Scrivener: A Second Impression

Scrivener (software)
Scrivener (software) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Time for a second impression of Scrivener now that I’ve converted my first draft and blocked it into scenes. This took about 12-15 hours, but that includes creating keywords for many characters, places and objects, writing scene synopses, and doing a little editing here and there (I doubt I’m the only writer that can’t keep from tweaking the text once its open!) So, my thoughts still represent an early impression of the tool but I thought I’d share them anyway. In short, the tool still seems quite useful but the blush is off my earlier “Wow!”

Were I using the Mac version of the tool, the wow might have remained but with the Windows version, it’s more like looking through the toy store window at all the things you can’t afford to have. The Windows version is still a net-improvement for a writer and I still plan to use it but between the little things I’ve come to expect from MS Word and features available only in the Mac version, the experience is not without a sizable amount of frustration. First the positives:

  • Converting from MS Word to Scrivener was a fairly smooth process. While it took longer than I had planned, that was because I took advantage of the scene-synopsis features and also tagged all my characters, objects, etc. If you are in a hurry, I think you could convert it into chapters and scenes in a few hours and tag/describe everything later but for my next step, I want to review the story structure so I wanted the synopsis now.
    • The tool will automatically break your manuscript into chapters if you used a major heading for Chapters in MS Word. If you don’t care about breaking it further into scenes, you are pretty much done already.
    • Breaking it into scenes is a manual process but if you use a blank line (or a ‘#’) between scenes, this is pretty painless. You can type the scene name into the manuscript in place of the line break, highlight it and then split it into a scene named for the highlighted text with a keystroke. (Note to the devs: it would be handy to have the scene name text disappear from the new scene doc because at present, the final step is to delete the scene name from the new doc.)
  • The outline view is very handy: you can expand or collapse partially or fully. It provides a nice way to see word counts and scene titles/synopses at a glance with a few key items also shown (I chose to use some standard tags in a way that lets me see POV and location for each scene but you can customize that to whatever you want to see there).
  • The compile feature is a god-send. There are many useful presets that you can also customize for your own needs. With just a few clicks you can export to standard manuscript format (with smart to straight quote converts, em-dash to –, etc.) and a bunch of other useful items. This alone makes the tool almost a must-have for the writer.
  • I do critters.org reviews and my previous process was tedious:
    • Previously, I would copy the doc to MSWord, review it using revisions and comments with a separate .txt file in Notepad open to create my note to the author. Then I’d copy the .txt to MSWord to check it for spelling and grammar, fix the items in the Notepad view and upload. The reason for this is that it was a real pain to get MSWord to create a true .txt file of real plain text: even turning smart quotes off, I’d get weird symbols once uploaded to the site.
    • Now: I copy the text to be critiqued into a scrivener doc under my critters project. I create a sub-doc under it that will be my note to the author. I split pane so I can see both at the same time. I read the manuscript, making notes in the side pane (or sometimes annotating the manuscript). The side pane has live spell checking (but no grammar checking yet in the Windows version). When I’m done, I duplicate the critique, drag it to the manuscript folder and compile it for text. It is much more streamlined and a much more pleasant critiquing experience.

The not-so-good:

