How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Scrivener

Really, writers have come up with a lot of creative ways to make writing more difficult than it needs to be and software designers are more than happy to oblige us.
Publish date:
March 23, 2012
writing, behind the scenes, writing tools

Despite the fact that I basically have my smartphone surgically implanted in my hip and am pretty much constantly using technology, I tend to be oddly old-school about some stuff.

For example, I keep a paper ledger for my accounts, something which many people find hilarious. Well into college, I wrote all my papers longhand, then on a typewriter, and only converted grudgingly to computer. Once I did, I was a rapid convert. Gosh, you could, like, revise without having to redo a whole document!

Ever since then, I’ve been using the most stripped-down version of a word processor possible for writing. I sometimes compose in Wordpad, although most of the time I’m using OpenOffice with pretty much all the features hidden, so I just have a blank composing screen and nothing else, but I can turn on features if I need more flexibility or am required to format a piece before sending it out.

Every writer has their own system for how they write, and usually feels very passionately about it. Some people like programs with all the bells and whistles. Other people compose in very simplistic word processors, like I do; some still use typewriters or arcane devices that don’t allow them to read backward so they’re forced to go straight through with a draft and then they have to import it to another device to edit it. Really, writers have come up with a lot of creative ways to make writing more difficult than it needs to be and software designers are more than happy to oblige us.

People are often curious about the software we use, like there’s a magical secret; you, too, can be a writer if only you use the right word processor. Unfortunately, much like a food processor, a word processor doesn’t actually do anything if you don’t put words into it, other than make entertaining noises.

A lot of my writer friends use Scrivener, which I kind of turned up my nose at when I first heard about it. I mean, sheesh, who needs to be, like, organized? When I’m working on novel-length fiction, I start a new folder and it quickly becomes filled with a cluttered mess of notepad notes with cryptic titles like “scene” and “that thing with the tree” and “read this later” along with various drafts. I’m actually pretty good about labeling drafts with the date so I know which one is the working draft, but not always.

And then there are the paper notes, scribbled in the notepad I carry everywhere. For that matter, I note things down on envelopes, the backs of receipts, and other random scraps of paper that come my way. At one point I wrote a scene on a paper table cover at a restaurant and insisted on lurking around while the poor busboy was trying to clear the table so I could whisk the cover away. It ended up getting moldy because I’d spilled creamy mushroom pasta on it. I’d probably write on the cat if he held still long enough.

For that matter, I have multiple devices that I’m terrible about synching, which means that there are notes in my smartphone, on my iPad, on my laptop, and on my desktop. Sometimes I remember to stick them in SugarSync1 so I can access them across different devices, and other times, not so much. I am like the epitome of How Not To Do It, seriously, people.

This means that I sometimes spend three hours searching for something because I’m convinced it must be around the house somewhere, if only I can figure out where I stuck it or what I called the file. Loki will come across me rooting through the recycling and decide this must be a fun game we’re playing, so he starts chasing scraps of paper everywhere and then I’m chasing him and then I notice that the book I’m reading is bookmarked with the gas bill, which a. I forgot to pay and b. happens to have the note I was looking for written on the back of the reminder that my tank rental fee is coming due soon.

Utter chaos is supposed to be the mark of being a Real Writer, right?

So I was sitting down over the weekend to start thinking about a new fiction project, which usually involves some freewriting and taking notes in notepad and then I pop open OpenOffice and just start writing, starting with chapter one and going until I’m done.

And I thought to myself: “man, I should buy some Post-its, so I can write notes on them and then move them around! That will be awesome! It would help so much with organizing! Why haven’t I thought of this before?!”

And then I realized that there was probably a program that would actually do that for me, and that Scrivener thing all my friends were talking about was probably that program. I spent about half an hour lying on the floor staring at the ceiling and wondering if I was ready to take this step; could I possibly curb my habit of jotting things down on pieces of paper or random notepad files or whatever was closest to hand? Would software really help me organize?

I popped onto their website and learned I could have a 30-day free trial, with the assurance that if I decided not to keep using it, I could export all my data in another format. So I downloaded it, and then it told me I needed to take a tutorial, which took me around half an hour.

Not only had I downloaded a program with all sorts of fancy features, but I read an instruction manual, you guys. This is huge. I, like, never read instruction manuals. Ever. I have a little collection of them, their spines all perfect because they’ve never been cracked open. When I get something new, I just sort of plunge into it and hope for the best.

The tutorial was intense. All these features were in there and it was starting to get overwhelming and I felt antsy and wanted to get to the writing already but I felt like I needed to heed the warning that the tutorial was important and it was critically necessary that I go through it before I got started. Mainly because half the time I was going “Wait...what? I don’t get it” and having to go back.

So I finished the tutorial and I started messing around. First I rounded up all the notes for my new project and created little sections for them. Scrivener has a little corkboard, you guys! It’s so cute! It also has an outline function! You can break things up into segments and easily drag and drop text and it autoformats things for you! You can use the snapshot function to save drafts!

There is a learning curve – I got a little frustrated at times when I first started out and I still don’t feel like I’m using the program to the fullest. But I am so, so happy with it. I didn’t expect to fall in love so quickly but I totally did because it’s like someone went into my brain, figured out how I “organize” things and made a program that did that, but only better.

I’m totally still going to be jotting things on random pieces of paper, but now I have an incentive to actually organize them in a central location, because Scrivener is designed for that kind of information handling. I can set up a corkboard of random scenes or character sketches that aren’t necessarily being used in the main manuscript or don’t have a place yet. I have a research folder for data I pick up! I can drop images, audio, and video in there! It’s like a whole new world of fabulousness I see before me!

This is way more exciting than when I went from longhand to typewriter, everybody.

(P.S. I was in no way shape or form compensated by Scrivener for writing this, but the folks over there are more than welcome to send me a registration code so I can stop using the trial version!)

1. A totally awesome program which I highly recommend for all writerly types, academics, etc. The cloud is your friend. Seriously. Return