The Great Scrivener Debate, part 1

The Great Scrivener Debate, part 1

I’m writing to you all today from a new platform—well, okay, except it’s not a new platform, either in the general sense or for me. Spoiler alert: a lot has happened since I first wrote this blog entry. It began simply as a test of the platform—Scrivener—to see how I was going to get on with it and whether I should make it my primary writing platform. I doubled down on it before, much to my regret, given the fact that it doesn’t sync well with my chosen cloud platform (Google Drive); but the only reason I was using Google Drive to begin with was because I had decided to use Google Docs after various and sundry migrations around writing technologies.

I have a history of being bad at this sort of thing. To begin with, well over 10 years ago now I was beginning to experiment with different software, and had begun using a tool called Liquid Story Binder XE, developed by Black Obelisk Software. It hasn’t been updated in a long time, and began to show its age even back in the mid-aughts when I was using it. I wrote a number of things using that environment, but ultimately ended up switching to the Libre Office Writer, a more direct analog to Word, as I didn’t feel I used all the fancy features LSBXE had much to begin with.

I moved to Texas not so long after making the switch, and yet again decided upon a different course, using a 3rd generation iPod Touch and an Apple Bluetooth keyboard as a form of makeshift laptop. I even had a “case” for it, which was essentially just the laptop box itself outfitted with a little cardboard scrap and some electrician’s tape, which allowed it to stay propped open, essentially giving me a screen and a keyboard in a cardboard box. It was weird, and got me some odd looks (particularly when I tried to take it through an airport), but was actually quite useful. It was ultra-portable in the sense that I always had at least the iPod with me, and could bust that out at will to do any writing or note-taking that I felt compelled to do while I had a few moments to kill, and then had the keyboard with me for times when I wanted to do serious writing. Sometimes that was sitting at my desk at home, where the setup didn’t even take us as much space as a laptop, and sometimes it was at a coffee shop, or even in my car parked under a tree while the Texas weather was still livable in spring. I used a little piece of software called Office², until it was eventually sold by its indie developer to a larger company, at which point support became negligible and I knew there would be little to no chance of future updates.

This presented me with a new problem: the manner in which I had been storing files. This particular application had .DOC support, in addition to some other formats, though I was going for a minimalist writing approach and using simple .TXT for all my work. I didn’t use it to do any serious compiling or anything—it was meant only as a distraction-free writing tool. The program also backed up my work in text files, helpful in the event of crashes or other such tomfoolery. And that was great, except that it left me with a mess of files, which in order to keep properly organized I had to tuck into directories, which then left me with a mess of files and directories. Not the end of the world, really, as that file structure would have been easy enough to work with had I been cellularly equipped, but I was mostly working offline and backing things up on the regular. It seems arcane and backwards now, and even then cloud-based solutions were becoming a lot more generally reliable, but given my lack of money and access to a decent smartphone, it was what it was.

I had used other methods of storage before, some of which had existing file structures associated with them that I had backed up, and then I also had various pieces I had labored over at work (sorry, not sorry) which ended up getting stored in several work backups and then a massive dump of all that stuff after I left my job. Needless to say, what I ended up with was a working structure of mostly current stuff, backups of that stuff, then backups and dumps of several other platforms and things that I had never fully gotten around to integrating into whatever newer systems I came up with. As someone who was at least attempting to be a professional writer, writing itself was the main thing. All of that busywork and maintenance was stuff I knew I needed to get around to, but at the same time it never mattered enough in the grand scheme of things (unless I needed to dip back to find an older document or some such) to truly hold my attention.

Then it all got worse: I met Scrivener for the first time.

Scrivener is a well known tool amongst writerly types, and I have had a love-hate relationship with it since the beginning. It was originally developed for Macs, and while I did use my iPod Touch consistently, that was the only Apple product I had ever used, purchased originally for music. Scrivener did have a Windows version, however, which had piqued my interest, because it seemed like a beloved and well-supported iteration on the Liquid Story Binder idea, where you could keep documents and notes, images, timelines, character biographies, and whatever else you might need for a project all in one place. It made organization a breeze, kept everything at your fingertips, and looked clean and sexy to boot. What wasn’t to love?

