(There is a recent overview of competitive open source writing apps available here.)
Update, 1/27/20: Scrivener Windows betas no longer run under Wine, at least when using Ubuntu 18.04 LTS and Wine 5.0.
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.
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’s visual update is important (there’s even a spiffy new logo). But how does it feel to work with the new version?
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).
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.