In life, I’m inseparable from my cell phone, but when it comes to writing, there is one program I can no longer function without: Scrivener.
I love this program to bits. I’m a non-sequential writer, and I spent the first ten years or so of my writing life struggling with endless Word docs. This goes back to the days when a full manuscript wouldn’t all fit on one 3.5″ disk drive! For any youths out there who don’t know, there was once a time when — bear with me — you couldn’t save much of anything to your computer’s hard drive, and the cloud didn’t exist yet, so we used little pieces of plastic that we inserted into the computer. But you could only fit about 100 pages worth of data onto those, so when whatever you were writing got longer than that, you needed multiple disks. So if you wanted to work on a later scene, you had to save, close the document, eject the disk, put in a new one, open that document, and go from there.
Just being able to have one document that was a few hundred pages long seemed like a dream, but let’s face it: when your writing style is one that hops about a timeline like a jackrabbit on cocaine, that’s still not terribly efficient. There was a lot of “CTRL+F ‘Chapter XX'” going on.
Scrivener is not, I know, everyone’s bag. Some people find it unnecessarily complicated, and it’s true, there’s a lot that it can do. I’m sure I don’t use anywhere near its full functionality. What I like best is the binder function:
The binder allows you to divide your document into as many disparate pieces as you want. You can use folders for organization (mine, as you can see above in the document for From Unseen Fire, are organized by the month in which those events take place, which eventually became the division of parts in the book). This makes it so, so easy to jump around from one scene to another at will. Sometimes I don’t even type more than a sentence or two, just to remind me of the kind of scene I want to write, before bouncing back to something else.
You can also see in that screenshot the Inspector feature, which you can use to summarize scenes (I don’t do this often, but I did at one point in earlier revisions to help myself make sure there was a “but then” transition in each chapter), mark scenes by their draft number or if they need revision, and make other notes. I often use this feature during revisions when I need to update a scene that’s gotten moved around for a new season, for instance, or when I’ve eliminated something earlier in the manuscript that I need to take out of later scenes. The binder is also great for moving scenes around, which helps me, since I write from multiple POVs. See those little colored flags? Each one corresponds, in this case, to one plotline — green for Latona’s, purple for Sempronius’s, orange for Iberia. You can use all sorts of icons, really, but simple color-coding helped me see when I’d spent too long in one storyline and needed to mix it up a bit.
Another great thing about Scrivener is the ability to split-screen. Sometimes I use this, as above, to follow along in my outline while I’m writing, but you can also use it to compare two scenes (if one is dependent on details in another, this because super helpful) or to have your research open in one half of the screen while you’re writing in another. For example, as you can see below, you can also import images — for me, having maps at my fingertips was incredibly valuable. I also have research notes on places and characters, and being able to view those side-by-side with my text greatly reduced my futzing-about time.
One more great thing about Scrivener? How easy it makes it to track word count progress. You can set both an overall goal for the manuscript and a “session target”, which could be for the hour, afternoon, day, week, whatever. It resets when you close the document. Here’s a sneak peek from the in-progress Scrivener project for Book Two of the Aven Cycle:
My only real complaint about Scrivener is that it’s doesn’t have a great mobile app. I think it might work better on an iPad, but I don’t have an iPad; on the iPhone, it’s not too swish, and in both cases, it has to sync through DropBox, which I prefer not to use. But if they improve that functionality, I really might never be able to be pried away from my phone! There’s also not a great way to track changes in a Scrivener project itself — you can take “snapshots”, but that’s nowhere near the same as tracking them in a Word doc. This makes things a little interesting during developmental edits. I still want to make those in Scrivener, but then it’s a bit of an obstacle course to run to merge documents together in a way that shows the changes in a Word doc to send to my editor. By the time we’re down to line edits, I’m generally back in Word for good. When it comes to drafting, though? Scrivener can’t be beat.
If you want to give Scrivener a try, they offer trials. It’s absurdly affordable, truly — no monthly payments, just $45 as a one-time fee. Updates are free until they make a major new release — for instance, Scrivener 3 is now available for current Scrivener users for just $25 (for Mac, at least; Windows is coming along soon!). Considering that only happens every five years or so? Totally worth it. You can also get a discount if you win NaNoWriMo! (Or find yourself someone who’s won several times and therefore might have no use for their latest discount code). Their customer service is excellent. The only time in roughly a decade of using it that I’ve had a major glitch and was in a total panic, the rep I worked with bent over backwards to help me resolve it and recover all my work.
Like I said — it’s not for everyone. But if your mind operates in a state of finely-honed chaos like mine does, I really can’t recommend Scrivener enough.