Review of Scrivener as a Note Taking program

This is a break from reviewing mapping programs, this review should be grouped with the reviews of Note Taking programs.


A few days ago I received an E-mail pointing out that I had not reviewed Scrivener in my series of reviews of note taking programs.  That oversight is about to be corrected.  I will try to make this review fair and objective but be warned I am a Scrivener enthusiast so it will be difficult to describe the program without making it sound like an advertisement.

I have used Scrivener for quite a while but I had excluded it from the reviews as I did not think of Scrivener as a note taking program, I do not use it for general or specific note taking.  Scrivener is more of a word processor and outliner optimised for the creative writing process.

“Aren’t all word processors optimised for writing?” one might ask.  Well no, some people think that all it takes is to be able to write words and correct mistakes then format the output, but that would be a very poor word processor indeed.  This is where Open Office and Libre Office fall down so badly and why Microsoft Office is so popular amongst the business community and with writers.  The difference is that Microsoft Office has a very good outlining facility.  Open Office and Libre Office do not have an outlining mode, the open/libre office developers make the excuse that there is no need because their programs already have ‘Navigator’ which is superficially similar to an outlining mode but does a very inadequate job in that role.

In the creative writing process one needs to be able to organise and re-organise text, to chop text up and re-arrange it, one needs to be able to ignore the body text and concentrate on the overall structure of the document or to ignore the structure and just concentrate on one small section of body text.  This is why an outlining tool is fundamental to the writing process.  Until Open Office and Libre Office get a good outlining mode they will not gain acceptance as the tool of choice in either business, academia or amongst writers.

But I digress.

Scrivener is a very good writing tool, but it could also be used for note taking and so it deserves a review.  Scrivener was designed as a word processor, it stores its collection of related documents (which could be notes) as separate .RTF files in a folder on the hard disk, this is called a project.  When you save a project all the documents in the collection which have been changed are saved.  Scrivener also makes automatic backups of the collection at regular intervals.  For large collections this can eat up a lot of disk space but this may not be significant on modern hard disks with many hundreds of gigabytes available, and it does mean that if something goes wrong you can go back to an earlier version of your project.

I tried importing nearly ten thousand notes into a Scrivener project to see what the performance was like.  In general the performance with lots of large documents was excellent but there was one snag.  Scrivener makes automatic backups of your work from time to time.  Normally this is not noticeable but with ten thousand notes it became obvious.  Switching off automatic backups solved this problem, but then what happens when you need the safety net it offers?

There is another feature in Scrivener which is quite nice, you can take a snapshot of any document, then if you make changes and decide you don’t like them you can go back to the document as it was when you took the snapshot.  You can also compare the document to the snapshot of the document to see what the changes were.  You can have as many snapshots as you like as long as you don’t run out of disk space.

Scrivener is available from the Literature & Latte website and costs $40 for the windows version.  There is also a Mac version for $45, the Mac version is more advanced than the Windows version hence the extra cost.  These prices were correct at 30/01/2014.

The Windows version is catching up to the Mac version, but very very slowly.  Someday they will be equivalent.  The Mac version has some very nice features which the Windows version needs badly, like the ability to edit a document in the main window whilst viewing other documents in floating windows on another monitor.  Both ConnectedText and MyInfo can do this and it is very useful.


Overall Score  = 42 out of 60


Verdict    A writing tool rather than a note taking program, but very good nonetheless.


1. Connectivity            =    6

The design of Scrivener is not about connecting different pieces of information and so its facilities for connecting things are not as good as a dedicated note taking program.

One can embed links into a Scrivener document, these links could point to a disk file, an E-mail address or an internet URL but they can also be a universal link.  Scrivener supports universal links to other programs.  There are also internal links so one Scrivener document may be linked to another.  Unfortunately there is no way to link in to a Scrivener document from any other program.

The links look somewhat ugly as there is no aliasing.  The text that appears on the page is the text of the link.

