Why I still use Scrivener

Ten reasons why I still use Scrivener for writing fiction.


Although I’ve started using Ulysses for writing blog articles1, I noted that I still use Scrivener and prefer using it for writing fiction. That’s not likely to change any time soon. Not only do I have ten years of content contained within Scrivener projects, it’s shaped the way I write. A big part of that is due to the features it offers.

So, here’s ten solid reasons why I write fiction in Scrivener and will continue to do so.



Rich text

For reasons I can’t fully articulate, I prefer writing fiction in rich text. For years I’ve been writing using the same preset: Optima 14pt/1.3x leading2, and the first line of each paragraphs indented by 12pts.

Rich Text editor in Scrivener
Rich Text editor in Scrivener

Plain text is something I use — and prefer — for non-fiction, particular technical writing, which is my day job, and for writing my blog posts.

Maybe, rich text engages to my creative brain while plain text appeals to my analytical side. I’m not incapable of writing fiction in markdown, but I very much prefer doing so in rich text.

Scrivener is an excellent rich text editor. As I noted, I’ve used the same preset for years; it’s what I like and I don’t feel the need to muck with it and waste time exploring fonts.

Scrivener’s rich text engine gives also gives you tables, inline comments, images, footnotes, annotations, super/subscripts and so on.

Scrivener 3 made rich text even better with the addition of persistent styles — these make it easier writing books where you need more complicated formatting (i.e. non-fiction or technical books, which I admittedly don’t writing in Scrivener). It’s also a godsend for those of us who need to compile to Word and send the MS off to an editor. The styles are preserved on compilation — saving those downstream of your draft (editor and layout designer), a lot of time.

Outliner

Scrivener’s outliner is an extremely powerful way to break down a complex project and view it at a high level. For me it’s the biggest differentiator between Scrivener and Ulysses. It’s power cannot be overstated — it’s like an embedded OmniOutliner, thrown in as an added bonus.

The outliner gives you a collapsable spreadsheet view of a project. You can show or hide information about your manuscript with ease. If all it did was show you the Title and Synopsis, it would be awesome, but it can do much, much more!

With the outliner, you can show and hide all kinds of information, including the Label and Status of a document, but also your writing metrics and even your own custom metadata.

Outliner columns
Outliner columns

Finally, there’s the ability to export your outline data as a CSV file. I use this feature so I can perform analysis on the book using a spreadsheet application. For example, see my tutorial on Visualising POV with Scrivener and Apple’s Numbers3.

Chart of character POV frequency
Chart of character POV frequency

Metadata

What makes the outliner so powerful is Scrivener’s metadata, which I briefly touched on above. Ulysses has metadata, namely: keywords, notes, attachments and images. Ulysses 13 recently introduced keyword colouring, which is welcome feature since I tag all kinds of stuff.

Scrivener, on the other hand…

Scrivener gives you the kitchen sink out of the box: Titles, Synopsis, Labels, Status, Section Type, Keywords, document metrics and so on. Using metadata, you can also specify if a document is ignored by the compiler or is compiled as is (with no changes to formatting or layout).

For as long as I remember, you’ve been able to colour-code labels and display them on the Corkboard cards and the Binder.

If that wasn’t enough, Scrivener allows you to create your own metadata. This has been possible since Scrivener 2, and I used it for recording the POV character, location, other characters and so on.

Scrivener 3 enhanced the feature greatly with the addition of different data types, including checkboxes, lists and dates.

Custom metadata in Scrivener
Custom metadata in Scrivener


Regular expressions

I’m nerding out here. This is one of Scrivener’s most powerful and yet least known features. As a technical writer with a penchant for programming, I’ve long taken advantage of the power of regular expressions. Regex are like find and replace on steroids, allowing you to parse text based on simple or (very) complex patterns rather than a mere literal string. I find it invaluable for editing.

Scrivener’s regex capabilities are fantastic and as with any global search, they can be saved as a collection. Even better, when viewing a document through the lens of a search-based collection, the search term (or the regular expression) is highlighted in the document — this is excellent for eyeballing the kinds of dumb typing mistakes I make.

Things I use regular expressions for:

  • Repeated words and phrases
  • Sentences starting with gerunds and conjunctives
  • Oxford commas and ambiguous lists

And much, much more, but that might be the subject of a tutorial in the future!

Compiling

Scrivener’s complex compiling mechanism is often maligned, particularly when compared to Ulysses’ simpler and more elegant approach. Scrivener 3 went a long way to alleviate some of the complexity for beginners, which is welcome. However, the complexity is still there for those who want it, as I do.

Why?

Control. Scrivener’s compiler gives you control over every aspect of the outputted document. While Ulysses is fine for most export scenarios, Scrivener has you covered when you have edge cases. It supports more formats, such Mobi for Kindle, and Latex for academic, engineering and mathematical publications.



Placeholders

Another underrated feature of Scrivener is its support for Placeholders (essentially, variables). To this I add, its ability to make text replacements on compile.

Scrivener 3 for the Mac, provides a big collection of placeholders — too many to list. Most are simply a means of inserting commonly use bits of text into a document, such as the project title, author name etc. But they can also be used for automatic numbering of table and figure numbers, chapters, document subsections and so on. You can even use them to insert things like the Labels, Status and Synopsis and even your custom metadata — the possibilities are endless.

