EAP App Review: Scrivener


For as long as I can remember, Microsoft Word has been the King of Word Processing. As a teacher I’ve created countless handouts, gap-fills and rubrics and marked countless student essays with it. When I did my Masters and various teaching certificates, everything was done in Word.

But I don’t think anyone would say that writing in Word is a pleasure. It’s a very utilitarian piece of software that over the years has suffered from feature creep and an unnecessary expansion of its toolbar. It always felt like software that I wrestled with rather than really enjoyed using.

But these days there are alternatives to Word, Google Docs is particularly popular for people who need to be able share and collaborate on documents with others and on mobile devices there are hundreds of text editing and word processing apps you can find. And many of them actually make writing pleasurable – or at least not as painful as it can be.

The one I wanted to share with you is Scrivener, an app available on PC/Mac and now iPad and iPhone (though sadly no Android yet or, I suspect, in the foreseeable future)

Now, I want to start off by saying that Scrivener is a paid app, on PC/Mac you’re looking at about £35 and on iPhone/iPad about £15. Generally I’m not keen recommending paid apps, but little is free in this particularly field and the cost of Scrivener is at least a one-off payment whereas Microsoft Office 365 is subscription based and requires constant renewal.

There are many reasons why I love Scrivener over Microsoft Word, but first and foremost it seems to be designed with writing and the writing process in mind. At the core of Scrivener is the binder. Basically, when you start a new writing project in Scrivener, it creates a virtual notebook where you can put all kinds of documents: text, PDFs, web pages and images. This is then found down the left hand side of the writing page and you can easily flip between all the documents.

scrivener binder

the binder sits down the left-hand side of the page and contains all the documents related to this project

This makes more sense to me than having just one document on which to write everything. When I’m writing a blog post or project report, I’ll often need to refer to multiple documents at the same time and being able to flick between them makes things so much easier. Also, we don’t always want to write everything on one document, sometimes it’s helpful to keep different sections of a longer piece of writing separate so we can work on them individually without being distracted by the previous sections.

Within the binder there is a dedicated section for research, a place separate from the writing itself where you can add in anything you need to support your writing. I’ll often drop in a webpage, image or pdf article that I need to refer to when writing.

scrivener research

in the research section you can add pdfs, images or, in this case, a mind map

This leads me onto the next feature I love, the split screen window. When you’re writing, you can create a second window either horizontally or vertically so you can view and write on both documents at the same time. This is particularly useful if you have to refer to a webpage or a pdf document at the same time, you can just bring it up in a parallel window and continue to write at the same time. This is much more fluid than trying to switch back and forth between programme windows or resizing windows so that you can see your Word document and another document at the same time.

split screen scrivener

in split screen mode you can view two documents at the same time or a document and an image, pdf or webpage

I have a particular workflow where I begin a blog post by creating a mind map using an iPad app called Mindnode (an app I’d highly recommend by the way), creating an image from the map and then importing it into Scrivener. I then use split screen to write my post and refer to the mind map at the same time.

Another feature I’ve found incredibly useful is the composition mode. This essentially creates a distraction free environment for writing by hiding all the various menu and sidebars and just leaving you with a fullscreen page to write on. As someone who is very easily distracted by, well, pretty much anything, being able to just focus on the ideas and the words can be very liberating and I find I get a lot more done in this mode than if I’ve got a toolbar across the top. It might seem like a small thing, but it does make a difference.

composition mode scrivener

distraction-free composition mode, the toolbar at the bottom only appears briefly when you mouse over the end of the document

And there are loads of other little touches, stuff that shows the creators of the app have really thought carefully about how people write. For example you can colour code or label different documents within the binder. I’ve done this with a portfolio submission I’m writing at the moment, there are loads of different sections I need to work on simultaneously so I’ve come up with a colour system to show me where I’m at in terms of completing each part. So, for example, red means I haven’t started, orange means initial notes, yellow a more substantial draft and green means it’s finished. At a glance I can look down the binder and see my progress – or lack of it – by just referring to the colours.

scrivener colour labels

with the labelling feature, you can customise the colours and names of each of your labels or use the built in ones.

There’s also what’s called the corkboard, basically a visual representation of all the different documents in your binder. You can write short summaries on these virtual cards and move them around to see where they fit best. This isn’t something I’ve used very much, but I think this would be a really useful tool for any student writing their dissertation or thesis as they could move the different sections of their work around to see the best order to put them.

scrivener corkboard

the corkboard gives you a visual overview of all your project documents

You can also motivate yourself to write more or more regularly by using the writing targets feature. You can set a word count for the whole document and for an individual session and you can then see that visually represented on the screen through a coloured bar. I’ve set myself a goal of writing 250 words a day and to see that bar filling up as you write is very gratifying!

scrivener writing targets

The idea behind Scrivener is that it’s not the final destination for your written work. Most of the time we have to submit our work in a particular format (Word or PDF for example) so Scrivener has a very extensive Compile feature for exporting your work into the format you need.

scrivener compile options

When compiling the document, you can choose from a very extensive range of formats to output it into

Last month, Literature and Latte finally released the iPhone/iPad version of Scrivener. And it’s good. Not as fully featured as the desktop version, but I’m not sure I’d want that anyhow. But all the key features are there, at the least the ones I need: the binder, split screen, corkboard, word targets. You can see some screenshots of it below:

scrivener ipad home page

this is the overview page of all your projects on the ipad

scrivener ipad basic view

visually the ipad app looks very similar to the Mac/PC version

scrivener ipad corkboard

you can still see the corkboard and labels on the ipad version

scrivener ipad split screen 2

split screen mode is still there on ipad, letting you view two documents at the same time

The only issue I’ve had with it is in syncing between devices. You need to have a Dropbox account on both your iPad and computer and save all your Scrivener projects in a folder there. However, you have to be careful to make sure you manually sync your projects before moving from one device to the other otherwise it can create conflicts and it can be confusing to work out which one is the most up to date. Given that we’ve come to expect all our work to be backed up and synced automatically, this seems a little clunky.

But for EAP students and teachers, I think Scrivener is a wonderful piece of software. Its author originally designed it to help him get through his PhD dissertation and it’s clear that it is perfectly designed for long written projects with lots of sections and the need to refer to a lot of external documents and sources. It’s not cheap, though I’d argue that in the long run it’s considerably cheaper than buying Microsoft Word as it’s subscription free. And for me, writing is now something I don’t actively dislike but find quite pleasureable when I’m using Scrivener. It feels like a writing environment rather than writing software that I have to always use in conjunction with other programmes

And you don’t necessarily have to use it for longer documents such as dissertations or theses. I use it mainly for writing here on my blog and for various project proposals and it works just as well for these shorter pieces of writing.

With the advent of mobile and web-based documents, Microsoft no longer has quite the hold over the word processing field as it once did; I’ve noticed over the last few years that the international students coming to our centre often don’t even have a copy of Word on their personal computers and will use a variety of other apps and programmes to create text. I think this is a good thing, it’s no longer a case that everyone has to use the same programme regardless of the quality of the writing experience, you can shop around and find the app or programme that best suits the way you work.


Profile photo of David Read

About David Read

I work at the English Language Teaching Centre at the University of Sheffield as the Director of TEL (technology-enhanced learning). I've been an EFL/EAP teacher and teacher trainer for over 20 years and have worked in 14 different countries. Settling down is clearly an issue for me.

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