A word from the Devil's Advocate

Scrivener is an exceptionally cool, inventive and well-executed application, and, as a bonus, this forum provides a wonderful opportunity to interact directly with the developer while the app is still a work-in-progress.

I hope I don’t offend anyone by saying that I am deeply skeptical, as a longtime professional writer, that Scrivener will prove to be an adequate working tool for people who actually write (or aspire to write) for a living.

There’s one reason for this, and unfortunately it seems to be an intrinsic quality of the application itself: You still need a conventional word processing app, at the end of the process, to format your finished document and get it out there into the world. For me, this constitutes a grave (likely fatal) shortcoming on three separate levels:

• Philosophically, it reduces the app to a sort of “playing with text” device, quite powerful in its way, but really more suited to dreamers and dabblers and endless outliners than to folks who actually create finished written documents, ready to publish.

• In the context of the Macintosh platform, separating the processes of composing and editing from the processes of formatting and printing is, in essence, a throwback to the old days before 1984, when the primitive state of word processing required one to toggle between different “modes” for inputting, editing, and printing text (though even then, this was usually done within a single program). Moreover, it throws the whole “what you see it what you get” paradigm – a signature of the Mac platform – out the window.

• Finally, on a strictly practical level, it presents a real-world problem: whenever you export text from one app to another, you create two separate documents. They may (assuming the export/import process works perfectly, which is not always the case) be separate-but-equal for a couple of minutes, or a few hours, or however long this happy state lasts. But sooner or later, any real writer looking at any real piece of writing is going to start tweaking things – a word here, a comma there – and now you’ve got two separate and unequal documents: one in the “production” app that is actually being used to put the document in final form, and another in the “playing with text” app that was used, up to a certain point, in the writing process. Do I need to list reasons this is not a good thing? And there’s no easy fix for it. There’s no non-laborious way to pluck a revised document out of, say, Nisus Writer Express, split it back into the separate pieces it comprised in Scrivener, and re-import them. Naturally you can re-import the whole document, but what’s the point? It’s in NWE now, which is a smart app capable of printing and saving in a variety of formats – you might as well just leave it there and keep things simple.

It’s worth noting, in this context, that the writing process is seldom finished when the document reaches the stage of being ready to format and send out. Most often, you need to go back to work on it, either at the direction of an editor, or because you’ve had new ideas yourself, or you need to cut X words, or whatever. So here we are facing the two-app problem again. Are we going to bounce back and forth? If we’re just going to stay in the “production” app right through the later, tougher editorial stages of the process, then this rather relegates Scrivener to the “not ready for prime time” category, to my way of thinking.

Maybe this stuff doesn’t bother a lot of people. And I suppose if you’re new to (serious) writing, and struggling to get your arms around an ambitious project, then the “fun” factor of Scrivener might help you over some early hurdles. But I can’t imagine many practicing writers embracing an app that will only do part of the job – no matter how beautifully that part is done.

Well, there are practising writers who have already embraced Scrivener. I know for certain that one user has published several best-selling and cult novels and is now working in Scrivener.

In fact, I rather resent the implication you make that Scrivener is somehow only for dabblers and non-serious writers. There is certainly a brand of die-hard writer who starts at page one and ends at the end and has no need for such a program. But there are also those who work out structure as they go along. Much of the philosophy behind Scrivener was, in fact, based on an article by Hilary Mantel and the way she works (which also fits the way I work).

Yes, there is no getting around the fact that once you export you are going to work in a different program. There is no way a program such as Scrivener can be a fully-featured word processor on top of everything else. But these comments suggest that there is no need for any such app as Ulysses, CopyWrite, PageFour, RoughDraft and so forth - many of which are very popular and used by published writers, and all of which share this trait with Scrivener.

I am not (yet - hope hope) a published novelist, so I am not qualified to make a judgement on this. But I don’t find it especially constructive to say that the whole raison d’etre for Scrivener is worthless. It may not be useful for you, or the way you work, but it is quite presumptious to extrapoloate from this that it must therefore be of no use for any serious writer.

