Microsoft Word was my preferred writing program—until I started a large writing project. Then I found it frustrating, scrollong back and forth to find material, and making changes by cutting and pasting.
I needed a writing program with more support and oomph. After trialing five—some cute but superficial, some much too complicated—I found one that stood out as writer-friendly, powerful, supportive, practical, and versatile: SCRIVENER.
After using it for an extended time, here’s what I love about it.
1 Screen, 3 Major Functions
The Scrivener program provides a desktop that can be divided into 3 important functional sections: The Binder, The Editor, and The Inspector. Writers can work with all three at once.
Binder is like a filing cabinet for my project, a collection of all my relevant electronic files and folders. Being able to see all my chapters and sections helps keep me focused on the ‘big picture’.
If I change my mind about where I want a file to be located, I simply click and drag it to a new spot.
Binder also lets me colour-code my folders and files, providing a useful visual hierarchy of my material.
Binder is also flexible. I find that I don’t need a firm outline at the beginning of a project. When I research and find new material, I just develop it as a new file/folder in Binder. When my ideas change, I easily move material to new locations.
A great advantage is that the folders in Binder can hold different kinds of material—not just drafts and finished chapters, but also photos and drawings, music files, electronic articles, etc. All my source material, not matter what type, stays in Scrivener.
The central space of the Scrivener desktop is similar to a word processor. It’s simple to change a typefaces and colours, etc. I can shift from the three-section screen to a single screen, blanking out everything except the file I’m working on. So useful for keeping focused while drafting.
The Editor section can also be split. I can work with two screens, e.g., to view two locations within one file, or to compare two separate files. Very handy when revising a long document because I don’t have to scroll back and forth to cut and paste.
This section is useful for adding notes about a file—its creation date, POV, status (e.g, draft, revised draft, whatever). Writers can add notes to self, e.g., a reminder to check on something. It’s more efficient than scribbling ideas and notes on paper.
Automatic Save Feature
Scrivener automatically saves my work every few seconds. Worth buying the program just for this feature.
Support for Different Writing Processes
Once I started using Scrivener, I stopped thinking in terms of written forms—e.g., article, news item, interview, chart, photograph. Now I look at all my data as informational bits. And Scrivener makes it easy to move various bits around.
For me, a great advantage in working with info-bits is that I can make good use of short writing periods.
Scrivener also makes it easy when I want to try out material. If a bit doesn’t work in one location, it’s simple to move it elsewhere. This flexibility lets me focus on shaping my material to support my goals, and consider readers’ needs and interests.
Great technical support
Good technical support is crucial when relying on a software program. I’ve had queries/issues twice, and Scrivener’s help desk was great in terms of timing and assistance. (Special shout out to Jeff, Scrivener’s wunder-tech.)
The program costs about $40.00 US. Some blogs and sites offer discounts. But to be assured of getting the most recent program, you may want to buy it from the original Scrivener site: https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php
Excellent training–Gwen Hernandez
Scrivener is such a comprehensive program that there is much to learn and get used to. I muddled around with it, but decided I needed to learn it properly.
Salvation came in the form of an online Scrivener training course, developed and taught by the amazingly knowledgeable and helpful Gwen Hernandez. I highly recommend it.
Hernandez is an excellent instructor, taking novices step-by-step through the basics. As the author of the Dummies Guide to Scrivener, she knows the program inside and out. And she’s generous in providing help when newbies do something dumb in Scrivener. Her courses are also inexpensive.
I enjoy hunting for inspirational books about creativity and specifically about writing. Recently I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2015 book: Big Magic: Creative living beyond fear.
After her mega-seller, Eat Pray Love, Gilbert wrote Big Magic to discuss and promote creativity.What affects our desire to create? How can we develop as artists?
According to her, too many worry that they have lost out in the creativity stakes. They sabotage their dreams through endless self-criticism. For example:
- I have no talent, or not enough.
- I’ve left it too late, all my creativity has dried up.
- My creative work may be rejected, and then where would I be?
- I worry that I won’t find a market for my work.
- I won’t be accepted because I don’t have the right experiences or the right education.
