Why you should use Scrivener for all your writing needs

Why All Writers Should Use Scrivener

Why you should use Scrivener for all your writing needsI don’t know if I can offer Scrivener any praise that’s not already been said, and even as I write this I’m terrified of simply regurgitating what many, many others have written on the subject.  Still, not enough people know this app exists, so if I can make even a few people aware it’ll be worth it.

To put it simply, Scrivener is the app that all writers desperately need.  Most writers, wholly unaware of Scrivener, write their stories using an application called Microsoft Word, which is only slightly more efficient than using a typewriter, which is only slightly more efficient than writing the whole book by hand.  Granted, countless masterpieces have been penned by all three of these tools, but countless masterpieces were painted with white lead before there was a non-toxic alternative.

What is Scrivener?

Scrivener is an application designed for the Mac (although it is available on Windows and iOS) by Literature and Latte for the purpose of writing and organizing large manuscripts, something you’re going to need if your book is anything longer than a short story.  Since I write primarily on a Mac, I’ll be focusing on that version.  In case you were wondering, this article and all the others on this site were written in Scrivener, and I wouldn’t be able to write them without it—certainly not as “quickly.”

Why Scrivener is Better Than Word

I apologize in advance if my comparisons to Word become tiresome, but I feel the inferior app most people use is a good point of reference when talking about why you should switch to using Scrivener.  Microsoft Word is designed for documents consisting of only a few pages.  Aside from the fact that it measures its documents in pages rather than in word-count, which should be a novelist’s first clue that it’s not designed for you, this means that your Word documents are going to get far larger than they were ever intended to get.  At worst this can easily lead to your whole document becoming corrupt, possibly losing you years of work.  This isn’t a problem for the sort of person Word’s intended for; their documents often take no more than a few hours to finish.  Word is designed for letters (usually one page), curricula vitae and résumés (two pages), homework (twenty pages), and brochures (two pages).  A novelist will need to type manuscripts of thousands upon thousands of words, often translating to hundreds of pages in even a short novel.

Have you ever written half a book in Word and realized you had to scroll all the way down to the bottom every time you opened up your document?  That’s not even getting into how annoying it is to use word when you don’t write chronologically!  In such a case one has to search the document for the exact point where you left off.  You must then figure out how you plan to separate the different sections of your document—as well as thinking about format in general.  Word was simply not designed with fiction writers in mind.

Finding Scrivener

When I first started, I used Word because that’s what everyone used.  When my writing process became less linear than Word could handle (that is to say, even the slightest bit non-linear), I started doing most of my work in Evernote.  Evernote was leagues better than Word, but it became harder and harder to keep track of a thousand tiny notes that sometimes disappeared never to be seen again.  For a time I looked for a better app, and I was drawn to Scrivener when an author I have no respect for voiced his contempt for the app.  Immediately I did some research, and indeed it looked like exactly the sort of app that that author wouldn’t use—in short, it looked like what it is: the perfect app for writers.

Scrivener is designed for long writing projects.Unlike with Word’s clear preference for a particular workflow, Scrivener is designed to work however you need it to work.  What makes Scrivener perfect for long manuscripts is that its projects consist of any number of smaller documents that can be arranged in any order you need and grouped into folders.  Documents can be grouped into folders while still being editable as one.  You can then determine a hierarchy so that, for instance, all folders below the root “Manuscript” folder get exported as chapters with the appropriate headings, the content of those chapters being that of any documents they contain.  In other words, your scrivener project grows as your story grows rather than constraining it.

A Tool for All Writers

Before I continue, I’d like to make clear that Scrivener isn’t just a tool for fiction writers, but one that should be used for all writing tasks.  Whether you’re writing an essay, a short story, or even something else entirely (perhaps a legal case or a translation), Scrivener’s ability to effortlessly reorder sections of text without having to resort to copying and pasting makes it the most efficient way to write.  The main reason more people aren’t using Scrivener is that they assume the learning curve to be steeper than it actually is.  In fact, you need only watch a ten-minute video, at which point you’ll know all you really need to know about how Scrivener works.

What Can Scrivener Do?

Scrivener is packed with great features to make writing as effortless as an art can be, but you don’t have to use features you don’t want to use.  Most people only use the core features, in fact.  Still, what can Scrivener actually do?

