Scrivener for iOS: Scribbling on the road

Or in a field if you like…

Okay, first a disclaimer: I’ve been a Scrivener user since day one (that must be going on about ten years now), and I’m also one of those people who didn’t believe you could write a whole book on a tablet, much less a mobile phone. So, skeptical me promised the developer  I’d give it a damn good try…

This is where I was when I finished Novel Number 4, the last two chapters written on my mobile phone.

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If you’re going to walk and write, keep one eye out for the river bank

So it’s fair to say I’m something of a convert.

Scrivener for iOS should probably be called the Messiah Release: millions waited for it, and as time soldiered on it seemed less likely that it would ever arrive. But Literature and Latte battled on making missteps and hitting setbacks until their developer – who said he wasn’t go to write it himself – decided to write it himself. A surprisingly short year or so later, the beta arrived, and straight off the bat, I can tell you it was well worth the wait.

I got my notification, and taking great care to ignore all the warnings and instructions, I downloaded it and cracked on. Getting my work in progress on to iOS was pretty easy: Scrivener uses Dropbox to store its files (it can’t use iCloud – more on that later), so it’s simply a case of copying your stuff to a Dropbox folder and then syncing across to iOS. Unsurprisingly, things didn’t look quite right; everything was there: the manuscript, my research notes, character bios, photographs, story plans – but the fonts weren’t right. I got straight on to the developer who pointed out the spot in the manual where it explains how to sync fonts into Scrivener. Two minutes later, I had a project that looked eerily like the one I have running on MacOSX.

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Yup, it’s all here… fonts and all.

In use, Scrivener iOS turned out to be the real deal, not the cut-down-for-phones-stroke-tablets that I was expecting. Naturally, not every single function from the desktop versions has made the cut, but you’ll be hard pressed to find anything missing. The app works smoothly, is absolutely rock-solid (I experienced only a handful of crashes that have disappeared as the beta progressed). The UI works well and is tailored well to cope with different screen sizes. Anyone who has used Scrivener before will feel right at home. The developer has made the app fully functional without appearing too heavyweight, a sin committed by quite a few mobile apps I’ve come across. And did I mention that Scrivener for iOS is absolutely rock-solid? Not bad for a beta. To be honest, I can forgive the occasional crash; what I can’t forgive is losing work, and thankfully, Scrivener didn’t lose a single comma – though finding it can represent a bit of a challenge until you get the hang of it.  I mentioned the lack of iCloud support earlier on, and this is what leads to the only real problem I had during the beta trial. Scrivener’s data format is based on a folder structure, which maps nicely to the hierarchy you see in the project window. This allows for some pretty fast syncing as they app only needs to upload/download files that have changed, rather than the entire project. The only problem with that is that this hierarchy is incompatible with iCloud. So, for the time being at least, it’s Dropbox or nothing. And that brings me onto one other small thing: the syncing process in Scrivener iOS is a manual process; you have to invoke it yourself. In practice this doesn’t appear to be too much of a problem; when I finish a session then I just make sure the changes I’ve made are synced back to Dropbox (the app puts a little arrow on the project icon to remind you). And at the other end, Scrivener will warn you if it detects changes in your project. If you happen to forget then you may get conflicts when you sync with a different device. If this happens then Scrivener will put the conflicted documents into an appropriately named folder along with the date and the device the document came from – and that’s where I found my missing comma. It’s not seamless, no, but as I said, after a few days practice I soon got into the habit of syncing during a brain lull and before switching back to the Mac. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

One thing I wasn’t expecting was to be able to export my work with the same precision and flexibility as the desktop version. In fact, I thought that Literature and Latte were pitching this as an add-on for Scrivener Main, and not a product that would stand on its own.

Wrong again. Scrivener for iOS can export in spades, but it does it in a completely different way to its older sibling. If you’ve used Scrivener desktop then you probably know that the setting up formatting for an export can take you quite deeply into windows, lists and dialog boxes that would be hard going on  a smaller screen. So the iOS version has taken approach not dissimilar to that of Ulysses: instead of using the UI to configure the export, the formatting is handled through a configuration script. Now, there’s no need to panic; it’s not going to be like setting up a load-balanced server or anything. The configuration is a YAML script that reads very much like plain English. And if that doesn’t float your boat then I’m sure that there will be plenty of downloadable configurations for just about every type of publication. I played around with it for about an hour and managed to get a full-sized book into a standard submission format – chapter headings, page numbering, different headers and footers for facing pages. I’m rather hoping that a similar system makes it into desktop Scrivener in the near future.

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A simple text file is used to set up the export format

Another thing that sets Scrivener apart from just about every other app I use is the quality of the documentation. The developer was a school teacher in a previous life, and it shows. The tutorials are easy to follow and they are well worth running through, even if you’re an old lag with Scrivener, like me. Likewise, the UI is genius, and goes a long way to simplify what is a deeply powerful application (one of the most powerful I’ve seen running on a mobile phone? Yes, probably).  I certainly didn’t run into anything here that I missed from the desktop app. I’m sure it doesn’t do everything, but it does everything that makes sense, and that’s the essence of good software design in my humble opinion.

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Man alive! A forward delete key!

For a beta it seemed remarkably complete, which bodes well for the final release.

So, as a die-hard desktop writer, will I stick with Scrivener iOS? I think so yes. I can take my work with me and carry on writing without worrying about compromises I might have to make to ensure it translates back to my Mac. Scrivener iOS is already one of the best mobile apps I’ve ever seen, which is why I’m giving it ten out of a ten.

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