Scrivener for Windows – Review

NOTE:  The software reviewed here is currently in beta testing and has not been officially released as of the date of publication.  The finished product may differ somewhat from the software as reviewed here.  Potential buyers are advised to download a trial version before making a purchase decision.

What is Scrivener for Windows?

Scrivener, from Literature and Latte Ltd., is an easy to use writing tool.  It’s designed for writers of all types, whether they are creating fiction, non-fiction, poetry, music lyrics, scripts for stage or screen, or other documents. 

Scrivener is focused not so much on the layout and format of what you’re writing as on the content, though it does offer basic formatting functionality.  It helps you organize your notes and research alongside the actual content you’re writing, and makes it easy to break a long writing project into smaller chunks that can be quickly written and saved.  Later, when you’re ready to produce the finished document, it will combine all those chunks into a single document suitable for input into other tools such as Microsoft Word. 

It offers a virtual corkboard with index cards so that you can easily shuffle around the chapters or scenes you’ve written into an order that makes sense.  When you do this, Scrivener takes care of the details of rearranging the underlying text that those index cards represent – moving it and shuffling it around too. 

Prefer to work with outlines instead of index cards?  Scrivener has you covered there, too.  Its outline view allows you to work with and organize your content in an outline form.

Unlike other writing tools, Scrivener provides virtually no writing “advice” apart from spell checking.  It’s a simple but powerful tool.


Installation

Scrivener for Windows is provided as a simple executable installer.  Download it from the Literature and Latte web site, double-click it, and walk through the wizard-based installation process.  It takes less than 10 mouse clicks to get Scrivener installed in the default configuration.  At the end of the process, the software is launched automatically.

Getting Started with Scrivener

When launched for the first time, or during the beta, Scrivener prompts for a license key or offers the opportunity to try the software.

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After the license code is entered or the Try button is clicked, Scrivener asks you about the project you’re about to work on. 

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Select from the options provided (Blank, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry & Lyrics, Scriptwriting, or Miscellaneous) to get started.  Once you’ve selected a type of project, Scrivener presents additional options.  For the purposes of this review, we’ll assume I’m writing a new novel (which is how I use Scrivener most often anyway).

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I select “Fiction”, then “Novel (with Parts)”, enter a project name (“The Test Novel” in this example), choose where to save it, and hit “Create”.  Note that you can design and use your own templates if you aren’t happy with those provided.

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Scrivener creates a new blank project with the name provided, and displays its main window:

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The left-hand part of the window is pre-populated with three high-level folders: Manuscript, Research, and Template Sheets.  The Manuscript folder is where the “finished product” of my writing work will end up.  It will be organized into the chapters and scenes I write.  The Research folder is where I can store URLs, snippets of text, or other files that help me write my novel.  The Templates folder provides helpful document templates I might find useful while writing a novel (such as the Character Sketch or Setting Sketch that ship with Scrivener by default).

If I’m in the early writing stages, I’ll probably spend the most time working to get my notes and source documents into the Research folder. Once there, I’m ready to start working on the actual text.  As I write, Scrivener automatically saves the project for me every few seconds (exact frequency is configurable) so if the software crashed (which has only happened once to me, even though it’s in beta test) I won’t lose more than a second or two of work.

Note in the screenshot above that I’ve selected a Scene in the document.  The center part of the Scrivener window displays a text editor for the scene.  To the right of that is a virtual index card onto which I can write a short scene description to help later.  I can also mark the text with a label like “Idea”, “Notes”, “Chapter”, or “Scene” and indicate the status of the text (such as “First draft” or “Final draft”).  These labels and status descriptions are all configurable to meet your specific needs:

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While I’m on the subject of configuration options, I should mention the wide variety of settings and customizations you can make.  Fonts and colors within the software can be changed, the corkboard appearance can be modified somewhat, the default font in the editor can be changed, auto-correction features can be modified, and the default auto-save timing can be adjusted. 

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As you write, Scrivener can provide statistics about the number of words you’ve written, word frequency, etc.  If you are writing toward a goal (e.g,. 50,000 words in 30 days), you can enter that information into the Scrivener project and monitor your progress toward the goal.

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Scrivener can also provide statistics on the entire writing project, including the number of words, characters, pages, etc., that you’ve created.

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Individual text items can also be analyzed, providing information about the number of words they contain, the number of characters, paragraphs, and even the frequency of the words used in the section.

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About the only additions I would want to see here are readability metrics like the Gunning-Fog Index, Coleman Liau index, Flesch Kincaid Grade Level, SMOG, etc.  Fortunately, it’s easy enough to copy and paste the text into a tool like the Online Utility Document Readability Tester.

