Writing Showdown: Storyist VS Storymill VS Scrivener

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With the rising popularity of the Mac OS platform, a number of small developers and software companies have found niche markets for themselves; the Getting Things Done crowd, the Tweaking freaks, the App Launchers; all have their own list of best-of software titles and nifty little apps. There are so many choices now to replace default apps that it can get pretty confusing to find the right tool.

Browsing for writing software is also becoming quite confusing; there are now a number of very nicely designed apps that can help you finish or start your projects. Some of those target fiction writers more than others. Here’s a quick rundown of the most popular ones and their main features. I didn’t include general writing software, like Apple’s Pages or OpenOffice; this list is really geared toward organized writing, software that both lets you plan and write from start to finish.

Storyist, from Storyist Software

Storyist

Storyist

This is the first one I came across, back when it was still a v1.0 application. It had its shortcomings back then, and definitely didn’t measure up to its relatively larger and more feature-rich cousins. 2.0 introduced full screen support and generally improved the interface and structure. It’s still relatively light on features and its export capabilities are somewhat limited. The Outlining feature is a thoughtful add-on, but considering the structure is already present in the sidebar, it feels a little repetitive. It could stand to have a little more robust research pane and the Characters and Settings section is a little too restrictive for me.

Character's View

Character’s View

Storyist2SneakPeek

Manuscript view


It still stands on its own, though, and can provide a fiction writer with a nice interface to plan out the next novel. It’s not quite as flexible as either Storymill or Scrivener though, so its usefullness seems pretty much limited to fiction.

Price: 59$ USD

StoryMill, from Mariner Software

Storymill

StoryMill

After experimenting with Storyist, I moved on to StoryMill, from Mariner Software, the makers of MacJournal and MacGourmet, two very good database-driven applications for OS X. The team behind StoryMill is much bigger, and mostly this shows in the overall finish and polish that went into its development. The app itself is gorgeous and streamlined, and the interface simply makes you want to sit and write. Fullscreen support is marginally better than Storyist, but only because it’s been implemented longer. The sidebar pane is more visually pleasing, but mostly serves the same purpose as Storyist’s; you get default panes for Characters, Locations and Research, and the rest is handled via folders and smart views. It’s a nice compromise between structure and freedom, and it’ll do for most writers.

Again, this one is strongly geared towards fiction, perhaps even more so than Storyist, with the addition of the Timeline feature which is heavily advertised as its strong point. Perhaps this is why I moved away from StoryMill altogether; while it’s a very nicely designed piece of software overall, the Timeline has always been a frustrating issue for me. There is no way to properly manage different timeframes; if you set it to display hours, you’ll have hours until the end of your manuscript, which to me seems absolutely useless. Most stories will partly happen in real time, partly in flashback, memories and long, uneventful stretches of passing time. Having set the timeline to Hourly or Daily to get that important, detailed scene just right, you then have to scroll left-to-right all the way to infinity to set the rest of your action. Frustrating, and there seems to be no fix in sight. Placing events on the timeline itself is also a bit of a chore, as it doesn’t behave the way you’d expect; events tend to jump, and aligning on the grid is difficult.

StoryistMainTale-Med

Storymill’s Timeline feature

Smart-View

Storymill Smart View


Still, StoryMill is a very solid app, and a good choice if all you’ll be writing is fiction. However, again, it felt a bit too restrictive for me, and the Timeline required me to spend an obscene amount of time planning, and left me exhausted and bored enough that I eventually moved away from the computer to do something without having done any writing. Not good.

Price: 49,95$ USD

Scrivener, from Literature and Latte

Scrivener

Scrivener

I’ll go right ahead and admit that my first experience with Scrivener wasn’t a happy one. After meddling with the very simple-to-use Storyist and Storymill, I felt more than a little overwhelmed with the huge amount of options and freedom inherent in Scrivener’s design. There were too many panes, too much info on the screen and no sign of templates, or steps to achieve a basic novel structure. You can install the extras package and work from there, but it still feels like a far cry from the beautiful simplicity of Storymill.

