Had a look last night and today at a program for writers called Scrivener. It offers some real advantages in letting you construct and rearrange a long document such as a novel. (Script-writing formats are also supported.) You can take notes on any passage and they’ll appear in a sidebar, and if you want to search just the text of the notes, you can do so. You can open two chapters in a side-by-side or up-and-down window and compare the text. Files you delete go to the Trash in the Scrivener project  itself, so you can always retrieve them. It auto-saves. This is all good stuff.

Scrivener can compile your text while omitting certain sections if you like, which could be useful for quickly printing out alternate versions for your readers. It’s important to note, however, that Scrivener is mainly a writing tool, not a formatting tool for desktop publishing. It can output your files in .rtf, .pdf, .doc, or OpenOffice .odt format, for example, but if you care about how your finished files look, you’ll have to plan on tweaking them in some other program.

In my initial experiments, it was outputting the titles of all of my chapters (based on the section names I had entered in its project browser) in 12pt Courier, which is not what I wanted. I emailed tech support, and a couple of days later received an answer that told me how to suppress the automatically generated chapter titles. This is okay with me. I can enter chapter titles manually myself.

The point of the compile/export routine, for me, is that I want to back up my daily work sessions in a standard format (.odt). I don’t quite trust Scrivener, or any program from a small company, enough to back up my work only in its proprietary format. Its own files are kept in folders (visible in Windows, but you have to trick the Mac into displaying the folder contents) in .rtf files, so yeah, in theory you can extract everything even from a Scrivener backup. But the .rtf files are numbered, not named. If you got into trouble with Scrivener crashing (or not working on your new computer) and needed to get at your creative work, reassembling it would be a fairly gruesome business.

Word processors haven’t really changed much in the past 25 years, have they? Bells and whistles have been added to the output side of your typical word processor: You can add graphics or tables, for example, or page headers and footers. Scrivener is not too good at that sort of thing; it tries, but it’s not a champ. What hasn’t changed in the standard word processor is the input side, and that’s where Scrivener excels.

I think I’ll have to buy it. (It’s not expensive.) I may not switch over with my current project, but for the next project I’ll give it a serious workout.

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