Playing with Scrivener 3

So the word’s out: Scrivener 3 hit the interweb on the 20th of November. Oceans will boil, grown men will weep, children will speak in tongues…
No seriously, that’s what’s going to happen.
It’s been a long time coming for most of the user base, but a lucky few of us have been given the opportunity(!) to beta test the latest version of what is arguably the greatest writing tool known to man.

I’ve been Scrivener fan since version 1.0 (a little before that actually) and so I like to think I shaped its evolution in some very small way – even if it was just to have some of my feature requests flatly refused. Keith Blount, the app’s main developer, has always maintained that Scrivener is primarily a composition tool: you write your stuff pretty much stripped of formatting, compile it into a finished document and then drop it into word for the final polish. It’s main selling point was organisation: you could write your piece as a hierarchy of folders and documents, move them about, chop and change them as much as you want, and then when the world was ready for your masterpiece, churn out a first draft.
Scrivener 2 built on this, reorganising the user interface and simplifying the compilation process so it was less daunting for beginners … but once again it fell short of the end-to-end solution. Still, as far as I was concerned, it was still the best way to get your first draft done.

And now, many seasons and four novels later, we arrive at Scrivener3, and this is definitely not your mama’s upgrade. To begin with, a lot of the internals have been rewritten to support the latest Apple technologies, and the UI has been completely revamped. It looks a lot better, a lot less distracting to the eye. The biggest change though, really represents a change in philosophy. Keith seems to have relaxed his “we’re a composition tool only” stance and has reimagined Scrivener as your complete long form development kit.

Now before we go any further, let’s be clear on two things:

  1. Scrivener will always be missing 30% of MS Word’s functionality
  2. No one actually uses that 30%

Okay, so what’s changed? Well let’s start with the biggie:


In the past, Scrivener has given only a passing nod to the notion of stylesheets. You could set up a sort of style template that you could apply to sections of text, but it was purely a one way thing: once the style was applied, the text kept it, even if the stylesheet underneath it was altered – so it was really just a shortcut to change a load of text formatting options all at once.

Oh, how things have changed:

Screen Shot 2017-11-21 at 18.12.02.png

You can define your own styles by simply selecting a lump of text and pressing the + button to take all formatting and bundle it into a new style (you can redefine existing ones in much the same way). Now this isn’t as sophisticated as being able to define every element of style by hand, but for writers I’m pretty sure it’s enough.

Likewise, you cannot define one style as being an extension of another. Again, not really a deal breaker for me (though it would be nice to change the font of style ‘default’ and the change ripple down through all its descendants), since the main purpose of stylesheets is more than adequately covered: if you change the font of your style, then every piece of text that carries that style will be changed to match it – not just in the document you’re looking at, but throughout the entire project. Nifty.
Okay, styles are great, but for an app that is meant for composition, it’s probably not going to be a huge deal on its own. If you want to see how styling can really make a difference to your final draft, you have to look at Scrivener’s revamped compilation:


I think this is really where the time went. Scrivener’s ability to export your hierarchy into a finished work has always been pretty damn good, but the changes have finally made the application into something that can output a finished piece in numerous formats, all without having to tidy things up in a word processor. I have to admit though, when I first fired up the new compilation screen, I was pretty excited and a just little bit terrified.


But as it turned out, change is good, and the new way of doing things isn’t all that different. Your document hierarchy has moved over to the left (sorry about the redactions; I’m working on something), and as you can see, your project is still an arrangement of files and folders. Scrivener will assign each element a section type automagically (in this case, I’ve just got Group and Text), but you’re free to change the default settings if you wish.
The really clever stuff happens in the middle bit. Here you can assign your section types to a layout. So in the example, a group section will start with a page break, have a pretty large section title and then some text, which I haven’t bothered to reformat from the original. Likewise, a text section will just comprise of the text in the document, no changes.
Now this is where stuff gets really clever. The first column carries your formats. The look and feel of my sections depends on which of the formats I select. Now watch this:


By changing the format, the look and feel of the project will change on compilation, without making any changes at all to the structure. You can, of course, define your own formats (completely from scratch, or based on an existing one, which is far easier), and I’m sure that in the next few weeks, a whole new network of websites are going to pop up for sharing Scrivener layouts.

The Scrivener3 beta was very stable; in fact, a lot of released software I come across isn’t as stable as this, so I’m confident that version 1 of Scrivener 3 will be just as rock-solid. The new look fits in perfectly with MacOS, and the reorganisation of screen elements and menus will make it much easier for beginners to get productive straight away (I would still recommend a few hours spent going through the tutorial though).

There’s lots more new stuff too, like user-definable meta data, and a new global notes system that offers much more flexibility than the old project notes.

So, should you buy it?

Well, yes, obviously.

Scrivener has always been my go-to writing tool, even though I’ve had others that I’ve used for short stories and articles. After playing with version 3 for a few months, I realised that I didn’t really need the other apps. Scrivener is big, friendly, and covers all the bases in a package that’s much slimmer and much easier to paddle around than a full-on word processor. If you’re an existing Scrivener user, then don’t waste another minute without it. If you’re new to the ways of Literature & Latte, then head over to their website and download yourself a free trial (which is time-limited by the number of days you actually use it, rather than the number of days it spends sitting on your machine – nice!) and see what you’ve been missing.


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