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Lunch & Learn: New tools for writing with Professor Emeritus Will Howarth and Jon Edwards



Photo: morguefile, courtesy kumarnm.

Scrivener, an innovative software package for writers, was the topic of last week’s Lunch ‘n Learn, led jointly by Professor Will Howarth, Professor Emeritus of English at Princeton, and Jon Edwards, who has recently retired from Princeton’s Office of Information Technology. Howarth and Edwards spoke of their enthusiasm for this fairly recent tool, with Howarth demonstrating the latest version for Macintosh computers (Scrivener 2.0), and Edwards using the new beta version for Windows (Scrivener Beta 1.4).

The idea for the software, Professor Howarth explained, was conceived in 2006 by Keith Blount, a primary school teacher from England turned self-taught programmer, because he was frustrated by the capabilities of existing commercial word processors. Blount wanted to design a different set of writing tools to support his ambitions for writing fiction. His vision for a new type of writing tool became a reality when the first version of Scrivener for the Mac was released in January of 2007. A beta version of Scrivener for Windows was released in November 2010 to coincide with National Novel Writing month. Blount’s software firm, which now employs 4.5 full time staff members, is called Literature and Latte; Scrivener is its sole product. Although entire documents can be written and formatted in Scrivener, the program is really designed to help with more creative aspects of writing than just typing words and making them look good on a printed page.

Scrivener was described by Howarth as being part “content-generation tool” and part “idea-and-structure processor.” Scrivener deals with all aspects of a writing project from first ideas, to research links and notes, to outlining, structuring, and eventually, composing and editing a document. Scrivener-created works can later be exported to a traditional word processor for final polishing and formatting. Apart from supporting common word processor formats such as .DOC, .DOCX, .RTF and HTML, text can also be translated to e-book formats such as ePub, a standard platform, .MOBI, a non-proprietary format that can be read on the Amazon Kindle, and PDF. It isn’t only this multi-platform flexibility in file types that sets Scrivener apart from other writing tools. By design, the software attempts to follow the creative process that takes place before writing begins, starting with half-formed ideas and sketchy notations; the writer then proceeds with research, composing and organizing, adding to and editing these beginnings into a more complete work.  Although the production version of the Mac edition of Scrivener has only been around for a few years, it has already become the top choice of many professional fiction writers, particularly in the United Kingdom.

Howarth demonstrated the software interface, showing its three-part workspace: there is a binder pane (a collection of all written parts and research material for a particular work), a central editing pane (where writing and edits occur), and an inspector pane on the far right of the screen, where metadata and other information about items in the binder can be entered and viewed. Pre-existing templates for several specific types of writing are included in the software: screenplays, novels, short stories and non-fiction, are several examples of templates that contain formatting commonly required by publishers and producers of such works, particularly those in the UK. The scriptwriting template, for example, has many of the standards required to submit such works to the BBC, as well as being a general guideline for standard script formatting.

Howarth demonstrated many ways to view an existing work in progress in Scrivener, showing both a traditional outline format, as well as one that represented the outline as if each part was an index card pinned to a corkboard. In either view, highlighting and dragging one part of the work to a new position in the outline structure, or on the pin board, caused the document to immediately reflect that change in organization.



Screen shot showing the Scrivener “corkboard” view. (Note: this image shows the interface for Scrivener for Windows Beta 1.4).

Using an e-text version of Walden by Henry David Thoreau, taken from the Project Gutenberg online repository, Howarth showed how easy it was to break an existing long work into component parts. In the case of Walden, Howarth quickly divided the book into its published chapter structure, by using search terms and keyboard shortcuts. He also demonstrated how search results of certain terms (searches that look both in the work’s text and all of the research materials in the binder) resulted in saved collections or smart folders that can be used for later reference. Expanding upon the visual strengths of organizational tools in Scrivener, Howarth even color coded each chapter of the Walden document to reflect the seasons of the year described in the narrative. This resulted in a handy way to group chapters by Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall, and back to Spring, in the same way that Thoreau organized his account of a year’s life in the woods. Using the same Project Gutenberg file as research material for a new Scrivener project, Howarth showed how he was able to adapt Thoreau’s work into a correctly formatted screenplay, using the templates already built into Scrivener as his guide.

The e-text of Walden and other supplemental files that Scrivener can save in the course of working on a project serves to illustrate how external documents and files can be organized for easy reference and later citation. Research materials saved in Scrivener can include web sites, images, notes and bibliographic references. EndNote field codes (also known as “Cite While You Write”) are placeholders for including properly formatted bibliographic citations in a written work. These codes are supported by Scrivener.

Howarth described his Scrivener workflow– from using storyboarding and notation software on the iPad to capture ideas (the Index Card and Simple Note apps), synchronizing those notes with Scrivener, working on the document in Scrivener, and later exporting to Apple’s Pages software, or Nisus Writer Pro for the Mac (an RTF text editor; Scrivener supports RTF) for final formatting. The end result is a finished file that can be shared with publishers via Microsoft Word. Howarth described how this process helped him to collaborate with co-author Anne Matthews on their latest work Deep Creek, published under the pseudonym Dana Hand. Howarth and Matthews were both able to seamlessly share files and resources using Scrivener in the planning and writing phase
s of their work, and later delivered the finished novel in the .DOC format accepted by their publishers, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Coincidentally, Deep Creek, which has met with great critical acclaim, has recently been named one of The Washington Post’s Best Novels of 2010. What is next for the Dana Hand authors? Howarth showed a glimpse of a screenplay based upon Deep Creek that he was working on in Scrivener. Will this Dana Hand film be coming soon to a theatre near Princeton?

