Scrivener: The Best Writing Program for the Mac and PC

Scrivener icon   Scrivener: The Best Writing Program for the Mac and PCMakeUseOf recently published Your Guide to Scrivener—a how-to manual for the popular writing program. Scrivener has been around since 2006, and it is a favorite application amongst novelists and screenwriters. As a full-time non-fiction tech writer, I can’t recommend Scrivener enough for actually starting and drafting writing projects. There are two versions of the application, one for the Mac OS X ($45.00) and the other for Windows PC ($40.00).

Scrivener is not a desktop layout application like Word and Pages, but it helps you organize and export your documents to other applications. In addition to being useful for full-time writers, I think Scrivener could be very useful to students and professors who write research papers, anyone who has plans to write a book, and even bloggers looking for an application to draft and manage blog posts.

Today I will share my personal workflow and tips for getting the most out of Scrivener.

screens22   Scrivener: The Best Writing Program for the Mac and PC

Research and Outlining

Scrivener is not just a text editor. It also includes features for outlining and storing research related documents and notes for your writing projects. When I start a writing project I typically drop and add project related webpages, PDFs and notes to the Research folder of Scrivener.

Scrivener 3   Scrivener: The Best Writing Program for the Mac and PC

Scrivener can also handle almost any kind of documents you need to import. You can organize documents into folders, and change the icons of the files to help you visually identify their importance or content. Both Word and Pages include useful outline features, but I prefer using Scrivener because each part of the outline I create in it automatically becomes a sort-of separate folder for each part of my writing project.

Scrivener 4   Scrivener: The Best Writing Program for the Mac and PC

So for example if I’m writing a MakeUseOf PDF guide, I first brainstorm a list of topic headings and subheadings in a text file in Scrivener or on my iPad. From there I add a folder in Scrivener’s Binder panel for each chapter of my document, followed by sub-sections inside each folder (as you can see above).

The beauty of Scrivener is that the folder hierarchy can be changed even after you have added paragraphs to each of the folders or sub-categories. It may not be obvious when you first start using Scrivener, but you can right-click on multiple selected folders or sections and group or un-group them.

Scrivener   Scrivener: The Best Writing Program for the Mac and PC

You can also drag and drop sections into other folders as you work on your project something that can’t be easily done in Word or Pages. You can even use Scrivener to export your folder hierarchy as actual text outline (using File > Edit > Compile).

Scrivener also contains an Inspector panel which you can use to write summaries, notes, comments, and footnotes for each section of your document. It’s a great place to store related webpage links and reminders.

Scrivener 6   Scrivener: The Best Writing Program for the Mac and PC

Drafting

The key benefit to using Scrivener is that you can jump around and write in different sections of your project and not be distracted by the paragraphs and pages in other sections. You don’t have to scroll down your document to locate sections as you do in Word and Pages.

Scrivener writing panel   Scrivener: The Best Writing Program for the Mac and PC

I also highlight and color-code section headers in the Binder as I complete them, which is a great little motivator while working on any project. At any time in the process, it is possible to select and view all sections as a single document. There’s also a Page Layout or Wrap view that presents your sections like a regular text editor. You can setup panel presets in Page Layout without distracting side panels, which makes for a great way to read and edit text.

Many newcomers to Scrivener may not at first understand the value of full screen mode for writing. This feature allows you to put complete focus on your current document while hiding all the distractions. You can even set a custom background (Preferences > Compose > Customizable Colors > Background) for a wall color or graphic that inspires you to write.

Scrivener background   Scrivener: The Best Writing Program for the Mac and PC

I like to also toggle Typewriter Scroll, which automatically scrolls the text up as I type. Using this feature along with my TextExpander snippets for my project helps me knock out pages as I type. Scrivener also has its own text expansion feature, though it is not as handy as TextExpander, it’s useful if you don’t have the standalone program.

Finally, in terms of drafting, I sync all my Scrivener documents to Dropbox account so that I can open them on my MacBook Air or on my iPad. An iPad version of Scrivener is also in the works.

