Tuesday, March 12, 2013

When Software Works

I was a little dubious about the utility of the Scrivener writing software when I first saw it. It looked like just a word processor dressed up with a few extra bookkeeping features to make it "writer-friendly." Why would I pay good money for Scrivener, when I could use either LibreOffice (if I want to do some serious word processing) or FocusWriter (if I just want to bang out some prose) for free?

After trying out the Scrivener demo, I was more interested. I liked how I could use Scrivener to keep scenes and chapters separate from one another, but still view the entire manuscript as a whole if I needed to. And I really liked the "compile" feature, which promised to output my manuscript in a variety of different formats, including PDF and MOBI.

I wound up buying Scrivener, and last night, I tried out the "compile" feature on my full novel manuscript. That one compile completely justified my purchase.

You might wonder what the big deal is, since this so-called "compile" feature just sounds like the "save as" feature in any old word processor. But here's the beauty: when you compile, Scrivener completely reformats the output with a consistent set of format settings, including font, margins, paragraph indents, chapter headings, and so forth. You define these output settings through an easy-to-use configuration window. So even if your original manuscript had some inconsistent formatting, the compile feature smooths that all out and produces a final document with a coherent look.

And if I decide I want to tweak the way the output looks, I don't have to modify the formatting of the original document at all. I just change the compile settings, and poof! The output looks completely different.

I compiled my manuscript to MOBI format so that Mary Lynn and I could review it on our Kindles. The final output needs a little work in regard to chapter headings and title pages, but otherwise the output looks nice and clean. Last time I tried converting a LibreOffice document to the Kindle format on my own, it was a painful, manual process. This was mostly my fault: my original document was a mess of different margin and paragraph styles, and finding and removing all of those inconsistencies took a lot of effort. Keeping the original document clean would have helped, but Scrivener makes sure that I don't have to worry about it.

Also, if I decide I want to send the manuscript to an agent for review, I just have to choose the Microsoft Word compile format, tweak the output settings, and go. Without Scrivener, I would need to keep multiple copies of my manuscript around, one formatted to be Kindle-friendly, one to be agent-friendly, and so forth. And then what happens if I want to make a change to the text? With Scrivener, I only have one master document to keep track of, and it generates the output I need for different destinations, on-demand.

I realize that, as a programmer, I really should be producing my prose using Vim or Emacs and then running the whole thing through LaTeX or some other set of open-source command-line utilities to generate my final documents. But in this case, I think I'll stick with Scrivener for a while.