When I got my first home computer (a Mac LCII) the writing app I started out with was the legendary WriteNow, a tiny, but powerful word processing application that many still consider to be a miracle of programming. I loved WriteNow, but it didn’t keep up with the times; technology outstripped it and eventually I had to find something else. I could have gone with a native Mac app like MacWrite Pro, but, like many others, I decided to choose the system I used at work, in this case Word 5.1 for Mac.
I adored 5.1. It was the best. It could crowbar its way into any text file I fed it, and it offered me all the features I could possibly want in a way that was intuitive, elegant and hassle free. Alas, when I upgraded to Mac OSX on my iMac G3, Word 5.1 bit the dust. Naturally I went to Microsoft to find its replacment, and this time I ended up with Word 2004 for Mac…. Which I didn’t love. At all. In fact, it was a steaming pile of manure...Scrub that, it was a cold pile of manure. You could warm your hands on steaming manure, but 2004 had close to zero utility as far as I was concerned. It was full of bells and whistles that I had no use for and seemed to be deliberately obtuse when it came to simple bread-and-butter functions such as text formatting.
Unfortunately Word 2004 was still on my computer (by now an Intel iMac) when I started my first novel Leofric: Sword of the Angles. Word 2004 had a notebook facility that I used to plan the story on, creating one notebook section for each chapter. This worked pretty well for the first draft, but when it came to editing I realised that I’d made a fundamental mistake in organising the book on a chapter by chapter basis. It’s useful to divide a book into chapters, but these divisions should be applied after the book is written, not before. What I really needed to do was to divide my story into scenes, then weed out or combine the weaker ones and beef up the ones that were left. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see any way of doing this in Word 2004 rather than cutting and pasting, and even then I’d be cutting and pasting back into 2004 documents, and I’d already decided the app was not worth the trouble. So I went in search of some new writing software, simple stuff that would let me organise and format my text in a sensible way, without breaking the bank...
My first thought was to try out some bespoke creative writing software, applications such as StoryMill, WriteItNow and ScriptIt! There was a lot of choice at the time and when I visited a few review sites to check them out I also started seeing mentions of a package called Scrivener. At first I only read about Scrivener in the context of academic and non-fiction writing, but the name kept cropping up again and again, so I decided to take a look. After a quick dip into the developer's Literature & Latte website, I downloaded a free trial copy, and less than ten minutes after that – literally – I bought it. The reason for my enthusiasm was ‘command-k’, a handy Scrivener function that allows you to place the cursor anywhere in the text and automatically split it into two new documents. This was pretty much heaven for me considering my chapter/scene conundrum, and I cut and pasted my entire first draft (roughly 200,000 bloated words) into a Scrivener book template then spent the next couple of hours slicing it down to scene level, a job I originally thought would take me days. Formatting was also a breeze, a far cry from the hair-pulling frustration of 2004 where even the simplest commands were buried so deep in the menus that I’d eventually give up looking for them.
But don’t read this and think that Scrivener is a bare-bones application; it has a load of features, far more than I’d ever use, but whereas the feature-rich Word 2004 always seemed to want to slap my face when I tried to get it to do something, Scrivener has always been far more helpful. I’ve never felt frustrated using Scrivener, it’s one of those programmes that always seems to be on your side.
By now you'll have gathered that I think there’s lots to love about Scrivener, but there are three features in particular that I use all the time. And here they are:
This allows you to make a copy of your current document with the click of a button. I find this particularly useful in keeping a record of my edits. Whenever I’m about to embark on a heavy re-write, I take a snapshot of the current version so it’s stored away for posterity. If I later decide I don’t like the changes I made, I can consult the previous version and cut and paste the text I want back; or, if I decide I didn’t like any of my changes, I can ‘roll back’ the editing and restore the whole thing.
A simple notes facility, easily accessible from the document you're working on, that allows you to keep track of any ideas you have, or changes you need to make. I also use this a lot in editing. I’ll often cut and paste a section of text into the notes, play around with it there, and if I’m happy with the results, copy and paste it back into the original document. I also use it to store chunks of cut text in case I can use it again elsewhere.
A huge time-saver. If there are names or words that you find yourself using a lot, you can add them to an auto-complete list that will then prompt you to select them when you start typing them. This was immensely useful when writing Leofric: Sword of the Angles (and its soon-to-be published sequel Leofric: Land of the Franks) as it's full of Nordic and Anglo-Saxon names that are often long and/or hard to spell ("Have at you, Magnhildr!"). Auto-complete has been a life-saver.
I doubt any of Scrivener's features are unique, but they're bundled up in a way that makes the whole package a pleasure to use. If you’re still not convinced, take a look yourself and download a trial version. If there’s a better app to organise, edit and format a novel I don’t know what it is.