Scrivener: A First Impression

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

My wife found Scrivener while I was halfway through my first draft on my current project. As a long time MS Word and MS OneNote user, it didn’t really appeal at first. However, she really liked it and some of the concepts she mentioned sounded intriguing so I decided to give it a look after the first draft was finished. Despite being eager to start the next draft, I’ve done that it and– wow! It doesn’t just look interesting, it looks fun and indispensible. I’ve just started using it for real (after going through the tutorial highly recommend completing that) so this really is just some first impressions.

Here’s what appeals so far:

  • Ability to look at the story at different levels of abstraction: each element (your choice what an element is but a scene is a natural mapping) has both its text and meta data. The meta data can be keywords (anything you want but obvious things are characters, locations, objects, plot elements, themes, etc.), synopsis, notes, POV, completion, etc. You can look at elements as index cards with synopsis, title and color code from keywords or you can look at the actual text. There’s also an outline view that can show any or all of these elements. As an engineer who really appreciates being able to change levels of abstraction as necessary for the task at hand, this is a huge deal.
  • I mentioned keywords already but being able to tag scenes by POV, characters, objects, places, makes me tingle. Sure in Word or any word processor, I can search for something but that isn’t the same. For one thing, I can’t search at all for POV but also a mention of an item isn’t the same as finding a scene tagged for that object.
  • The compile feature is a huge time saver. Today, when I want to share a manuscript for a professional critique or a critter critique or friends (maybe for print, maybe for e-reader), it is time-consuming and messy. With Scrivener’s compile, I can pick my target format and boom, it’s pretty much done. Now switching from standard manuscript to e-reader to something that looks more like a novel is trivial.
  • I’ve enjoyed using MS OneNote for my notes but having that integrated into my writing project is even better. It’s already been a big help on some additional character development I’ve started.
  • Collections let you save searches and searched can be vanilla or they can be meta-data. For instance, you can have a saved search that finds all the scenes tagged for a particular character’s point of view. Want to find those scenes? Just click on that collection tab and they are all there.

Not so good things:

  • I’m Windows based and this is originally a MAC tool. The Windows version is reasonably featured but missing grammar check, doc templates (but project templates are mostly what you need and are there), and various other things. This isn’t terrible but one of the annoyances is that the Windows tutorial still reference some of the Mac elements (mostly it is correct but in places the descriptions are wrong: a button doesn’t highlight the way they describe for instance). Plus if you are also using a reference book like the Dummies Scrivener book you can get frustrated looking for non-existent features. Case in point: doc templates. The Windows project template has a doc template folder. Spiffy but just try to use it (as a real template, not just by copying the file). You look up doc templates in the manual. No reference to them at all. You look it up in the Dummies book: clearly says how to use them. Try to find them it in the program. Not there. Check the forum where they list differences between Windows and Mac versions and deep, deep in the list you find it is one of the unimplemented features. Granted for marketing purposes companies don’t like to call out not-yet-present features but given the doc templates appear in the project templates, it ought to have been mentioned.
  • Keyword application is manual. Would be nice, especially if importing an existing draft, to have a way to have it suggest at least some of the keywords. It would take some cleanup but a simple heuristic would get 90% of it right.
  • No local dictionaries. For a writing tool, this omission is rather odd but each novel comes with its own set of character names, and for fantasy novels, much else. I’d really like to be able to have a dictionary unique to my project.

Interestingly my immediate impression was actually somewhat negative. Just opening it up and looking around, it looked “unbaked” or half-finished but I think that is because the Windows port still has the look-and-feel of the Mac version and to a windows user, the simpler Mac layouts look like some freeware, lightweight app. Anyway, that first impression quickly faded as I worked through it. It seems very nicely implemented to me now.

As for importing my existing draft, my first thought was that I wasn’t going to do that because I’m a strong believer in re-typing early drafts so that laziness does not cause me to carry forward text that really ought to be completely re-written. I am still going to do that for the pending draft but I may also import the original draft because it seems fairly straight forward to chop it up into scenes and the ability to analyze my current draft at scene-level abstractions seems quite appealing. Still trying to decide whether to do that or not. On the one hand, it might help me plan some additional POVs and scenes I need to add. On the other hand, it might be an “attractive nuisance,” something that distracts me from working on the next draft.

Trying it out is easy: you can get a trial version and the license is quite generous: it’s a household license so you can put it on your desktop and laptop. My son uses it now for some of his school projects.

Microsoft OneNote: A Snappy Writer’s e-Notebook

Need a quick place to organize research, plot thoughts, notes on characters and setting? Try MS OneNote. What? Surely I can’t be suggesting a bloated Microsoft application to replace the beloved writer’s notebook. Yet it is true.

I’ll confess when OneNote was first included in one of my MSOffice packages some years ago, I didn’t even start it up. I assumed, based on legitimate past experience with Microsoft it would be a combination of a massive overkill for the stated purpose and an insidious scheme to integrate Microsoft still further into my computing life. Somewhere along the line, I decided to actually try it and I was amazed, not by its flash and fancy features but by its streamlined, elegant simplicity. The tool is a near perfect evolution of paper-notebook to e-notebook.

Somehow, Microsoft let a team of developers do the right thing and what they created was lightweight yet powerful. It has minimal formating but just enough to let you do what you need for a notebook (basic font control, basic tables). It adds easy import of pictures and text with the option to create a link to the source- perfect for research. You can define your own tags and easily mark text for either to-do lists or for searches later. You can even make an Outlook task directly from OneNote or put an email message directly into OneNote if you use MS Outlook.

Because it is so lightweight it starts quickly and it is lightning fast, something a note taking tool must be. You can organize by notebook, page and sub-page. Finally, there is no “save file” paradigm. What you create is automatically saved to a repository on your machine or on your network, meaning no lost work. And a networked repository is seamlessly integrated into local storage so working offline is painless.

Here are some of the writing tasks I use it for:

  • Research: quickly gathering notes and pictures from across the web and preserving the link to my source.
  • Jotting down notes for character names, first-lines of novels, etc.
  • Maintaining a story outline or synopsis (although initial capture may be in MSWord)
  • Short Story Ideas
  • Notes on grammar, the writing craft, etc.
  • To-do lists for manuscript re-writes
Lay vs. Lie

I also use it for home for vacation and day-trip ideas, notes of my raid disk crashes, paper and computer game notes, and much else. At work I interface with customers on technical matters and it is invaluable for taking search-able notes, creating Outlook tasks as I go (highlight the text, select the due-date, done), and creating quick meeting minutes. When I introduced it to my marketing department the entire group switched over to it in just a few weeks.

I’ve included a few of my pages from current and past writing projects to give you an idea of how it can be used.

Give it a look. It’s $68 stand-alone on Amazon or you can get it as part of a larger MSOffice suite. There are some other e-notebook products like Evernote but I have not tried them. And I don’t use OneNote’s capture-from-stylus for handwriting and the like so if you want that be sure to check other options and reviews.