Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A brief review of Scrivener 2

I've had Scrivener 2 installed on my Macbook for a month or so now and thought I'd share my impressions of it.  This is a perfect example of my tendency to buy something I don't really have a pressing need for, but which seems like it might open up new avenues of something-or-other, so I go ahead and drop 40 bucks and then immediately wish I hadn't and then, several weeks later, realize it was the right decision after all.  Scrivener is appealing in theory, annoying in practice, then, finally, excellent in practice.

Let me explain.  The idea behind this word processor is that it is designed for creative writers--it eschews those features of, say, Word, that are of no use to us, and adds a bunch that are.  A Scrivener file is essentially a wrapper for a bunch of smaller files, which can include novel chapters and sections, notes, research materials, character and place sketches, and the like; one can view the text of a given file, or a cork board that shows note cards for each file, on which you can type descriptions of its contents.  This is incredibly useful when you're writing a novel and can't remember where and when certain things happen; it also allows you to move material around by clicking and dragging the note cards.  Files can be automatically backed up to a folder in your Dropbox--a great feature.  When you want to print out your manuscript or send it to your agent or what have you, you compile it into a pdf, doc, or other file; this exported file includes only your primary text and not all your notes.  In short, Scrivener is a writing organization system with a word processor at the center of it.

Perhaps the simplest and most delightful thing about it is the fullscreen mode, whereby all the auxiliary controls disappear and all you can see is your text, displayed as though on a piece of paper against a black background.  I thought at first that this would be a minor advantage for me, but in fact writing with this minimal interface is an extraordinary pleasure.  You can't see emails coming in, you can't see anything at all except your text.

Here's the annoying part.  There are two separate sets of formatting tools in Scrivener: one that determines how the writing looks on the page while you're working on it, and another that determines how it looks once it's been compiled and exported.  This of course is useful, if you actually want these things to be different.  But I am wedded to the idea that what I am looking at is my manuscript.  In other words, I don't like the notion that the text is one thing, the display of the text is another thing, and the exported appearance of the text is a third thing.  I want to see, while working, that I am, say, on page 47, and I like that "page 47" to mean something definitive.  In Scrivener, it doesn't.  Furthermore, Scrivener's stock templates for composition and export look terrible, in my opinion.  I hate Courier--it is fake, a skeuomorphic gesture, the typographical equivalent of the PT Cruiser.  I don't want my name on every page of my manuscript, or centered page numbers, or a copyright notice at the end, or the like.  I want my stuff to be clean and simple, and I want to compose and export it in Garamond Premier Pro or Bembo.

Luckily, all this is totally customizable.  But the controls for customizing these functions are complex and unintuitive, and the method for customizing the composition screens is completely different from the method for customizing the compile settings.  You have to learn how to do the same thing twice, and once you've learned it, you forget it all instantly.

I recently transferred my entire novel-in-progress into Scrivener (see screenshot), and the process nearly made me give up using it entirely.  But I bore down and figured it out, and now I've got a couple of very useful templates and compile settings that satisfy me.  The app's usefulness has already proved itself in spades--I've had to insert, delete, or move chapters, and have been able to do so without needing to select text or renumber those chapters.  The note cards have enabled me to find stuff easily, and it is great to have all my research material close at hand.

But I don't necessarily recommend this app for people who need their work to look a certain way, or who are bothered by cutesy mimetic stuff like cork boards, or silly features like a character name generator.  There is something to be said for the starkness of Word or OpenOffice, and I'll probably still use the latter for short stories.  But for novels, the advantages of the app outweigh its irritating quirks, and I'll stick with it.


christianbauman said...

Hey jrl, funny that you should post on this topic today, because I've been meaning to ask you: have you done any iPad writing at all? And if so, thoughts and experience? From a functionality standpoint, I'm finding typing on the screen easier than i thought it would be...altho not happy with layout of the keyboard (I want my punctuation grouped with letters, not numbers! Might be a deal breaker for me, not sure). As for word processor, haven't dug into it much so would welcome any thoughts. I'm a Word guy exclusively, so no experience elsewhere. Got Pages for iPad and it seems ok but experience limited. Thanks for any thoughts/help. As for scrivener, sounds cool. And perhaps useful for screenplays?

jrlennon said...

