Four things have driven a renewed review of writing software:
- YARNY: Finally, in time for NANOWRIMO 2011 (that’s National Novel Writing Month), someone is offering a cloud version (Yarny), and I’m committed to moving everything to the cloud that’s possible and practicable.
- WRITERS’ BLOCKS: A colleague recently introduced me to the world of kanban, and I built a personal kanban, which is quite effective, if I maintain the discipline. It’s a tool, though, to help with discipline. Writer’s Blocks suggests the possibility of a story kanban – more of a planning schema (some would use it as an organizational schema) for stories or books.
- SCRIVENER: Scrivener, the premier writing tool for Mac, finally released a PC version, also in time for NANOWRIMO 2011, and I’ve envied those Mac users and want to try their stuff. Lots of well known novelists use Scrivener (of course, Arthur C. Clarke banked out novels on a Kaypro, and lots of those guys did a lot of work on typewriters and dedicated word processors).
- YWRITER: I successfully planned out an entire book in ywriter and got quite far with it but, as soon as I got away from using ywriter, I fell flat on my face. I want to know why it worked so well, and it was hard to work without it. So this exploration is not just about features – it’s about what kind of tool I need, structurally, to succeed in writing.
This article is a comparison of two solutions, mention of two others, and an overall theme. I will:
- Compare the design approach of ywriter with Scrivener, since those tools are the most similar, both being installable software (not cloud based), both being finished software – not really beta (like Yarny) and both being more similar to each other (full featured packaged with similar apparent, though not actual, goals) than Writer’s Block.
- Compare the structural intention of ywriter vs. Scrivener and why the design suggest two different approaches to writing (it isn’t about features – it’s about what the chosen tool is, fundamentally – how it structures the act of writing itself).
- Mention Writer’s Block and what I wish would change about it.
- Mention Yarny and my experience spending a week with it during NANOWRIMO.
ywriter has the emphasis on writing itself, and is built for the rapid prototyper and achiever:
- (+) an always visible word count for all scenes and chapters makes it achievement driven
- (+) a writing-in-the-outline style weds planning and writing, leaving no room for procrastination
- (+) the full screen mode is distraction free but information rich – unlike Scrivener, which leaves the project planning platform behind it (making me feel a bit panicky, like I’m serving the master), ywriter gives me a separate window I can maximize or move around, and yet all the character and location info I want is on tabs – again, the focus is on rapidly generating manuscript text. You can a;sp switch scenes from the maximized editor, with a drop down.
- (+) a speech engine to read my scenes aloud, so I can listen to how they flow (the speech is clunky pc speech, but still better than nothing)
- (+) nanowrimo text obfuscation for posting wordcount (only worthwhile once a year, and can be done by other means, but still keeps the focus on achievement)
- (+) layout is great for even just outlining a story to write later, because it uses the scenes as the outline, rather than visuals (like index cards), forcing you to write and think in terms of a sustainable plan to produce text (the wordcount visibility assists with this even as you go, and may cause you to realize you’re writing more in one area and less in another, suggesting a need to either balance it, or change the focus of the story – very helpful)
- (-) storyboard feature (not very useful – I’d prefer a simple cork board arrangement like scrivener)
- (-) lacks a kanban style notecard organizer like Writer’s Blocks (which is better than Scrivener’s cork board in important ways)
- (+) incremental backups by ywriter allow an incremental restore of different dated versions of your story – both have automatic backups and easy manual backups and exports
- (+) will run right off a USB thumb drive – almost any software can be made portable – probably Scrivener can – but this functionality is native with ywriter – while I don’t write on other people’s machines (e.g. in a company office), other people might deem this important
Scrivener has the emphasis on writing project management and organizational tools, and is built for the conceptual planner:
- (+ / -) side by side corkboard / manuscript view (great in the early phases of a novel for rearranging cards or going back to the drawing board, but more distracting than ywriter during the writing phase, and not as flexible as I’d like – I’d rather be able to align them like Writer’s Blocks does, in story-kanban style as a more efficient schema – I’d rather use an online kanban tool for this). I like that rearranging items on the board rearranges the scenes in the story, but I don’t like planning that way anyway – switching between visual think and textual – for me, vision comes in planning the story, where outlining is planning the book. Scrivener tries to allow both, but succeeds in conflating the two by making my cards and story scenes move at the same time. Even if there was a way to stop syncing them, I’d feel like I was messing up one or the other.
