Scrivener and Non-Linear Writing

I write more deeply if I don’t focus on writing about a topic and instead concentrate on one idea and then the next. Scrivener helps me write as if I had ADD. With this Mac OS X program, I can write in a non-linear manner with an ease that is refreshing. Each snippet(text grouping) of writing can exist in one project. A snippet can be as small or as large as you want—from chapters to paragraphs. Collections of snippets can be further grouped in folders. By narrowing the focus to one idea rather than a whole blog or paper, a topic can be explored it great detail, one idea at a time. Stringing ideas together can come later, the most important part initially is getting them down in the first place no matter how they appear.

Scrivener View

While I am writing one aspect of a topic, if another thought or connection occur, I can start another entry. This jumping around, as incoherent as it seems, works naturally for me. Whenever I used a word-processor, I was butting heads with my desire to complete the current thought, not forgetting the new thought and trying to keep the copy neat and organized. There was really no where to stick digressions except in my head, where they would get lost. You could start another file or write(footnote/annotate) your thought in the file at the point that you were at, but this gets messy and difficult to follow. It is better to start on a fresh screen but still have everything loosely grouped together.

Of course writing in this manner flies against everything we learned in High School with its almighty outline. Writing a rigid outline never worked for me. Outlines are at best a loose map of a topic. By adhering strictly to a outline, one misses the connections that can occur by simply putting thoughts to paper. Thoughts grow from other thoughts like an organism. Adhering didactically to an outline would squash the natural connections the mind makes.

Scrivener allows for the development of multiple lines of thought when inspiration strikes and it keeps the copy tidy. It allows you to group (linearly or selectively) those section/snippets which you wish to view together. This is invaluable as you get to keep your snippets, and temporarily view them together in an order of your choosing so as to develop reasonable flow. The grouping goes under the weird name of Scrivenings, which is maddening as I have a difficult time spelling it, but it works — well.

The fun doesn’t stop there. You can split the screen, while in editing mode. Then you can view anything in each split – either another snippet, the outliner view, the cork-board view, or research materials (sound, pictures, or PDFs). This is a fantastic feature as it allows you to integrate two segments ,refer to research while you are typing, or simply compare two sections.
For distraction free writing you can type in a full screen mode. This looks exactly like a sheet of paper on a black background. Both the editor mode and full screen mode come with the typewriter scrolling option. This means that text will get centered in the screen if you type towards the bottom of the “page”. I have always hated typing at the bottom of the screen. Hated to the point of madness, but nobody else complained about it. I am glad that somebody else felt the same way and did something about it.

Scrivener can further assert order to the chaos because of metadata assigned to each snippet. A snippet can have associated with it a TITLE, A SYNOPSIS, LABLES, STATUS, DOCUMENT NOTES, AND KEYWORDS. Titles and synopses can be view and ordered on a cork-board, like index cards. However, I have not created a document with sufficient complexity to explore the use of other metadata, but I am glad it is there.

But, what is original about this product ? Simply put it is the combination of features. I used Zwrite back in the days of Mac Classic. It had the beginnings of usefulness, you could only see the listing of sections but only read one section at a time, so there was no flow between sections.
Later, I bought Tinderbox. Tinderbox is powerful. It allows for multiple views of the same data and has agents to automatically collect data based on specific criteria. But, it is expensive, it has a steep learning curve and no adequate documentation. There are some powerful ways to analyze information and export information but you need a good understanding of HTML and REGEX. Tinderbox is also ugly. This is not a superficial complaint. The UI is underdeveloped and this impedes how often I want to use the program. Since I am not a programmer and tend to prefer markdown to HTML, I have to work really hard at creating something useful with Tinderbox. I still use it to store and automatically categorize information. But, I do not use it to write, because sections remain discrete sections, unless you export the sections that you want. This requires a great deal more work and thinking. Effort that is better spent in the act of writing rather than fiddling.
Scrivener has brought several great features together in an attractive and intuitive package. I like working in this environment. Things look good and work without having to expend a lot of mental effort. It is the synergy of features that have made Scrivener a killer application for me.

The Scrivener forums are a good place to pick up suggestions, templates and ideas. But, I would love to see more examples of using keywords, labels, footnotes , annotations and other metadata to organize and reorganize a document.

With Scrivener we are finally beginning to use computers as they were meant to for writing. Not merely as a super-typewriter analogue, but rather as more of a collage. A place were writing need not occur in a linear manner, but where eventually everything can simply flow together and give give the illusion of linear thought.


5 responses to “Scrivener and Non-Linear Writing

  1. Bob Ueland June 23, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    Thanks for review. Our brain works primarily by association instead of selection as Bush noted in 1945 in his article about Memex. The neuron structue of our brain shows how we associate going from one thought to next in a snap. Tony Buzan observed this when he created mind maps. Robert Pirsig describes in his book “Lila” how he writes a book wothout an ouline, but collecting text snippets and letting then reorganize themeselves.

    Your review of Scrivener and how one might use it is excellent.

    Thank you

  2. niransab June 24, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    Thank you for the comments. I think the use of associative memory in important – hence the importance of user defined tag clouds. Mind maps are great. I like to use them for exploring or capturing knowledge but they just don’t seem to fit for story or novel writing (for me).
    I was unaware that Prisig wrote “Lila” in this manner. I will definitely have to check that book out.

  3. macsparky September 3, 2007 at 12:43 am

    Great review/ideas. Thanks for sharing it!

    I too am using Scrivener, along with Pages, for my writing. The best compliment I can give to them is they allow me to think of the words on the screen, and not the program.


  4. Niran Sabanathan September 3, 2007 at 1:44 am

    That is an excellent, succinct summation of Scrivener.

  5. A. January 9, 2008 at 7:57 pm

    For those of us who don’t live in Mac OS, the closest I can find to this is Writer’s Cafe.

    There’s some things I’d change about it ( make its “report” format more customizable, for starters. . . ), but it’s as close to Scrivener as I know of.

    One difference is /its/ snippets live in Story Lines, so one can see which thread of the work it belongs in, graphically.
    Same corkboard idea, though. . .

    No I’m not affiliated, but /do/ want everyone, not only you Mac users, to have access to good tools.

    This thing covers the Big 3: Linux, Mac, & MS Windows.


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