If you’ve been writing anything for any period of time, you’ve probably heard about Scrivener, a piece of software for writers. And if you’ve never used it before, you’re probably wondering what the big deal is. Is it going to change your life? Is it a godsend that every author on earth would love to have? Do you neeeeeeeeeed it?
The answer is no.
Shoot. I should probably write more than that, huh?
I bought Scrivener a year ago, when the HYPE TRAIN finally caught up with me. And now that I’ve used it for a couple of projects, I have… ambivalent feelings for it.
But when I was wondering what to write about this morning, I got an email about an SCBWI Scrivener class, and Reddit’s /r/Writing (I know, I know…) upvoted a post about how Scrivener is on sale again. So I guess the universe wants me to talk about my experience with Scrivener!
Let’s do it!
What Does Scrivener Do, Exactly?
Scrivener is a writing tool. It lets you keep everything you need for a writing project in a single place. It has way more features than I can list, but let’s go through a few. You can:
- Create a folder for each chapter and a file for each scene in your story.
- Freely drag-and-drop those scenes wherever you want them.
- Import files, images, and other resources and file them in your story reference files.
- Use its Corkboard to create a notecard for every scene (or whatever) and move them around.
- Use its Outliner mode to create outlines.
- Enter a full-screen mode that blacks out everything else on your desktop.
- Keep track of your daily word counts and your progress toward your final word count.
- Export your novel, which combines all your chapters and scenes into one single manuscript.
So, yes. Scrivener does a lot of really cool things. And its long list of features–along with the fact that everyone seems to raaaaaave about it–made me think that this might be something that revolutionizes how I write.
So, did it?
All those fancy-pantsy features can actually be distracting.
Do you know what happened the first time I tried to use Scrivener to write a novel? I couldn’t focus.
- All my worldbuilding files and notes were right there, staring at me. I know you want your files close at hand, so you can find them without searching, but mentally, they felt too close to me. They were right there. They felt like clutter. They felt like other things I could do and write and play with, which were right there. Staring at me. It was bizarrely distracting.
- I used my outline to create an empty scene for every scene I wanted to do in the book, and every time I sat down I just wrote the next scene. I thought this would be extremely organized and efficient–I had the whole story planned out, right? I just had to fill it in! But seeing how many scenes I had until the end of the book was weirdly demoralizing.
- And full-screen mode, while nice, is just different enough from Word to trigger something in my brain. Despite its many customization options, I couldn’t make it look exactly like Word, and the discrepancies tickled the back of my brain.
Could I have gotten used to all of this? Sure.
But I’m a really habit-driven person. Changing my habits makes me slower, more distracted, and less efficient. And writing in a different format, in a different program, made it considerably harder to write.
Changing the way you write content, take notes, and outline can be disruptive unless it really has a purpose.
This sounds really obvious. But it took me a surprisingly long time to realize that trying to use Scrivener was actually making me less productive.
It was different. It wasn’t unambiguously better than my current systems, it was just different. And that difference was distracting.
So I did some soul-searching. What was the most perfect, most ideal situation when I wanted to write? What felt like a really soothing, really productive setting?
That’s our dear friend Microsoft Word. It has its flaws, sure. But I’ve used it for years, and all my preferred fonts and formatting are pre-loaded into it. And, better yet, there are no distractions–no other folders full of content, no notes hovering in the edge of my vision. Nothing. Just a great, vast, gaping emptiness, waiting for words.
(“But hey! Word is an expensive piece of software, too!” you might cry. “Scrivener is actually cheaper!” This is true! But I’m not saying Word is better for everyone. I’m saying it’s better for me, because I’m used to it.)
In fact, I have a whole system of organizing my notes, outlines, and drafts:
- Notes that I intend to reference a few times before deleting are written in Word and filed in the folders with my stories.
- My outlines and files for the worldbuilding and characters are in a free Wiki at Wikidot.
- If ideas come to me when I’m at work, I use Google Docs or email the ideas to myself.
This is familiar to me. And comfortable. And easy. And, like I said above, I’m used to it. And if I change these without an obvious reason–like some sort of “Holy fudge, this tool does XYZ thing so much better I can’t imagine living without it” moment–it’s jarring and uncomfortable.
And eventually, I realized I was just making things harder for myself for no reason at all. Word worked great for me. Why was I trying to force myself to write somewhere else?
I still use Scrivener for some things. Sometimes. I just don’t need to.
I do use Scrivener sometimes. Just not all the time.
When I write novels, I write in Word and organize my content so that there’s one chapter per Word file. So that part of Scrivener’s pretty useful–I can write all my content in Word, import it into Scrivener when it’s done, and use Scrivener to combine them into a final draft.
And Scrivener can be pretty nice for keeping your notes in one place. While I still use my Wiki, I do sometimes create a new project and store all my notes in it.
But none of this is life-changing. I could combine all my Word files into one giant novel file without Scrivener’s help. I can set up my Wiki so all my notes for one project are grouped together, too. Neither of these are really worth the $40 price tag. This is especially true when you realize that there are tools out there that can do the same thing. yWriter has some similar (but simpler) features, for example, and it’s free.
So, basically: Scrivener can sometimes be useful, but it didn’t change my life.
Basically, you definitely don’t need a $40 piece of software to write. Scrivener does a lot of things, and it’s good at a quite a lot of them. But if you’re agonizing over whether you need to buy some expensive software, don’t. It’s cool, but you don’t need it to write.
I mean, it has a free trial. Give it a shot. See if you like it. But you might not, and that’s fine, too.
And if you already have systems for writing, editing, outlining, and note-taking that work for you? You might not even need Scrivener–not if what you have is working for you.