- (-) the full screen mode is more fluid when it opens than ywriter but less flexible (you can only write – there’s no access to info in it), by default, it leaves the whole project mess visible behind it, in a faded semi-transparent way which succeeds in making the actual writing feel secondary to the organization and planning – where ywriter feels like you’re writing a book by filling in your outline, Scrivener feels like you’re writing *in order* to do the work demanded by your project planning. However, to be fair, you can change a setting so the background is virtually invisible in full screen mode.
- (+) more exports (e.g. PDF, DOC, ODT), whereas both tools export to HTML, RTF, TXT
- (+) excellent name generator – can more or less automatically add names to character lists – love their name generator, and would consider owning the software just for that feature and the cork board, if I could get a reduced price
- (+) built-in scratchpad (not that useful, but I have wanted something similar in ywriter, and have used fake scenes instead, and it does allow automatically appending it to anything else in the book from character profiles to scenes)
- (+) built-in character and setting templates (not that useful, but somewhat neater than using ywriter that way)
- (+) can import DOC, DOCX, RTF – while I have no need of that, and prefer to do preliminary planning in the cloud (or directly in ywriter), I can see the value for old style docs lying around
- (+) very flexible layout – while I wish the cork board would let me set it up in tracks like Writer’s Blocks, the panes themselves can move managed with the best ease and flexibility I’ve seen – a huge win for Scrivener
- (+) incremental backups are a little harder to find, but the settings are in there (I haven’t put my finger on the files yet to inspect them)
- (-) has automatic backups and easy manual backups and exports, but not the incremental backups of ywriter, which means you could mess up your novel and not get it back – however, there is a snapshots feature to manually do incremental backups of individual documents, and you can easily duplicate documents to write a different version
- (-) no portable version yet, though I suspect Scrivener will eventually create a cloud version similar to Yarny, which has an admirable offering and is there first
- (-) word count for a scene is visible when editing that scene, or right clicking a scene on the outline, but you have to turn on the outline and then add a word count column to get it to be visible for all scenes all the time (for me, this is the single most important feature since, with it, I can turn the software into a more achievement driven tool)
- (-) character management isn’t as robust, it would seem, as ywriter – you can’t declare a viewpoint character for each scene, and scenes don’t track which characters appear in them, or the locations used
Where they are actually similar:
- (+) both are affordable – ywriter is donationware and Scrivener is under $50
- (+) both let you use another editor as your writing editor if you prefer (I don’t, but some people are wed to one or another tool like Word or Notetab Plus)
- (+) both allow you to drag and drop scenes, which is one of the two sine qua non features of writing software
- (+) both have the familiar notebook style that is the other sine qua non of writing software
- (+) both keep stored files in cross-platform RTF, so even if the software ceased to exist for some reason, your chapters, character sketches, and location notes are easily available – syncing these with dropbox means you can share that data visually across devices even without the software installed
- (-) neither runs in the cloud, so the software does have to be present to work on the novel – ywriter will run on a USB stick, but since I prefer to write sometimes on a Chromebook, that’s not a feature for me
Structural Intentions and Sticking with ywriter:
- Scrivener is fancy and new with a high end feeling, while ywriter looks like a single, but brilliant programmer put it together. But Scrivener feels more like programmers or project managers put it together, and ywriter feels like an incredibly self-aware person that writes did it. Scrivener takes a project management approach. The emphasis is on planning and organization. Forgive me, but writing almost seems an afterthought. In reality, Scrivener seems to be designed for the writer who does extremely heavy organization first, and keeps working the plan as he goes, or else launches into the writing and rearranges as he goes. Neither of those is me. It’s easy to physically write in Scrivener, but I don’t feel motivated or encouraged to write by using it – I feel like I’m using software as the end point and purpose. It’s like the cock pit of an airliner – I need a copilot to do the hard work. ywriter, on the other hand shifts the emphasis over one notch, from planning and organization to organization and writing. Where Scrivener feel’s like writer’s software, ywriter feels like writing software. It’s subjective, and maybe not a fair statement, but it’s still my take. ywriter seems to be for the writer that organizes ideas like an outline with constant attention to the relationship with text, and then begins writing within that outline at any point, and stays within that outline, but drags, drops, or recasts as needed. Like I say, the difference is subtle. If we overlaid the writing software with personality studies, I’d say Scrivener is for the fact finder (upper left quadrant), and ywriter is for the driver (upper right quad). I’m not going to be able to say much here that dedicated Scrivener users won’t say is just as easy in Scrivener, because it’s about personality, not features.