Thank you for your comments,

While you certainly do have a point in that some writers just want to use one application for everything, that in no way at all makes the statement true for the entire community. Since Scrivener is designed to be a writing tool for all forms of writing, you are suggesting that it also become a tool for all forms of publishing, which is quite an assertion! Some books, such as combination poetry and photography, can only be reasonably designed in a proper layout design application, such as InDesign or Quark. Surely nobody expects a writing tool to encompass all of the features those programs provide. What of the scientific and mathematics community which rely upon specialist typesetting tools to correctly format equations? What of multi-purpose publishing? As the technology age encroaches upon every facet of life, many authors are seeing their works published in a variety of mediums, as well as print – and sometimes even without the print at all.

I suppose the primary point to all of this is that “writing,” has become an incredibly diverse occupational field, and in the past few years a real need for “step one” type programs has emerged. Witness the boom of specialist software designed entirely around the initial phases of writing, eschewing all publishing mechanisms, save but for intelligent exporting.

The concept of “What You See is What You Get,” always was a little flawed, as it is extremely rare that an application actually does this. Screen optimised fonts generally do not look so hot in print, and print optimised fonts generally do not look so hot on a screen. A tool like Scrivener lets you write using a font comfortable in a 72dpi environment, while exporting to a font which looks good on a printed page. Formats like RTF were never meant to be true WYSIWYG, and I am not aware of a single RTF based program that actually provides that.

Your best point is the issue of descending versions. Unfortunately, this is something that has long been an issue, but certainly not constrained to the realm of writing, or even the digital era. There is just no escaping the problem of descending versions in nearly any form of artistic production, because the working model of a project is rarely suitable for the final presentation. Photographs in the dark room had to work with a fixed negative, and would make on-the-fly changes to the exposure in various areas of the photograph, as well as using inventive developing techniques to produce a final product much more pleasing to the eye than a straight exposure from the negative. These changes could never be absorbed back into the negative. Modern photographers face the same difficulties, even when working with digital cameras. Your carefully colour corrected, blemish fixed, and layered Photoshop file is not something that any customer or gallery is going to want, and all forms of producing a viable product out of Photoshop is an irreversible process of descending versions. If you find a flaw after making your versions, you have to go back and start over.

One way you could think of it is to go back, look at the limitations, and analyse just how you can best streamline the process. When B3 rolls around, Scrivener will be, like Ulysses, capable of inputting structural meta-data into the document, and exporting a 99% ready copy for print. This means a drastically reduced workload, and for most people using this feature, it truly would represent the only program they need. With a properly tweaked export system, the entire previous argument could very well be debunked. In those cases where it is not – such as the many possible publishing forms beyond straight novel style printing – there will be an issue of descending versions, just as their has been since the dawn of the publication concept itself. For one who is heavily involved in the quality of a descended version, it may very well be that once the Scrivener phase is over, all future revisions will be made to the descended versions, and the source documents abandoned; archived. There is no shame in doing that – and it most certainly is not a sign of amateur hour, or the tool of a dabbler. It is just another way of working.

To this, it can be added that working with just one wordprocessor doesn’t solve the problem of descending versions either. Six months ago, I delivered to my publisher in rtf a voluminous book written with just one wordprocessor: Mellel. But subsequently, during the whole process of preparing the book for print, many small corrections of various kinds were made in the text; with the inescapable consequece that the text of the book that was published a week ago, is not identical anymore to the text I have on my computer. Which means that the version on my computer won’t be an apt starting point anymore for future revised editions.

The only way I see to elude this problem is to publish a book as pdf, without the intervention of a publisher.

Funny. Both on the Ulysses forum and here I see people come and state the programs are fundamentally flawed because the real writers never work that way.

The real writers, of course, are the posters.


An interesting cognitive (but not affective) appraisal of Scrivener. Yes, it is based on a flawed assumption, but it reasons that flawed assumption very well.

Why do I think richardgrant’s argument is flawed? Well, essentially its an argument about layout and publishing, not about writing. I don’t see Scrivener’s layout functions as limiting my writing. I keep the ‘ruler’ on all the time: MENU BAR > TEXT > RULER. I export to applications such as Screenwriter Pro (for film layout) when I am really happy with the results of the ‘creative process’ enabled by Scrivener. BUT, with submissions to publishers (novels) and producers (documentaries), I just print straight from Scrivener.

I have a book currently with a publisher that needed lots of supporting diagrams and the publisher wanted the job in Word.doc format. That went from Scrivener Gold as an RTF into Word so I could give the publisher what she wanted.

