Wednesday, February 23, 2011
A brief review of Scrivener 2
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.