The pros and cons of writing a novel with Scrivener

The last post in this series, and it covers the program I’ve now used for at least three years, Literature and Latte’s Scrivener. It’s anecdotally the most prevalent “creative writing” program, though it’s general enough to be used for non-fiction and I’ve also written screenplays with it.

General Impressions:

There’s no getting around it – Scrivener isn’t pretty (especially on Windows). There are tons of buttons that aren’t clear on what they do, menu options hidden behind obscure drop-downs, and you could argue that having several tutorials as a prerequisite to a program is a sign that something’s wrong. But Scrivener is a sandbox. It rewards the work you put into it. With Scrivener, as with Word, you can create document templates. Unlike Word, however, your templates can encompass entire series with breakdowns for individual novels and multi-book arcs in a single document. There are many features, like Word, but most of the features are directly related to writing, and once you find your preferred method, all of the unused pieces fade to the background.

Unlike StoryShop, Scrivener is offline. You download and install it. This makes collaboration difficult (StoryShop may become the Go-to for that soon), but you can punch Scrivener up anywhere. I can dictate into it without a problem. It’s simple to organize and outline. World-building lacks StoryShop’s beauty, but makes up for it with speed. Characters and virtually everything else is pieced together through one blank page after another, allowing you to write up your own templates and use them over and over again to speed up your work. In short, Scrivener takes a lot to get going, but once you get there, it’s the most efficient way I’ve found to putting together a story.

Pros: 

  1. Does everything you need, aside from collaboration – If there’s a tool you want for writing a novel, you’ll find it here. Some of those pieces may take a bit to find at first, but once you put together Scrivener’s puzzle, it’s easy to put together the shell of a story and start filling it in.
  2. Splitscreen is wonderful – Remember when I said StoryShop has difficulty letting you reference things that you’ve done in other areas? Scrivener offers a brilliant split-screen mode that lets you look at, say, a character description in one pane and your current scene in another, ensuring you get that eye color just perfect.
  3. Cost – Scrivener isn’t free, but it’s not all that expensive. A one-time payment of $45 (per version – you’ll need to pay twice if you want Windows and Mac). I paid that price a few years back and haven’t lost another cent since.
  4. Fast – Scrivener is a low-intensity program to run. I find it starts up fast on my laptop, things shift quickly, and I rarely encounter any issues with it. Writing directly in the program is a breeze. I’m not hassled about subscriptions, online requirements, or broken formatting issues. Once you get it set up how you want, Scrivener works like a breeze.

Cons

  1. It’s not automatically online – If you want to back-up your work or use it across multiple devices, you’ll need to leverage a service like Google Drive or Microsoft’s OneDrive and make sure you’re saving your scrivener files to a synced folder. Otherwise, they’re toast if your computer gets stolen.
  2. Giant sandbox can be intimidating – there’s a lot in Scrivener. I’ve written 7 novels with it so far and I can say I probably use about 30% of its available options. Like Word, there’s probably too much here, but (unlike Word), most are directly pointed at writing and organization for your book. Things like flagging chapters and adjusting icons, to compiling various parts of the novel for things like excerpts aren’t things I use, but that plenty of people might. It’s a learning curve, one that Scrivener could make easier.
  3. Appearance – oddly, this is probably the biggest complaint I have about Scrivener; it’s just lifeless. There’s nothing about the program that inspires you. It’s like a yard with nothing in it. Sure, it’s a yard. There’s grass. You can play a game there. But no trees? No flowers? Nothing that makes you open it and go “yes, I’m excited to be here.” If you coupled Scrivener’s speed and offline access with StoryShop’s interface happiness, then, well, you’d have one compelling package.

Final Thoughts:

As I said above, Scrivener is what I’ve been using and what I still use. They just released a new Mac version, though as I primarily write on my Windows laptop, I’m still waiting. Over time, I’ve learned the parts of Scrivener I need to use, and it does what I want it to. I don’t have to think about it anymore to start writing, and I have a strong template that I use for getting novels going. I would say, in fact, that I use less of Scrivener now than I did at the start, having refined my process to just use the tools I need. And that’s the big plus of this program – you’ll find the tools you need, and then you won’t have to worry about anything else. You’ll just write, spitting out one story after another. I’d currently recommend Scrivener to any writer.

Though I’ll say this now – if StoryShop continues to improve enough to eventually justify that subscription, I won’t be disappointed to make the switch. If Scrivener learns from the competition and makes their program a more pleasing affair to play with, that’s cool too.

Lastly, there are plenty of tools out there for writers. Tons of programs that can be used in conjunction with each other or separately. What matters most is finding what works for you, though I’d throw in this bit: never stop looking for something better. There’s all sorts of cool things happening in this space, and locking yourself into a single way of doing things just because that’s what you’ve always done is a good way to miss out on a great new tool.

Happy writing, everyone!

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