Do Writers Need Writing Software?

Update, 1/31/2020: it should be noted that the abandoned Scrivener Linux beta, version 1.9.0.1 with no expiration date, is still a valid option. Scrivener 3 on Mac or Windows can export to the version 2 format, which the Linux beta version can read, so you can go back and forth between platforms. At least for now. You’ll want the AppImage version, available here.

Do writers actually need specialized “writing software” such as Scrivener? Or is the publishing industry’s standard word processor, Microsoft Word, sufficient unto itself?

The questions above have been making the rounds for a while now. When specialized software for “creative writing” first began to appear a decade or so back, there was a definite stigma attached to such software by professional writers. This piece in The Atlantic by Scrivener creator Keith Blount, from 2011, sums that stigma up nicely.

Even today, in the third decade of this troubling new century, the question is not entirely resolved. But I don’t believe it remains particularly relevant. Most writers have acknowledged the usefulness of Scrivener and its competitors, even if they stick with Word or (in some cases) don’t use a computer to write at all.

Is Word alone enough? For some writers, yes. For many others, no. Word logo © Microsoft.
Is Word alone enough? For some writers, yes. For many others, no. Word logo © Microsoft.

R. O. Kwon, whose debut novel The Incendiaries received very strong reviews, told me she investigated Scrivener but found its complexities too distracting and decided to stick with Word. For her, that was obviously the right choice. Michael Chabon, on the other hand, has credited Scrivener (along with iA Writer, DEVONthink, Nisus Writer and numerous Apple products) in the creation of his work.

The more relevant question today, then, is how can writers make sure today’s technology works for them, rather than the other way ’round. And this question was prompted by a recent experience I had with Scrivener itself, which remains the most popular (and capable) program of its kind.

When I reviewed Scrivener 3 a couple of years ago, I was running it on both macOS and Linux (via Wine). I continued to so until quite recently—the Windows beta ran fine under Wine until late last year (Beta 30, I believe). For whatever reason, the developers upped the .NET system requirements and I have not found a way to get the program running again on Ubuntu 18.04 LTS. What’s more, I spent far too much time trying. This was time wasted, which I regret. One should never follow technology down a rabbit hole, and I did precisely that.

It’s true that, these days, every minimally conscientious citizen needs to pay some attention to the software they run, both for ethical reasons and to protect themselves from the surveillance state (and surveillance capitalism), to the extent this is possible. That’s why I recently moved from Android to iOS, and why my main computing platform will continue to be macOS. Apple is not without serious ethical flaws (Asian labor standards, tax policies, Chinese censorship, et al.) but they do seem to be the best commercial platform from the standpoint of privacy and security. And by and large, their stuff does “just work.” I run Linux to avoid being completely captive within Apple’s attractive walled garden.

But since my main focus these days is writing, I don’t have time to screw around with software configurations, as I mistakenly did trying to get Scrivener running again on Ubuntu. Past a certain point, the technology has to defer to the writing. No more Scrivener on Ubuntu unless or until it simply works under Wine, which may very well be never.

And that brings us back to the original question of whether specialized writing software is necessary for writers. From an absolute standpoint, the answer is of course “No.” But from the standpoint of convenience and flexibility, I find Scrivener to be invaluable. Syncing a story or poem from my Mac to my iPhone via Dropbox is an almost ideal way to proofread and revise—there’s something about the iPhone’s smaller screen that enhances focus wonderfully. And as Chabon noted in the interview cited above, Scrivener remains by far the best program for long-form writing.

I’ll still run Linux as an escape hatch now and then, and I’ll occasionally even write on my Linux laptop: LibreOffice Writer is more or less equivalent to Word on my Mac, and there are many open source writing programs that run fine under Linux. I’m disappointed in the Scrivener developers for abandoning their original intention to support Linux and then breaking compatibility with Wine after a long run of successful betas. Such is life; this is definitely a minor first-world problem.

For me, though, Scrivener in conjunction with Word or Writer continues to be indispensable. At least until something better comes along.

Scrivener 3 Review

This is a somewhat belated review of Scrivener 3, which was released (for Mac only) last November. Scrivener is the dominant app for novelists and other long-form writers (not counting Word, which is still the publishing industry standard), and this latest update—which was years in the making—brings some important changes.

First, the program’s interface has been significantly improved. Scrivener simply looks better; it seems more modern and up-to-date. This is important, since competitors like Ulysses have long had an aesthetic advantage. Better-looking software seems more inviting and easier to use (even if it’s not), so Scrivener’s visual update is important. And Scrivener 3 is more inviting and easier to use (click the images below to enlarge).