Well, the fact that it meant storing things in yet another file format is what wasn’t to love. The long and short of it is that one of the things that made Scrivener so fantastically useful is also what caused me further headaches in terms of my storage solutions. It ostensibly used a proprietary format for its projects, which really was just a collection of various documents and ephemera tucked away into directories, with some header files to oversee their organization. The documents themselves were just .RTF files stored in with all that other stuff. What this ultimately meant was that whatever you were seeing in Scrivener itself wasn’t necessarily tied to your output like it was in Word or Google Docs or whatever else. You could write in 13-point Tahoma because you liked the way it looked, using whatever other formatting options you may like for readability, but then you could immediately export your work to other formats, anything from a WYSIWYG .PDF file, to an EPUB or other ebook format, or even to manuscript format. This last proved invaluable to me as a working short fiction writer, as I was constantly sending out material to journals and magazines. Being able to work in a clean writing environment that gave me an approximation of what something might look like in print, and then subsequently export in the desired format for submission without having to expend extra effort, was the god tier of godsends.

Unfortunately, what it brought with it was more storage inefficiency. Now I had older material (mostly in DOC format) which had been organized into a reasonable system, multiple unorganized backups and legacy dumps, a new directory of “final” work which I had thrown into Scrivener so it could be easily compiled for submission, and then a directory full of those compiled finals that worked as a holding tank for things I was actively submitting to multiple venues.

If it sounds like a nightmare, that’s because it was. I knew where stuff was generally, and could find it when I needed it, but Christ was it more complicated than it needed to be.

Then I got to realizing that working from the cloud was the wave of the future. Everyone else knew it already, and I suppose I did too, but I’ve long been mistrustful of the major tech companies, and that had been particularly potent in that era of my life, when I was a rapidly un-conservativizing religious conservative raised in a family of overzealous hyperconservatives who were paranoid about literally everything. As a grown man, scholar, and atheist-leaning agnostic, I still think that particularly corporate-centered mistrust is well founded, but it became obvious at some point that if I was going to continue writing and being successful at writing, I needed new solutions.

So I started using Dropbox at first, more or less with the structural framework and formats I’d been using before, and then found that solution inadequate and switched again, this time to Google Docs, with which also came a reliance upon Google Drive. And that served me well through my long-overdue return to school, my time in China and Japan, finishing my undergraduate degrees at last, and working on articles here and there. A lot of that had been new material, organized with Drive and worked on remotely, so I wasn’t running into any issues. I didn’t need access to my legacy stuff, which was mostly hot garbage anyway, and I wasn’t writing fiction, thus it wasn’t until I felt compelled to get back to working heavily on my short stories again that I realized just what a mess I had on my hands.

And what a mess it was. I had gotten into the habit with newer material about leaving a manuscript date at the top of everything, to make sure I knew exactly what the most recent version of something might be, but that didn’t do me any good for much of the older stuff. So I went through it all by hand, scouring hundreds of documents to be absolutely sure the right versions were in the right places, that I was saving my most up-to-date work, and that I kept any relevant older versions only within the new, unified system. And it was all on Drive. And it was awesome. And we all lived happily ever after.

Until I found all my old Scrivener stuff. Well, shit. Now I had to look through everything, because I just knew that I had worked on some of those stories and poems in small ways before compiling them, neglecting to copy changes back over to their in-progress formats, and I was far too close to having everything centralized and unified to back down from that.

So I went back again and started looking through those documents, and had thought about actually downloading Scrivener again, since it was updated to version 3 on Mac, with a PC update planned for 2020 (only 3 years behind!). Problem was, by this point—and by this point I mean about 3 months ago—I had no money, and Scrivener costs fifty clams on a new platform. I had just dropped $100 to fix my MacBook after the Catalina update had bricked it, and was all gung-ho to get writing again on my fresh install of Mojave when I ran into the Scrivener problem again.