- I fear creating something honest because it will upset others.
Gilbert suggests separating internal creativity (input) from external success (outcome). The job of writers is be actively creative. At the same time they need to accept that they cannot control success.
Gilbert provides many inspiring examples about the magic that evolves when we get serious about pursuing a creative life.
She comments that in the past, the term genius was not a personal attribute–She is a genius–but a force or spirit that helped the individual artist. Well, yes! In the 1800s, Ralph Waldo Emerson said that the writer of Walden, Henry David Thoreau, was led by his ‘muse and genius’, a dominant force that shaped his ‘opinions, conversation, studies, work, and course of life.’
For , Gilbert the ‘magic’ of creativity includes her sense that ideas actively seek a creator, such as a writer, to develop them. Odd, but she provides examples that suggest it’s crucial to develop ideas immediately when they present themselves.
To start exploring your creativity, you might start with this tough question that Gilbert poses:
What would you do even if you knew that you might fail? What do you love doing so much that words—failure, success—essentially become irrelevant?
Well worth a read.
A couple of weeks ago, at the end of autumn here in the southern hemisphere, a friend collected her unripe tomatoes and gave them to me. Since then, I’ve been making different versions of green tomato pie. (Yes, it’s a dessert, not a savoury dish.)
As I chopped the tomatoes, childhood memories surfaced. My grandmother, knowing it was my favorite pie, always made one in tomato season if I was staying with her. At the time I took it for granted, but now I treasure it for the loving gesture it was.
Years later, in Australia, I worked on the outskirts of Sydney where market gardeners had their fields. I often bought green tomatoes from an elderly Italian farmer who kept a roadside vegetable stall. I could tell that he was puzzled when I searched through his tomatoes for the greenest ones. But he didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Italian.
As a writing prompt, the phrase remembering a food may elicit rich ideas.
- Do you have a pleasant memory about a particular food? Or a bad or scary memory? Is there food that leads to nostalgia?
- What about a hilarious food episode, real or imagined?
- A food ritual, from the past or present.
- A particular food, related to a specific place, such as a restaurant or a neighborhood.
Once you select a food to write about, consider if you want to write as if you’re in the past, or in the present reflecting on the past. Or try fiction, perhaps by exaggerating the real-life food experience you had.
One of the writing-about-food pieces I love is Garrison Keillor’s recitation on his radio program, about sweet corn. He talked so lovingly about this humble food that I wanted to go out immediately and buy a few ears .
I was amused to find his additional comment about sweet corn:
Sweet corn is our family’s weakness. We were prepared to resist atheistic Communism, immoral Hollywood, hard liquor, gambling, dancing, smoking, fornication, but if Satan had come around with sweet corn, we at least would have listened to what he had to sell.
Voice & Vision, Stephen J. Pyne’s book about writing nonfiction, starts with the question: Why do we write?
Many unpublished writers dream of garnering fame and fortune. Pyne doesn’t think these aims provide a practical impetus for writing. He suggests the real trigger for writing is the desire to connect with readers, by entertaining them, helping them understand a topic, or providing some type of fulfillment.
If you have a great topic, that’s good—but it’s not enough. Many people have an idea that could be developed into a book-length manuscript. But few end up with a finished manuscript. Why?
According to Pyne, some simply don’t have time to write. I’d add that some don’t make the time to write. Others lack the motivation, skills, or knowledge to develop their ideas in terms of creating a major writing project.
Even writers who succeed in finishing a manuscript may hit a brick wall when it comes to publication. One can self-publish. But if the idea is to get an agent or publisher, it’s worth knowing that manuscripts flood in to these gatekeepers, increasing ‘arithmetically’, but they ‘die exponentially’. In other words, only a small percentage of writers get their work turned into a book, by a publishing house.
Putting all that aside, how can nonfiction writers improve their chances by improving their writing?
Draw on fiction elements
Utilising fiction elements when writing nonfiction is increasingly popular. A few years ago, the term creative nonfiction was relatively unknown, but it is now a popular category.
Whatever your topic and take, can you include the following fictional elements in your material?