Scrivener 3's 2-binder-page-view, with navigation panel, editor, synopsis and notes. Image: Literature & Latte.
Scrivener 3’s 2-binder-page-view, with navigation panel, editor, synopsis and notes. Image: Literature & Latte.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you might expect, this Swiss Army knife of writing programs has a lot of changes under the hood as well. Here are some of the more important ones:

  • The Compile function has been updated to be more flexible (although I’ve never had a problem with the previous version).
  • “Styles” have been improved (this will be important chiefly to those who self-publish).
  • Index cards can now be viewed on colored threads to differentiate them; this is more like a plot outline than anything Scrivener has offered before.
  • Outlining in general has been enhanced.
  • Up to four documents can be viewed in the main window using “Copyholders” features.
  • You can now see draft and session progress bars in the toolbar.
  • The new “Dialogue Focus” can highlight all the dialog in your text.
  • Scrivener’s codebase has been updated for 64-bit, making the program faster and more stable.
Scrivener 3 view showing navigation panel, outline and editor. Image: Literature & Latte.
Scrivener 3 view showing navigation panel, outline and editor. Image: Literature & Latte.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scrivener’s visual update is important (there’s even a spiffy new logo). But how does it feel to work with the new version?

The new Scrivener logo. Source: Literature & Latte.
The new Scrivener logo. Source: Literature & Latte.

 

 

 

 

 

Quite nice, actually. Scrivener has always had the ability to focus on just your words (it’s called “Composition Mode”), and this view is slicker and more useful than ever. It’s customizable, and it lets you access the Scrivener toolbar by moving your mouse to the top of the screen and access a word count and other helpful features by moving your mouse to the bottom. Plus, Composition Mode is very attractive at its default setting (which you can modify to your heart’s content).

Scrivener's Composition mode at its default setting. Image: Thomas Pletcher.
Scrivener’s Composition mode at its default setting. Image: Thomas Pletcher.

 

 

 

 

 

The chief complaint I’ve heard about Scrivener over the years concerns its complexity—there are so many tools available that the program can seem quite daunting, especially to newcomers. I think version 3 mitigates this to some extent with its compelling visual makeover. And in point of fact, you’re not required to use all the tools Scrivener provides. You can set up the program to simply work with chapters or scenes and forgo all the extras if this seems more appealing. This will give you a work environment much like Ulysses, but without that program’s unfortunate monthly subscription fee.

Actually, I suspect that for most professional writers Scrivener’s chief competitor is Word. Word contains its own universe of tools and options, but many people are accustomed to using it simply to outline and write. Scrivener can be used in similar fashion, but it provides a significantly more attractive environment for writing (and it exports to Word flawlessly when you’re ready to submit your work).

If you have Scrivener 2, an upgrade to version 3 costs $25. If you’re purchasing Scrivener for the first time, you’ll pay $45. In both cases, this is money very well spent.

Scrivener is cross-platform and version 3 for Windows is due sometime later this year. If you buy the current Windows version now ($45) the upgrade to version 3 will be free.

A couple of final notes. First, Scrivener 3 is not backward-compatible with the previous version, but this turns out not to be much of a problem—the program thoughtfully creates a backup in the old file format when it converts your work to version 3. You can go back and forth between the two versions, in other words. Second, there is a beta version of version 3 available for Windows now. I’m delighted to report that it works fine in Wine on my Linux system (and presumably on Windows itself as well). Scrivener originally had a Linux beta available, but as a small company Literature & Latte decided to suspend Linux development and focus on Mac and Windows (and iOS) instead. I commend them for taking pains to make sure Scrivener 3 can still be run on Linux, through Wine compatibility.

Scrivener 3 is an important upgrade and writers at every level should benefit from its improvements.

Ulysses Runs Aground

One of my first posts on this site was in praise of Ulysses, the very stylish and capable writers’ text editor I used to write my 50,000-word novella during last fall’s NaNoWriMo. I continue to admire and enjoy this software but I’m about to stop using it. The reason? Ulysses is switching to a subscription-only model.

I oppose such a model on philosophical grounds, which I’ll try to outline below. I also think this switch will prove to be a failing business model for Ulysses, unless there are more dilettante/hobbyist writers out there than anyone previously realized. In fact I hope this model does fail, and Ulysses returns to the standard software practice of buy once, then pay for occasional significant updates.

Ulysses is moving in the wrong direction.
Ulysses is moving in the wrong direction. Icon © Ulysses GmbH & Co.

Adobe was the conspicuous pioneer in subscription software and the model has apparently worked for them. The big difference here, though, is that Adobe is the industry standard for designers everywhere. (Since I’m not a designer, I promptly stopped using Photoshop and other Adobe products and was able to replace the functionality I needed with no difficulty.) The equivalent standard for writers, at least where submission for publication is concerned, is Microsoft Word. And Word still offers the ability to purchase the software, instead of subscribing to it. There is no standard software for the process of writing. If there were to be such software, Scrivener would probably be the most likely candidate.