Projects, Folders, and Documents

As I’ve mentioned many times already, Scrivener is project-based, making it far more than just a word processor.  A project consists of any number of smaller documents and folders, with documents each containing a paragraph, scene, chapter, or whatever amount of text you like.  These documents can be organized and reorganized however you need.

Corkboard and Outliner

Scrivener's Corkboard feature.Scrivener has a multitude of tools for outlining, but I’ll be talking about the corkboard and outliner here, as both features work similarly.  The corkboard allows you to view index cards (titles and synopses) corresponding to the documents in whatever folder you’re looking at.  These index cards can be colour-coded based on whatever you want (perhaps by point-of-view character?).  The outliner works similarly to the corkboard except that you can also sort by any meta-data tag including any custom meta-data you may have assigned to your documents.

Split-Screen

Scrivener allows you to look at two documents at once.Split-screen mode allows you to compare sections of the same document or two different documents altogether.  This makes Scrivener useful for translators, but it’s really useful for anyone who wants continuity in a project.  You can make the split-screen either vertical or horizontal depending on your preference.

Snapshots

The Snapshot feature in ScrivenerOne of Scrivener’s many powerful editing tools is the Snapshot feature.  Like many applications for Mac, Scrivener allows you to save snapshots of a document while you’re writing and editing it.  What makes this extremely useful is that you can also compare these past revisions to the current state of the document or to each other.

Compile

Scrivener's Compile feature allows you to easily format your finished manuscript.And then of course there’s Scrivener’s Compile feature, which allows you to export to any type of file you need (including PDF and both ePub and Kindle), with the text formatted any way you want.  This means you can write with your text formatted however’s most pleasing to you without having to worry about how it’ll look when you send it to a publisher; the whole manuscript will be formatted properly when you export!   What makes this especially good is that there are presets for standard submissions, meaning that Scrivener has you covered from conception to publishing.

Other Features

Of course Scrivener has a host more great features, but you only need to use the ones that you find useful; you can ignore all the others.  Firstly, as I hinted when I explained the corkboard and outliner, you can attach keywords and custom meta-data to documents.  You can also easily search for a word or phrase across your entire project.  These two features mean you can always find the document you need.

Statistics and Targets

Text Statistics and Project Targets in ScrivenerAmong the more obscure features are statistics and targets.  Statistics let you see character counts, word counts, how many paragraphs you’ve written, and which words you use more frequently than others.  Targets can be set per session and per project; that way you’ll know when you hit that coveted fifty-thousand-word threshold in National Novel-Writing Month, and you’ll also know exactly how many words you’ll need to write each day to hit that target.

Project Templates

The templates for creating a new project in ScrivenerGoing back to the beginning, when you first create a new project you’ll be able to choose from various fiction and non-fiction templates depending on what you plan on writing.  For fiction writing I use either “Novel” or “Novel With Parts,” and for articles such as this one I use the “General Non-Fiction (with Sub-Heads)” project template.  You can even configure your work layout so your toolbar has all the tools you use frequently and none of the ones you don’t.

The toolbar in Scrivener can be customized.
Scrivener’s toolbar can be customized with whatever buttons you need.

Other features include Typewriter Scrolling, numerous places for notes and research, quick-reference windows, a full-screen composition mode for distraction-free writing, scriptwriting mode, and even a name-generator!  And, of course, because there’s an iOS version, you can sync with your phone over Dropbox.

Try the Free Trial!

I promise you I’m not getting a commission for this, but you need to at least try the free trial.  If you’ve been struggling to write a novel in Word, and most writers do, then Scrivener is the solution.  It’s compatible with Dragon Naturally Speaking, Aeon Timeline, and other apps for writers.  If you need an app for organizing your thoughts, Literature and Latte also have an app called Scapple for just such a purpose.  As good as all those apps are, however, it is Scrivener which is indispensable.

18 thoughts on “Why All Writers Should Use Scrivener

  1. I write all my novels in Scrivener and love it. There is absolutely nothing better for revising a manuscript either. It makes me cringe to remember trying to drag sections around in Word.

    One of my favorite features is the ability to color code each individual scene. This is a terrific way to monitor pacing, see which POV is used most often, and keep track of all the threads and subplots.