Howarth concluded his portion of the talk by reflecting on how his discovery of Scrivener, coinciding with the extra time afforded by his retirement, has allowed his writing to develop in directions he had never imagined possible in his earlier career. He informed his audience that he could not guarantee using Scrivener would make them all authors of best-selling novels—but that it would certainly help to make their writing projects easier and more enjoyable.

Jon Edwards next spoke of his experiences with the recently released version of Scrivener for Windows, software that is still in beta development. His new book on Gioachino Greco, a chess player active in the early 17th century, is due for publication in February; however, Edwards used parts of the completed manuscript to experiment with the new Scrivener software, and concluded that it might be a valuable research tool for future works.

During a recent trip to London, Edwards extended his experimentation with Scrivener into new research paths. He took the opportunity of his trip to explore the British Library’s extensive holdings on the history of chess, and used the beta version of Scrivener for Windows to begin organizing projects based on several topics in chess-related history.

Edwards described how easy it was to write using Scrivener, noting that for any author with a tendency towards writer’s block, the simple, almost playful, workflow in Scrivener, which captures initial notes, research items, web links, outlines and fleeting ideas, might serve to overcome any hesitation in putting ideas to paper. Edwards used Scrivener to begin outlining and researching a proposed work documenting the chess matches played at the 9th Chess Olympiad of 1950 at Dubrovnik, a tournament in which 480 games took place. Using Scrivener, he was able to save all of his notes, references, and writing about the event, including building a stored collection of photos and biographical information about each team taking part in the competition.

Edwards recalled participating in meetings of the Scholars’ Environment Committee, which took place at Princeton in the late 1980s. The mission of the Committee was to improve research methods for scholars in an environment where computer-based resources were becoming increasingly more important. One tangible result of the Committee’s work that year was an idea for the formation of a project would eventually be called JSTOR, the online resource for archiving academic journals, founded in 1995. However, the guiding phrase for the committee’s goals that year was, said Edwards, was the idea of taking the “search” out of “research.“ Scrivener, Edwards noted, in some sense does that, by allowing all the materials needed for the writing of a serious scholarly work to be gathered in one place; with the split-screen format used in Scrivener, it is possible to write in one pane, while viewing citations and other research materials in another. Cutting and pasting from one workspace to the next is quite easy, and Scrivener makes storage of many types of document and file types possible.

Much of the historical literature on chess, Edwards noted, was published between AD 800 and 1890, which means that many of these text have been digitized and are now available for searching and download via the Google Books interface. Having an entire text downloaded as a resource file in Scrivener is a great convenience for a researcher, said Edwards. Writing clearly about the history of chess involves gathering and presenting many types of information. These might include diagrams of chessboards, and lengthy notations that recount the history of a particular game. As an example, Edwards mentioned his interest in the subject of “The Troitzky line,” a classic series of moves that begin an endgame by using two knights against a pawn. The strategy can take up to 50 moves to achieve; documenting it can require extensive illustrations and explanations. One of the main benefits of Scrivener to him, said Edwards, is that all of his notes, documentations and diagrams are finally captured in a single environment, so that he can keep his supporting documents close at hand and organized by specific topic.

Edwards described his particular Scrivener workflow, at least as far as his experiments have taken him to date.  He uses an online content management system, in this case Princeton’s WebSpace, to save the latest versions of his Scrivener files. He can then retrieve the files from anywhere using a web-based interface, and continue working without worrying about where he left the latest version of his project, or any of its supporting files.(Scrivener also has built-in support for syncing files with the popular Dropbox service.)

It is to be noted that the Windows version of Scrivener is still in beta, and is currently free until certain known bugs are fixed. For the moment, PC and Mac versions of the software don’t recognize the other’s files, and compiling documents into a final format using the Windows version has some documented issues. Still, in the short time the program has been available since November of this year, it has gone through several versions. The latest, version 1.4, said Edwards, shows significant improvements over earlier releases. While Scrivener may still lag behind more familiar word processing platforms in terms of document versioning and formatting, it is a particularly agile tool for the first stages of writing. “It’s an excellent brainstorming tool,” Edwards remarked, noting that other tools such as Microsoft Word, were designed for a corporate environments, and reflect the sorts of tasks required by business. Professional writers have very different aims and needs. Scrivener, thanks to the interests of its inventor, was specifically created for such writers and researchers.

Scriptwriter, poet, novelist, short story author or historian? You may want to check out Scrivener as a platform for organizing your next writing project.

A podcast of this presentation can be found here.

The Mac version of Scrivener 2.0 currently retails for US $45. A 15% discount is available to academic users. There is a growing online community of  Scrivener users who share their experiences and tips for greater productivity. The Windows public beta version is currently free to download, and is available here.

This session is the final Lunch and Learn of 2010. Check out the Lunch ‘n Learn schedule in early February for next semester’s program.

Lunch & Learn: E-books: Princeton and Beyond Adriana Popescu and Priscilla Treadwell

When e-books began to appear in the early 2000’s, there was speculation about the demise of the printed book. While that clearly did not come to pass, e-books have now become a staple of the reference holdings of many libraries. The library and consumer markets have matured, and despite all predictions and speculations, print books and e-books have continued to co-exist quite nicely at the Princeton University Library.
At the December 3, 2008 Lunch ‘n Learn Adriana Popescu, Princeton’s Engineering Librarian and Plasma Physics Librarian, and Priscilla Treadwell, Electronic Publications Marketing Manager at the Princeton University Press, presented both the library and publisher perspectives: Princeton University Library’s selection process for e-books, and the usage patterns at the University that reveal what readers in an academic environment like and don’t like about e-books; and Princeton University Press’s rationale for making certain content available to both the library and consumer markets.

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