Brown River Queen cover art

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Scrivener or Word?

Tim Gatewood, Notary Public par excellence and a tireless supporter of all things science fiction and fantasy, posted an interesting question to me on Facebook yesterday.

Here's what Tim asked:

"Have you used Scrivener? If so, would you recommend it? What are the good and the bad features?

Is there a way to index the finished product (the book) in it?

If you don't use Scrivener for your writing, what program do you use? What are the good and bad features of it?

Do you use a free-standing indexing program?"

It's a good set of questions. I myself asked me of some writer friends not long ago, and I even downloaded and tried the 30-day free trial of Scrivener.

Before I offer my own experience, I suppose I should clarify a few things.

First of all, what the heck is Scrivener?

Scrivener is a word processor. In that it is performing the same functions as Word or Word Perfect or Open Office or any of the other text wrangling software packages out there. We writers pound away at our keyboards and Word or Scrivener or what-have-you patiently takes the words and wraps them in a format and spits out a perfectly formatted document which the writer then regards with deep disgust before starting all over.

Scrivener, in my opinion, takes things a step further than that. It was designed not as a generic document processor, but as a tool for novelists and authors.

Let me explain why I think that.

Scrivener lets you base your organization around chapters, not pages. Which may seem like a trivial feature at first, but most of the writers I know organize their books and outlines around chapters, not pages. There are characters and story arcs that takes place across chapters. By basing the package on that structure, Scrivener scored a major point with me.

Why? Because it builds an outline for you as you go. At the start of each new chapter, you enter a brief summary of the events and turning points that comprise the chapter. Then you dive in and start writing. Oh, you can also stick images and notes and clippings of any sort related to that chapter on a corkboard, as reminders or reference materials that you no longer have to scramble and hunt for.

Want to make a major change, and rearrange the events in the book?

No problem. Just use a simple control interface to move your chapters around. The notes and corkboards and internal outlines all adjust themselves automatically.

Can Scrivener's biggest competitor, Microsoft Word, do any of that?

Nope. Not that I know of, anyway. Word does let you start out by choosing from a bewildering and vast array of pre-formatted templates. You can write a novel or draft a will or print up flyers for a yard sale or an amateur performance of 'Othello.' But you aren't going to effortlessly build your novel around chapters.

Word can save documents in many formats -- as web pages, as pdf files, and raw text, you name it.

Scrivener can too, and it can even save your final product as a Word file.

Seems like from what I've said I'd be using Scrivener, right?

I'm not. And I don't see myself switching, for one reason -- for all its brilliant design, Scrivener's ability to create workable Word files is far from perfect.

The publishing industry is built on Word. Like it or not, that's a reality.

Here's how it works. I write a book and send the Word document off to my publisher. If the book is bought, my editor takes the Word doc and we begin the back-and-forth editing process. She makes comments using a Word feature. She makes changes that are highlighted for me to see and approve or reject using a Word feature. Then the FLE (first line editor) gets it and the process repeats until everyone is happy.

That's the process.

And none of it works with the so-called 'Word' file produced by Scrivener.

Now, there is an elaborate procedure to 'fix' the Scrivener files using various converters and so forth. I don't know the details, because I'm not going to go there. In my experience, what worked as a kludge fix just last February very well might not work this June, and I don't have time to fiddle with software in hopes of producing something that might or might not work.

Yes, there are some authors who use Scrivener, despite this. I can assure you they are authors who exceed my stature in the industry much like Godzilla towers over Bambi. Steven King could submit his books printed out in old dot-matrix on the backs of grocery store receipts.

But the rest of us had jolly well better submit nice clean usable Word files.

And I don't blame the editors, either. It's not part of anyone's job to fiddle with files until the basic functions are viable. Even trying makes me go a little grayer with each effort. No thanks.

So that's why, despite my appreciation for Scrivener, I buy up the latest version of Word as soon as it's available.

I do wish Microsoft would whip up a Word release aimed at writers.

Then I reflect upon how much we writers tend to make, and I get back to work.

But Frank, you say, in triumph. What if I plan to self-publish? Doesn't Scrivener have the ability to produce a very clean Kindle/Nook/Kobo ready e-book format?

I hear that it does. If you plan on self-publishing, Scrivener is probably a good choice.

But for now, for me, it's not an option.

Still curious? Here's the link for Scrivener...



  1. Charles Stross, whose writing is as brilliant as your own, wrote about his experience with Scrivener back in 2012. His take was that it worked well until "one hour before the submission" of the initial draft. After that, the file better be a Word doc so it can be edited back and forth. So, I find it odd (and unsettling) that you say the Word file that results from using Scrivener is not a real Word file, that it takes converting. Another writer I know has said that he writes in Word, then dumps the results into Scrivener to use its conversion engine for making mobi and epub versions of the work. So, what I am hearing is Your Mileage May Vary. The different results seem to be a matter of the learning curve -- those who spent the time to learn the program got better results. If I use it, I intend to work through the tutorials so I can be sure of how the features work before I put any of my work into it.

    Meanwhile, no one (YET) has answered my question about the indexing, by which I mean an actual index that can appear at the end of the book with page numbers for the topics. I do understand that much of what Scrivener is about is at least 2 different forms of outlining, but that's not really the same thing.

    In any case, THANK YOU for your kind words about my humble self and for taking the time to answer my questions.

  2. Unfortunately, I'm still learning the ins-and-outs of Scrivener, but I love it. I use it to create my masterpiece THEN I put it out to Word and do all the back-and-forth editing with editors and publishers in Word. Yes, Word is the program of choice. When I worked for the government, it was mandated we standardized on Word Perfect. I was a Word person. So I wrote my documents and letters in Word, exported to Word Perfect and sent them on to whoever it was. That was until I discovered that the one person I was usually sending to was taking my Word Perfect document/letters and exporting them to Word. Once that was established between us, we eliminated Word Perfect. I will continue to learn Scrivener because it has some great author features - like Snapshot, Rollback, word usage/repetition checking and more. Word does not! PLUS, I can have all my research in my Scrivener project and shut out the world while I work. I can't do that in Word. Indexing? Sorry, but still learning. I figure it does.

  3. SOMEONE who feels the same way I do with Scrivener!!! I have tried the free version and I see how it works and the ONLY way I think it would be good is if I were putting together an anthology. I also see the benefits of outlining a chapter, but it was so hard. I guess the learning curve for me was too great and I went right back to Word for my manuscripts. "But Elyse, how do you find anything in a 300 page manuscript?" I find/replace - type in the word and get to my spot. Ideal? No. Would Scrivener get me there to that chapter faster? Yes... but I just can't figure it out.

  4. I have used Scrivener since it first came out and I would never switch. I think Word is unreliable and clunky compared to Scrivener. I have never had any problems converting documents to Word.