As a rule, I’m highly mistrustful of software that targets itself at fiction writers. While the elaborate formatting conventions of screenplays mean that Final Draft is a useful tool for screenwriters, there’s a large part of me that believes the only things prose writers need are something to write with, something to write on, and a dictionary. Software that, for example, allows you to input a number of aspects of your novel—character name, inciting incident, plot twist 2b—and then arrange them into a pre-formatted structure, is a bad thing. Writers need to be do these things for themselves; if they can’t, they’re very likely going to have deeper problems that a piece of software isn’t going to fix.
So, when I read on the BBC Website that Neil Cross does most of his writing on a piece of specialist software, I was a little sceptical. Still, I thought I’d take a look. As is so often the case when I overcome one of my many prejudices, I’m glad I did.Scrivener, which is available only for Mac OS X, is a tool for writers that combines basic word processing features with a system for organising notes, research, and additional project information. Users accustomed to the feature-rich environment of Word might hesitate at the idea of “basic” word processing, but this is really all that a fiction writer needs—all of those additional formatting features in Word are little more than distractions and time-wasters. Scrivener gives you what you need, and gives it to you in as simple a way as possible; there’s even a full screen mode to allow you to focus more fully on the prose.
The project as a whole is divided into two sections: Draft & Research. The former is your manuscript, and consists of a series of documents, allowing you to divide your work into separate chapters, scenes, or sections, each with its own synopsis and supporting information – as much or as little as you like. (Once you’ve finished your novel, or whatever you’ve been writing, Scrivener allows you to stitch all the parts together and export it as a Word document, so that you can tweak the margins and formatting and get started on your submissions.)
The ‘Research’ folder is a scrapbook in which you can keep text files, .pdfs, images, web archives, and other useful information about your project. Scrivener provides a variety of ways to link this research content to your draft, allowing you to access the information you need quickly and easily.
“Quickly” and “easily” are really the keywords here. Playing around with the program, I really did feel like I was using a tool, rather than a distraction. There’s an excellent tutorial that takes maybe twenty minutes to introduce you to the features, and once that’s done, there’s no reason why you should dedicate your time to anything but your work.
The choice of writing tools and methods is a deeply personal one, and so I’d never give a flat recommendation for a writing product. But, if you have a Mac, I do suggest giving the free trial version a try. Now that I’ve had a play with it, I’m certainly tempted to use Scrivener for a future project.
Scrivener (download) is available with a month’s free trial, followed by a $39.95 license fee if you decide to keep using it. Version 2.0, with new features, will be available at some point this year, with a reduced upgrade fee. As always when writing on a computer, make sure you make regular backups.