When Everything Looks Like a Nail

The regularity of my blogging has dropped off a bit lately, mainly because I’m in the middle of writing a book about the use of interactive whiteboard technology for teachers. Although I’ve got almost 20,000 words written so far, I am way behind deadline and really need to get the first draft finished so it can be submitted to the publishers in a few weeks. Until I get that done, every time I feel the urge to blog I have to remind myself that there is a (new) deadline looming and direct my writing efforts to the book instead of the blog. I feel bad that my blogging has been suffering lately, but I really need to get this done. So there you have the reason I’ve not been updating lately.

However, I simply had to take a few minutes to share this wonderful new tool I’ve found called Scrivener. It’s an incredible tool for anyone taking on a large writing task and I really can’t believe I’ve never tried it before. I had heard the name mentioned but assumed it was just another word processor. How wrong I was!

There is an assumption that the defining software tool for writers is Microsoft Word. While Word is a very powerful application and has many, many features that most people never even discover, Word can be a frustrating tool for anyone contemplating the writing of a very long piece of work such as a book. I use Word a lot and know it quite well… in fact I hold a Advanced level Microsoft Office Specialist certification in Word, so I feel quite at home in it. I can generally twist Word to my will and make it do pretty much whatever I need, but it’s still a pain in the neck when working on something as large and fragmented as a book.

There’s no doubt that Word is a great tool for certain types of writing. But as they say, when your only tool is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail.

Enter Scrivener. Designed expressly for anyone working on long documents that require many edits, such as books and screenplays, Scrivener takes an entirely different approach to writing. Essentially, it treats easch writing task as a project, collecting resources for writing into a single place and then enables you to break long text into short, movable, definable chunks, letting you categorise and synopsise each chunk and assemble them into the final work. You can break text into chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences… whatever you like… and move them around to let your ideas flow far better than Word will ever allow. Unfortunately Scrivener is a Mac only application, but Windows users might like to check out PageFour which apparently does similar things.

Using Scrivener has been somewhat of an eye-opening paradigm shift for me. It has challenged my assumptions about the very nature of the software tools we give our students. It made me realise what a mistake it is to assume that Word – or any “industry standard” software tool – is necessarily the tool for the job as far as student use is concerned. We inflict tools like Word on our students because they are supposed to be “what everybody uses” and we insist that the best tools to teach them to use are the tools used “by industry”. The fact is, schools are not offices, and the writing needs of a business person are not necessarily the writing needs of a student. The best tool for a student is not the one that they will use when they get older, but the one that helps them do what they need to do right now.

There is nothing “wrong” with Word, but having now spent some time with Scrivener it is now painfully obvious just how much more we could offer our students if we stopped assuming the tools of the business world were what they should master in order to create written texts. Real writing is a process of collecting ideas and thoughts together, manipulating them into a cohesive form, and editing and re-editing them until they make sense to other people. I now see how tools such as Scrivener approach the task of writing from a completely different angle and enable it to take place in a far more fluid way.

Now back to work! I have a book to finish…

PS: Here’s a video that gives a great overview of what Scrivener is all about…

video overview

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CC BY-SA 4.0 When Everything Looks Like a Nail by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

9 Replies to “When Everything Looks Like a Nail”

  1. I should add too, that I’m still using the 30 day free trial of Scrivener but will certainly be buying it. At $39.95 with a 12.5% discount for teachers, and a home-based site licence to use on every Mac in the house, it’s a bargain! (I know I probably sound like a bit of a fanboy for Scrivener, so I should probably add that I have no financial interest whatsoever in the product… I just really like what I’m seeing with it.)

  2. hhmmm. This looks nice. However, I wonder if Scrivner would ever consider making this multiple-user friendly, such as Google Docs. I’m co-writing a piece in Google Docs and yes, we do have different chapters in several different files. It’s not nice, since I like to be a whole-picture type of girl. But I do need for other people to have access to this work too.

    There’s never a perfect tool; when we experience one, we want more and better. Such is competition and improvement!

  3. I actually considered the same thing Ginger. At the moment, no, it’s not a collaborative thing. It would be nice it if was, since the book I’m writing is actually a collaborative work with someone else who is geographically remote from me.

    The process we are using is that he wrote some things as draft ideas and sent them to me, and I’m massaging them into a basic book form. We did actually start this process using Google Docs, but I must admit I found the GDocs interface just a little slow and clunky for managing such a lot of text that was broken up into chunks like this. I like the Living in the Cloud idea, but there is no doubt that when you’re working with large amounts of text that are sitting into small chunks, having an actual application that runs from your hard drive is hard to beat for speed and convenience. I actually pulled all our text down from GDocs and put it into Scrivener to work on.

    Once we get the main chapter structures written (and this is what I’m finding Scrivener so useful for), we will be putting the mostly-complete chapters into Google Docs again to collaborate on the finishing touches.

    But yes, a collaborative version of Scriv would be great…

  4. Do you have any feel for how Scrivener would work for academic work such as a thesis or dissertation? I have not started mine yet, but one looms ahead in my not so distant future.

  5. Bill: I think it would be perfect for a thesis, in fact I think it would be way better than Word. The way it let’s you write in an essentially non-linear way (if you choose to) makes it very powerful.

    Grab the 30 day trial and let me know what you think…

    Susan: Thanks. Should be available in the second half of this year… Don’t know about the pre-ordering bit, but I can slip you a sneak preview of a chapter if you’d like. Could use some good feedback on it before I give it to the publishers. let me know if you’d like me to send you a chapter or two…

  6. Just checked it out. Looks like I will have to wait for my next computer upgrade. I’m still stuck in PC land but hope someday to switch back to the Mac platform it requires.

  7. Wow, Chris that’s great news. I thought I’d seen rather less of you than usual and this explains it. Can’t wait to see your book when it comes out. Will it have stuff for secondary teachers? Regarding your podcast post, I haven’t been listening to podcasts since I’ve been away so lots to catch up on/

That's all well and good, but what do YOU think?