Scrivener 3.0, the more modern, more powerful long-text editor

Scrivener must be the Mac’s best selling text editor for writing anything from blog posts to 800-page novels. I reviewed version 2 some seven years ago, with the app only having been point-updated in those years. Last week, however, Literature & Latte, the developers of Scrivener, decided the time had come to upgrade Scrivener to a brand new version 3. The new Scrivener has a more powerful and capable compiler, looks better than ever and has been improved in a myriad ways.

The new styles functionality and more powerful and flexible compiler are perhaps the most obvious modules in terms of improvements and new capabilities. Scrivener has always made an abstraction of output formatting by separating the editing interface from the publishing interface — two entirely different worlds that run over into each other’s territory with word processors like Apple Pages or Microsoft Word. With Scrivener you can write the way you want — in Markdown, plain text, whatever — and then output to different formats by compiling the document for each specific format, be it .docx, PDF or HTML. We’ll come to the Compile module in a minute, but let’s first take a look at what has become of Scrivener’s Presets…

My main grudge against previous versions of Scrivener was that it wouldn’t easily let me set default formatting and styles for either all of my work or for a particular project. Well, that frustration has gone. You can do both now.

In version 3, a true styles system — more similar to the way it has been implemented in Pages than in Word, luckily — makes it a lot easier to format headings, blockquotes and more, and keep that formatting intact across documents and projects. Better even, styles are fully integrated with the Compile module, so that you can have a style defined for easy reading and writing on-screen, while that same style will be reformatted when you export or print, depending on the output format.

The Compile module has been made easier for novices but now also lets you put the styles you have defined to full use. Take blockquotes. Styles allow you to indent a blockquote and make its text smaller at the same time. The best part, however, is that you can tell Scrivener to format all your blockquotes one way when creating an ebook and another way when producing a PDF, for example.

The relationship between Layout and Section types

The Compile module has been overhauled in other areas as well. You no longer need to worry about how to set up an output result based on the outline in the Binder and what it needs to do in order to make Scrivener print (for example) chapter numbers where you want them to appear. It has all been made much more intuitive by using Section and Layout types. Section types describe what each element in the Binder is categorised into. Examples are “chapter”, “scene”, “subsection”, “table”, “character”, etc.

Layout types are elements in the Compile window that you assign using a simple selection process. Each layout type has a specific design to it. For example, a Chapter type may have a title and a page number formatted in specific ways that are unique to the template you’re using. Some of the types included have multiple formats. You can easily see what each one is going to look like in the Compiler as they’re represented in a graphical way — as sections divided by a dashed line.

Once you’ve finished assigning and selecting the Layout types’ design you want, you’re ready to compile, unless you want to tweak the settings. Even that has been made easier, although you can dive into this system to a deep level, at which point it will become quite as complex as before. The good news, though, is that you’ll need to dive really deep — Mariana Trough kind of deep — in order to access the Compiler’s darkest innards. 99% of the Scrivener users will never again need that level of skill.

Scrivener 3 has many more improvements and new features, of which the side-by-side document views is one of my favourites. You can view up to three documents in one project’s main window. One of these will be static and activated using the new “Copyholders” feature. A fourth document can be made visible by using the Bookmark feature — and will be shown in the sidebar. When limited to two documents, you can write on one side and scroll through research on the other.

In previous versions, I didn’t think much of Scrivener’s corkboard. I always found it of very limited use and designed in an unpleasant skeuomorphic way. That same corkboard now allows you to track threads by using the “Arrange by Label” feature. That is a new viewing mode that requires you to add labels to documents (in corkboard mode, these become index cards) first, then lets you arrange them (as cards) along coloured lines representing each label. Labels can be set to represent characters, places, events on an imaginary timeline, etc.

A bit overdue is the “Writing Statistics” functionality, but the chaps of Literature & Latte have turned this feature into something really useful. Not only can you now set writing goals, you can also keep track of how much you write every day (Writing History). The statistics panel shows you the characters, words, sentences, etc, besides the frequency of each word, for selected documents in the Binder or for the compiled result. You can also set options for the statistics, including words to ignore.

Metadata for screenwriters

Metadata is very important for all content you create — even if you can search easily through text — but it’s tedious to add it to your files. To make that a lot easier and quicker, you can now create pop-up lists, checkboxes and date fields in Scrivener’s Inspector and outliner. When you create custom metadata fields, Scrivener will slide down the Project Settings sheet where you’ll select options for your metadata field. For example, if you are writing a movie script with passages that are not suitable for an audience of under 12 years, you could set up a checkbox with label “BBFC 12-12A” (BBFC is the British Board of Film Classification) and check that each time you start a new Binder document that covers scenes not meant to be seen by children younger than 12.

Which takes me to the use of Scrivener as a tool for movie and TV-series script writers. Those people traditionally use dedicated software for the purpose — think Final Draft. In fact, Scrivener comes — and has come for some time — with several templates for movie, TV and radio production. The big difference with previous versions is that, while you can compile to Final Draft format, you enjoy a much more flexible writing environment with Scrivener.

Scrivener, the best editor?

To wrap up this review, Scrivener 3 is many times more user-friendly than its predecessors were, yet it has become even more powerful. For long-read documents it’s unsurpassed as it delivers both on the project management functionality and the editing support writers need. For shorter writing projects it’s perhaps more difficult to choose between Scrivener 3 and Ulysses, MultiMarkdown Composer or iA Writer, although I imagine a lot of people have been put off by Ulysses having become a subscription-based app, which Scrivener 3 still isn’t.

Another reason why Scrivener could be the app of choice is that, even if you’re not thinking of it now, there may come a time when you want to tackle a bigger project than any of the other editors supports with the same level of functionality and flexibility. Scrivener 3 costs $45 for a full licence, with upgrade discounts available.

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