Import facilities are very good, a wide variety of different document types can be imported as well as some mind maps ( .mm ) and outliner ( .opml ) files.  Export is also good but adds something different, apart from the normal export of documents there is also the option to ‘compile’ your collection of documents into various E-book formats for publishing (as well as printing).


2. Classification            =    8

Documents in Scrivener are placed in a hierarchical tree called the binder.  This is just like the tree which is used in a lot of note taking programs.  Documents and folders are equivalent, they are just treated differently when being displayed in the main editor panel.  They may be converted back and forth very easily.

At the root of the hierarchy there are three folders which cannot be deleted, although they can be renamed.  These folders are ‘Draft’, ‘Research’ and ‘Trash’.

The Draft folder is designed to hold your book or the piece of work you are producing.  It can only hold editable documents.

The Research folder can hold any type of file.  Files which are not supported are just a link to the original file which is opened by its default application.  Files which are supported are displayed within Scrivener, this includes media files (audio and video) and .PDF files.  Scrivener is an adequate PDF viewer.  The Research folder is meant to hold all the research you might need to refer to whilst writing your manuscript.  This is the folder to use if you are using Scrivener for note taking as there are fewer restrictions on what you can put in it.

The Trash folder stores any deleted documents or files.  These may be resurrected until you empty the trash.

Each document in Scrivener can have various types of metadata associated with it.  It can have a synopsis, notes, references and keywords.  The keywords can be searched for but the facilities for finding a group of keywords in combination are not as useful or comprehensive as those available in MyInfo or ConnectedText, or even those in WhizFolders.

This does not mean that Scrivener does not have many other useful facilities for classifying and grouping documents.  You can put together arbitrary named collections of documents.  In the writing process this is useful for following separate storylines but it is also very useful in the context of note taking to collect together notes relating to one subject.

Scrivener can also give each document a ‘Label’ and a ‘Status’, there are pre-defined sets of Label and Status but these can be edited so they become much more useful for note taking, or other uses.

There is also a ‘corkboard’ which is a graphical representation of cards pinned to a cork noticeboard.  These cards each represent a document and contain the synopsis of the document they represent, or an image file.  They can be re-arranged by dragging them about.

There is an outline view but it isn’t really an outline.  In a true outline you may have the body text on display or not.  In Scrivener outline view you can only see the metadata associated with each document.  The real outline is the binder, Scrivener has all the facilities of an outlining program, its just that they are distributed throughout the program.  This ‘Outline’ view is still very useful for taking an overview of your work.


3. Text layout and formatting    =    10

Text formatting is excellent.  All the usual formatting you would expect is there along with many other embellishments which are usually only found in expensive word processors.  Of course you can embed tables and pictures in your text.

This is a program aimed at producing a published work, which may be a book but could equally well be a thesis or a scientific paper.  As you might expect the facilities for printing your work are a little more elaborate than on most word processors.  You have the option to override the formatting of the documents in the collection.  You can type in your favourite font and then produce a .PDF file in the format, style and font required by your university.  You can also re-format your work according to the platform on which it will be viewed (A4 page, small font .PDF for web downloads or small page large font .mobi file for an E-book reader).  Of course this goes far beyond what is required for a note taking program.


4. A sense of time            =    0

There is no calendar or reminder facility in Scrivener, just the same as any other word processor.


5. Ease of use            =    9

Scrivener is definitely more at home writing long pieces of text which form a contiguous whole than it is writing many small disparate notes.  This is unsurprising as this is what it was designed for.  The editing and text formatting are as good as any word processor.  I especially like the full screen mode where the text occupies a column in the middle of the screen and all the menus, toolbars and panels just disappear so you can concentrate on the text.  A distraction free writing environment, but most of the keyboard shortcuts still work.

