If you are at all involved in writing, you have likely heard of Scrivener. You may not have tried it, you may not even know anyone who uses it. You may not even know what the heck it is, but you know it is out there, and that makes you curious. I am a writer, and I didn’t wait to be curious about Scrivener when I first heard about it over a year ago: I started using it the same day, and I have yet to look back.
I was in love with Scrivener from the first moment I heard of it (and to be honest I cannot now recall who first turned me onto this program, or I would certainly give them credit here). It may have been the index cards that did it. I live and breathe on 3x5 cards: when I am in my groove, I can easily go through a pack or more in a week, and when I am actually working on a project, well, then, I better have a big table handy, because there are going to be a lot of cards to spread out. (Sorry, would-be sharers of library space.) So when I saw screenshots of Scrivener and its Corkboard feature, I knew I had to give it a try.
I won’t attempt to describe the visual experience of Scrivener, or to catalogue its many features: head on over to Literature & Latte for that and more. While you’re there, you may as well go ahead and get yourself started with a 30-day trial (as long as you are a an Apple user, of course; a Windows version is finally in the works, but not available yet).
What I will do is try to give a bit of a description of how I use Scrivener, which is all I am really qualified to write about anyway. I am still working at making it a part of my creative process; the main obstacle to this has been my lack of writing time (and energy) in general, nothing to do with Scrivener itself. But I have certainly used it sufficiently to express some informed opinions.
Despite my aspirations to great works, I have so far used Scrivener primarily in my academic writing. I just finished a year of undergraduate theology coursework, and I wrote a fair number of research papers as part of that. After a decade away from the academic game, I found Scrivener revelatory to use in this context. As I read through sources, I made my notes — both direct quotes as well as conceptual citations — directly into Scrivener in the Corkboard view. Once I had finished my research reading, I then had a large number of virtual cards containing quotes and snippets of ideas, all with source page references attached. From these I would begin to build the structure of my argument, and flesh it out with my own prose. Scrivener offers great word count target calculations, which means I can easily gauge how much farther I have to go.
The major weakness of this for me was footnotes. Scrivener gives an easy to use option to mark citations which will become footnotes upon export. However I was unable to get them to work in practice, whether trying to export the compiled draft to Word, TextEdit, AppleWorks, or Pages. I am willing to believe that I may have been doing something wrong, but I haven’t taken the time required to get to the bottom of it. Instead in each paper I had to manually redo my footnotes once I brought my draft into Pages. Even with that seemingly-dire hangup, building my papers in Scrivener was awesome, and solving my footnote issue will only improve an already-excellent workflow.
I am also making use of Scrivener in the development of my major nonfiction book project. Being able to have all the written work I have done on this, some of it stretching back more than a decade, is monumental. I will grant that much the same effect could be had by keeping all the text files for a large project together in a Finder folder, with subfolders and a system of hierarchical ordering. What this option doesn’t give you, which Scrivener does, is the effect of having all of those scores of text files open at once, with the ability to quickly and easily reorder elements — large and small — within and among the structure. With that one distinction, I think, Scrivener blows the doors off the book-building game.
To be perfectly honest, Scrivener still feels to me like so many programs do: I can tell it is an amazing, powerful, flexible tool, and I just haven’t taken/had the time and energy to sit down and figure it all out. In other words, I feel like I am using maybe 47–63% of Scrivener’s potential awesomeness; I know more is there, but that is all I have been able to make my own without slowing down and watching the excellent video tutorials or something like that. Having said that, I offer this as counter: the fact that I am not using every ounce of potential in a feature-laden program in no way lessens the tremendous benefit I am gaining from using it to the extent I am.
I have only barely begun to touch upon all the many, many, many wonderful features that are packed into Scrivener (and I haven’t even mentioned that the spectacular new Scrivener 2.0 is just weeks away!). I encourage anyone even slightly interested to give the free trial a whirl, watch a few of the demo and tutorial videos, and see for yourself what writing with Scrivener looks like, feels like — and I think you will become a believer, too. I have loved setting up my major projects in Scrivener, and I know that when my life allows me to shift toward a more writerly rhythm, I will have everything ready to go, and I can open Scrivener and dive straight into the work of creative writing.