One of the first questions some writers ask when they hear about Scrivener is this: “Why do I need specialised writing software to write my book? I can just use Microsoft Word like most writers!” This is true. You don’t need Scrivener—but then again, you don’t need Word, either.
Word processors such as Word are so ubiquitous that we tend to think of them as little more than digital paper, giving little thought these days to the advantages they bring over paper and ink. And yet, at some point during the evolution of the word processor, someone looked at a typewriter and thought, What if I could undo my mistakes? What if I could delete words and lines and paragraphs? What if I could insert that missed word?
That’s what good software does: it takes the things we do and gives us more control over them, or combines them in new and useful ways.
People wrote and typed brilliant works of art before the word processor came along—but the word processor made the process easier. It might not be able to help with finding a fresh take on a topic or turning the perfect phrase, but it removes some of the friction from the physical act of writing. As a result, we no longer have to whip out the Tippex whenever we make a typo, and we don’t have to retype an entire page to fix a paragraph.
Word processors are chiefly concerned with the typing and presentation of documents, however. As such, they do not incorporate tools that are the staples of many writers of books and other long texts—index cards, corkboards, notes, outlines, research materials. So in the same way that Microsoft Word and its ilk used software to revolutionise typewriting, Scrivener brings together such tools and integrates them with the writing process in new ways that are not possible in the analogue world.
Where a word processor’s tools focus mostly on presentation, Scrivener’s tools focus mostly on content.
There’s a wonderful passage in The Agony and the Ego, a book of essays by writers on writing, in which author Hilary Mantel describes her writing process. She talks of how she writes down early ideas on pieces of paper and index cards and pins them to a cork notice-board, not yet knowing where they fit. Eventually an order emerges and she repins them. Later, as ideas accumulate, she transfers all of these pieces of paper into a ring-binder, where she is still free to move pages around. Now she can see which sections of her book have “written themselves” and which need more attention.
To the best of my knowledge, Hilary Mantel is not a Scrivener user (her essay was written several years before Scrivener was born) but this is exactly the sort of process that Scrivener digitises and integrates: What if I could keep everything on the corkboard and inside the ring-binder at the same time? What if moving cards on the board automatically moved their sections in the manuscript? What if I could flip between working on an overview of my manuscript and the manuscript itself? What if I could keep all my research together with my writing and view it alongside?
So, why do you need Scrivener to write your book when you can just use Word? You don’t—amazing books will continue to be written without Scrivener just as they’ll continue to be written without Word (and plenty of writers still exist who prefer using a typewriter or writing longhand). But for many of us—especially the more messy-minded such as myself—software can help, and, while Word helps by making it easier to type than it was on a typewriter, Scrivener provides additional help by integrating features for planning, writing and structuring long texts.