A few months ago, a writing friend I met through Twitter recommended a computer program called Scrivener for novel-writing.
“At first, I thought, ‘Why do I need a special program for writing novels? What’s wrong with Microsoft Word?’ but now I’m hooked,” she said. “You have to try it.”
At her advice, I downloaded a free 30-day trial of Scrivener, which sat on my desktop uninstalled for months. Like my friend, I assumed that anything other than Microsoft Word would just be needlessly tweaky and hard to use. Real writers don’t need flashy programs to write, I thought to myself.
But last week, frustrated with juggling several different Word documents, a PDF I was reading for research, and a stack of paper note cards I was using to organize my scenes, I finally decided to give Scrivener a try.
I think I owe my writing friend a thank you—and maybe an apology for being such a snob—because Scrivener is amazing.
Designed with writers in mind
Unlike Microsoft Word, which assumes a linear workflow, Scrivener is designed to handle chaos. Imagine a three-ring binder where you can keep your drafts, notes, research, and scribblings all in one place, rearranging and reorganizing them as you see fit. That’s what Scrivener feels like.
Microsoft Word assumes that you write a book by opening a new document, typing for a really long time, and clicking save. Scrivener recognizes the fact that the process of writing a book involves the creation of dozens or even hundreds of separate files: notes, research, cut scenes, scraps of dialogue, outlines, character sketches, interviews, audio files, photographs, websites, PDFs…
Scrivener makes it easy for writers to access all these materials in one place, eliminating the need to flip back and forth between different programs or an impossible array of open documents.
Here are some of my favorite features of Scrivener:
Scrivener allows you to split your screen in two, making it easy to compare two different documents or read one document while taking notes in another (this particular feature has been very handy in my work as a freelance editor).
You can also drag an audio file, video, image, or PDF into one of the screens—for example, to transcribe an interview or takes notes while watching a documentary.
Keywords and labels
Using Scrivener’s labeling feature, you can “tag” scenes and chapters with keywords. For example, you might tag every chapter in which the story’s villain appears with the keyword “villain.” If you run a search for that keyword, Scrivener will highlight every chapter in which the villain appears—saving you hours of combing through your manuscript if you want to make changes to a certain character or subplot.
Scrivener’s full-screen mode blacks out the rest of your desktop for distraction-free writing. This can be surprisingly effective for keeping yourself on-task.
Scrivener allows you to drag and drop images, videos, PDFs, audio files, and web content into a research folder, where they are readily viewable (and/or listenable) within Scrivener itself. No more flipping between multiple programs when you’re trying to make notes.
Scrivener also makes it easy to keep track of references, which is particularly useful when you’re doing research on the web. Simply drag and drop a website’s URL into the references tab and you’ll never again find yourself scouring your browser history for that elusive site you need to reference in your bibliography.
Like any new computer program, Scrivener can seem daunting the first time you use it. Luckily, it comes with an extensive tutorial and user’s manual (both of which saved me hours of frustration and got me happily Scrivening within half an hour).
You can download a free 30-day trial of Scrivener 2.1 here.