Software: A quick look at Scrivener

A friend of mine is starting out on the eBook trail, and he trapped me over lunch so he could ask how I go about writing long-length pieces. He’d heard a rumour (horror!) that I didn’t use Word. That’s actually true; I don’t. It’s not that I think Word isn’t any good; it just doesn’t suit me. My novels tend to be upward of five hundred pages (the latest eight hundred!), so a straight word processor won’t really do the job. For a start, I like to keep chapter separate when I’m working so I can get to them quickly; I don’t like having the book in one large lump. Of course, Word works extremely well with multiple documents, but it’s the navigation I find cumbersome.

So for document composition, my weapon of choice has been Scrivener – since 2007, if I remember correctly. Scrivener is a beast of a tool, but it can be as simple or as complicated as you make it. For me, I just use it for research, composition and early drafting (formatting I’ll come to later).

Scrivener main window

Scrivener presents you with a pretty basic two-pane layout: a hierarchy of documents on the left, and the document you’re currently working in on the right. It supports a fairly comprehensive set of formatting tools and rudimentary styling system (nothing that compare to Word or InDesign), and allows you to import documents and images into your project, which most folk find helpful for research. (As well as novelists, Scrivener enjoys an enthusiastic following in the field of scientific research.)

So you have a pretty decent word processor that allows you to work – very easily – with multiple documents. Where Scrivener really shines is taking those documents and assembling them into a finished piece. The application allows you to set a vast number of parameters to govern how you’re finished output will look. You can set headers, page and chapter numbering, the look and spacing between the chapter heading and the main text, margins, front matter, copyright pages . . . It’s a hell of  a list and folk coming to the app for the first time can find themselves overwhelmed by the breadth of the formatting options available. Still, this complexity means that Scrivener can output finished Word documents,  PDFs, eBooks (for both the Kindle and iGadgets), LaTEX documents – all from the same source project.

Scrivener even comes with a pretty good script editor (though I actually prefer to use another tool for that) and can output your documents in Final Draft.

compile_optionsOkay, that all sounds wonderful . . . so what’s the catch? Well, it certainly isn’t the price. You can pick up Scrivener from the Literature and Latte website or the Apple app store for £34.99

It’s important to bear in mind that Scrivener is designed as a drafting tool, so in some (perhaps many) cases you will need to tweak the finished output to get it exactly how you want. I’m a stickler for detail so I always end up doing some post-compilation rework. The eBook format is also very simple. It’s certainly passable, but again I often take the output of the Word formatter and use another tool to get a better looking eBook layout.

And then there’s the learning curve. Although the developer has carried out a lot of work to  simplify things, you will need to spend some time using it to get the best out of it (and I say the same thing about induction hobs). Still, there are plenty of places to get help. The Scrivener forums are a good place to start, and then there’s the tutorials, courses and website run by Gwen Hernandez who seems to have carved out a second career around Scrivener.

So if Word doesn’t float your boat, then I’d definitely take Scrivener for a spin to see if it suits you better. 🙂

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Gwen Hernandez
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Thanks for the mention. I don’t know how I’d write a complicated (or even simple) book without Scrivener anymore. 😉 Good luck with your writing!