A vintage typewriter, a beautiful fountain pen, a distraction-free writing app, or a ridiculously expensive e-ink word processor. Writing is hard, which is why writers are always looking for a magic tool to make it all easier.
I know—I'm one of those writers who is always trying to scapegoat my tools for my own failures of productivity and creativity. But in my 10-plus years as a professional writer, and a decade before that as an amateur, I've only ever found one magic tool that makes my writing easier and more polished. It's called Scrivener, a word processing app for Mac and Windows designed with writers in mind.
Today, after years of testing, that magic writing tool is finally coming to iPhone and iPad. And whether you're a dabbler in fiction or a full-time pro journalist, it's worth being excited about.
Most writing apps treat a short story or novel no differently than it would treat a simple document like a letter or a shopping list—a contiguous and linear stream of sentences that are written down in order of occurrence. But ask any author, and this just isn't the way they write. A sci-fi novelist fleshes out certain scenes and characters long before they're introduced in the text. A PhD candidate working on their thesis has critical sections finalized months before the introduction is even written. A short story might just start as a potpourri of random sentence fragments and images that inspire the writer. To put it simply, writing apps are designed around writing and editing, but not the creative process of writing and editing.
What made Scrivener such a revelation was that it was a writing app designed around the way writers actually work. That's because Keith Blount, the developer of Scrivener, wasn't actually a programmer when he started his app. He was an aspiring novelist with degrees in History, Medieval Literature, and Teaching, who learned coding just to make Scrivener possible. Blount understood that writing anything complicated wasn't about just laying one sentence down after another. Rather, a difficult writing project was like keeping a shoebox full of treasures: beautiful sentences, images that inspire you, researched facts and figures, character biographies, and more. Scrivener was designed to be the shoebox that helped you collect those treasures, polish them into pearls, and then curate them into an exhibit which other people could enjoy.
It's an approach that has massively paid off. In the last 10 years, Scrivener has sold over 500,000 copies. Which is why Scrivener coming to iOS is a huge deal. But bringing Scrivener to iOS wasn't easy.
"The biggest design challenge was taking something as big and flexible as Scrivener and trying to distill it into something much smaller and simple," Blount says. "Our desktop version is very powerful with a lot of features, and obviously we couldn’t cram all of those into an iPad, let alone an iPhone. iOS has a much simpler interface, with no customizable toolbar icons or menus where features can be tucked away, so I had to think about what really needed to in there so that it was still Scrivener."
To put this in perspective, a brief overview of Scrivener's features on Windows and macOS include reorganizing the structure of any document by rearranging virtual index cards on a cork board, editing multiple documents at once, saving snapshots of chapters or sections and comparing them back to the end of time, creating hyperlinks between different parts of the text document, and exporting a manuscript in over a dozen different formats, ranging from PDFs to webpages to Kindle eBooks. And that's without talking about bells and whistles like Scrivener's surprisingly comprehensive built-in character name generator (ones earmarked for future use: Marinella Hawks, Alessandra Luscombe, and Giovanne Herewad), its ability to set word count targets on documents, and its robust ability to add comments and notes to any part of a document's text.
Not all of these features came along for the ride for the iOS version, because there's simply no space for them in a mobile touch UI. But a surprising number of them did. The core idea behind Scrivener is that every piece of writing is like a big box of jigsaw pieces, only some of which make up a finished puzzle. Some pieces won't fit, some will be for a different puzzle, some will be end pieces, and some will be harder to place in the middle. Scrivener is a tool that lets you organize that chaotic box, and finally finish the puzzle. So Scrivener for iOS might not have a character name generator, or document versioning, but everything that lets you put your puzzle together is still there. The features that were left behind are nice-haves, but not necessarily critical to the writing process, and a lot of them can be supplemented by downloading other iOS apps, or just loading up Scrivener when you're back at your PC.
Another design principle of Scrivener for iOS was that unlike some mobile office apps, the iPhone version shouldn't be a second-class citizen to the iPad version. "I wanted [Scrivener] to feel tailored for each device," says Blount. "So, if you’re tapping away on an iPhone with no keyboard, there’s an extended row of buttons to give quick access to common commands. If you have an external keyboard, there’s extensive support for keyboard shortcuts. If you’re on an iPad, you can view two documents alongside one another. If you’re on an iPad Pro, you can use multitasking mode to view other apps, too."
On my iPad mini with an attached Bluetooth keyboard, editing one of my short stories was a joy, but what really surprised me was how useful I found the iPhone version. When I write fiction, a lot of my ideas come to me when I'm out, when I can't really do any writing. Consequently, many of these ideas end up getting lost. With the iPhone version, though, I can just pull out my phone, open up Scrivener, and put that idea where it belongs. I even found myself editing a manuscript idly at a bar the other night. You might not write a novel from scratch using Scrivener for iPhone—though stranger things have happened—but as a companion app to the iPad and desktop version, it's blissfully useful.
Earlier, I called Scrivener a magic writing tool, but that almost feels like understating it. In terms of sheer power, it's more like a magical writing weapon. In that sense, while the desktop version of Scrivener might be an Excalibur or Mjölnir, the iOS version is like Sting—smaller, but scarcely less powerful. You can buy it today for $20 directly from the App Store.
Update: The original version of this article incorrectly stated the number of copies Scrivener sold.