- Scrivener is Mac like – it’s liquid and beautiful, where ywriter is about as elegant as the PC gets, but is still pretty much the “Swiss army knife” – it’s Swiss and so elegantly made, but it’s an Army knife, so it’s got a corkscrew and an ear wax remover, and it seems like some very astute veteran was given 40 slots to attach whatever you need to get through a functioning day in the trenches. As Hal Spacejock (the software’s author) says, he designed it with the stuff *he* needed to do what he needed to do. For me, writing just isn’t a very Mac-like endeavour. For me, crafting is building, prototyping, trial and error, writing within the organizational meme – the outline. I want the whiteboard to go home with me and morph into the document. In Scrivener, I feel too much like I’m either jotting, with a kind of pointilistic dabbing on of story elements rather than story parts, or else like I’m engaged in full throated project management, which I like, but not during a book. A book may be a project, but I don’t want it to feel like a project. Scrivener is organization heavy and the writing seems to take a back seat, where ywriter is writing driven, with just what you need on the fly. To put it another way, and return to the army knife attitude, which is the parlance of the driver personality, I feel like I could carry ywriter into the field with me as a survival writer tool, whereas I’d go home and take a shower first, and take off my boots before using Scrivener. I suppose I could see Scrivener being superior for non-fiction in certain ways but, even then, if I had one tool, it’d be ywriter.
- I can organize immediately in ywriter and start writing rapidly – it’s great for rapidly prototyping a book or story, but then it makes writing always the point. It’s like there’s seamless integration between outline and manuscript, because you organize and move around your chapters and scenes like outline points, and then write merely by filling them in. It’s like assembly – assembling a book. Unlike with Scrivener, there’s no rift felt between organizing and writing, by shifting between visual organization on a cork board and written organization in a story, nor is the writing subordinated to the organization, like it feels in Scrivener. You could add a cards on a board feature to ywriter, but that’s not what it’s for – you don’t actually write by writing on the cards, though for those who do, Writer’s Blocks is probably the software of choice, and is tantalizing for that reason – I could see myself doing that, but not in a tool that tried to be everything like Scrivener.
- The favorite feature of Scrivener is the corkboard, and I’m convinced it’s because, while other such tools exist, a lot of Mac people really are single-screen folks looking for a single solution. I’m a multi-monitor person comfortable working simultaneously with spreadsheet in the cloud, some kind of sticky note tool, google, and my writing software. For me, organizing cards in a visual/sequential way is more of a pre-planning stage for the story, not an in-writing feature – it forces me to think visually/conceptually instead of textually, and in linear fashion like a book. I don’t like the shift when I’ve already got a strong idea of the storyline. If I don’t have that, I want to go to a pure thought organization tool, like a character tracking spreadsheet, or a kanban like plot planning device like Writer’s Blocks, instead of Scrivener. There are cloud-based tools I could use for that, and probably will. If WB offered a cloud service, I’d be interested.
- Optimum Scrivener Layout (closest to ywriter): If was going to use Scrivener (and it’s still very tempting), I would probably switch it to notes on top, turn on the inspector (scene info) on the right and, when I got distracted, switch the binder off (what they call the notebook pane on the left – it goes off with one click). This is great for guys like me that love ywriter’s organizational meme (the outline) and scene information, prefer the Writer’s Block simplicity and workflow (notes before text), and have wide screens. Alternately, I’d switch the cork board off entirely, replacing it with the outline, so it looks more like ywriter, and add a word count an synopsis column to the outline – so instead of post-it notes, you get a scene list with wordcount. It doesn’t have available columns for viewpoint character and included characters (lacks character management), like ywriter, but it’s still closer. Either way, the flexibility of Scrivener’s layout is certainly a plus. If you set them up as close to each other as it gets, using ywriter (left) as the basis, you’d get something like this:
Writer’s Blocks: I tried out WB and like the overall schema – a wide screen ‘kanban’ with sticky notes that’ll keep going no matter how wide my monitor, and a writing pad that’ll split the screen vertically – superb for a wide monitor. I even like the integration between writing sticky notes and text – you convert your stickies boards directly to a document – a “blockument” (my term). I like that even better than Scrivener’s sync between cork board notes and scenes, and the ability to port text from a note to any scene or document (features Writer’s Blocks could stand to adopt, along with a notebook view). But I found the two way sync missed things once you made manual edits to the manuscript, and it wasn’t very neat – wrongly determining for me a lighter font color or an indent. Mainly, Writer’s Blocks lacks the ywriter rapid prototyping from an outline feel, or the Scrivener price point and intuitiveness, though I like their kanban-tested sticky board much better than Scrivener’s famous cork board. If we’re really going to manage a project, which meme is more robust yet flexible (kanban) and which one do we use for actual projects (kanban). Writer’s Block is too expensive at about $150, and you can’t easily drag and drop the notes around whenever you want. Sometimes I’d go to drag notes, and it wouldn’t let me – it’s too clunky, and I want more control. Where WB really excels is the simplicity. As an organizational schema, the ability to have no notebook view (I’d prefer to be able to just turn one on/off) and simplify to just top of the line noteboard on left pane and manuscript on right is deeply attractive. The idea is superb, and I took screen shots, but I’ll use them to set up a cloud solution. I could also use fences and stickies, like I do for my personal kanban, but then I’d need a desktop manager to switch it in/out when I write. I might consider that, too, but I hate relying on the OS when the cloud is more stable and secure, automatically backed up, and location independent. Head to the cloud, WB, and I’ll take another look!