Ulysses actually suits the way I write better than Scrivener does, but so do many of its rivals, some of which also offer cross-platform capability (Ulysses is Apple only). And Scrivener itself can be a marvelous writing tool when pared down to its composition mode. The program is not as “pretty” as Ulysses but it does far more. Scrivener is essential for its excellent templates and for its comprehensive export capabilities. You can use it to write fluidly, reorganize and revise in fine detail, and then prepare a flawless manuscript for submission. No other software, including Ulysses, can do all of that nearly so well.

iA Writer, Sublime Text (properly configured) and the up-and-coming Write! all provide attractive, customizable writing environments with a left-hand sidebar for project navigation and organization (Write! just recently introduced a local sidebar and is already working to improve it). Update, 4/9/18: I no longer use Write! software and can’t recommend it. See this article for more information. Any of these programs can substitute for Ulysses during the first draft process, with Scrivener coming into play after the first draft is complete. (The software I’m using to write this post, Byword, would also qualify if it would just add a navigational sidebar.) What’s more, all of these programs employ traditional files and folders to organize your work. Ulysses, in contrast, hides your work deep in a largely inaccessible database, though you can deliberately create external files and folders if you wish. Some people think this system provides advantages; I don’t.

Here are a few reasons why a I think a subscription model for Ulysses is a really bad idea:

  • The cost for the end user becomes disproportionate. Let’s say you paid $45 to purchase Ulysses. Suddenly, you’re asked to pay $40 per year to continue using it. (Granted, existing users pay “only” $30 per year.) Now, this isn’t cost-prohibitive per se. Ulysses is excellent software and many people would argue it’s worth the added cost. But suppose you also buy Scrivener for $45 and then pay for two upgrades at $30 each over a 10-year period. That’s $105 over 10 years for what is arguably the one truly indispensable writers’ program, vs $300-$400 for Ulysses. Ulysses is not worth that cost differential; I think its developers are being a bit greedy here.
  • Suppose every bit of software you use regularly suddenly demanded that you subscribe in order to continue using it. Apart from the significant added cost, it would drive you crazy to keep track of all the required payments. The historical purchase-once, pay-to-upgrade model for software makes far more sense.
  • Ulysses is writing software. Its developers argue they need the extra subscription money in order to deliver “continuous improvements”. Writing software does not need continuous improvements—indeed, constant change for the sake of some supposed “improvement” would actually be detrimental. Once a writing program offers a flexible and pleasing interface, basic editing features and word count and the ability to navigate and modify project file structures, anything beyond is extraneous at best. I don’t use many of the extra features Ulysses already offers.

So, unless or until Ulysses comes to its senses, I’ll be using iA Writer and Sublime Text, among other programs, for short fiction and poetry and Scrivener for long-form work and revisions.

Writing & Technology

Mathew Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2016) will delight a certain kind of readership: those who, like myself, are interested not only in what a writer has to say but in the tools the writer employs to say it. Readers who are keenly interested in both literature and technology are undoubtedly a minority but I’d wager there are more of us around than you might think. Certainly word processing itself has been around long enough, and become mainstream enough, to warrant a history of its development.

Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing
A fascinating study of writers and the technologies they employ.

Kirschenbaum, an English professor at the University of Maryland, does a fine job of describing how writers came to terms with (or chose not to come to terms with) word processing technology. In fact, as the author points out, word processing is just another point on the spectrum of writers’ methodologies. It did not replace longhand, nor did it completely replace the typewriter. Writers are a versatile lot.

Here are a few examples: George R. R. Martin, whose series Song of Ice and Fire became HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” writes with an antique word processing program called WordStar, using a DOS-era computer which is not connected to the Internet. (Philip Roth also used a DOS machine, in his case with WordPerfect.) Joyce Carol Oates, an incredibly prolific writer, sticks to longhand (and a typewriter).

At first, the ease and fluidity promised by word processing (for those writers who chose to embrace it) were thought to threaten literary quality. It was felt the machine and its software would wind up doing too much of the writer’s work. Some early adopters even tried to conceal their use of word processing because of the perceived stigma. The writer Gish Jen describes fellow students at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop working at mainframe terminals and then deliberately “doctoring” their printouts—adding annotations by hand, rumpling the corners—before sending their work out for consideration. “Real writers,” their instructors said, used pencils or typewriters. Yet for Jen the personal computer (in her case an early Apple) overcame such prejudices. “Computers coaxed out of me an expansiveness the typewriter never did,” she said. “What came out … was not further from the human heart; it was closer. It was looser, freer, more spontaneous—more democratic, too.”

Kirschenbaum’s history runs the gamut from do-it-yourself personal computer kits to early Kaypros and Osbornes to the latest “artisanal” software tools like Scrivener. He nominates Len Deighton‘s Bomber as the first published (in 1970) novel written with a word processor, the IBM MT/ST. The book is nicely written, with an appealing tongue-in-cheek humor. If you’re at all interested in how writing gets put together, this is highly recommended.