Daily Archives: October 13, 2010

In Praise of Scrivener

In a couple of weeks, Literature & Latte will release a major upgrade to Scrivener, a market-upending, writing application they first launched back in 2005/2006. The software has received incremental improvements throughout the intervening years (including one major release at version 1.5), but this is the first upgrade the company feels comfortable charging its existing customers for. After years of development, the company is releasing Scrivener 2.0.

Before it comes out, however, we should take a moment to celebrate the wonder that is Scrivener 1.x.

Scrivener was designed to make the process of writing easier. Before Scrivener, most writing applications followed the word processing model, which was, itself, based on the model of the typewriter: writing begins at the top of the document and ends at the bottom. Word processors don’t change that model, choosing instead to make the middle of the document their battleground—”my word processor is better than yours because I can add tables in the middle of the document;” “no mine is better, because I can drag and drop images into the middle of my document;” “no mine is better because I can track any changes people make to the middle of my document;” etc.

The genius of Scrivener is that it tries to model not a typewriter, but a writer’s mind.1 While it contains some of the basic features of a word processor (it shares its text engine with Apple’s pre-installed TextEdit), Scrivener can be more accurately described as a project management application, where the project in question is a large and complex piece of writing.2

Writing is a notoriously messy operation, but word processors assume that the process of word writing is a fairly simple enterprise: a writer has an idea for a story (or research paper, or law review, or documentary script, etc.), so she sits down in front of a blank “sheet of paper” and types it up; case closed. This, of course, is pure fantasy. Writing involves collecting half-formed ideas, turning them into a series of communicable thoughts, and then developing them into an organic and intelligent whole. It’s not a process that lends itself to the linearity of the page—which is why Scrivener 1.x doesn’t even include the concept of the page: pages are for readers, not writers.3 And that’s the difference between word processors and Scrivener. Word processors assume that writing is just like reading; Scrivener knows better.

The feature list of Scrivener 1.x is long and involved, and this is no place to go into it. But each one is the result of a seemingly-agonizing battle (example) in the heart and mind of Scrivener’s chief (and until recently, sole) developer, a “gruff and quirky” chap named Keith Blount. Where Microsoft Word and other “writing” applications often feel like the result of way too many compromises, Scrivener feels like it springs from a single vision. That vision may not always align with your own, but once you give yourself over to it, you can predict (and be surprised by) its actions the same way you can predict (and be surprised by) the actions of a beloved character in your favorite novel. Scrivener is not just software for a writer; it is software by a writer, and it carries the authority that all art—if it’s good art—should carry.

And in just a couple of weeks, we’ll get to experience that writer’s next masterpiece. I am nervous for the upgrade, the same way you get nervous when you’re about to crack open the sophomore effort of a novelist you like, your mind plagued with concerned questions: will this one be as good, but at the same time, be different; will the author give me the same thrill I had when I first discovered his work; will the author be able to overcome any cynicism that may have crept into my worldview during the intervening years; will the work change my life for the better—differently but again?

We’ll soon find out the answers to those questions. But in the meantime, I just want to say thanks to Keith (and his growing team) for all the joy that has been Scrivener 1.x. Good writing software doesn’t do the hard work for you. But it makes it feel a lot less like work.

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p>Footnotes

  1. Even the name of the program reflects this choice: where Microsoft tries to improve the word, Literature and Latte tries to improve the scrivener.
  2. The best illustration for this is the keystroke ⌘N, which in all Mac applications, creates a “New ___.” In Microsoft Word, for example, ⌘N brings up a “New Document”; in Scrivener, it creates a “New Project.”
  3. It should be mentioned that Scrivener 2.0 will include the concept of the page, but only because screenwriters depend on page counts to understand the length and shape of their movies.