Exporting Documents

Scrivener includes numerous exporting features for sharing documents to Word, PDF, plain text files and more. The export feature of Scrivener is probably the most complicated to use because you need to understand how to compile documents and then export them. The MUO Guide to Scrivener covers how to use the compiler.

Scrivener compile   Scrivener: The Best Writing Program for the Mac and PC

What I like about the compiler is that you can create font style and document layout settings for exporting documents which may be different from the settings you use to draft documents. I typically draft for example using 18pt font size, and then export documents in 12pt font size.

Download a Free Trial

I’ve only shared some of Scrivener’s basic and advanced features. When you first start using the program you may very well not know where to begin. Relax – simply check out the MUO Guide and watch the video tutorials posted on the Literature and Latte site. The more you work in Scrivener and read-up on its powerful features, the better understanding you’ll have of the features that matter the most to your workflow.

Let us know what you think of the Scrivener writing program and how you use it to get writing done, as well as what you think of our fabulous downloadable guide in the comments, below.

Is Scrivener your favourite writing program? If not, tell us what you use and why!

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20 Comments -

macwitty

Can just say: Agree. It is a great program

michel

After all the raves, I decided to try Scrivener. I went back to Word, which, despite your claim, is not a “desktop layout application” (whatever that is) but a word processor.

The truth is, there is little if anything Scrivener does that Word does not, and with the addition of OneNote, Scrivener lags way behind. The truth is, as has been claimed for a long time, that people simply don’t use the features already present in Word. One can learn to use Word and its advanced features, or one can learn to use Scrivener, but there’s a learning curve either way. And in the end, Scrivener users tend to export to Word to polish the manuscript, meaning one needs both and adding a layer of needless complexity

For a start, learn to use Headings in Word to separate and organize parts of your manuscript, and use the Document Map to navigate – you certainly don’t have to scroll through long documents. In Word 2010, you can drag and drop to move Headings and all their associated text. Opening a second window on the same document also allows you to work on more than one part of a document at once. Full screen reading can be used to edit, and can be customized to your liking.

Also, almost all of this can also be achieved in LibreOffice, which is free.

Scrivener made a mess importing my work in progress and I found it’s “features” cumbersome, poorly implemented and unreliable (buggy). I realize many people like it, but many of its supposed innovations have existed in word for years. And if you happen to actually be a professional writer, you will have to use Word with your editor anyway.

jason

@Michel If you run on MAC you don’t get the option of OneNote.

So your point on that is only good if you are a windows user.

Bakari Chavanu

Hey Michel, sorry to hear that Scrivener doesn’t meet your expectations. I agree that Word and Pages can indeed do things Scrivener cannot do, but I find the latter easier to navigate as I work through writing projects. I also like how I can store notes, webpages and other related documents within a project, which is something I can’t do in Word.

I think each user has his/her own needs, but for me Word has too many features and buttons that I rarely use when writing. However, Word definitely has the advantage over Scrivener for designing and publishing documents, newsletters, resumés and the like.

As for importing your documents into Scrivener, did you try importing using plain text import? Sometimes text editors don’t work well with one another when there’s a lot of formatting done in one of the applications.

Finally, you’re right about having to use Word to submit manuscripts to editors. Scrivener’s compile and export features export documents to Word and PDF. I don’t have much problem there at all. I will admit, however, that I’m not expert with Word, mainly because I only use it for the final stages of my writing. As I wrote in the article, I do all my drafting in Scrivener.

Again, I’m sorry that your experience with Scrivener wasn’t that great. But thank you for your feedback. It might useful to other readers.

Jim Heiney

I’ve always found Word to be slow and clunky. The thing about Scrivener is that it takes the simpler elements of OneNote and Word and combines them for an easier experience for writers. Granted, I work with code and run servers and I generally prefer the simplicity of plain text, but Scrivener has made an easy and usable package. As much as people love switching open tabs and changing between two open programs, such as OneNote and Word, most writers prefer to focus on their writing and not wrangling various open windows.