I had been working at the university before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but only at a glorified student job that paid actual peanuts, and after graduating into the pandemic economy, which was filled with throbbing masses of angry unemployed people looking for work, I had started to flounder. And I am still floundering, looking for editorial and writing positions wherever I can find them, hoping to land remote work so I can save up some while staying here in my little part of Northern California (which you might know better by its more common moniker Buttfuck Nowhere) before heading north with my wife (did I mention we got married?) at some point in the next few years. All that to say, I had plenty of time but not plenty of money, so I was now at another crossroads, considering yet again how I wanted my writing workflow to go in the future. And I couldn’t figure it out, which is how I ended up writing this post, which I hope might help some other poor sap in the same position figure out what they want to do when faced with the these types of decisions.

To begin with, I needed to figure out where I wanted to do my writing, which was the main reason I started using the trial version of Scrivener I wrote this post on before making any decisions. I wanted to keep track of my writing, which I was using a spreadsheet for, and I knew that there were some tracking tools in Scrivener 3, but I didn’t know exactly how they worked or to what extent they tracked. I wanted a reasonably distraction-free environment, and Scrivener is great at that. It is without a doubt more of a pleasure to use than Google Docs in about every conceivable regard, as far as the actually-sitting-and-writing experience is concerned.

You’d think that would make it a no-brainer, but unfortunately, Scrivener is massively behind the times where the Cloud is concerned. They recommend only using Dropbox (a platform I got away from quite some time ago due to their persistently small free space limits—the no money thing again), recommend against iCloud (though some have reported this works fine, at least for backups), and are 100% dead-set against Google Drive, which can make automated alterations to files that will corrupt Scrivener projects.

Since I had just finished unifying my entire system within the Google Drive/Docs ecosystem, like, literally just finished the job less than week prior, the thought of spending money I didn’t have just to then rethink the entire process again was not a happy one.

But I needed to figure it out, and went about it as scientifically as possible. I needed the advantages, disadvantages, and to run a few tests as well. Here’s what I found. I’ll preserve my present-tense tone as it was at the time I was figuring this all out:

Google Docs (positives)

* Multiplatform. Open and edit files from anywhere, be that phone, tablet, laptop, or PC. This is the ultimate when it comes to cloud writing, really. No restrictions at all. That’s a huge plus.

* Reasonably lightweight. Certainly better than Word or any of the other increasingly bloated platforms I’ve used, but still fully featured.

* Works reliably with Google Drive.

* Can easily collaborate with others, especially positive given that I hope to work in editing or writing professionally (as in not freelance) in the near future.

* Likely to be used in any professional setting, so easy to keep a unified system between one’s own work and work for an employer.

That’s a pretty short list of positives, actually, and the multiplatform concept is by far the strongest of them. I’m a little surprised I didn’t come up with more. I know collaboration is easy, and that’s a thing for some people, but I’ve never collaborated on fiction before, and while I might use it professionally, that’s likely to be a separate sort of thing anyway.

On to Scrivener:

Scrivener (positives)

* I want this for compiling. Compiling wastes time, and Scrivener helps save it. Thus using Scrivener would allow me to unify my work, not having to copy over from my active writing environment (Google) to a separate compiling environment.

* It’s a more fully-featured and powerful. More and better formatting options, etc.

* It has a minimalist writing mode, and this also comes with the typewriter mode, which keeps your current line centered so that you’re never looking at the bottom of the screen.

* Lightweight. By this I don’t mean feature-light, only snappy. Works nicely on my laptop where Google Docs is a bit sluggish. Quickly copying over a saved Scrivener copy of Peristalsis, I can see that it looks fine making the transition to a new version of the program, and has all the old metadata and such, and the larger project is still snappy.

* Ease of tracking manuscript dates. Granted, this can be done in Google Docs by sticking to my guns about putting the last edited date on anything that I touch, but the organizational power of having various drafts in Scrivener is infinitely better.

* Doesn’t suffer from Google’s janky offline mode that everyone hates and says doesn’t work (see below for details of experiment).

