Writing software

Scrivener vs. MS Word

From Scott:

Today, word processing programs abound. Users of PCs have a wide variety of choices. By far the most widely used program is Microsoft Word, a part of the MS Office Suite. For years, I have been an exclusive user of MS Word for all of my writing needs. In my capacity as a police officer, I guided our department in its transition from handwritten reports—with carbon paper copies, no less—to computerized reports written in MS Word. I wrote my first eight novels in MS Word. Starting with my fourth novel, I came to realize that I could write all of my backstory and character notes in separate MS Word files instead of on paper, for easier access and handling.

Okay, it’s confession time. In high school, after moving on from a mechanical typewriter, I used a Commodore 64 to write school papers. Remember the Commodore? I even used my Commodore computer to write my assignments during my freshman year of college. After a four-year break while I spent time in the Army, I returned to school to work on my bachelor’s degree, but the Commodore finally died. I replaced it with a Commodore 128, running a program called Microsoft Works. That computer carried me through school.

Times are changing, and progress brings new opportunities and a wider range of choices. On the recommendation of a fellow author (Scott Oden), I checked out a program called Scrivener. I ended up buying it, and I am currently using it to write the sequel to my thriller novel, Martyr’s Inferno. A few months ago, I mentioned Scrivener in one of our blog posts, and I promised that I would provide an update once I’d had a chance to use it. That time has come. In today’s blog, I will compare MS Word with Scrivener.

I needed some time to get used to the controls and the interface with Scrivener. Like any guy my age, reading the instruction manual is a last resort. I prefer to just dive in and learn on the fly. I did watch a short series of videos, so that I would at least have a basic understanding of the program’s capabilities. It functions much like MS Word, but with a few noticeable differences. Some are cosmetic, and some are functional. For example, when adding words to the custom dictionary, MS Word uses the option “add to library.” In Scrivener, it’s called “learn spelling.”

Before I go into the differences, let me explain a little about Scrivener. I would classify it as a word processor, but it goes beyond that. You have two main windows open on the screen. On the left side, in a narrow column, you will see an outline of your work. On the right side, in the main window, is what you’ve typed so far. The outline is a powerful tool. The primary heading is for your manuscript (I elected not to bother renaming this, although I could have named it after the title of the book). Beneath that is an entry for your title page. But here is where it gets interesting. The true outline starts beneath the title page, with chapter 1. Each scene within that chapter is given its own subheading. I choose to name the scenes based upon each scene’s main event. With this tool, at a glance you can see where every event in your book happens, and in what order. Whichever scene is highlighted in the outline will appear in the main window on the right, with that scene’s full content.

Alternatively, Scrivener has a “corkboard” view. In this setting, the main screen has a backdrop like a corkboard. When you click on a portion of the outline on the left, a series of index cards are pinned to the corkboard . . . one for each subheading (usually scenes) within that topic. You can click on those index cards and type notes into them, such as changes or additions that need to be made. You can also drag-and-drop those index cards to rearrange the order they appear within the manuscript (the same can be done on the left, within the outline). And as you navigate from one scene to another, there is a pair of arrows at the top of the window that can be used just like the “back” and “forward” buttons on your web browser. Very handy, if you are jumping back and forth between two scenes that are a few chapters apart.

The corkboard option leads us nicely into a comparison of the layout capabilities of the two programs. In MS Word, you only have one option. Yes, you can choose from between different views, such as portrait and landscape. You can view the pages as a print layout, or a web layout, or full screen reading (two pages at once). But the bottom line is that you are still looking only at the pages as you typed them.

