Scrivener for iOS: initial impressions

I’ve been waiting for this ever since I was converted to the Scrivener way a couple of years ago, so the last couple of days have been pretty damned exciting. If you somehow missed it, Scrivener for iOS was released yesterday morning, after a wait that has felt interminable to many.

I began using Scrivener on my desktop a couple of years ago, for a NaNoWriMo. Friends had been extolling it for years, but I’d been stubbornly clinging to Word. “I write linearly,” I’d say. “What use is Scrivener to a writer like me?”

I tried it for that NaNo, only really planning to use it for planning rather than writing, but somehow ended up using it for everything that year and haven’t looked back. Having all my notes on characters and locations, evolving outlines and research, all in one place for easy reference is wonderful. Being able to version each scene using snapshots, rather saving the entire document as a new version each time I make a change, makes my heart happy during editing. (It’s the day job software developer in me, I swear.) Using colours in labels to, for example, display which POV a scene or chapter is from really helps in a quick visual assessment of the balance in a story.

The only problem has been that I often use my iPad for writing. In coffee shops, when I’m travelling, or even just because I’m too lazy to boot up the desktop of an evening, I have a keyboard and I can churn out the words wherever I am. Without Scriv, though, I’ve been typing into Word and copying into Scriv later. Which is as exactly as frustrating and fiddly as it sounds, so finally getting Scrivener on my iPad is going to be a huge timesaver.

Now I’ve been using it for a couple of days, what do I think so far?

When Scrivener announced the iOS version was finally going to be a reality, I concluded these were the absolute, must-have, deal-breaker features that I needed for it to be functional:

  • Ability to open existing Scrivener projects and add new folders and text documents to the manuscript section of the binder.
  • Ability to add new words and edit in new and existing text documents.
  • Access to the research/character/location folders in a project, even if read-only.
  • Ability to assign labels and statuses.

That was it. My bare-bones list of deal-breakers. If I had those really basic features, it would already be better than my Word-copy-paste routine. I also had a list of features that I really hoped for, because it would make working much easier, but wouldn’t stop me buying if they were missing:

  • Dropbox syncing so the iPad didn’t have to be physically connected to a computer for file transfers.
  • Word count tracking.
  • Compile/export functionality into Word documents.
  • Corkboard view.
  • Ability to move text boxes and chapters around to reorder.
  • Write access to the research folders for making notes on the move.

So, how did Scrivener do?

Well, first up, I got my bare-bones and nice to have features. All of them, which I didn’t expect. Even the compile functionality–it’s bare-bones, no custom templates and no ePub files, but it outputs a Word or PDF file, and that’s enough to be perfectly usable for what I need. There will be an occasion this summer when I’ll be travelling and I need to email a draft of the story I’m working on, thanks to deadlines, and this will do it. YAY.

I got word count tracking for both the manuscript and the session. Corkboard. Moving folders and text boxes around. Creating new research folders and adding text and images to them. Creating new text documents and folders in the manuscript and editing existing ones. Updating labels and statuses–and being able to use labels to colour-code cards in the corkboard and folder entries in the binder, which was more than I expected!

Dropbox syncing that actually works. No, it doesn’t sync as I go the way the desktop does. You need to manually invoke a sync, but this is actually great: I can work offline with ease (and without any of the demands to turn off airplane mode Word gives me) and sync when I’m online again. And it won’t throw up a thousand errors when my wifi signal cuts out for a moment (Word, AGAIN) while I have the project open.

I can even create new Scrivener projects and throw them onto Dropbox, which was another thing I didn’t expect. It’s a really basic project, just the manuscript folder and a research folder, so all the fancy settings and front/back matter in the templates I’ve created aren’t there and will need setting up when I’m at my desktop. But again, for working on the go, being able to create a new project is huge. I can start building my research folders and making notes if an amazing idea hits that needs to be noted down before I forget all the details.

The only error I found so far is this, and it’s not really an error. More of a minor miscommunication issue. There were updates to the Windows and Mac versions of Scrivener earlier this week to upgrade them to be compatible with the iOS version. Specifically, you needed to apply the update and then open the projects you’ll be using in the iOS version to upgrade their format. I did that for one project I’m working and then plugged away at some new words before saving and closing. I had another project that I’d barely started (just an outline that I also have in Word and some brief character notes), so I opened that one to upgrade and closed it without having made any changes. In that second project, because I hadn’t made and saved any changes, the format upgrade didn’t stick and it wouldn’t open in iOS. The first project was fine. So my only tip would be to make sure you make a minor change (even just adding a comma) to your project on the desktop after upgrading it and save it, otherwise iOS won’t be able to open it. After that, everything should work.

Overall, I’m incredibly impressed. I got the first scene of a new project written yesterday–created a new project after I couldn’t open the original in iOS and it didn’t take me long to get labels and statuses set up and start working. I even added the outline to my research folder and set up a new character folder. Today I went back to the project I’m supposed to be working on (er, oops) and added some new words. It was a doddle, much smoother than working in Word, and the MS and session words tracked for both project perfectly.

The text editor defaults to only using around 2/3s of the screen width, so the binder can still be displayed down the left, but it can be expanded to a full screen view. Typewriter scrolling is easy to toggle on and off. All the features I rely on day-to-day are right there, and the workflow is similar enough to the desktop version that the learning curve is easy. It’s probably not as intuitive to anyone completely new to Scrivener, but that doesn’t surprise me: desktop Scrivener had a steep learning curve for me and the iOS version is modelled as closely on that as it can be.

There are tutorials built into the app, though, to help new users to work out how to use Scrivener, so you’re not left flailing in the dark. And the Scrivener forums are an endless source of useful information, too. I’d definitely say that it’s good to have the desktop version, too, because there are features in it that the iOS version can’t replicate. Specifically, the compile settings are very basic, and you’ll want the desktop version to do anything fancy on those lines. I have a bunch of custom compile settings and I’ll only be using the iOS compile when I need to compile a rough draft for backups or sending to first readers.

And backups is the other thing iOS doesn’t have. In the desktop version, there’s a button to create a zipped backup of every file in a project, and iOS doesn’t have that. Compiling and exporting your manuscript is the best you’ll be able to do, and that won’t include any of the research notes. It may due to the limitations of iOS, but if the zipped backups are doable, I hope Scrivener will have them on their to-do list for a future iteration. That’s a feature a lot of people would love, because backups are vital to writer sanity and paranoia.

In the meantime, I’m compiling my project before I hit sync, due to that writerly paranoia!

In summary, Scrivener for iOS is everything I’d hoped for and more. It’s already making me more productive, because I’m organising as I write instead of having to do a lot of organising and tidying later, and it’s going to make my summer of travelling and writing so much easier. If you were on the fence on whether Scrivener for iOS is worth it, then I can report that it absolutely is. The hype didn’t lie: this is the app we’ve all been waiting for to make writing on an iPad not just workable, but enjoyable and incredibly productive.

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