An updated version of this post can be found at CJ’s new website: www.cjparmenter.com
Back in 2008, with 19 chapters of my WIP drafted into Word, I began to realize that the process of revision had become nightmarish. In desperation I tried a number of organizational tricks such as splitting the chapters into separate files and saving them with dates in the file names. It was trial and error for sure — and everything I tried only served to make the situation worse.
After some research to see if there were any better options, I became excited about the prospect of switching to a dedicated novel writing application. At the time, nearly every review pointed to a program called Scrivener being the best. Alas, it was only available on the Mac, a reputedly excellent platform which I do not own.
Enter yWriter, my new home.
I experimented with free trials of a couple of programs for Windows, but couldn’t find a good home for my novel. Ultimately I stumbled upon an excellent free application called yWriter. Several years and many thousands of words later, I thought nothing could convince me to switch. Then in late 2011, one of the members of my writing group happened to announce that Scrivener would soon be made available for Windows.
Scrivener for Windows at last!
Having heard nothing but good things, I signed up to receive an email when Scrivener became available for purchase. When it did, I downloaded the free trail. It took a bit of scheduling to set aside the blocks of time necessary to work through the built-in tutorial, but I really wanted to know if Scrivener would prove worthy of the effort to uproot my beloved manuscript.
Do the tutorial and avail yourself of the user’s manual. They are worth it.
Skeptical at first, after finishing the tutorial I was quite impressed, and subsequently purchased the software. More learning was needed to get the hang of Scrivener once my novel had been imported, but all of the time spent combing through the instruction manual has been worthwhile.
So, if I was reasonably happy with yWriter, why did I switch?
There are a number of things that I still like better about yWriter over what I have seen of Scrivener. However, when it comes to the living heart of the matter, Scrivener’s text editor (its “word processor” if you will) is just far more powerful than yWriter’s. That was probably the main thing for me, but now that I’ve got a bit more experience with Scrivener under my belt, here are some points for comparison. Please note, these are all entirely based on my own personal and non-tech savvy opinions:
- Learning Curve (yWriter wins): Everything in yWriter is visually accessible as a tab, a menu, or a button. This made learning the software very quick and intuitive, and within a day I had worked out all the necessary basics to get to work. Scrivener is less intuitive; the designers have made every effort to “keep the mechanics out of your way.” As such, vital functions are hidden behind menus and buttons – a few of which are devilishly tucked away in corners. The learning curve for Scrivener is manageable but steep.
- User Interface & Navigation (yWriter wins): Because of its more visual setup and clever placement of tabs, the fundamentals of yWriter felt as though they were always at my fingertips. It took several days before I was comfortable enough with Scrivener to feel the same.
- Writing in scenes (both are winners): yWriter introduced me to the concept of writing my novel in clearly defined scenes instead of a rambling column of text. This idea doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the software itself, but yWriter was developed around scenes as a core concept. It revolutionized my writing process. Scrivener is also designed around the principle of breaking volumes of text into manageable blocks, then giving you the ability to tack a synopsis onto each block (the basis for Scrivener’s famous cork board & index cards). Both applications win big here.
- Chapter Sidebar (Scrivener wins): Yet another revolutionary item. Being able to constantly see the developing shape of my novel in the form of a chapter sidebar has become so essential that I’ll never go back. Scrivener wins in this area, because of the seamless connection between the folders in the sidebar and the outline/synopsis screen. (As an aside, I will say that I greatly prefer the outline view, and eschew the use of Scrivener’s cork board.)
- Document and Project Notes (yWriter wins): Both applications offer a way to associate notes with every aspect of your writing, most of which are tucked away in sub-screens and quickly become “out of sight, out of mind.” yWriter wins in the “project notes” category with its nifty tabbed screen, but once I got into Scrivener’s head space, keeping a folder full of notes has become a breeze.
- Drafts, Versions, Backup & Restore (Scrivener wins): This area is BEYOND VITAL, and here is the only place where, IMO yWriter falls utterly flat. Rescuing a lost paragraph from yWriter was stressful and difficult. Scrivener’s suite of backup tools makes the process almost fun.
- Text Editing, Spell Checking, Composing (Scrivener wins): Scrivener isn’t as powerful as Word, but it makes no claim to be, and the fundamentals are all in place. yWriter is functional but bare bones, and spell checking isn’t effortless. Scrivener for the win.
- Ideation & Outlining (Scrivener wins): I’ve fallen in love with Scrivener’s outlining and synopsis screen. You can see the shape of your creation and quickly jot notes as the ideas flow, or drag things around as you see fit. This aspect of Scrivener has saved me from devolving into madness on more than one occasion.
- Compiling & Exporting (jury still out): I will admit that Scrivener’s export features are so complicated and involved that I haven’t even attempted to master them yet. At present, I plan to wait until I’ve finished my WIP before delving into the process further. When I do, I will probably write a separate post, because getting my words out into HTML for e-book formatting is going to be vital. Likewise, I never truly explored yWriter’s capabilities in this regard, so there is undoubtedly some excellent functionality there which I have no experience with.
Writing a screenplay? Got homework?
Scrivener also handles screenplay formatting with superlative ease – something I needed to learn how to do for a friend’s upcoming animation project, for which I am now the lead writer. Scrivener also has a goodly amount of organizational power for things like school essays, research-based articles, etc. While I do not need the software for those things currently, I sincerely wish I’d had Scrivener when I was in high school and college. (I also wish I’d had the Internet when I was in high school and college, but let’s not delve too deeply into that one). Those of you with school-age kids might be well advised to check out Scrivener.
If you haven’t already done so, I strongly recommend downloading the free trial of Scrivener for Windows and working through the included tutorial. There is a learning curve to be sure, but I believe it is well worth it for any serious wordsmith. I found the cost ($40 at the time I made the purchase) nominal in exchange for what you get.
However, if cost is an issue, I highly recommend yWriter, which is free and very intuitive to get rolling with. Scrivener is the hands-down winner IMHO, but either way, the novel writing process is greatly enhanced.
P.S. If you are still using Word to try and write a novel-length manuscript, you are needlessly making your life a living hell.
Update 2015: Thank you to everyone who replied. The comments are now closed for this blog. I’ve since moved to a new website, where an updated version of this article can be found, and further discussion is welcome. Please visit me at: www.cjparmenter.com