- A strong plot
- A narrative arc
- Memorable characters
- Vividly described settings and scenes
- Action and narrative
- An effective tone and rhythm
Voice is how an author relates to readers and tries to keep them reading. An author’s voice is made up of three major writing elements.
- Word choice
Formal or informal? What suits your expected readers?
- Sentence and paragraph structure
Are your sentences and paragraphs usually long, or short? Informal, or formal? Simple, or complex? Does this structure suit your readers and your topic?
What is your attitude towards your subject? Towards your expected readers?
When I read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, I so much enjoyed how he told his tale of hiking the Appalachian Trail that I went on to read his other books. But I tend give up on a nonfiction book if the author writes more than a general reader needs to know, seems egotistical, or goes off on confusing tangents.
Identify your vision
What Pyne calls vision is I call theme. It’s the writer’s big idea, the organising principle that helps writers shape their topic. Once you know your theme, you’ll find it easier to make choices, in terms of material that supports versus material that does not.
Pyne likens vision to a sheepdog that ‘keeps your flock together’ and reminds you ‘where to go next, how long to stay, what to keep, what to discard’.
How do you choose your vision? He suggests focusing on topic and purpose.
Topic: What do you want to do? What is your book going to be about?
If you cannot get a clear sense of your topic and purpose, the what and the why, it may help if you consider where your finished book would be placed.
- Where would readers find your book, in relevant bookshops, libraries, and websites?
- What other books would be on the shelf with your book? How do they differ from your book? How are they similar?
- If someone asks what genre or category your book fits, how would you answer?
Later, when drafting, keep returning to these questions. As you read and research more, you may become more specific in terms of your topic and purpose.
Interestingly, Pyne believes that if writers keep their focus on voice and vision, they won’t suffer the dreaded writer’s block. How good is that!
Pyne, Stephen J. (2009). Voice & Vision: A guide to writing history and other serious nonfiction. Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard UP.
Mapping—sometimes called clustering, ballooning, or bubbling—encourages writers to play with ideas before creating their first draft.
The aim of mapping is to be loose—exploring ideas and making connections, without restriction. Mapping helps writers generate more ideas at the start. Later, they can sort through the results to work out which are worth developing.
The main benefit of mind-mapping is that the exercise often takes a writer beyond obvious ideas and into new creative territory. It’s fun, and satisfying, to follow where your mind takes you.
Here is a visual of what a mapping exercise may look like when finished. This example is from Scapple, a good, inexpensive, online mapping program. I use it, but many writers are happy to map using a sheet of paper and a pen.
If you have never tried mapping to develop material–short story, essay, speech, whatever—why not have a go?
When mapping, let your mind free associate. Imagine you decide to start with the term crazy love. Jot it down in the middle of your paper, and circle it.
Now, what does the term bring to mind? Capture the first idea that pops into your head: Write it down, circle it, and draw a line to link it to crazy love.
Keep going, adding words and circles. Some circles will have their own offshoots as you think of additional ideas.
At the end of the exercise, your sheet of paper will be filled with a network of circles and lines, words and phrases.
Sarah wants to write a poem about home. She writes the wor HOME in the centre of her page, and draws a circle around it. Then she free associates, adding whatever words and phrases come to mind. She does not censor anything, no matter how silly, but lets her imagination run.
When she thinks she has done enough, she puts her mind-map of HOME aside. Later, when she returns to her map, she not only has lots of material, but she may now have a better sense of which items on her page could work for her. The exercise has taken her beyond her first ideas.
If you haven’t used mapping as a playful pre-drafting activity, have a go. Imagine writing a short story, poem, essay etc. on one of these topics:
- Early memory
- When I was young
- Not again
- If only
- I need
Place your word or phrase in the centre of your page. Then start adding words and phrases as they come to mind. Work quickly. Don’t censor or evaluate.
As you work, add connecting lines, to show relationships. The aim is to work quickly, creating a web of words and phrases. You may opt to leave some terms on their own. With other terms, you may come up with more connections. For these, use linking lines to new circles.
