Before we get started, let me state right away that you can write a book in anything. Google Docs, Word, Drafts–it doesn’t matter. However, I’d argue that just because you can write in those programs doesn’t mean you should write in those programs. I can’t imagine writing a book in Word and the idea of trusting a browser app to hold 80,000 words gives me hives. But people do it and they are far braver than I will ever be.
There are dedicated applications designed for longform writing. One of them is called Ulysses. I know of several writers who swear by it, including authors Matt Gemmell and David Hewson. It’s available for Mac and iOS and it’s…fine. It seems to have a decent number of export options, including ePub, but it never sat well with me as a place to write something big like a novel or non-fiction book. I’ve tried it and I think of it more as a blog post editor. However, if you’d like to learn more, I encourage you to read Matt’s and David’s blogs, as well as this Macworld review.
For my fiction, I trust only the best and the best is and always has been Literature and Latte’s Scrivener, available on Mac, Windows, and iOS ($45 on Mac and Windows, $20 on iOS). Scrivener is the kitchen sink of word processors. It’s able to collect research, such as character bios, images, and webpages, it can export to all sorts of filetypes, including ePub and Kindle’s .mobi format, and moving scenes around is as simple and picking one up and dropping it where you need it to go.
On the desktop.
The iOS version, which I’ve been relying on more and more, does not share feature parity with its Mac counterpart. In some ways, that’s good. One of the biggest complaints about Scrivener is its high barrier to entry. Because it does so much, many writers find it to be overwhelming, choosing to rely on old standbys like Microsoft Word to do the job. Scrivener on iOS doesn’t have that problem, since the developers stripped out a lot of the power user features to give writers a simpler, cleaner interface.
Fonts and styles are tucked away under a separate button, so there’s less to fiddle with and you can focus on writing, not debating between Times New Roman and Cochin.
On the flip side, not having all the features of the desktop app makes tracking versions more difficult. As I work through edits on my latest novel, I like to take a "snapshot" of a chapter as it exists now before I start to make changes. Those changes can then be reflected in different-colored text on the page. Scrivener on iOS doesn’t have snapshots, so any edits I make can’t be tracked automatically.
I can still change text colors and highlight passages and make comments and footnotes, but all of that must be done manually.
Of course, the iOS version is still young and has a long way to go before it can be considered "complete." I’m hopeful features like Snapshots make it in soon.
The good news is many of the features I do use are present, such as Dropbox sync and the corkboard, which allows me to see each chapter displayed as an index card that can be shuffled around.
I can also see my progress as I write, including the word count for my current writing session, and I can set targets to hit each day if I hope to finish my first draft by a specific date.
For any writer who’s wanted to give Scrivener a try, but has been scared to dive into what they’ve believed is an expert-level program with a steep learning curve, I encourage them to take a look at the iOS version first. It provides a ton of features that can be explored at a steady pace, but without the clutter of the desktop versions.
In conjunction with Scrivener, I’ve also come to depend on Apple’s Pages app–a free download for iOS users. Pages has come a long way and what Apple has now is a capable word processor compatible with Microsoft Word. I recently hired a freelance editor to provide developmental edits for my novel, which he sent back as a .docx file. Since I work off an 11" iPad Pro, Word requires me to pay for a subscription to edit any documents and I already pay for way too many subscriptions.
Instead, I opened the edit document in Pages and was happily surprised to see all the tracking was still intact. The comments didn’t appear as little bubbles to the side like in Word. Instead, they popped up like little footnotes at the bottom of the window. Using the iPad’s split-window multitasking, I keep Pages on the left and Scrivener on the right at equal widths and edit my book side-by-side.
Also, a fun tip I learned from Jodi Hutchins on Twitter: adding "GOAT CHEESE" to your manuscript where you leave off in your edits makes it MUCH easier to find your way back to that spot later. This is especially true on the iPad, where apps are known to quit themselves and refresh spontaneously, stranding you at the top of your documents. Having to flick your way back to where you were near the bottom can take a while, so instead just conduct a search for any mentions of "GOAT CHEESE" and you’re right back where you stopped earlier. I add it to both the Scrivener draft and the edit doc just in case.
All of this is fine and dandy if you’re in the throes of editing, but what if you’re still drafting? Even on the Mac you can’t have multiple Scrivener windows open to the same project. If you need to stop writing to check your research folder for something, you need to bounce out of the active chapter, find what you’re looking for in the Research folder, then go back and pick up where you left off. It’s not a great system regardless of the platform.
On iOS, there are useful apps like Story Planner that can be flown in from the right side of the screen to give you quick access to character bios or research documents without taking you out of Scrivener. When you’re done, you can simply swipe them away and get back to drafting. I’ll be talking about Story Planner and other helpful utilities in a future article, but for more information on iOS multitasking, check out this helpful piece on iMore.
I’m not sure I ever would have written one novel, let alone six, had it not been for Scrivener. Its flexibility and robust feature set have made the act of writing not only easier, but also fun. But Scrivener, especially on iOS, is only the beginning. App choice is one half of the battle. The other half is in picking the right keyboard. Stay tuned for the next installment of this series where I’ll discuss the different keyboard options available. You’re going to be using the keyboard more than anything else, so choose wisely.