Bakari Chavanu

Jim, thanks for your feedback. I was wondering if you ever tried BBEdit for your code work? And you’re right, Scrivener does combine OneNote and Word. I should of pointed that out. It’s going to be even better when the iPad version of Scrivener gets released.

Jim Heiney

I’m mostly on the windows side of things, so I use Notepad++ for most of my coding stuff. It’s got a lot of nice features for a great price.

Lisa Santika O

No matter what kind of outliner software we use, most of us will be back to Word/Libre Writer/the like, but those softwares are not good for drafting. Scrivener kinds of softwares ease us in gathering the research materials, shuffling around paragraphs, making notes as we go, things like that. That way, we don’t have to think about formatting and other things that might distract us from the content of our writings until everything’s ready.

michel

But you don’t HAVE to think of formatting in word until you’re ready – except for using headings to divide “snippets” (as I think Scrivener calls them). So you either have to intentionally create a new snippet, or intentionally create a heading. The point is, as others have pointed out, all scrivener does is what can already be achieved in Office. Learn one or learn the other. The advantage of sticking with Word is, many people already have it, and you’re going to have to use it in the end anyway. Sure, some people will prefer Scrivener and that’s great. For me, it offers no advantages, requires learning a new package, costs extra money – and has far, far, fewer features.

Lisa Santika O

To each their own, I guess. I still scribble my notes and drafts in my notebooks (real paper notebooks) until I’m ready to type them. I think it’s good that you already define your personal system and stick with it. Some things work better for some but not the others and you seem like you have a solid workflow to follow.
At the end, what matters is our productivity.

Taharo

For writing fiction, I still use Liquid Story Binder. It has a much steeper learning curve than Scrivener, but if you put in the time, you find the features are much more rich. I won’t take the time to try and sell all the features.

Three major downsides: (1) Windows only; (2) the interface is a bit archaic and sometimes buggy; and (3) there have been no updates since early 2011 (the developer seems to have abandoned it).

Those aside, I still prefer it over any other writing program.

Bakari Chavanu

Hey Taharo, I’ve never heard of Liquid Story. Thanks for sharing it. I’m pretty sure there are other readers out there who may be interested in checking it out.

Jim Heiney

I used to use LSB. It is a great program, but I test drove Scrivener for a while and found that I ended up setting up LSB to run just like Scrivener, so I jumped ship. I think it was the archaic interface you mentioned and the ability to export straight to word or pdf that were the final nails in its coffin for me.

Yaz C

Thank you for writing a very informative post. I’m going to go give it a try.

Bakari Chavanu

Yaz, thanks for your feedback. Let’s us know how you find Scrivener useful for purposes.

Lisa Santika O

I tried the Windows version when it first came out and I must say it’s the most beautiful writing program I’ve ever tried, and the organization style fit me the best. Problem was it was so slow and buggy I gave up on that. However, the trial has me convinved that it could be great once they ironed out the wrinkles. Hopefully the problems are fixed now. Maybe it’s time for second chance.

Bakari Chavanu

Lisa, I’ve heard that criticism before about the Windows version. Have you written the developer about your experiences with the program? Thanks for the feedback.

Lisa Santika O

I experienced it way back at the first release of the Windows version. I can;t say about the current version until I try it, but I’ll write to the developer if the bugginess still occur.

Atokra

I am Linux fan for long time and just don’t know about Windows and OneNote and so far…. Sure I did tried… but expensive…
Scrivener seems promising and really like the approach. We have to keep in mind this tools aims to help in writing books……. Sure MS Word is dominant but the price is prohibitive, and the OpenSource is to leverage all potential at a affordable price….
great apps

Bakari Chavanu

Yep, Scrivener is a great price for all it does. It’s most useful for organizing your writing, and keeping related resources in one file. It’s so much easier to jump around to different parts of your writing, which I find almost impossible to do in Word.