Christian, try Writer for iPad. It actually has arrow keys and is much easier to write on. That said, I don't do much writing on it since I got the Macbook Air. Indeed, I probably wouldn't have bought the iPad if I had the Air's equally light and portable and way more powerful.

Of course, I get to use the iPad for music...

And yes, I think Scrivener would be VERY useful for screenplays.

christianbauman said...

Gracias, my friend.

Sasha said...

Just curious: do you guys ever write in longhand?

I feel like the more complicated the software's formatting, the more nervous and stuck I get. It's frustrating because I mostly write scripts, and it's a pain to try and export stuff from Word/etc into Celtx/FinalDraft/etc. So lately I've been writing longhand, and it's been a liberating experience. Oh, for context: I'm 25, so I haven't consistently handwritten anything longer than a note since elementary school.

jrlennon said...

I think Rhian is doing so right now. I wrote my third novel longhand, the second draft on a manual typewriter, and the third draft on a laptop! (My first laptop, a Toshiba with a trackball.)

rmellis said...

I'm writing in longhand now, for the first time in many years. I just got overwhelmed and sick of technology, honestly. We'll see how it goes.

Sasha said...

Re: technology being overwhelming

Sometimes I just find all that technology really *distracting.* I'd rather not think about formatting, and the best way I've found to ignore it is to write in longhand. I've also completely given up writing story notes on my computer. For the most part, if they're on the computer they're just nonsense and big blocks of text to me within hours of writing them--I barely ever read them again, and if I do, they don't make any sense any more anyway.

Plus, there's something different about seeing something written out in your own handwriting as opposed to in computer font. Makes it seem...easier to connect with?

Well anyway, not to hijack. The only writing software I've ever used with consistency is Celtx. I'm mostly a Word and index card kind of girl.

jon said...

The novel I'm writing now is the first I've composed entirely on a computer. The others I wrote out in long hand in composition books. It was necessity. I like writing long hand first drafts, it feels better, but it's a little scary for a long novel. What if I lose the notebook? What if my bag is stolen or there's a fire? Then the transcription of 1000 plus hand-written pages is daunting.

christianbauman said...

I've written very little longhand, even as a kid. Born in 70 so could have gone either way, but family had an early Tandy 2000 when I was in high school and it felt like home to me. Closest I came was in Somalia and Haiti...was writing longhand for those brief periods of time. I have a notebook i write in but it's literally for notes. My cursive is indecipherable even to myself and it takes too long to print, so once I'm in the zone, writing by hand is difficult for me. Interestingly, in the apron 10 years i was writing lyrics steadily, I wrote them in notebooks and hated to even fettle them onto computer. Felt very cold to me....I didn't like the way it looked. But in prose, whether novel or essay or the once a decade bauman short story, I have been assimilated and prefer the word processor.

Anonymous said...

I like Scrivener 2. Hated Scrivener 1 and used Storyist for awhile. Wrote first novel with Word. Never again. Editing takes forever. For me, Scriv is good for novels and short stories. I write my plays with Celtx,which I find more intuitive to use and more suited with its distinctive functions and links. Final Draft is good for going into production and you need production tools. Scrivener 2 can get a little deep, but they do have a good manual.I write faster now and with less distractions. I find I take more notes too.

JTL said...

Here I am, late again.

I used Scrivener for the later drafts of my first book, when I really needed something that would help me organize and move things around. It was great. But I found once I was done with the book I gravitated back to Word to make whatever revisions needed to be made. Part of that was that, in my new job I had a PC, so I couldn't work in Scrivener at work. I have now convinced the powers that be that I needed a 27" iMac, so i could go back to Scrivenering. But it still doesn't solve the cross-platform problem. Now my main home computer is a Windows 7 PC. The Scrivener folks are promising a PC version, but it's been delayed.

I think I'm going to transfer my current novel into Scrivener soon. I'm a little stuck on it and it'll be helpful to be able to see it in a new venue. I'm encouraged that Scrivener 2 has Dropbox integration. I've been using Dropbox as my server for all my writing. I work off Dropbox and so I can open the current files of anything right there at any machine.

Scrivener is very cool and I don't mind the formatting stuff (and I like Courier...). My main beef is that it's hard to continue working in it after a draft is done. Or am I missing something?