  2. Scrivener has been such a blessing for me. Word was driving me CRAZY! I would take my MAC with me to work on my projects or I would have to download it on flash drive, and then try to complete work after my workday ended. Now I used Scrivener and all my projects are on Dropbox. Just today, an idea came to mind and I started it on my phone (sometimes on my iPad), and then I finished it on my MAC. I absolutely believe that Scrivener was an answer to my prayers. Thanks so much for the post. Saving it!

    1. It was exactly the same for me. I got to the point where my whole story thus far was written in Evernote (at least it was better than word!), and then I found Scrivener, which made everything far more efficient. Now that I have Scrivener for iOS I’ve been able to abandon Evernote entirely. Thanks for reading my article; I think this is the first time I’ve gotten so many comments. 🙂

  3. Is this useful for a pantster vs. a plotter? I do a marginal amount of plotting, but I’ve never used index cards, colored text, ‘character arcs’ and ‘plot arcs’ in any of my writing. I just write what comes out of my fingers with a basic idea of the story w/o too much detail. Sometimes when I read about these writing tools, I think it is overkill for how I write. However, I do keep notes as I write, so I don’t forget details – names, character descriptions, character relationships, etc. So that is why I’m wondering if this might help me organize better…

    1. Thanks for commenting, Kriseton. I was aware of the different styles of writing, but I’d never heard the term “pantster” till you said it; I had to look it up, so thank you for teaching me something new. For my part, I find scrivener very useful for organizing notes (it’s a large part of what I do when writing). The great thing about Scrivener is that you only need to use the tools that are useful to you; you can ignore the rest. 🙂

    2. For a pantser, the ability to keep notes on character traits and different story lines as they unfold makes Scrivener invaluable. You can write each scene as basically a mini document, tag it with all kinds of labels or summaries. Then you can easily play with how it all goes together after you get it all out of your head the first time through. It may not help you write that first draft any differently but it will definitely help the editing and revision process!

  4. I know it’s probably better than word, but I’d like to see you compare it to other novel writing software. I never did much more with it than some beta testing on the Linux version (which has now been cancelled), but I can’t say I was tempted away from Ywriter.

    1. As long as you’re not using Word you’re probably fine. In any case, that’s an excellent idea, and I’ll definitely consider reviewing others. You mentioned you use Ywriter; are there any other writing tools you’d like me to compare?

    2. Did you ever come across The Novel Factory? (Disclosure – I represent the Novel Factory.) Lots of our users say it’s greatly improved their productivity, and it’s popular with people who find the Scrivener learning curve off putting.

  5. Regarding the learning curve – people assume it’s going to be steep because there are so many features, but three very cool things about Scrivener are
    (1) the built-in tutorial, which is a Scrivener project itself, so you’re inside Scrivener, using it, while following the tutorial. One of the best ‘how to use our software’ features I’ve ever come across
    (2) comprehensive help manual (again, one of the best; not one of those five page pdf’s cobbled together as an afterthought which never answer the question you’re struggling with
    (3) outstanding support forums where questions get answered very quickly (often by the developers but also by other very helpful users.)
    Outstanding piece of software.

    1. Not to mention you only have to use the features you need and can ignore the others. What’s more, compared to Word (which is bloated with features a writer will never use) Scrivener isn’t difficult at all.

  6. I’ve been Scrivener user since the beginning and I love it. It is great for getting a story together. But Word is a different tool. The publishing industry uses Word. It is the standard across the board. Why? Because of the Track Changes feature. If you’ve sold a novel to a publisher, your editor will expect you to know it and use it. No other app is as good for revising and editing.

    What writers should use is what works best for them. For some that is Word. For others it is Scrivener or Ulysses or Wordstar, etc. Or a combination of different tools.

    Just my two cents.

  7. Great to hear what Scrivner can do but you have to buy a separate copy for Mac and Windows – Word and Final Draft work across all my devices in both operating systems. Also a lot of what you say about Word isn’t true, you can use split screen, word count instead of page count, notes etc. You just need to know how to use it properly. Would have preferred to know what Scrivener can do without being told what Word can’t (but actually does) – guess I’ll just keep bashing away at those CVs and letters and the odd 120 page (50,000 word) screenplays.

    1. It’s good to hear that Word can actually do those things now. I think I stopped using word long before it had those features, so I wasn’t aware they’d been added since then.
      On the subject of word-count versus page-count, that Word (if I remember correctly) defaults to page count is just a hint that it’s not designed with novels in mind. I don’t think I ever said that word didn’t have notes, though—it certainly had those even when I was using it.

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