Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Scrivener and the perils of efficiency

with 10 comments


Recently, I’ve become intrigued by the possibilities of a little program called Scrivener. It’s a word processer expressly designed for writers, and I’ve been hearing more and more about it on writing forums: it sometimes seems as if every aspiring novelist or screenwriter has a copy, and most of the reviews are raves. Along with such alluring toys as a virtual corkboard, an integrated outlining system, automatic backups, and a character name generator, it offers what looks like a useful way of organizing notes and research. Instead of keeping your materials in a bunch of widely scattered files, as I tend to do, Scrivener allows you to access them more easily by storing them in a virtual, searchable binder. It also lends itself to nonlinear approaches: instead of starting at the beginning and working your way through to the end, you can attack scenes individually and easily move them from place to place. To all appearances, it’s a thoughtful, intelligently conceived piece of software, and at the moment, it’s on sale at Amazon for only $40.

Yet I’m slightly hesitant. This isn’t because I doubt that Scrivener would save me a lot of time: in fact, I’m pretty sure that it would make my process considerably more efficient. At the moment, for instance, I’m working on an idea for a new short story, and I’m finding it challenging to keep all the pieces straight. I have a hardbound notebook in which I record my initial thoughts, which I jot down as they occur to me. Once I have a sense of the plot and subject matter, I’ll start to do some research, both online and in print. Usually this means creating text files where I can type notes as I read, but for a longer article, I’ll often want to mark it up on paper. Yesterday, for example, I copied and pasted a number of useful blog posts into Word, printed it out, and read it with pen in hand—and today I plan to retranscribe most of these notes back into a text file, where they’ll be more readily available. Using a program like Scrivener would save me at least one step, probably two, and allow me to do all of this considerably faster.

Scene cards on the author's desk

But here’s the thing: I need the process to be slightly inefficient, because it’s in those moments of downtime, when I’m transcribing notes or doing basic housekeeping to make sure that everything I need is in one place, that the story starts to come together. The most beautiful description I’ve seen of this phenomenon comes from Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen, as he describes the editor Walter Murch at work on an old flatbed editing machine:

The few moments [Murch] had to spend waiting for a reel to rewind injected a blank space into the process during which he could simply let his mind wander into subconscious areas. With random-access, computer-based editing, a mouse click instantly takes the editor right to a desired frame; there is no waiting, no downtime—and fewer happy accidents.

I also suspect that Murch was the “sly and crafty guy”—identified only as “Francis Ford Coppola’s mixer”—quoted in an interview with Michael Hawley, one of the developers of SoundDroid, in Programmers at Work:

Don’t forget that five minutes of rewind time is never dead time. If you are a good mixer you are always planning out the gestures and effects you’re going to be making, you’re mentally going through the process to help put down a coherent five minutes of performance. With your machine, you have lost that thinking time.

In other words, a program like Scrivener bears an analogous relationship to more conventional forms of word processing—including the humble typewriter and pen—as Final Cut Pro does to traditional editing machines. And as useful as the new software can be, there’s always a price. That doesn’t mean that we should avoid all such changes: Murch, after all, eventually switched to computer-based editing, and I have a feeling that I’m going to start using Scrivener more seriously one of these days. But we always need to remain conscious of the potential cost, building elements of silence, consolidation, and randomness into our own routine to preserve what might otherwise be lost. If we don’t, I suspect that we’ll give up more than we gain, and if this turns out to be the cost of working more efficiently, I can only reply, to quote another famous scrivener: “I would prefer not to.”

Written by nevalalee

May 30, 2013 at 8:18 am

10 Responses

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  1. You hit the nail on the head… It is in the moments of chaos that great ideas from the depth of the mind make themselves noticed, acting as the missing piece of the puzzle that can pull all your work together. Scrivener will greatly reduce those moments…make the writing life a bit more efficient. However, it sounds so good, I could not see not getting it (love those double negatives) :-)


    May 30, 2013 at 8:29 am

  2. I’m almost certainly going to pick it up soon. If I do, you’ll be reading about it here!


    May 30, 2013 at 8:32 am

  3. I love Scrivener because it gives you the options to do so many things. Yes you can put everything in its box in the program, but that doesn’t stop you from turning away from the screen. My wall is covered with notes and outlines and my desk covered with papers of random doodles and thoughts. I can go over those things at my leisure, maybe put a few of them into the program, maybe not. Whatever.

    God I sound like a PR person, I’m totally not. But I hear that whole thing about Scrivener and “you can do it all on here” thing all the time. And though that’s true, my first thought is always “but you don’t have to!” I can’t imagine a writer who puts everything in one place all the time. But it is nice to have a place where you can. The reason I and many other people I know use Scrivener is because it provides so many different options that other word processors don’t.

    To each their own, no question, but … I don’t know! I just felt the need to stand up for the silly program! Like it needs me to, hahaha.


    May 30, 2013 at 8:36 am

  4. @darcil: Thanks for the input! I don’t doubt that it’s useful, as long as it supplements—rather than supplanting—existing methods of organization. And I wouldn’t have spent so much time thinking about this if I weren’t curious about trying it!


    May 30, 2013 at 9:05 am

  5. I just downloaded the trial version. It is too early for me to pass a comment but it does appear capable of delivering the goods in requisite formats.


    May 30, 2013 at 10:14 am

  6. Thanks for this. I’ve been considering Scrivener myself, but I’m so stuck in my ways that I’m afraid I’ll probably waste a lot of time fiddling with it instead of writing!

    Kevin Brennan

    May 30, 2013 at 1:02 pm

  7. I transferred my entire first novel onto Scrivener and have no regrets. Just today I moved a huge section around easily thanks to the program. It could be a bit more user-friendly but since I never write in a very linear fashion, the program invites me to do so. The formatting features could be improved, but it’s quite a thrill to have the program “compile” my novel so I can see it in manuscript format. I had all the same misgivings you mentioned but I still write a lot in my notebooks and spend down time transcribing. So far, so good…

    Samantha R.

    May 30, 2013 at 1:51 pm

  8. @Samantha: Thanks for the input! I’d be very curious to hear more about how that’s working out for you.


    May 30, 2013 at 9:02 pm

  9. Sounds a bit like YWriter — novel writing software written by someone who’s written novels…

    I make no comment on the software… but it is a free tool someone might like…


    June 1, 2013 at 7:00 am

  10. That actually looks pretty interesting—I’ll check it out!


    June 4, 2013 at 5:55 am

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