I respect richardgrant’s views and his objective approach and tone, but feel I must add to the chorus of people like Keith, AmberV, and Maria who have lived with and engaged with the very specific writing philosophy of Scrivener for so long.

There is a fundamental given for SOME (not all) writers that the creative process is messy, non-linear, and summative. Stuff gets added and shaped over time. Others are linear and form their finished work as they go (lucky devils).

My approach to Scrivener is that I am one of the non-linear types and Scrivener allows me to block an entire book’s structure in single chapter drafts - keep them in notes OR as I go, in a split screen, and then shape my text in a series of passes with the structure right alongside my text as I write and re-write (vertical split screen).

So I prefer (just my way) knowing that I have a complete structure in twenty chapters; then I make a pass for ‘detail’, then a pass for ‘character psychology’, then a pass for ‘dialogue’, then action, then location.

I think what richardgrant may have missed is that for most writers the craft stuff I just outlined is not the actual writing - the actual writing is re-writing. You can do that in a regular word processor (just RTF the file over), but Scrivener is multi-talented and full of magical paradoxes. It lets you engage creatively while it simultaneously lets you engage in the re-write process. You can engage in two mental states at the same time enabled by split screen and all the other functions of Scrivener.

There are writers responding to Scrivener in almost every thread on this forum sharing their ‘ooh ah’ moments as they get into writing with Scrivener. For writers who create and re-write as the form of their craft, finding Scrivener has been an astonishing experience tinged with emotion and overwhelming gratitude for the breakthroughs they have made.

I think richardgrant has made a really good case for richardgrant to continue using a regular wordprocessor.

As past chairman of the AWG (for two terms) and as a film and television writer and director (for 40 years), I go down on my knees and genuflect to Keith with overwhelming gratitude every time I use Scrivener. My only regret is that I wish I could have used it 40 years ago.

Well said. Just the ability to have your rough draft all plastered with notes on the left split, the clean slate for a re-rewrite on the right split, and all your document notes in the Inspector – all at once, a simple singe keystroke away to flick between them. That is brilliance. Re-writing has historically always been the most difficult process for me. Not because I do not enjoy the actual act of re-writing, but because the logistics stink. It generally means printing out a bunch of paper, cross referencing various notes and gathering everything together around my computer monitor, and wildly try to keep all of this together – not a very creative environment!

And let’s not forget: we’re not all writing all the time for publishing; or at least, I am not. In this very moment, for instance, I am writing in Scrivener a series of university lectures, parts of which might be turned into a publication in a rather distant future, but not for the time being. Of course I could write these lectures with any wordprocessor, but for me it’s a joy to do it with Scrivener; and I’m even flattered with the hope that the pleasant working environment Scrivener offers will make my lectures a little bit better than they would have been when prepared with a conventional wordprocessor.

… as if you need a word processor then. That will certainly allow you to focus on your final document layout.

Unfortunately, unless I’m writing technical documentation, I have a problem writing in a linear fashion, and I have yet to come across a word processor which will allow me to keep flow of multiple story lines. I’ve tried and I just ended up with four short stories, as opposed to a book with four connected story lines. I think it’s because conventional word processors are actually geared towards linear writing, with the goal of producing nicely formatted documents. That may suit your style better.

You raised an interesting point about round-tripping though. Personally, I am a big fan of separating the content from the formatting, simply because there are so many mediums that a piece of work can be transformed into (a book, a blog, a web site, an e-book), that I think that more and more people are going to be attracted to markup and transformation, as opposed to having to keep their work in several formats.
But back to round tripping; I’ve never had a problem with it. If there is any tweaking to be done, I just return to the source document and do it there. It’s certainly easier to do it there, than make changes and keep track of tweaks in the print, blog and web versions.
As you said, it could be that I can do this because I’m a dreaming dabbler, as opposed to a ‘real’ writer. Or it could be that some folk just have a greater degree of self-discipline than you. The point is that no piece of software suits everyone; Scrivener just doesn’t suit you. But does that mean it isn’t a serious application for writers? Well the number of professionals using it on this thread alone, proves that your conclusions are probably a little off base.

Some interesting comments from everyone though. Thanks very much.

I don’t claim to be a professional writer. Most of my writing over the last few years is either programming or academic writing.

But I do spend a lot of time working with programs that are involved in the process of writing, whether it be web content or more traditional writing that ends up on paper.