* Works well with Dropbox, so it’s not like writing in the cloud is off the table. It’s less friendly for mobile since there’s only an iOS app and not an Android app, but if I were to use my laptop with it offline, I can update documents in that environment and upload the results when I come back online. I confirmed this through a test using both my laptop and my PC, which also showed that older versions of Scrivener can’t read stuff from newer versions (to be expected), but syncing documents updated offline when coming back online again with Dropbox is automatic and works perfectly.

So now let’s move on to the cons:

Scrivener (negatives)

* Having to maintain 2 separate versions to maintain PC and laptop parity, made worse given that version upgrades are not free, and there’s a huge multi-year lag between Mac and PC.

* Not being able to use a phone or tablet in order to access anything. Though this is less of an issue now that my laptop is fixed.

* Being stuck in a proprietary format I can’t easily pull out of.

* Having to switch my entire cloud system to Dropbox, which I already know has space caps I may run up against at some point (though I suppose I could keep anything I didn’t need Scrivener for separate). This immediately reduces the usefulness of the binder aspect of Scrivener since adding things like media or what have you would inflate file sizes and thus run me up against that cap faster. Then again, I don’t use a lot of that stuff, do I?

* I’d prefer to have a 100%, totally unified system of some sort, and I don’t need Scrivener for things like news bites and articles, etc. It’s meant for larger work, and thus seems entirely unnecessary for a lot of my other stuff, which means I either slightly overlarge Scrivener files for tiny little things all over the place, or I’ve got that stuff in Google Docs for ease of use, with all my fiction and other things in Scrivener files, or I maybe keep news bites and smaller things as separate documents in one larger Scrivener project.

* Using Scrivener will keep me tied to my laptop. This is definitely something that sucks given my financial situation, since having to buy a new Macbook should something happen to this one would be unfeasible given how costly they are compared to Windows laptops.

I can’t think of anything else to levy against Scrivener here, at least for the time being. So let’s get back to Google Docs again.

Google Docs (negatives)

* It’s not as robust a writing environment for every task—Scrivener has fewer week points.

* Doesn’t have any sort of distraction-free mode, not even full screen mode works well enough.

* I’ll still have to use Scrivener anyway, even if I’m writing in Docs, because I refuse to give up the compiling functions.

* Any sort of tracking or metadata I would have to do manually when it comes to Google. Scrivener has a lot of cool features like that built in, such as individually tracking manuscript dates for individual files you have in any particular project, but Google only tracks your latest saved date on the main menu.

* Versions of a document can be saved in Google as well, but the way it’s set up isn’t intuitive. This is maybe only half a negative, but I would have to make a conscious effort to start using this feature because I tend to just forget about it as it is.

* I don’t like having to use both Google Drive and Docs. There’s no real integration there, and the way Docs displays your documents within itself is awful. This is also a half negative, but jumping between even my local Google Drive folders in Windows Explorer and the actual writing environment is quite sluggish.

* There’s no option to keep track of individual files in projects. If using Docs, I’m stuck with putting individual files in directories if I need to work with, say, chapters or larger scenes split up into different documents.

What it boils down to is that Scrivener is more powerful, but that power comes at a cost. One must give up some of the freedom that comes with Google’s more open, free-flowing nature if they go with Scrivener; but going with Google, you also may not have something that suits all your needs, and you’ll have to look elsewhere for certain solutions—manuscript format compiling, more comprehensive formatting options, organizing multiple documents into a larger whole, etc.

My gut was telling me I really wanted to try Scrivener, even though I was reticent to invest in a new platform, but ultimately, I decided that might be just what my fresh start needed, converting a whole host of stuff into a newer, nicer, consistent format that makes me feel like a real professional. That would help me to get back on the road to doing the writing thing, which is what this was all about. Both platforms are sufficient for doing whatever I needed to do, and I suspected this entire exercise was really only serving to waste more of my time than actually help me get down to the business of writing.

But hey, at least I got this blog post out of the ordeal, and next time, I’ll tell you about the decisions I made and how they’ve worked out for me.