The Scrivener Problem

Today, there are all manner of word processing applications and hardware solutions to help you write a book. iA Writer, Ulysses, Google Docs (I won't link to it because it's trash), Microsoft Word (also trash, but not as bad as Google Docs), and portable writing machines like the Freewrite Traveler , as well as the Alphasmart from the bygone era of the 1990s (a device that has made a surprising comeback amongst writers today).

But above them all sits Scrivener from Literature & Latte.

I love Scrivener. I've used it for every single novel I've written. I don't think I'd have ever been able to finish a book without it. Among its many features, Scrivener allows you to:

  • Collect websites and other research
  • Create character and setting sheets
  • Move scenes around by drag-and-drop
  • Take snapshots of chapters before you edit them
  • and export to ePub and Kindle formats for easy self-publishing.

Seriously, it does it all, but by today's standards, that's not enough.

Scrivener's last major update came back in October of 2021. Since then, a number of competitors have either hit the market, or improved their offerings. They don't share 1-to-1 feature parity with Scrivener, but they don't have to.

Most fiction writers, I'd argue, want to be able to do three things above all else:

  1. Move their scenes/chapters around individually
  2. Export to a variety of different formats (.doc, .mobi, .epub, etc)
  3. Be able to sync their data between devices easily

It's that last one where Scrivener really shows its age. For one, the only cloud storage solution it works with is Dropbox. You can't sync over iCloud. Also, the file it stores its data in for each book is a bundle of other files, similar to a Final Cut Pro project. It's not a folder of Markdown files like iA Writer uses, which means if you want to work on your book away from your computer, you need to have Scrivener on your iPhone and/or your iPad.

Which brings us back to the sync problem. Syncing between the mobile versions of Scrivener and their desktop counterpart is rough. It tends to be a manual process, with sync needing to be initialized on one device before the changes appear on the other. Conflicts between the files occur often as well, and there have been numerous occasions in which I've had to delete older versions of a chapter, or rack my brain trying to remember which iteration is the newer one. Sync is not an automatic process the way it is with other apps and that's opens me up to troubles later on.

It means I can't trust the work I do on my phone or iPad to carry over to my Mac. And it means I live in constant fear of my files getting corrupted due to a bad sync, which has happened on occasion.

I do much of my professional and recreational writing in iA Writer, which works off of a folder of Markdown files. I can open that folder in an any other app, like Obsidian, and know that my words will look exactly how they're supposed to. There's no updating my file to work with the latest version of an app the way I have to do with Scrivener, nor do I have to wonder if the ink I spilled on my Mac will be on my iPad. I just know it will.

I don't want to tell Literature & Latte how to make its apps. Scrivener, despite its flaws, is still a powerhouse of an application. But it's also a dinosaur, limping along as the rest of the industry evolves and improves. At some point, it won't be enough for its app to be the "kitchen sink" that does it all.

Some people just want a cubby that holds a few special items they need regularly.

I want to see Scrivener get better, leaner, maybe shed some of the cruft that keeps Word-native writers from jumping over to the other side. But until it does, I'm going to start looking around at alternatives.

A book isn't the app it's written in and I've done this enough times to know I can knock a first draft out with nothing more than a handful of napkins and a dull pencil. Matt Gemmell wrote an informative blog post on how he uses Ulysses to write his novels and I think I'll explore that as an option, since I have the app on all my iOS devices.

It's scary to change a process that has been a part of my life for 12+ years. I've written six novels in Scrivener with a seventh on the way, but times are changing. Scrivener is like the town I grew up in: safe, well-known, the place where I feel most comfortable.

But there's a whole wide world with so much to offer and I think it's time for me to see what's waiting out there for me to discover.