And to me, I never understood why anyone would want to use a formatting word processor to do their writing. The most powerful page layout programs (IMHO) today are programs like LaTeX that are built entirely on the concept of “two separate documents.”

To me it seems like the most logical thing in the world to have a source document that is text with structure that implies meaning (I use MultiMarkdown (for obvious reasons… :wink: ) but there are many alternatives. This source document can then be processed automatically to produce output documents of various formats (web page, journal article, hardback book, term paper, etc.) that can be specifically formatted to optimize the particular qualities of each format.

This concept is what has led to separation of content and design on the web. The content goes in an XHTML file. The design goes in a CSS file. Images go in image files. The computer does a much better job of combining these elements than any human can consistently do. More importantly, it allows you to change one or the other independently (under most circumstances).

I interact with a biased group in this regard, primarily users and authors of programs similar to mine that convert plain text to formatted output, and I recognize that it is a skewed population. But when you realize the power and flexibility that systems like LaTeX have, and the potential ease of use that programs like MultiMarkdown can bring these systems, I’m amazed that anyone would consider using a program like Word.

I was first exposed to TeX in 1992, and I didn’t quite grasp why someone would use it. Now that I understand it’s power, I don’t grasp why someone who had access to tools to make it easier wouldn’t want to use them… At least for longer, more complex documents. For a simple letter to a friend (does anyone write those anymore? ) sure - Word is fine. But for something with structure, and a table of contents, and specific formatting requirements, and citations, bibliography, etc. I would choose LaTeX every time.

When I first opened Scrivener, I saw the potential to use it as a GUI for creating documents structured with MultiMarkdown, that can then be formatted for nearly any purpose (XHTML, LaTeX, RTF, and PDF’s of any size and formatting). In this regard, it can be a truly powerful tool to produce high-quality documents (as far as formatting, whether the content is high-quality is totally up to the author…)

My (totally biased) $.02…

I’ve been preaching LaTeX whenever I can. Unfortunately, in the past it has been difficult explain its benefits. There are precious few applications that really make LaTeX viable for the average writer (who is generally not interested in the technical side. You can say, wouldn’t it be nice to make a web page, a PDF, and a printed book from the same file? The answer is Yes(!), but \begin{ACK!} \end{experiment} no way on syntax, and this isn’t even going into the somewhat arduous experience of installing a functional TeX system into Mac OS operating system). LyX, a fine program, only just recently crossed over into Aqua space, and even though it is Aqua, it is still extremely odd in its philosophy. It works like no other Mac applications, and has poor connectivity with them. That leaves Ulysses which, while it makes a reasonably nice LaTeX generator, is priced far far out of the range that most people are willing to spend. There are other LaTeX and TeX front-ends for the Mac, but I have come across none that are really for a writer. They are text editors built for editing .tex files. It would be like writing a book in BBEdit.

I am hoping that the combination of MMD’s easy to use syntax, and Scrivener’s down to earth pricing, with its fabulous support for tools that writers need, will help broaden the awareness of such tools, and the benefits of writing in an environment that divorces style from content. You said it right: One really shouldn’t fear descending layers . It is a part of this business and the best we can do is have a smart system up front that accommodates the need for rapid regeneration of “flattened” or styled production layers from a common, device independent content source.

I never came to work with LaTeX, and I regret it very much. Two things kept me from using it.
In the first place, not surprisingly, the steep learning curve one has to face, and more in general the complexity and impenetrability of the whole Tex / LaTeX universum.
Secondly, the fact that I definitely don’t like it to write my documents in plain ASCII text. Under all circumstances and in any stage of my writing, I like to use some formatting, especially italics and (foot)notes. That’s why I never worked with TexShop, Smultron, Wrangler, Ulysses and the like.

It would be wonderful if it became possible to use Scrivener as a text generator for LaTex. Will that become a real possibility with MultiMarkDown? I must confess that I don’t understand all the implications of the learned discussion on MMD elsewhere on this forum.

Timotheus, I am not sure if Multimarkdown will do precisely what you want. It would be nice if it could take bold and italics and such from Scrivener and turn it into LaTeX, but this would be extremely difficult to do. What it will be able to do is define structure based on placement. If you have a chapter beneath a part, it will be able to detect that and make it into parts and chapters in LaTeX. As for mundane formatting, you’ll have to submit to a little bit of syntax. The good news is that it is really easy to use and read. Making something bold is as simple as putting stars around it. Much like you would in an email. We are also working to get it so that Scrivener’s annotations and footnotes will turn into something useful in LaTeX, too.

