Scrivener, Storyist, Ulysses

Driven, I suppose, by a desire for something new, something different, I tried a couple of alternatives to Scrivener recently. Scrivener has been my go-to writing software since I discovered it in the middle of writing Stealing Light, and the second half of that book was finished using it.

Scrivener essentially collects chapters, notes, synopses, images and research, all into a single document or "project". It has a full-screen view that blocks out distractions; you can do neat stuff like open separate chapters that "float" in size-adjustable boxes next to what you're actually working on, for reference; you can set searchable keywords; have another text box open for notes specific to a chapter, or the manuscript as a whole: make use of a scratch-pad for typing in very quick, rough ideas; label chapters as to whether they're finished, not finished, and so on; add notes and comments into the main text that stay out of the way while you're writing; and a million other little tricks I still haven't tapped into.

Essentially, Scrivener's pretty much awesome. But I got an iPad last year, and found myself wanting to write on that. There's no Scrivener app for iPad, however - at least, not yet. An iPad version's been in development for a couple of years, and the announcement finally came not long after New Year that an internal beta was undergoing testing. Well, excuse me, while I throw my hat in the air and whoop. I know a lot of people are champing at the bit to be able to use Scrivener on a tablet.

But an internal beta is a long way from actually being able to get hold of and use the app itself. I had a halfway solution: Textilus, an iPad word processor that syncs reasonably well with Scrivener. But it's not perfect because, essentially, it's still not Scrivener, and depending on how good your internet connection is there are often document conflicts as it tries to autosave to your documents into Dropbox (through which the two programs automatically sync). So, while an acceptable halfway solution, that's all it is.

But there are other programs like Scrivener which do have iPad apps. One is Storyist. The other is Ulysses. I tried both recently. Storyist looks nice, but isn't nearly as malleable and adjustable as Scrivener. They've aimed for simplicity, which is fine, but coming from Scrivener it merely feels restricted. If I want to make in-document notes, I'm presented with a set of pre-formatted sheets with sections for 'Character Bio' and so forth that don't in any way reflect my working process. And I don't like being forced to make use of someone else's idea of an outline.

Still, the iPad app for Storyist is...okay. I tried a demo of the desktop version, but wound up back with Scrivener. The latter is also, I must add, shockingly expensive at nearly £45. And if you want the iPad app as well, that's most of a tenner on top of that. Scrivener is considerably less expensive, and vastly more flexible.

Ulysses is slightly better, and has a philosophy behind it of keeping things very clean, zen-like and simple...perhaps, I think, too simple. They eschew any kind of toolbar. There's no clickable option for bold, italic and so forth. Instead, they rely on something called Markdown which, I learn, is a form of HTML formatting.

I had no idea what Markdown even was until I downloaded the demo. It's kind of a pain in the ass, because I see no evidence that typing a bunch of hash marks or other symbols before and after a word is in any way simpler than just pressing ctrl-b or crtl-i on your keyboard. Sure, leave a toolbar out, but does anyone who writes seriously still click those little buttons instead of using the standard keyboard shortcuts? Supposedly not having to 'think' about formatting means you can focus on your writing; again, all I see is an opportunity to waste time 'focusing' on figuring Markdown the hell out. Not to mention there are "editable" style sheets which would send anyone who's never hand-coded a web page run screaming into the night.

So: Ulysses tries to sell itself as a simple, clean solution to writing, but my personal feeling is it's anything but. If you're a blogger, or a web page author, sure. But writing a book? Not so sure.  It also has a weird - to me - document storage solution entirely separate from your computer's native folder system. That, I don't get.

And here's the thing that annoyed me most of all: I could not find anywhere any way any means by which I could do something so simple as centre-align a line of text in Ulysses. Put it this way: if I can download free word-processors  capable of centre-aligning text, I feel no great need to spend thirty quid on one that can't, let alone requires the additional learning curve of an unfamiliar, if basic, formatting language.

But, again, there are two advantages Ulysses and Storyist still have over Scrivener: the first is that they have iPad apps, and Scrivener doesn't. Yet. I'd thought about getting one of these other programs to tide me over until that Scrivener app does finally appear, but I've found nothing to persuade me to shell out on either.

The other advantage appears relatively insignificant, but does count for something. Storyist and especially Ulysses have the advantage of being, well, pretty. They look nice. When I went back to Scrivener, it looked kind of...utilitarian and functional by comparison. It looked like a program built in the mid-2000s, rather than the 2010s. The current iteration of Ulysses, by comparison looks very sleek and modern, despite having only a fraction of Scrivener's flexibility.

But pretty isn't enough to make me move away from Scrivener, even temporarily. It's just too powerful and too flexible compared to the competition. In fact, trying other programs has made me dive a bit deeper into Scrivener's settings and change things around in a way that's improved my workflow. I've only ever really used a fraction of its settings, but now I'm trying to learn more, and that's a good  thing because, ultimately - hopefully - it'll make my job easier.

I gather there's going to be a  major update for Scrivener when the iPad app finally appears later in 2015, so maybe there's a chance they'll upgrade the overall look of the program at the same time.

(Edit, October 2015 - this entry has been getting a lot of hits. Indeed, it's had more hits than any single post on my blog, ever. There are several follow-up entries that explain the process through which I ended up almost entirely switching to Ulysses - the first, from July 2015, is here, the second is here, and the third and last, from September 2015, is here.)
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