I downloaded Scrivener

I’ve been going through some real soul-searching about my writing process. It’s obviously served me well in a lot of ways, but I’m increasingly realizing that it was developed under more or less emergency circumstances (committing to a book mid-PhD) and is currently being held together with duct tape. The Girlfriend suggested that if I wanted to shake things up, I should finally submit to peer pressure and download the universally-recommended Scrivener.

A lot of my resistence to using Scrivener came from a sense that it was doing things I was already doing. For instance, I already use separate files for chapters, organize things into folders, place documents side-by-side, etc. What convinced me was a small thing from the demonstration video — you can display any number of subdocuments together as a single long block of text. Instantly I saw that this would be a much easier way to manage my reading notes. Previously I had compiled reading notes by topic or chapter, because a file for each book seemed too cumbersome — Scrivener’s approach would allow me to group them however I wanted for whatever I happened to be writing.

And then came the flood of realizations. Everything I was doing with Word required ignoring or fighting against Word’s way of doing things. I could ignore formatting until the end if I wanted, but Word was always going to display the text with the minimal formatting of standard margins (even in “normal” mode) — meaning it was a hassle to place documents side by side on most displays. There’s no “just the text” mode that uses the window itself as de facto margins. Similarly, the outline features are clunky and unreliable (a few random blocks of body text are almost always inexplicably treated as a higher outline rank when you first display a document in outline mode). I could go on — I’m probably the world’s foremost expert in the weird quirks of Word 2003 and how to work around them.

This morning, I wrote up some pretty substantial notes over my devil project, in a box that showed nothing but plain old typewriter text. There were no rulers or margins, no metaphor of a page at all, just the text. The most beautiful moment for me was when I opened up a few blank lines, and then decided to just continue the current paragraph: since I didn’t put anything on the other side of the blank space, the blank lines weren’t “there” anymore. I’ve seen hundreds of Word documents absolutely littered with blank lines at the end of the file, from students, from seasoned academics, from everyone. In the past, I’ve been mildly annoyed that they don’t notice all that wasted space causing them to go over onto an additional blank page, etc., etc. — what never occurred to me was that unused blank space should simply… go away, without me having to think about it.

So there you have it. In one morning, years’ worth of stubborn resistance to change have melted away. And now that I’m not clinging for dear life to my old writing process, who knows? Maybe I’ll eventually get a Mac in a few years.

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32 Responses to “I downloaded Scrivener”

  1. Alex Wyman Says:

    Quite brilliant. Of course, you really ought to be using LaTeX…

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    By the time I start using LaTeX, the cool kids will all be hand-coding PDFs in vi.

  3. Jason Hills Says:

    Damn, how to top Adam’s last comment… and only the really cool kids (read: utter nerds) use vi. Regardless, I use Text Edit and don’t have most of the problems you mention. The thought I have is whether Scrivener might be worth it for the project management aspect. So, what does it have over Text Edit or dare I say it … Emacs?

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m sure there are Emacs libraries that can approximate it, but I think the key is the organizational aspect. You can download a free thirty-day trial to fiddle with (and it’s “30 days of use,” not “30 days after you download,” so it could last a long time).

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Some research indicates that org-mode can do much that Scrivener can, but without the graphical element. This post strongly advocates it as an alternative to Scrivener.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Wow, emacs only recently implemented soft word wrap? Jesus…

  7. Jason Hills Says:

    Adam,

    You mentioned vi, which is about the grand-daddy of obscure and archaic software, so I came back with another one. I still back Text Edit and being organized, although I admit I hate having to port all my text to Word at the end.

  8. hewhocutsdown (@hewhocutsdown) Says:

    If only Scrivener would play nice on Linux…some claim to have it working, but I can’t seem to get it.

  9. christopher Says:

    i You mean people write in LaTeX without vi?! CRLF :q!

    But seriously, vi is anything but archaic. Most people in my tech firm prefer it (a few even use gvim for the ‘graphical’ version).

    And even more seriously, I vaguely remember a thread a few years back in which Adam was against anything but Word while a number of folks were saying that the ‘text only’ feature of Scrivener and LaTeX were awesome….

    @hewhocutsdown, There’s a free Linux beta at http://www.literatureandlatte.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=33&t=21064

  10. Jason Hills Says:

    IF you think vi is not archaic or at least profoundly minimal, then we’re not talking about the same thing.

  11. Craig McFarlane Says:

    If a blank page is what you want for writing and you don’t need vi/Emacs, nano/pico is built in the OSX command line. It makes you look cooler than using TextEdit. Alternatively, TextWrangler is sufficiently powerful for most writing needs and, if you really get into it, you can upgrade to BBEedit. But, whether you are suing nano, TextEdit or TextWrangler, most of us in the social sciences and humanities who are avoiding “formatting” in their writing, should definitely be doing their writing with Markdown (and they should learn to use Pandoc). I’d also recommend learning the basics of git (for instance, but you can also initialize directories that you sync/backup with Dropbox if you want to keep it private and don’t want to pay for GitHub).

    The advantages of writing in plain text are obvious: the files are virtually indestructible and will be readable by any computer on any operating system at any point in the future. There is no such guarantee with proprietary formats like Scrivener’s or Word’s. Plus, you can say rad things like, “I don’t have a word processor on my computer at all so don’t bother sending me .doc files!” Or, “Did you read that memo?” “What memo?” “The one I sent yesterday by email.” “Was it in Word?” “Yes.” “Then no.” Imagine the look on the Adjunct Assistant Vice-Dean’s face when you say that.

  12. ben Says:

    vi is archaic.
    vim is not archaic.

