since this format is new to me, I keep it here for consulting as needed. Scrivener has reference and notation affordances if I want them, but just being able to keep all these text windows open and active simultaneously made for pretty light work of the biblio as it was. (I’m also partial to handcrafted bibliography.)

So as far as I’m concerned, Scrivener is already proving itself a good investment. My main reservation is that the actual word-processing functions of the text editor – line spacing, margins, and so on – are weirdly both rudimentary and not entirely intuitive. Scrivener is quite up-front about not being a full-featured word processor like Word, but more of a composition engine. (Like every writing app these days, it has a “distraction-free” mode.) So it relegates a lot of the formatting distractions business to the Export function, which turns all or part of a project into a document an actual word processor can read. But the text editing interface looks and feels enough like Word that I’m maybe having trouble getting past the bias that years of sustained exposure to Microsoft has installed in my head.

I’m not normally about product reviews, but this is an app worth trying out if you’re writing a long document, like a thesis, a novel, a script, or a monograph. Be advised, though, it won’t write the thing for you.

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2 responses to “A short review of Scrivener

  1. weird timing – my present to me for finishing Nano this year is going to be the new full feature windows version. good to know you’ve found it useful

    • Firstly, congratulations on winning NaNoWriMo!
      I can’t imagine the Windows version would differ substantially – I checked for its official release from time to time – started to think they’d decided not to bother – then saw it available … after I’d already gone to the Mac side.
      Totally useful, though, either way. (Still lots to learn, for my part; I’m only halfway through the tutorial.)

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