Scrivener’s features and facilities are well thought out and work well together.  Someone has been looking at the big picture in the design of Scrivener rather than concentrating on the details without considering how they will work together.  There is usually more than one way to do something, this can be confusing at first until you realise there is no ‘correct’ way, the correct way is whatever you find easiest.

You can customise the keyboard shortcuts so if you have a favourite word processor which you have a lot of experience with you can configure Scrivener to respond to those keys so that the functions you need are where your fingers expect them to be.

Scrivener is the best writing environment I have ever used but it is not the best note taking environment I have used, that distinction goes to MyInfo and I will continue to use MyInfo for note taking, but for writing, especially for writing long pieces of work Scrivener comes out on top.


6. Visual Appeal            =    9

Superficially the user interface looks similar to MyInfo but with a slightly cleaner look.

Various parts of the Scrivener interface and toolbar can be customised.  You can set the background colours in the various panels.  You can also set the fonts to be used in the menus and in various other parts of the program.

A screenshot of Scrivener, I have changed the background colours of the panels to be more restful to the eye.

A screenshot of Scrivener, I have changed the background colours of the panels to be more restful to the eye.

Scrivener has a full screen mode which clears away all the floobydust and lets you concentrate on the words without any distractions, I have not taken a screenshot of that as it is very boring, as I have it set up it is just black text on a beige background.


6 thoughts on “Review of Scrivener as a Note Taking program

  1. I have written seven novels and a memoir (all major imprints) and did it all with a nice pen and stacks of cheap composition notebooks. I wrote two of my books with a typewriter when I was younger, but gave it up as the technology got in my way. Tonight, I sit in a hotel in Oklahoma City and open an email that tells me I “MUST” read your blog post. I read it with a sense of bewilderment, as I do many of these “process” articles, because I fail to see how any of these fancy tools could ever help a person become a better writer. Writing is a creative pursuit, and as such requires the mind to be free of everything except that which involves your characters, your story, your dream world of creating fiction. All of those windows and outliners and tree notes that I see so often from young writers today take up enormous energy in – process.

    God, give up thinking, discussing, arguing, writing, and putting so much effort into all the “cool” tools that can be used in the – process. Just write! Damn, a writer – writes!

    Tonight, I allowed myself to be thrown off my rhythm by making the mistake of opening my email. Then I made the mistake of clicking on the link, and then I actually read this review of this tedious piece of processware called Scrivener, and then – seeing the passion you have for this – felt oddly compelled to write and offer my opinion. Why? I have no idea.

    Just write.

    Good luck!

    • Indeed, nothing on earth will help you write better–or learn to write. What Scrivener does, I think, is help you if you need help organizing. I personally can’t imagine writing by hand, on paper, and then assembling all of that into what I would consider a coherent whole. As the rumor goes, I believe, Tolstoy’s wife or secretary (!?!)–called a Remingtonist at the time, because Remington had a corner on the typewriter market–she typed out entire novels repeatedly, revision after revision. Sooo, even then, technology was on a roll, so to speak. Scrivener is just more technology–a tool, if you will, when it comes to: searching, compiling, arranging, formatting, and so on.
      In the end, I agree with you!!! ‘Just WRITE. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  2. I think you miss the point slightly here.

    To write you need an idea and enough intellect and eloquence to capture that idea and make it understandable to others. That is a given. But the process can be made a lot easier by the tools you use. Yes you can write a novel with nothing more than a pen and a notebook, but it is hard work. And if you develop new ideas for some section of your work which you have already written down then you have to either re-write the whole thing or get out the scissors and sellotape.

    I have always found that a piece of writing takes on a life of its own and continues to develop during the writing process, new ideas come to mind, things change, and if that has repercussions for an earlier part of the work then so be it. The work is a lot easier to revise using a word processor than it is using a typewriter.

    Having the right set of tools doesn’t make you a better writer, there is no substitute for inspiration and intellect. It just makes it a whole lot easier to work.

  3. Pingback: Scrivener as a note taker | Welcome to Sherwood

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