Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Write Tool For the Job

font face="sans-serif">I want to proselytize a bit about a piece of software. Sometimes, software truly opens a door in the mind, makes you do something you couldn't or wouldn't do before. I only became a writer when I got my first Macintosh with Word 2.0 installed; I can't imagine writing, as both of my writer parents did, with ribbon, ink, and carbon paper. I didn't know I could, or wanted to, learn to play the piano and write a song or two before GarageBand came out, or process my own photo images before Photoshop. Software can change the paradigm.

Such a piece of software is Scrivener, a dedicated writing application that is as far beyond Microsoft Word as Word is beyond the wax tablet and chisel. Designed for writers by a writer, it works the way a writer thinks. The features are so many and so different from paragraph-and-page based word processing apps that it's hard to describe here. Scrivener assembles your work as a "project" with an iTunes-like sidebar organizing the project into different folders and documents. There are default folders depending on the type of project template, but these are entirely customizable. The current novel I'm working on, for example, I've divided into Book One, Book Two, and Book Three, with separate folders for each chapter and separate documents for each scene. There is also a folder for "research," which is a boon: you can drag and drop nearly any image, jpeg, pdf, website, or document that you might refer to, and have it at your fingertips right in the same program. A split-screen feature lets you view, say, a Google Maps street-level image of the streets your character is navigating in one half your screen, while writing in the other. The text editor doesn't really care about "pages" or other formatting until you wish to print or export to another program, at which point it offers all sorts of handy options like converting all m dashes to double dashes, or italics to underlines, entering hash marks to divide scenes, replacing double spaces after sentences with single spaces, and the like. This is liberating, as it keeps you focused on cranking out pages instead of whether the margins are lining up prettily.

You can view your project several different ways. The "Full Screen" view takes just the chunk you're working on and blacks out everything else on your computer, giving you a completely distraction-free writing space. The chunks of your project can also be viewed in either "Corkboard" mode -- a virtual pin-up environment (you can even color code the pushpins to represent different types of, or drafts of, your work) and an "Outline" mode that's better than all but the most dedicated stand-alone outlining programs. And this is the best part... move a chunk of your project in Outline view, or the Corkboard, or in your folder structure in the sidebar, and it moves in your text document, too... and vice versa. Anyone who's spent a day revising an outline to match what was actually written before being able to continue working knows this is a boon. I also love the "statistics" feature, a floating window that not only tells you your word count but lets you set targets, both daily and overall: 80,000 words for a novel say, and 1000 words for daily output, and gives you a status bar to let you know how you're doing. There is so much more: keywords that let you easily track characters or themes, highlighting features, annotations, a killer versioning tool that lets you quickly take a "snapshot" of your current version before embarking on a dubious "what if" scenario, screenplay commands based on Final Draft, autosaves practically every millisecond so you never lose work... too much to list here.

On the tiny downside, the export options can be a little daunting, and there is a bit of a learning curve because it's so different from other word processors. But if you're a writer you owe it to yourself to check it out. After all, you had to learn to throw away the wax table and chisel when you bought a word processor, too.

There's a terrific demo video on their website. The free demo version is fully-functional, allowing thirty launches before requiring you to buy a license... $39.95 for as many machines as you use. Hell, you might have your novel done after 30 launches.<