Yarny: I tried out Yarny for two weeks during Nano, and it was good. I’m very impressed with them. When we say functioning beta, we mean functioning very nicely over there. I really, really wanted to switch to a cloud solution, and I think this is ideal for most people. But it’s not ready for me, yet. While it retains the standard notebook style you expect in writing software, and clearly draws ideas from the best of the best, it still lacks the feel I described with ywriter. It’s more like Scrivener without the cork board. That said, it’s incredibly flexible. One of the things I noted right off – like Scrivener, I have to switch away from full screen writing to get character info, etc. In other words, the ‘no distraction’ approach that’s popular among many writers is enforced. But with ywriter, I have no distractions, because that stuff is on tabs, when I’m writing in a maximized separate window – so I can get at that middle name or street name without switching out of the window I’m in. That’s also a no-distraction approach. I think Yarny could actually become the tool of choice for cloud writers, but it’ll have to become more like ywriter, less like Scrivener, for me to make the switch, even if I’m a dedicated cloud worker. I’ll trade principle (nothing installed) for functionality every time, if for no other reason than it’ll help drive more of the functionality into the cloud. There’s no real reason to use Word anymore, with Google Docs where it is, but writing software for novelists I think will take another year at least to get there.
So the experiment to find a tool last time, and settling on ywriter, was clearly a success. It gave me the right tool, for the right reasons, and operates the right way. I’d still love to be in the cloud and will keep my eyes open, still want a kanban like tool for writing, and will experiment with that, and still am paying attention to Scrivener now that it’s out for PC (I may buy it). Maybe configuration is enough for me to switch, if I can get it set up just right. But for now, the central tool that I know works, that I know I can treat as my commuter writing software, is ywriter.
I am still weighing features, keeping their implications in mind, using the following chart:
|incremental backup||incremental automatic universal||did not appear to be incremental, but there are settings for that, and can snapshot documents for version control, and duplicate documents to test versions|
|nanowrimo obfuscation||included||3rd party|
|character management||included (e.g. tracking pov character, characters in a scene) but can’t format text in bios for extensive info (need 3rd party)||have to use document notes to remember to add pov char etc, but bio text can be formatted, which is nice|
|portable||yes, plus rtf||no but rtf|
|kanban||3rd party||one lane only (one chapter or scene at a time)|
|exports||RTF, HTML, TXT||Same + PDF, DOC, ODT|
|name generator||3rd party||included|
|scratch pad||3rd party||included|
|word count||always visible for all scenes (performance driven)||have to use outline instead of corkboard (hassle)|
Experiment Update 12/14/11: I love ywriter, and will use it in a heartbeat for any project, but I’m using Scrivener for the current project. The reason is that it allows me to treat the entire thing like a notebook environment. I can do the same thing with ywriter, but it’s not really set up for it, and it would throw my wordcount off. What I’m liking about Scrivener is that a) more of my project files are in the same place (yes, I’m thinking of it a bit more like a project) and b) I can easily flip between notebook information types (character sheets, outlines, etc.) and also between notebook info and the actual story text. I’m dedicated to ywriter, but I’ve got to give Scrivener this run.