When you have reached a finishing point, put the results aside for at least a few hours, and don’t think about the exercise.
When you return to your map, shift into editor mode. Assess what you want to keep. Perhaps you’ll get a sense of where you want to go with the material. Highlighter pens can be useful here. Use one colour to identify possible main points and another colour for secondary points. Or one colour for items you definitely want to include, and another colour for items you might add. Or start by crossing out the items you don’t want to include.
Once you’ve assessed your mapping results, You can refer to it when developing an outline, if that’s how you start writing. Or perhaps you will start drafting, given that you now have a better sense of your topic and what you wish to include.
A novel is a daily labor over a period of years. But a story can be like a mad, lovely visitor, with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend. —Lorrie Moore
Unfortunately, some stories suggest more of the mad rather than the lovely. What problems can wreck your short story’s pace and content?
This checklist can help you evaluate your material when you’re drafting, as well as later, when editing.
Problem 1: Writing beyond your story’s true start and true ending
Missing your story’s true beginning and ending can play havoc with pace and sense of closure. When you’re grappling with writing, it can be hard to identify the appropriate point to start and finish. Some writers load unnecessary information at the front. Some keep going, past the logical ending, as they keep explaining or tying up loose ends.
Unlike novels, short stories often leave some elements unexplored and unreported. When writing short, try to remain open, rather than explain too much.
Problem 2: Overkilling your scenes
A similar problem is overkill, taking a scene past its dramatic peak.
What if you want a scene to peak when your main character confronts a workplace bully.
Start the build up too early and your readers may think the peak has come too late. If you Write too much afterwards, extending the scene, and they may not grasp where the peak point is.
Problem 3: Repeating too often
A story that is too repetitive can annoy readers. They may think the author believes they’re stupid or can’t pay attention.
Even a small slip can irritate. If a character introduces her pet as my dog Jack, readers expect it to be shortened after that to Jack. If Jack’s owner has a hyena laugh, readers don’t need that descriptor each time she reacts to something funny.
Problem 4: Disclosing too early or too much
Modern short fiction often does not include a lot of detail about characters—their history or backstory, their views about various topics. There simply isn’t that much story space to add extraneous details. Having a character provide too much personal history can overload a short story.
In real life, we usually share our personal details gradually, depending on what and how much we are comfortable telling. Think of how little information we provide when we meet someone new. When chatting with old friends, we may keep to familiar, accepted topics rather than introduce new ones.
Problem 5: Inserting useless flashbacks
A flashback has a use. Done well, it helps readers understand the story. If it doesn’t provide this payoff, get rid of it, or find a different way to provide the information you want readers to know.
Imagine that you don’t want to use a major flashback when your character is reflecting on a haunting childhood tragedy. What can you do instead?
- Make one flashback into a few shorter flashbacks, interspersed throughout your story. Your character could experience the tragedy several times, with different details coming to the surface each time
- Replace the flashback with dialogue. Your character could tell another character about the incident. Discussion not only provides another’s view , plus it can flesh out both characters.
Problem 6: Confusing divine art or reality as FICTION
When writing the first messy draft, it’s fine to follow the flow of inspiration. But don’t mistake the result as a divine gift from the writing gods, meaning that no revision is needed.
If you want to fictionalise a real event, more is needed than changing the names of those involved. And probably every critique group focused on fiction has had someone respond to feedback with this defence: But I wrote it exactly the way it really happened.
Even if you draw on divine inspiration, or a real-life account, test your story’s fictional payload. How? Put your draft aside. Let it go cold. Then analyse each scene in terms of its fictional power.
1) Does this scene help my story overall? In what way? How much? Can I do better?
2) Does it help readers understand? What do they understand now that they didn’t before?
3) Would removing this scene weaken the story? Why? How?
Problem 7: Writing unnecessary dialogue
A story’s pace and interest can be jeopardised by lengthy dialogue, especially if the topic is trivial. Example: Readers learn that the main character has organised to take vengeance on her cheating partner. Next, she meets up with an old friend, and they chat for ages about work issues.
