The Craft of Writing: Why I Use Scrivener

I occasionally get asked what app I use to write my novels. The answer is Scrivener. Reactions to that vary, with ignorance of Scrivener being the norm. However, regardless of the reaction, I almost always get asked, "why don't you use Microsoft Word?"

The answer to that question is, "have you ever tried to write anything longer than a one-page memo in Word?"


The fact is that when I sat down to write Red Cell, my first novel, I started it using Word. It wasn't pleasant. I won't list off all the reasons why; there have been many Internet diatribes by other authors that cover that terrain pretty well — google "Microsoft Word author agony." Suffice it to say that Microsoft Word isn't well designed for drafting long documents.

So I explored alternatives, starting with other word processors — Apple's Pages, OpenOffice, LibreOffice, Bean, Mariner Write, Nisus Writer Pro — and found out that none of them were any better for the job. Admittedly, some of them might have improved significantly over the last decade since I dabbled with them, but at the time they were, as Steve Jobs once phrased it, "a big bag of hurt." It was like the scene from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix where Dolores Umbridge makes Harry write "I will not tell lies" using a blood quill. No wonder Ernest Hemingway drank so much. Yes, he just used a typewriter, but I think he saw what was coming.

In growing desperation, I tried text editors like TextEditTextMateBare Bones Software's TextWrangler (for you non-techies, that's an HTML code editor), Smultron (no link, that one's dead and buried), WriteRoom, and several others whose names I have willingly forgotten. None of them were any better (though WriteRoom at least takes a minimalist approach and mostly gets out of the way).

Sweet Mother of Mary, I even looked around to see if there was a good LaTeX editor that would fit the bill (every computer science student reading this is now shaking her head in utter disbelief).

Then I learned that there are specialized writing apps. With renewed hope, I checked those out. There were a bunch, I burned through the demo versions...and none of them felt right. At best, they weren't actively painful to use but they weren't exactly intuitive. I've written plenty of software in my day; these apps felt like software written by a engineers chasing a market...coders creating the kind of tool for a job they've never actually performed themselves. They probably interviewed writers and asked what kinds of features they would like, but didn't have any actual writers testing the software during its development. Even when they got the feature set right, the implementations were clunky.

Then came Scrivener.

Scrivener is the flagship app of a company called Literature & Latte. At the time, the company consisted of precisely one employee — Keith Blount, a Brit living in Cornwall, England. Blount was an aspiring writer who ran into the same problem I had. Fortunately (for me), he ran into it a few years before I did and decided to do something about it. Blount taught himself how to program and created the kind of tool that he wanted to use. Writing software coded by a writer? That was promising. I downloaded the demo, spent ten minutes with it, and the search was done.

Brief note: I'm not getting compensated in any way to say good stuff about Scrivener or its parent company. I'm praising it because I use it and think it's the best-of-breed writing tool out there. I've never met Keith Blount, but if I ever do, I'm going to take him down to his favorite pub in Cornwall and buy him a plate of bangers-and-mash.

I could tap out an extended diatribe extolling the many features of Scrivener, but you should really just go to the video tutorials page on Blount's site and watch the Introduction to Scrivener. If you're a writer (aspiring or otherwise) you'll understand what I'm talking about. If you're not a writer but have to occasionally draft long-ish documents — term papers, sermons, theses, dissertations — you might find it's better than a word processor for what you do. In any case, remember this: Scrivener gets the feature set right and it's implementation of those features is nothing short of joyous.

And for you non-Mac users, there's are versions for Windows and Linux (beta), and an iOS version is in the works. (Writing a novel on an iPad seems like another bag of hurt, but I won't judge).

So, long story short, why do I use Scrivener?

Because I don't enjoy pain. Scrivener is Percocet for a writer's soul. It makes the pain just go away.