  13. Jason Hills Says:

    Craig,

    I used to be a software engineer, and that’s why I know these things and make jokes about them. Seriously, vi? But this has devolved into a “cool kids” conversation; your typical academic is not going to want to deal with these editors, and Word is still a required submission format for many. Savvier people like Adam are surely going to try this stuff, but I think we need to keep the mainstream in mind if we’re going to make suggestions.

  14. Thomas Says:

    How well does Scrivener handle citations? I cite heavily, and the only thing that’s been holding me back is that programs like Zotero don’t appear to work with Scrivener.

  15. ben Says:

    “The advantages of writing in plain text are obvious: the files are virtually indestructible and will be readable by any computer on any operating system at any point in the future.”

    “plain text” is actually already encoded, as the non-incidence of ASCII and EBCDIC attests.

  16. Jason Hills Says:

    Adding onto Ben’s comment, the coding for Windows and Mac plain text differs, and only recently was this not a terrible headache. The file formatting associated with the character sets are different, even if they use the same character set, e.g., ASCII.

  17. Alex Says:

    Ironically, using vi to write things in start up hacker culture is very hip indeed.

  18. christopher Says:

    Jason, archaic and ‘profoundly minimal’ are two different things. Vi is still quite active, though mainly through its ports like vim, elvis, etc. As I’ve already said, many folks in my tech firm (we do software and web development) prefer it over nano/pico, ed, and emacs.

  19. ben Says:

    Ed? People prefer vi over ed. No shit. For those as don’t know, ed is a famously impenetrable line-oriented editor. No one in his right mind would seriously use ed for anything today (except in the form of its descendant sed in the shell).

    I would be almost equally shocked to learn that anyone at a technology company used pico to write code in.

    Vim is not really a “port” of vi. Vim is much more complex than vi.

  20. Jason Hills Says:

    For those wanting in on the discussion, “vi” is a text editor that shows only one line of text at a time, for which all the controls are keyboard combinations. It’s been around for decades on Unix operating systems, and it sticks around. Vim is vastly more complex than Vi, because it has a graphical user interface rather than just a command line.

    Hence, Christopher, “Vi” and “Vim” are very different; calling Vi archaic is not calling Vim archaic, as Vim might as well be Text Edit. Pico, which my OsX laptop natively supports, is less graphical than Vim.

    Oh, the hipness. I’m swimming in it!

  21. Alex Says:

    vi allows you to edit a whole screen of text on single screen, not line by line. Anyway.

  22. Adam Kotsko Says:

    All implementations of vi are screen-based. What makes vi counterintuitive, rather, is its use of multiple modes — one for inserting text, another for using editing commands. The original implementation of vi does not have an explicit indicator for which mode you are in, and one of the most immediately visible improvements introduced by vim is that such an indicator is available.

  23. Jason Hills Says:

    Thanks for the correction: I should have written “edit” rather than “shows” “one line.” Only showing one line is a rarely used form, but it does exist. I haven’t used it since 2002–when it was already obscure–and I’m starting to think that some of you are referring to more modern versions. Apologies for the confusion.

    Does anyone else have any suggested editors?

  24. christopher Says:

    Not an editor, but Whitespace (http://compsoc.dur.ac.uk/whitespace/) is great. Perhaps someone will write a plugin for Pandoc to convert Whitespace to LaTeX to PDF.

  25. James Says:

    There is a Scrivener Google+ Communities group, if you are interested.

    https://plus.google.com/u/0/communities/109597039874015233580

    By the way, my understanding is that using the built-in MultiMarkdown features that you can export to LaTeX or however it is spelled.

    Also, Scrivener does have citation management.

    Both of these are not features which I use frequently but the Google+ community has a diversity of users.

  26. Phenomenologist Says:

    Which text editor should I use if I’m a noob, a cheapskate, writing a 20-page article, and concerned about not having to manually reformat each citation and reference per the idiosyncratic requirements of each journal?

  27. Jason Hills Says:

    LibreOffice? I’m not sure what citation management system it has, but of the free editors its one of the best. LibreOffice is the continuation of the mostly defunct OpenOffice.

  28. Scott Says:

    Tell us more about your actual writing process, including your process/style for making reading notes.

  29. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Here’s a post I wrote about my writing routine — I’m not sure if that’s exactly how I’ll continue to do things now that I’m working on a bigger project. As far as the reading notes, I read through a text once with underlining, and then I go back and type up most of the quotes I underlined (as well as anything else that strikes me as I’m going through it) as well as some general thoughts about why I thought it was important, what it connects to, etc. My reading notes tend to be more quotes than my words — my goal is to produce a repository of quotes such that, in theory, I could sit down and write using only the notes, with no need to refer back to the text. This saves the time and hassle of looking up quotes, typing them up in-place, potentially not being able to find the quote you’re looking for, etc.

    For individual articles, I often won’t go to the trouble of generating the reading notes — instead relying on the tried and true “I feel like it was on the right-hand page toward the bottom” method for finding quotes.

  30. Jason Hills Says:

    Adam,

    That is exactly what I do as well, and I find that it develops one’s thinking far faster than any other method I’ve encountered. The downside is that it takes much longer. For instance, my notes on 3/4 of Being and Time are 200 pages, although the average contemporary 200-page philosophy text is around 30. It’s good to know tht one can be as productive as you using this approach.

  31. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s definitely crucial for “digesting.” (Going through B&T in this way would be helpful before I try to teach the thing…)

  32. Jason Hills Says:

    Having done it with the Macquarie-Robinson translation, I can tell you that B&T is amazingly systematically structured. The experience was also instructive for scholarly translation, since one wants to index terms to common target-language translations, and only that level of attention will allow one to do it. I am recommending the practice to all for the texts that require that kind of care.

    Adam, you should let us know if Scrivener makes that task easier.


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