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I’ve briefly reviewed the Mac-only writing tool Scrivener a couple of times for Macworld. This post is based on those two pieces:

Most of the stuff I review goes straight in the trash afterwards. Some programs stay on my machine for a little while. A very few apps become part of my toolkit; the software I use every day. Scrivener is one of those rare applications.

If you’re a student, write reports for work or fancy yourself as a creative author – Scrivener is perfection. It’s designed to help you plan, organise and execute large writing projects, from degree dissertations to blockbuster novels and everything in between. The basic features it gives you to do this are a simple but powerful word processor, outlining tools and an internal file system that enables you to file research snippets alongside your writing project. All of your work on a project is stored in a single file. I first reviewed the package at version 1.0. The program had major upgrades at 1.10 and 1.50, introducing lots of feature tweaks and fixes. At version 1.5.3 it’s mature and stable, Snow Leopard ready and boasts an ever-expanding fan base.

The program divides into discreet, yet connected parts. Writing’s processed in a traditional editor, with live word counts and layout tools. You can minimise distraction with a keyboard shortcut that puts the editor in full-screen mode – a feature I didn’t know I wanted until I tried it and loved it. But, unlike traditional writing programs, you don’t work on one file at once. The Scrivener format saves multiple files in one package. You arrange them using folders in a hierarchical filing system. The format’s very open – and files can be simple notes or full documents containing images, layout and links.

There are several ways to view this hierarchy. For our money the most powerful is the corkboard. And, yes, it’s a virtual representation of a literal corkboard, displaying the fragments of your novel or report as a series of index cards pinned to its pseudo-spongy surface. Not all attempts to translate real world metaphors work well in software interfaces – but this absolutely nails the process of dealing with complex documents.

Crucially, the corkboard isn’t just a reflection of your work in progress, but can be used to rearrange the workflow. For example, if a chapter is broken down into a sequence of events, you can switch things around by moving the index cards. Then there’s Outline mode, which shows the structure of the work in a detailed list. Again, a powerful way to get a quick overview of a large work.

My one gripe with the program, which I’m reluctant to admit, is that it’s Mac only. You can import files from Word or just about any other word processor though – so if you have to work on another machine for a while, it’s easy get your edits back into Scrivener when you’re home.

Scrivener can be bought for $39.95, which was about £25 in real money when I wrote this, from

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