The primary problem with not using any structural syntax at all is that RTF, what Scrivener uses internally, has no concept of structure. By that I mean, there is no such thing as a “Chapter,” really. You can make the font bigger and bolder, but that is all you are doing. Underneath it there is nothing saying “this is a new section.” So somehow, you must declare that something is a chapter or a sub-section, and so forth. MultiMarkdown provides an easy to type and read way of doing this. I’m afraid, short of using something like LyX which is a LaTeX based word processor, that is the best we can do.

Thanks, Amber V! I’m looking forward to trying out MMD!

Interesting. I’m coming to this thread late and this will be quck. Scrivener is most definitely a writer’s program, at least it is for this writer. I no longer require one program to do all. I believe it to be impossible for one program to do everything that is involved in the writing process and do it all well. I’m quite happy exporting my project at the very end to polish and send off in Mellel or Word.

My needs for a writing program are fairly straight-forward. It needs to provide flexibility and a pleasing creative environment in which to work. It needs to be intuitive, to my way of working at least, and not get in my way when I’m hot on the trail of some idea or storyline. Scri. does this all in spades.

Hmm, the original poster seems to have disappeared (although he does seem to be restating his opinion that Scrivener is not for “serious” writers over on the NaNo forums, too). It says a lot for the users on this forum that this has not in any way descended into a slanging match. A very reasonable and well-thought out discussion. I still wonder at the point of starting a “your program is pointless” thread on an application’s forum, though, no matter how considered (if flawed) the argument - especially if you are then going to go on to say this on other forums anyway without trying to respond here. Clearly I would not have spent two years of my spare time on a program had I thought it was pointless; and I still take offence to the implication that all of Scrivener’s users must be “dabblers” or amateurs or wannabes who like to pretend they are writers by using such software. In fact, I think it is downright presumptious - look, I want to say “arrogant”, all right? - to start saying that this or that app is not for serious writers just because you don’t need it. This sort of there-is-only-my-way opinion really smacks to me of the sort of thing I used to read all the time on the forums over at writers.net. If anybody dared to mention any writing software that was not a word processor over there, they were shot down for being non-serious writers who were looking for programs to write their novels for them. If anyone mentioned outlining… well, wobedide them.

[Red-wine fuelled rant edited out… er, although it is quoted below…]

By the way: the original poster didn’t tell us with which one-and-only-publication he does all his professional writing. But it has no importance at all. If he is happy with the way he works, we are happy too.

Keith, there is really no need for any further conversation or concern over this. Mr Grant was clearly attempting to get a rise out of the Scrivener community, and I suspect that he was extremely disappointed to receive well-reasoned and thought-provoking arguments in return, which is why he has gone elsewhere to spread the good word that word processors are actually jolly useful (quel surpris).
It read like a cheap shot, nothing more.
As Scrivener becomes increasingly popular, you may find that people will criticise you for not adding support for automatic car tax renewals or reminders to take their meds during long creative writing sessions.
After all, how can Scrivener be considered a serious writing app if it doesn’t do all the things that every app available for the Mac, can do?

These people may become angry, abusive and insulting(sometimes in clever subtle ways) in order to vent their frustrations. Never “sod 'em” because that’s what they’re hoping for. Do what you always do; explain why Scrivener doesn’t (and will never) support the Road Tax functionality, or better yet, just point them to the thread where it has already been discussed and explained until we’re all thorougly bored of typing about it.

Now then, I have a suggestion for you.

Last week, I was happily banging in chapters to Scrivener, when I was told it was my turn to do the shopping. I put the PB to sleep and went out to the car. And would you believe it, the tax disc had expired. Now wouldn’t it be great if Scrivener could …


Hi Rayz,

Why am I sitting here chortling away to myself as I read your post?

Loved it. Thanks, that was a warming and delightful chuckle. You absolutely nailed it.

… but that tax thingy… it has got some merit…particularly now my writing output has quadrupled since I took up that awful program called Scriv… something or other, and the taxman wants his share. I knew Scrivener would get me into trouble - dang! Just can’t win.