The Corkboard and Outline Mode

Let’s imagine that I’m writing a story about a fictional character named Kevin.  I’ve been struggling with Kevin’s story, but I’ve been able to envision some scenes involving what happens to him. I’ve written a few in the order they came to me.  Now it’s time to put those scenes into a coherent order.  Enter the corkboard:

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As I look at these, I realize the “right” order is to introduce Kevin, have his wife leave him, have him run out of money, get the idea to rob a bank, and then do it.  I shuffle the cards around on the screen by clicking and dragging them into the right order. Now that I’ve done that, Scrivener has put the text items I created earlier into the right order:

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Outline mode shows the same thing:

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Compiling the Manuscript

Let’s assume it’s now late in the writing process.  I’m ready to turn all my work in Scrivener into an RTF file I can import into Word or another tool.  I click the “Compile” button and am prompted for how to compile the content:

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I make my selections and hit the Compile button.

I pick where to save the document and Scrivener generates an RTF file from all my hard work.

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Distraction-free Zone

The full-screen writing mode allows you to work with just your text and a minimal set of formatting tools:

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Many writers find it useful to block out web browsers, email, Facebook, and other such windows while writing.  Scrivener’s full-screen mode can be helpful in this way.

Gathering Research

As you write, you may come across notes, web pages, PDF files, images, and audio/video media files that provide source material you need.  These can all be imported into Scrivener and become part of the project file.  When you compile the manuscript, these items will not be included.

Scrivener supports importing documents in RTF, HTML, TXT, PDF, webarchive, bmp, gif, ico, jpg, aif, and other formats.

Conclusion

The “right” writing software for a specific author is the software which allows that author the degree of freedom and assistance needed to produce work effectively and efficiently.  For the last few years, Scrivener has been that software for me.  I used the Mac version initially, then switched to the Windows version when it went into public beta testing.

My writing process with Scrivener has been something like this:

  • When I get a story idea, I create a Scrivener project.  I enter the “germ” of that story idea into Scrivener so I don’t lose it, and save the file until I’m ready to work on it more.
  • As I ponder a story, ideas will come to me and I may read things in newspapers, magazines, or web sites that I think would help flesh out the story.  When I find these things, I open Scrivener and add the items to the Research folder so they are there when I am ready to write.
  • Using other tools and processes, I map out the basic plot of the story I want to tell. 
  • As I come up with character ideas, settings, etc., I’ll add those into the Research folder so they are available later.
  • I break the story down into individual scenes, where a scene is defined as “one or more characters in a specific location doing a specific thing”.  If the characters, location, or activity change significantly, that becomes a new scene.
  • For each scene, I go into Scrivener and create a “Text” (individual file/document).  I fill in the index card information with a high-level description of what has to happen in that scene.  It’s just a sentence or so to remind me what I need to write, like “Fred discovers Jane’s secret and has to come to grips with it.”
  • Once I’ve laid out all the scenes, I look at them quickly in the corkboard mode to see if the overall order and flow makes sense to me.  If not, I shuffle them around.  I also look to see if I think any key scenes are missing.  I make any adjustments needed.
  • I start writing each individual scene based on the index card description.  As I write each one, I adjust the status from “To Do” to “First Draft” to help me track my progress.
  • If I find that something I write in the moment requires a change to something I’ve written earlier (e.g., the main character has a sister instead of a brother) I will make a note in a “fix later” text in the Research folder to go back and take care of it at some point.  I’ll keep writing the story from that point on as though I had already gone back and changed the earlier scenes.  This lets me keep the writing flowing without feeling like I will forget to make the change later.
  • Once all the scenes are in a First Draft state, I take another look in the corkboard to see if I think I’ve got everything I need, if it’s all in the right sequence, etc.  I make any necessary changes.
  • I look at me “fix later” list and make sure each scene and chapter reflects the things I changed as I wrote.
  • I go back through and revise the scenes until I’m happy with them.  When I’m satisfied, I start thinking about chapters.  I create folders inside Scrivener and begin organizing the individual scenes into chapters.
  • I generate the manuscript.

Like any writer, I have many more stories sitting in the “first five bullets” area of the above list than the last 2.  That’s the way of things.  But I find Scrivener valuable because wherever a story is in the above progression, it’s easy for me to pick it up and work with it when the muse strikes.

Your writing process may differ from mine.  There’s nothing in Scrivener that forces you to use the process I do.  It’s just what works for me.  If you prefer to have your entire story in a single text file, Scrivener will handle that.  Want the files to be individual chapters?  That’s OK too.  Don’t want to store your research in it?  No problem.  How you use it is pretty much up to you.

I’ve found both the Mac and Windows versions of Scrivener to be very stable.  (I haven’t tried the Linux version but would not be surprised if it was similarly stable.)  The design suits my creative process well, and Scrivener is flexible enough to adapt as my writing skills and methods evolve.  It doesn’t bog me down with a lot of forced structure or a step-by-step methodology.  It’s quite simply a powerful, flexible, and easy-to-use tool that helps me create rather than getting in my way.  I find it a key piece of my writing toolkit and a valuable addition to other writing tools (such as Dramatica).

If you think Scrivener is a tool that would help with your writing process, I’d recommend downloading the trial or beta versions and giving them a try with a writing project you’re working on.  Since it’s easy to export your work from Scrivener into another form (such as an RTF file, which most tools read) you have little to risk.

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