Replacements, like placeholders, are applied on compile and allow arbitrary transformation of text, be it a literal string or a regular expression. This makes them ideal for cleaning up errant character or place names in your story, but honestly, since they have regular expression support, there’s no limit to what you can do.

Corkboard

I’m not a heavy corkboard user, though ironically it was one of the features that drew to Scrivener back in 2007. That said, I do use it for the oddest of things: viewing images.

Scrivener has robust image support and one thing it allows is displaying images in place of a document synopsis. I don’t use this for the manuscript, but rather I use for things like character and location references. In this manner, they function as a contact sheet, giving me a quick glance of the people and places I’ve cast as actors and settings in my stories.

Casting board for The Weaver's Boy
Casting board for The Weaver's Boy

Templates

Templates permeate Scrivener, from the built-in project templates for fiction, non-fiction, screenwriting to elaborate custom projects made and shared by Scrivener’s friendly community of users. An awesome one for fantasy writers who prefer to do their world-building in Scrivener is Belinda Crawford’s template for the World-Building Leviathan.

Templates provide a great way of bootstrapping a project. I have a particular way I like to structure my projects, so I’ve created a template to hit the ground running when I start something new — complete with the structure I like and the custom metadata tags I use.

Speaking of templates, Scrivener also has document-level templates. These are ideal for adding character and location briefs to your project — the aforementioned Leviathan template has these built in too. Admittedly, I don’t create such references in Scrivener anymore (I’ll cover why in another post). However, I still pull my reference sheets into Scrivener to use while I’m drafting4.

Linguistic focus

A new feature of Scrivener 3 is the rather useful Linguistic focus mode. When toggled, this features allows you to highlight various grammatical structures, for example, all nouns or verbs. You can use it to highlight direct speech, or view at a glance how many pesky adverbs have crept into the draft.

Linguistic focus mode
Linguistic focus mode

Scrivener for iOS

Scrivener for iOS is one of the reasons I returned to the Mac after two frustrating years with Linux. It’s the perfect mobile companion to Scrivener and forms the backbone of my portable writing setup.

In contrast to Ulysses for iOS, Scrivener is much more paired down, with far fewer features than its desktop companion. This is absolutely fine because I’m not about to ditch macOS, even for an iPad Pro.

Paired down, the Scrivener UI fades away, making it an ideal, distraction free environment. Synching is robust — though not automatic like Ulysses5. But it works and it hasn’t failed me yet. It feels great to have all my fiction on hand when I need it.

Often there are times when I will intentionally turn to Scrivener on my iPad when I want to draft and don’t feel the need to structure. This is partly because my iPad has Retina display (my MacBook Air doesn’t), but mostly because of its a minimal UI is a great place to write. It even renders my text using the same font/leading/layout options that I’ve come to prefer.

Another advantage Scrivener iOS has, is the inclusion of dark mode, which I greatly appreciate when writing at night. However, thanks to macOS Mojave introducing system-wide dark mode for the Mac, desktop Scrivener will be adopting that feature too!

Scapple

Scapple is Scrivener’s little brother. Ostensibly it’s a light-weight mind-mapping tool. I don’t mind-map, per se, and in practice Scapple is more like a freeform text editor. I use it to rough out ideas. Sometimes I connect those ideas together in mind-map fashion, but often I don’t.

Here’s an early storyboard I did for The Weaver’s Boy. It shows a list of characters, some ideas about my main POV character, Owain of Langorn and, most prominently, my ideas for the story’s setting, Skeinhold Castle.

The Weaver's Boy early concept board in Scapple
The Weaver's Boy early concept board in Scapple

Not a mind-map by any means, but more like a digital collage or whiteboard just for capturing ideas quickly and visually.

Since it’s developed by the same folks as Scrivener, the two programs work well together. You can embed whole Scapple documents in Scrivener to view and you can add Scapple snippets to the binder through a simple drag and drop mechanism.

Conclusion

So there they are, my top ten reasons for why I continue to use Scrivener for writing long-form fiction. I could have listed more — things like the flexible layout system, note taking features, the power of the binder and collections — but I wanted to keep it to ten things that either differentiate Scrivener or aren’t as well known.

This wasn’t intended to be a debate about what is best. I’m not rubbishing Ulysses by praising Scrivener. I love both, I use both and I see no issue with that.

I’ve come to realise that heated debates about what is best are fruitless. As a professional writer, I produce content across the domain of fiction and non-fiction and impacts the tools I use.

One of my father’s favourite adages that has always stuck with me is, ‘choose the right tool for the job.’ I apply it to my professional life. Long-form fiction has a different set of requirements to writing articles, user manuals or essays.

Fanboyism is dumb. If something works, I’ll use it and so, I see no problem with continuing to use and love Scrivener while I use Ulysses for blogging. After all, carpenters don’t use hammers to cut wood.

Scrivener is still, for me the best long-form writing program I’ve ever used.


  1. I’m drafting this very article in Ulysses. 

  2. Aka, line spacing if you weren’t trained in old-school typography 

  3. The principle works with same for Microsoft Office. 

  4. Often in split view, another awesome feature of Scrivener that probably should have made my top ten! 

  5. Syncing in Ulysses is outstanding. 

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