Both programs have a spell checker. Currently, I’m using Word 2007, which has quite an extensive dictionary. Scrivener also has a spell checker, but has a more limited vocabulary. Both programs share a basic flaw in their spellcheckers. Try typing a single letter—any letter—in MS Word. Notice that it didn’t pop up as an error. The same problem exists in Scrivener. Although I haven’t examined the problem further in Scrivener, I will assume that the source of this issue is the same as it is for MS Word. In the custom dictionary file, you will find all the words that the program “knows.” All the words starting with “A” come first, followed by a section break, then all the “B” words, and so on. However, the programmers denoted each section by putting the single letter at the start of each section. Look at the list: the letter “A” comes at the top of the “A” words (not a problem, “a” is a word). But the letter “B” starts off the “B” list. If you accidentally type the letter “B” by itself, neither MS Word nor Scrivener will see this as an error. And that’s a problem if you rely too heavily on spell checkers.

MS Word’s spell checker has an accompanying feature that Scrivener does not: a grammar checker. The grammar checker is an excellent tool, if used properly, but it can become a liability. As Rick and I have mentioned before, the grammar checker in MS Word makes mistakes with an alarming frequency. If you tend to rely upon the grammar checker to catch all of your grammatical mistakes, you’ll be better off without it. If you don’t have MS Word to lean on, you’ll be forced to learn the proper grammar, in which case a grammar checker is not as necessary. Personally, although I used to turn off the grammar checking feature, I now leave it on, although every time I see that green squiggly line, I approach the possible error with a sense of cynicism. Now that I’m using Scrivener, it’s no longer an issue, since that feature is not available.

One huge advantage I’ve found with Scrivener is in the background and character information for my novels. With my first three novels, I used legal pads and wrote out all of the information I used to create my stories. With The Piaras Legacy, it got out of hand. I completely filled up two legal pads with information. Not only did that mean I had a lot of paper to carry with me, but imagine the headache of trying to sort through all that data to find the exact information I wanted!

With Martyr’s Inferno, I finally came to realize that I could just as easily put that information into the computer. This left me with a choice: either put all of my background info into one file, which would make it difficult to find what I wanted, or put everything into its own file. This made finding a certain bit of information a lot easier, but created its own headache: I might have a dozen MS Word documents open at the same time. Although this was an improvement over paper, it was still inefficient.

With Scrivener, that problem is solved. In the window on the left, I have a heading for characters. Beneath that, I have a separate entry for each character, which includes everything I’ve typed up about them. The same goes for backstory and other background information. I only have one program open, but with one click I can instantly call up whatever information I need. The only time I would need another program running is for a fantasy novel, where I have a map that I would need to refer to from time to time.

Scrivener’s outline in the window on the left side of the screen is a feature that I would now find it hard to live without. I still remember the nightmare of trying to go back a hundred or so pages in an MS Word document to find out exactly what a character said or did at a certain time. Was that chapter five? Chapter six? Who knows? With Scrivener, I simply look through my outline, find the scene where the action occurred, and click on it. The scene I need pops up on the right, and I can find what I want. Then, with a click on the “back” button, I return to where I was. The beauty of this feature: Scrivener remembers exactly where you last typed in every scene in the book. If you were changing something in the middle of one scene, then you jump around through two or three other scenes to find some information, and then return to where you were working, Scrivener drops you right back where you left off. Try that in MS Word.

I’d like to mention one other benefit of the outline. Although it’s not something I use frequently, I have used it. As you progress through your work, you may decide that one scene needs to happen at a different point in the timeline of your novel. No problem. Go to the outline window, click on that scene, and drag-and-drop it wherever you want it. Scrivener takes care of the rest for you.

One last note: Scrivener files are saved in their own proprietary format, one which is not compatible with MS Word. However, when you are ready, Scrivener will compile your novel into a wide variety of formats: rich text, plain/open documents, even the various ebook formats. And this feature has options, as well. If you only want a chapter or two, maybe even just a single scene, to be compiled into another format, Scrivener will let you do this, as well.

There are many other benefits and features to Scrivener, more than I can mention here. More than I even know about, as I am still learning the software. I want to thank Scott Oden for pointing me in the direction of this new tool. I have made the conversion and will be using Scrivener for my novels from here forward. The irony: I wrote this blog in MS Word!


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