Personal computers have been used to create documents and store text files for a long time. This was perhaps one of the first uses of home and office computing, and word processors are one of the most frequently used types of software, particularly for researchers. Word processors have until recently been rather unimaginative in the way they work. The main programmes, Microsoft’s Word, Apple’s Pages and Open Office’s Writer, work in very similar ways – they allow you to type, edit, format and prepare text for print. They are therefore very bound by print-based modes of presentation and production, focussing largely on compositing, the final stage of the writing process, rather than working flexibly throughout the process of planning and composing a text. Although the digital medium allows for far more flexible use than paper, word processors still generally make you write in a linear fashion. This doesn’t represent the varied range of activities that actually make up the workflow of producing a piece of text from assembling notes, planning, jotting, scribbling, organising, filing and rearranging.
Scrivener is an alternative wordprocessor, available for PC or Mac, which aims to support the whole process of writing a long document, focussing as much on planning and drafting as on the final proofed version. It encourages you to break up writing a long document into a series of sections (which could be paragraphs, pages, sections or chapters, whatever works best for you). You can begin by free-writing and then breaking it up and organising it, or by sketching out a structure and then writing to those prompts. It offers you the digital equivalent of index cards, a jotter notepad, a ring binder, and a notebook as well as sheets of blank paper you can rearrange in any order you wish, and you can see all of these simultanously in one window rather than switching between applications. You can also see your work in different modes – as index cards on a cork board, as a bullet point outline, as separate sections (like pages) or as a whole document. When you’re done, you can export your document in a number of formats, from PDF to Word, Rich Text or Open Office, as well as ebook or webpage.
DH23Things usually only explores free or fremium software, but there is a charge to buy Scrivener of about £30. However, it also offers a free trial of 30 days, which you need not use consecutively, so it may last you longer than a month. This should hopefully be long enough for you to explore what it can do and whether it works well enough for you to consider purchasing, as well as think more broadly about the possibilities of producing text in a digital age.
Learning to use Scrivener is a bit of a learning curve, but it has good instructions and support. Watch the introductory video and work through the ‘Getting Started’ interactive tutorial which you will find when you start Scrivener. Blog posts from other researchers who use Scrivener may also be interesting.
To begin with, you might
- in the ‘file’ menu, create a new project using the ‘blank’ template
- add a number of sections using the ‘add’ button. Add new folders to organise them under using the same button.
- click on the ‘inspector’ button to see the index card associated with each document. Either write some text and then summarise it on the index card to get an overview (click on the ‘draft’ or any other folder to see all your index cards in that folder on the corkboard), or write a plan on each index card and use them as prompts to write up some text.
- while looking at a whole folder of sections, experiment with the different ‘modes’ in the three options at the top: Scrivening, Corkboard and Outline, to see different ways to present the organisation of your text.
- using the ‘file’ menu, import some documents (PDFs of journal articles, web pages, audio or images, for example, or you can simply write your own notes) in the ‘research’ folder. Use the split screen button (in the top right corner of the editing window) to see your notes and write your text at the same time.
- in the ‘file’ menu, compile your document into a suitable form for printing or presenting to others.
- you could also import a document you’re working on from another word processor and experiment with ways of working with it in Scrivener, rather than starting a piece of writing from scratch.
Scrivener also has far more advanced functionality, including metadata to enable searching your work, but the list above will give you a good sense of how the programme works.
Key Skills: Some of the functionality of Scrivener will be familiar to you from other word processors, but other aspects will be very different. Although Scrivener allows you to mimic the natural processes of writing more flexibly than other word processors, do you find it intuitive to use? Or has using other word processors shaped the way that you write, making Scrivener too complex to be user friendly?
Discipline-specific: Scrivener is particularly useful for writing long documents, and length is one feature of academic writing. Other than this, do the features of Scrivener support the kinds of planning, note-taking, annotating and organising that are helpful in working on a piece of academic writing? For example, Scrivener can create footnotes, and supports Endnote, but integration with bibliographic software is not otherwise one of its strong points. Does this lessen its use as a writing tool for you?
Digital Humanities: Scrivener’s unique feature is that it doesn’t simply reproduce print format in digital form, but exploits the possibilities of the medium more fully. It’s worth considering whether other digital media we use or create (software or outputs) are similarly missing the opportunity to do original things with the digital, but are bound by assumptions and limitations of older formats. Have any other examples occurred to you, using Scrivener?
Evaluation: How well does Scrivener work with the way you plan, compose and format a document as a researcher? Does it support the whole process well? Can you see yourself working with it throughout, or only at particular stages of the writing process? Does its functionality cover all that you need to do, or will you need to combine it with other programmes, platforms and applications?
Integration: Scrivener may lead you to reevaluate your writing process and the ways in which it has been shaped by word processing and other tools. Will this be a process of simply reverting back to more intuitive ways of writing, or will it be difficult to change ingrained habits?