Getting the Right Writing Tool

David Parry bio photo By David Parry


As much as I love Mellel I never thought I would say this, but, I have started using another Word Processing program. Never fear Mellel faithful, I have not abandoned Mellel, I have just added another tool to my word processing repitoire.

Meta-Explanation(feel free to skip if you want)

I have been thinking a lot lately about how are writing tools shape our writing habits (partly because of the discussion over at Kairosnews about teaching students to use various word processors). In essence this is something I am always thinking about, as the question of augmenting the human is in some sense at the heart of my dissertation, but lately I started thinking past the hardware/digital questions that have dominated much of my thinking and what others have written, and started to think solely about software, in particular how similar most word processors are. That is, for the most part (I realize there are exceptions but bear with me), word processing applications are designed in a linear way. This is why most look like you are typing on a page, a virtual typewriter on a virtual piece of paper. Sure there is some deviation from this model (look I can change the color of my virtual page . . .) but again the writing is mostly linear. MS Word, Pages, Nisus Writer, Open Office, GoogleDocs, all operate under this conceit, which is a good idea given that much of what gets written still has as a goal the presentation on a piece of paper (i.e. the important print function). But what if you aren’t planning on printing to paper, or what if you just don’t want to constrict what you are writing to that format just yet. I realize part of this is sort of obvious, of course I use a different program for writing in html than the one I use for writing academic papers. But really, there are not many options out there for writing not-confined to the page format (there are a few, and I know some people who write everything in an outline program like OmniOutliner but none of these have ever appealed to me.) Enter Scrivener.

End Meta-Explanation

I was working on the introduction to my dissertation and having trouble conceiving of the “whole” document. Usually I have a plan of how the sections are going to work in writing a larger piece and I just compose from there, but for some reason this was not working. So, I decided to give Scrivener a try. What Scrivener allows you to do, or at least this is the claim of the program, and I generally think it lives up to this, is just write—get down on “cards” your thoughts, and worry about the order, flow, and detail later. This is a bit hard to explain, I think especially since we are so trained to think of writing as a linear process (write page 1, write page 2, write page 3–go back and edit), but what you can do in Scrivener is just start writing. It is not a page layout program, but rather an instrument for capturing and sorting text.

Scrivener is designed to let you write in blocks/chunks of text and than sort and edit those blocks/chunks. It is a bit like writing on note cards except each note card is as large or as small as you want. What I really like about writing in Scrivener is that it “feels” like a free-writing environment, because I know ultimately the text will have to be sorted, rearranged and edited to fit on a piece of paper, I don’t worry as I am writing about making it adhere to those restrictions just yet. (What I have found though is that this does make the editing process a bit longer.) This probably has its advantages for composing works that are intended for digital distribution as well, where your organization need not necessarily be determined by a page format.

Scrivener was designed with creative writers in mind, and it seems to me that these would we the people most likely to use the software. The ability to write scenes, sort, track and edit those, and finally position them in a narrative arc seems to me what the programer had in mind here. But, that having been said I am finding it tremendously useful for my academic writing.

One of the best features of Scrivener is the full screen mode. I like working in the full screen mode, but no application to-date has had a full screen mode this well done. You can change the size of the writing space, and fade the background, in order to leave subtle notes still viewable on the desktop. There is also a pop-up menu (located at the bottom of the screen) which allows you to change some of the features of full screen mode without leaving and returning.

The other thing I really appreciated about this application was the instruction manual, which comes as a Scrivener file rather than just a .pdf. The advantage here is that the instruction manual teaches you how the program operates as you work through the manual. Which is a good thing, because as I mentioned it does require some getting used to, a bit of a paradigm shift in writing on a computer.

There are actually a lot of other features, useful for storing research, splitting the screen, summarizing what a chunk/block of text says, or your editing comments. I haven’t used most of these, except for to try them out, as again they seem to play to the “creative writing tool.”

I still start some of my writing in Mellel, especially when I have a clear idea of where the paper is going, or its layout. But for my fledging writing I now turn to Scrivener first, compose in it, and export it to an .rtf when it has taken shape as a “paper” rather than just a draft of ideas. Perhaps the best thing I can say about Scrivener is it helped cure some of my writers block that I was having writing the introduction and got me to the next step, and thus has earned a prominent place in my writing applications. Scrivener is $34.99, more than reasonably priced for an application with its feature set, a thirty day trial is free. One other positive note, I emailed the developer with a couple of questions, and he got back to me in less than 24 hours, this always speaks well of an application. Scrivener is not for everyone, I could definitely see this actually getting in the way for some of my students, but it is worth a look if you want to try something a bit different.(Sorry PC folks, Mac only. But if anyone knows of a PC app that works this way let me know or drop it in the comments.)