I’ve recently been working on my latest novel again, having put it aside while there were too many other things going on for me to find the time. And I’ve been trying out some writing software. Called Scrivener, it is, according to its makers, ‘the go-to app for writers of all kinds’, designed to provide everything you need to start writing and keep writing. You can download it for a free one-month trial (where rather than a calendar month, only the days you actually use the software count towards the trial). So how have I been getting on?
My first task was to work my way through the tutorial, which took some time. And then I was ready to create a new project, and start typing. I write the old-fashioned way, with pencil and notebook. It works well for me. I get to do the creative bit unencumbered by soulless ‘tech’. And then later, the process of typing up what I’ve written acts as an additional level of editing and proof-reading. I had nearly two full notebooks ready to be typed up. I created a new document for each chapter. They suggest you give the chapters titles, rather than numbers, to save having to re-number if you either change the order or insert more chapters as you progress. This is a screenshot (snip) of Scrivener:
The main panel looks very much like MS Word – presumably this is what it’s based on – but without the full range of controls and options you get with Word. A column on the left, which they call the binder, is effectively the file structure; a list of the chapters, plus notes, research – anything else you want to put in there, you can just create a folder and/or a document for it. Folders can contain text, images, videos, sound – whatever you need. On the right, another column is for comments, notes, references, plus a synopsis of each chapter. This column is called the inspector. There are different views – you can look at two chapters or documents side by side (or split horizontally) which could be very useful when you’re referring to reference material or notes. You can have attachments pinned to a cork board background.
I had quite a few problems trying to get the program to give me what I wanted. Finding options was difficult, as it differs from Word quite a bit (and, as I’ve said, there aren’t as many options). It took me a while to find where to change the paragraph indents, for example. And I still haven’t found how to change the measurements for indents from inches to millimetres (maybe you can’t).
Some of the functions are rather strange and annoying. The spellchecker insists on starting from the beginning of the document, and won’t let you highlight a particular word. The comments look just like comments in MS Word, except that rather than aligning with their position in the text, they appear as a continuous list. The relevant comment is highlighted when you click into the text at the point it refers to (or, conversely, if you click on a comment, you jump to the point in the text it refers to). This doesn’t really work for me.
I think part of the problem is that I’ve really just been typing (I’ve put in one notebook worth of text) rather than making full use of the program. I have put most of my reference material and notes in too, but I just haven’t been doing enough with the various functions to learn how the software works. Plus, it’s now over a month since I went through the tutorial, and I’ve forgotten most of it. I can go back to the tutorial whenever I need to. But who wants to be playing that game when you’re deep in the creative process of writing?
Another problem is that I write on a tablet, with a keyboard attached. It’s small, and therefore portable, so I can carry it around with me (and occasionally go and write in a coffee shop while sipping at a long black – bliss!) But the screen is, of course, small, which is a disadvantage even with a standard word processor. But in Scrivener, with a panel to the left and right, and the option of splitting the screen to look at two documents at once..? Well, those functions just aren’t practical on a small screen. You can hide both left and right panels to give yourself full screen width. But that kind of negates the added functionality they give.
With the trial period coming to an end, I set about exporting the text I’d written in Scrivener, so I didn’t lose it. If I decide not to buy the program I’ll need to get it into MS Word. Scrivener has a ‘compile’ function, which allows you to export your book into a variety of formats, including PDF, RTF and MS Word. You can specify page breaks, font type and size, etc. Sounds great, but it’s complicated, and would need a fair amount of experimentation before you get the result you want. It reminds me of my days as a computer programmer. Adding an extra step (compilation) between writing your manuscript and putting it into a finished format seems to me like a retrograde step, compared to a word processing program, where you format as you go along, and can see the finished result and make corrections to it.
With Scrivener, you compile, check through the result then, if it isn’t quite how you want it, you have to look at the settings, recompile, and hope that it works. That really does seem too much like hard work to me; particularly as Scrivener doesn’t do typesetting, so that when you finally get the result you want you have to import it into another program to typeset, before you can send it to the printers. It’s a process that’s just asking for things to go wrong. And they did! The screenshot (snip) that follows illustrates this perfectly. I compiled to a Word (docx) format, to include the comments. You can see that while some of it formatted properly, for a large chunk, the main text has migrated into the comments field:
I deleted all of the comments, to see what happened – whether that would put it right. As you can see, the text in the section that wasn’t formatted correctly then disappeared off the edge of the page!
If this is the kind of problem you get from what was only a basic export of what amounts to perhaps a sixth of a novel, I dread to think what awaits when I try to compile the full manuscript. There’s also the issue of confidence – you need to know the software is going to give you what you need, and not produce random unexpected results.
When I copied the text into my Word document, things got stranger still. Trying to delete page breaks, or changing the font size, didn’t seem to work. Clicking the option to show hidden formatting marks didn’t solve it – there was nothing I could see that would be causing problems. After a lot of messing about I think I may have put it right, but I’m not confident of what will happen when I start to edit the text further.
I think you can tell from the above that I’m not going to buy Scrivener when the trial period ends. The main function of the software is to have everything relating to your book – the manuscript, notes, research, etc. – in the same place. It is handy to be able to click through a list of chapters by title, and it saves time switching between different Word docs. But it also seems quite claustrophobic, and needs a reasonably large screen to work. Darius Marley commented on a previous post to the effect that software writing aids are not necessarily all they’re cracked up to be. Thanks Darius, for that wise advice.
The time I spent testing Scrivener was not entirely wasted though. It made me think more about how I can use existing software – in my case MS Word and Excel – to better organise the writing process. MS Word may not be perfect, but at least it’s familiar and reliable (most of the time).
text © graham wright 2020