  • The corkboard is near-useless once you have multiple levels of hierarchy in your doc because you can only look at one level at a time. You can drill down into a chapter and see its scenes but you can’t look at your collection of scenes. This is not an issue in the MAC version where there are several ways to look at the scenes. The corkboard seems like it would still be useful early on before you divide things into chapters. It may also be that given both, I would prefer the outline view (which works fine) to the corkboard view but I really wanted to play around with the corkboard. So, call me disappointed on that point. And one assumes the Windows version will be upgraded to the Mac features at some point so here’s hoping it is sooner than later.
  • Comments and annotations are clunky. In the Mac version I believe you can get “offline” comments (on the side, not in-line in the text) but in the windows version it is all in-line, which I really, really don’t like. There’s a notes section you can use for each doc and that in the end will probably be what I make most use of but, even so, the in-line feature is a little clunky (also if you are used to the MSWord method of highlight the text to comment and then type your comment- don’t do that: Scrivener replaces the highlighted text with your comment.)
  • The Scrivener folks don’t have the hundreds of developers and tens of years behind it that MS Word does but, even so, I still miss things like the smart drag-and-drop that fixes spaces around what you are moving or the double-cap correct (THe -> The). Although maybe not having the double-cap fix will improve my typing 🙂
  • The outline view is nice but there’s more I’d like to do with that view. The Scrivener’s team has kindly provided a way to do that: you can export the outline to a csv file that you can read into Excel (or the equivalent). There, you can easily count your scenes, color code by chapter, determine min, max and average scene length, whatever your nerdy little statistical brain wants to do. The trouble is, this export feature is Mac only. In the Windows version, you’re out of luck. At some point I’ll manually count my scenes because I’m curious as to how many I have but at the moment, I’m just annoyed I can’t do it in excel where I could also get a lot of other information I’d like to have.

Scrivener is still a nice improvement over a general word processor and I have no intention of reverting to MSWord. There’s even a version of it out there that addresses most of my nits (the Mac one). But while my wife perked up when I mentioned how much nicer the Mac version is, I’m not going to buy two Macs just so we can use a full-featured Scrivener.

So, a recommended tool but if you are a Windows user, be aware that many of the features that the long-time Scrivener users rave about are not available to you. Not yet, anyway.

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14 thoughts on “Scrivener: A Second Impression

  1. Great review. I tried Scrivener for Windows some time ago and defaulted to Word because it just seemed too complicated plus (this was the deal breaker) I couldn’t load the Scrivener file into Google documents – limiting when I could work on a given project. Since I write where ever and when ever I get a chance, portability is key for me. Still, it is a great tool for the things you pointed out (outlines and scenes).

    1. That’s a very good point although you can (under the license agreement) have scrivener installed on all the machines in your home (to a limit of 4?) and you could use a dropbox for your files, which is what my wife does.

      I tend to write on one machine except for business trips where I’ll take a USB drive along but your comment had reminded me that I don’t have scrivener on my laptop (yet).

      I think the Scrivener complexity is, in the end, somewhat illusory. It isn’t too bad if you go through the tutorial. My wife found a few things confusing at first but she hadn’t finished the tutorial. Once she did, she was fine with it.

      1. I always skip the tutorials! Maybe I shouldn’t have with Scrivener.

        I write during my lunch break at work. I don’t really want to install Scrivener on my work computer. So far, what I do works, though I do know it can be better. Since software is becoming more cloud-based, maybe Scrivener will go that way in the future. We will see!

  2. Great review. I was thinking about trying out Scrivener, but wasn’t sure if I should or not. I think I will definitely check it out now, especially as I have a Mac.

  3. thanks for the review, it took the guess-work out of my trying to insert ‘page-side’ comments as opposed to in-line. As it turns out, the Mac version 2 does this seamlessly, just hope it comes out soon for Windows.

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  5. I have had Scrivener for years but finally cracked it open for these last couple of projects. I have a Mac and I have found it immensely helpful with organizing research of all sorts along with the easy ability to shuffle scenes around, etc. It sounds like there are some differences between the Mac and PC versions and also like there’s more utility here that I’m not utilizing. I happen to find the corkboard useless, but I’m not sure I’m using it right…

    1. There are still substantial differences between Mac and PC but they seem to be closing the gap with each release. On the corkboard, I find it useless for large projects but it is nice, though not essential, for short stories and the like. Overall, though, I really like it.

  6. Thought I should mention that I ended up buying Scrivener for my Mac and have now been using it for a few months. I’m pretty happy with it (other than the cons I listed in my blog.) I did get very fast turnaround when I emailed Scrivener with a question. Should add that too my list of pros.

    1. Thanks for the comments! My wife is trying the new mindmapping software they have and has been liking it so far. I need to give it a look but it appears to be nicely linked into scrivener.

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