A Review of Scrivener for Windows (Beta)

By | February 3, 2011

My name is Stephen Matlock, and I am a writer.

(Usually that gets me a few “Hi Steve’s” in other context, IYKWIM.)

I’ve been struggling to complete my novels. So far I’ve written four that died a-borning. One that got to the second edit before I realized that this is just not a very good story.

The latest is a coming-of-age YA story set in East Texas in 1952. I got the idea in February 2010 from a writer’s group and wrote the first chapter in about 15 minutes.

Then it set for a while.

I puttered around a bit on other projects, entered some writing contests, did some public readings, and in general thought very deeply about my story. Well, I thought about it.

Come September 2010 and my writing group pushes – hard – for us all to do NaNoWriMo. Write an entire book in one month? With these hands?

I argued and avoided through most of September and October, but then I got into the spirit of things, and signed up.

And then the awfulness of what I had promised dawned on me: (1) How was I going to write 50,000+ words in one month, and (2) was it possible for me to write a straight declarative sentence without an aside or wisecrack (I mean, in the novel)?

So I floundered around in October looking for a product to use. I’ve tried a few applications for writing novels, and while they were good, they didn’t work for me very well. One was too simple and paid too much attention to the fancy UI. I couldn’t figure out how to construct the novel. Another was way too bare-bones. It assumed I knew what I was doing, provided all sorts of tools, but I just didn’t feel I understood what I was doing.

So I wandered until I found the third application, Scrivener. I believe it was through the efforts of NaNoWriMo, but it may have just been the kindness of strangers who led me to the site for the product.

I downloaded the Windows beta version (I think it was 1.0 or maybe 1.1), installed it, and opened it. It was a little unfamiliar, so I loaded and ran the video tutorial.

That got me excited! It looked so easy and intuitive. A Binder on the left, serving as a virtual table of contents to organize my work into folders and documents for my draft. (The Binder also included a mysterious Research folder, but more on that.) Then a central channel for my document. And on the right an information panel.

I didn’t understand everything yet, but I got to work based on the tutorial. I created a set of folders in the Binder and put blank documents into them, and used the Binder to develop a general outline of my story. I used “Chapters” and “Scenes” (you can call them what you want) to build what I wanted. I discovered how easy it was to move stuff around – just drag and drop, or use some easy keyboard shortcuts to promote and demote. I learned quickly that if I set up a “master” scene template I could then duplicate it and put it everywhere.

I started writing, and found that it was a snap to write the scenes I wanted without worry about the order — I could write a scene in Chapter 7, then edit a scene in Chapter 2, and switch back to a scene in Chapter 4, just by clicking the object in the Binder.

So far, a good product.

Then I discovered the key secret of Scrivener – “scrivenings.” This is where you select two or more objects in the Binder – they can be separate or next to each other – and the central channel displays them for you. So you can see how Ch4S3 and Ch7S2 look, compare them to make sure that the blonde girl in Ch4S3 is still blonde in Ch7S2, and in general edit by comparing the two. (You can select as many individual objects as you want, of course.)

This was simply beautiful.

OK, it was then I fell in love with the product.

I discovered the Corkboard, where you can see the individual objects (at the same level) as “index cards) on a corkboard background. This makes it easy to move things around visually if you don’t like the idea of a folder layout.

A third view is the Outline view where you can see the objects in your project as a detailed list.

Now as to the day-to-day work: as you go through your document, you discover that maybe Ch4S6 is in pretty good shape, but Ch6S2 is only a sketch, and Ch2S5 is not even filled out except for a name. How do you keep track of your progress?

No problem. You can mark each object with a Status and a Label. Depending on your work method, you could use Status to mark the progress (first draft, second draft, and so on) and the Label for the type of scene or chapter (revealing, set piece, inciting incident, and so on). If you don’t like the default Status and Label, you can make your own.

The Label and Status appear in the Corkboard and Outline view, which is helpful to see at a glance where you’re at.

You can see your wordcount for each object – and the entire project, which is great for setting daily targets for NaNoWriMo.

I’ve not used the Information panel too much, but it’s useful for scene notes and ideas.

Now about that Research folder – what’s it for?

Well, you use it to stuff your research. Found a webpage that’s interesting? Post it here. Found a picture you like? Post it here. PDF? Word document? Anything else? Post it in Research and have it available quickly. (Assuming you’re online, of course, if it’s a webpage.) I use Research for all this and more – if I have some problematic scenes, they go in Research. Or if I have scenes that I love but don’t belong in the story, they go in Research.

Finally – the point of writing is to create a manuscript or document, and you do so in Scrivener by compiling. Compilation means you can set which objects (folders and text) you want to appear in the manuscript – you select the ones you want, or by default let everything in your Draft folder appear – and select the output as Print, PDF, TXT, or RTF.

Once you get what you want (I usually choose RTF), you have your completed document, ready to ship to your agent for sale to the Big Publishers. (Well, there might be some further work…)

It’s a great product, even though it’s still in Beta. The Mac version has been out for several years, and is at the 2.x stage. The Windows version, though it’s 1.x, is very slick and professional. The cost to purchase will be around $40, which I will tell you right now is very, very inexpensive for a product of this caliber.