The problem is not that this conversation couldn’t happen in real life. But after getting readers focused on vengeance, office politics is a letdown. When writing dialogue relevant to the main plot, provide the weighting and space it deserves. pare back the dialogue.
Problem 8: Adding too many non-crucial details
Include too many minor events or details, and you may drown your story. And if minor items overwhelm major ones, your readers may become confused or bored. How much do you want readers to know at the different stages in your story?
To evaluate what’s important and what isn’t, keep asking why. Why was Sam at the deli that Thursday? Why did James look scared when the phone rang? You don’t have to explain everything to your readers. But working out the answers can help you identify your story’s mix of important and non-crucial elements. This exercise may also help you follow the famous writing advice: Kill your darlings.
Problem 9: Creating clutter characters
These characters are minor, and almost invisible—unless you give them too much oxygen. You know you have a problem when a reader tells you how much she likes Sharon, the nurse’s aide, because she’s sooo funny. Unfortunately, Sharon has only six lines of dialogue in one scene and never appears again.
Problem 10: Incorporating dream scenes
When I wrote my first story in a beginners writing class, I included a dream scene. I thought it was so expressive. But the workshop leader looked pained. Since then, I’ve read or heard from other writing experts, who often advise jettisoning the dream scene. Why?
Sometimes, a dream scene has to carry too much weight. Example: using the dream to tell readers something crucial in understanding the story. Sometimes a dream is fluff, which does not pull its weight in terms of moving the story forward.
If you must incorporate that crazy dream you’ve thought up, at least clarify its purpose. What do you want your readers to get from it in terms of the overall story? Then consider alternatives to a dream, and decide what works best.
These days, I so rarely get ‘here comes the postman’ letters that it seems odd to comment on writing letters. However, the Women of Letters is unusual, a popular ‘talk letters’ event.
Selected women—usually well-known to the public—are given a set topic and respond to it in a form of a letter. Each woman can choose who or what the receiver is, plus whether that recipient is from the past, present or future. At a WoL event, each invited woman reads out her piece before a live audience.
The topics selected for these events work well as writing prompts. See what you can do with the following.
For an added challenge, imagine you’ve been invited to read your letter at a WoL event. Consider what and how to develop your piece to connect with a diverse audience. Will your letter be funny, poignant, angry, revealing? Will you draw on real life events or provide a fantasy?
Here are a some topics. I’ve included questions to help you reflect on what you could include and what approach you could take to develop your idea:
- A complaint letter
Is it from the past, present, or future? Is it funny or serious? About a person, animal, or an object?
- To my most treasured possession
Was it from the past—your own or someone else’s? Is the perspective about the possession unusual?
- To the moment I knew it was time to go home
Was it related an interesting period/job/phenomenon in your life? About a particular day? Can you do something with the word home? Was there a turning point, e.g., a decision made, an action taken?
- A love letter
Are you writing to your younger self? To a relative? An animal? A physical condition? A habit? A location? Is it to do with something now gone, vanished? Or something you’ve learned or unlearned?
- To the things I never told my mother
What were the circumstances surrounding the ‘not telling’? What do you think now about not telling? Are the things never told funny? Tragic? Or . . .?
- An apology
Is this about a change of some sort? A sarcastic response to a irritating person or thing? Is to do with a misfortunate or confusing event from the past? Are you writing to your younger self?
- To my most treasured possession
- To the person I never got over
- To the best day of my life
- The letter I wish I had written
- To the best present I ever received
- To my ghosts
- To my turning point
- To the thing I can’t resist
- To the night I’d rather forget
- To the life I could have lived
- To my first pin-up
- To my nemesis
- To the host of that party
- To my first boss
- To the best decision I ever made
- To the song/story I wish I had written
- To the person I misjudged
- To my twelve-year-old self [or pick any age]
- To the moment it all fell apart
- To the photo I wish had never been taken
- To my most treasured possession
- To the one who changed my life
- To a little white lie
Source: Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire, 2012. https://www.penguin.com.au/products/9780670076093/women-lettersher adventures in the art of correspondence from Women of Letters. Viking Press (Penguin Grp), Melbourne.