But that’s only until you realize the power of Scene-by-scene synopses and the sheer amount of side notes, research links, tags and info you can cram around your document. The left pane is called the Binder, and its structure is entirely up to you. You can create as many folders as you wish, and while you feel a little lost at first, you quickly get used to the freedom. You are provided with two default views for opened Binder documents: Corkboard and Outline, both of which are powerful and concise and provide you with an instant bird’s-eye-view of where your project is going.

But that’s not where this app truly shines. Full screen support is simple to implement and, you ask, pretty hard to get wrong; but Scrivener’s full screen features blows the competition straight out of the water. Upon launching it, you’re presented with a basic page right in the middle of your screen. This page’s width and color can be adjusted and you also get the very cool option of having your document notes, project notes and tags inspector right there besides your manuscript.

The Awesome Full Screen

The Very Awesome Full Screen

While some may argue that this could potentially distract you from your writing, the purpose of full screen is not to eliminate screen clutter, in my mind. Full screen should eliminate anything that has nothing to do with what you’re writing; keeping notes and pictures related to the current scene close by seems pretty logical to me. What we want to remove is all that extra GUI and desktop annoyance and Scrivener understands this perfectly.

Research

Research pane

Outline

Outline view

Corkboard

The mighty Corkboard


With multiple styling and extremely flexible export functions, Scrivener becomes an extremely versatile tool that you can use to plan and manage blog entries (which I obviously should do…), write poetry, write assignments and do all your creative writing on. The learning curve is slightly steeper than the competition, but it’s definitely worth your time and investment. With evolving features, iPhone sync in the works and the lowest price tag of the bunch, it’s without a doubt my favorite app of the three. It also has, hands down, the best support community; people are passionate about this app.

Price: 39.95$ USD

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17 Comments

  1. I absolutely love a good review to help me sort out the things I don’t know much about. This is my first year at nanowrimo and I was wondering what app to use and you’ve answered that for me. This is a very valuable piece of info and I will send the 2 readers that I have here :)

    Thanks:
    http://www.motivatedprocrastinator.wordpress.com
    twitter: @motivprocrast
    facebook: motivatedprocrastinator

    • roelani says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the review! I bought my copy of Scrivener a few weeks ago and am now using it for Nanowrimo myself. It’s been a great help so far, and my novel is going well. :)

      I hope you find Scrivener is the right tool for you. If you have questions, the Scrivener main page has an awesome support forum where people exchange tips and answers. Very nice.

  2. Stefan Morlock says:

    I just started to write my 1st novel using Story Mill and was surprised to find that it doesn’t set the borders on either side and it doesn’t make it clear when I am at the end of a page. It tells me at the bottom that I am on page 6 of 6 when on my screen it looks like page 2 of 2. I thought it would automatically format my story as I type by establishing borders and by having a broken line at the bottom when I get to the end of a page and so on so that the finished product would be exactly the way publishers want it to be so that I could send it off as is. Since I have no idea what page I am really on I am unable to type in my novel’s name and the page number on one page and my name and the page number on the next page. Am I doing something wrong or is the program not able to perform these functions?
    Hopefully you can help with this… Stefan

    • roelani says:

      Hi Stefan! As I said in my little review, the app I’ve been using most is Scrivener, so I don’t have all the answers concerning StoryMill. Both apps have some limited word processing features but neither of them is meant to replace software like Word or Pages. However, they both have some pretty complete export capabilities; the way they’re meant to work is as creative tools. You do all your writing and researching in StoryMill or Scrivener, distraction free. The apps are meant to provide you with a platform where you can get stuff out of your head and into a manuscript format.

      I know there are some ready-made manuscript templates out there that you can use as a starting point, but you’re not supposed to actually format your piece on the writing software. You get word-count tools, not page-count ones. You get some basic RTF format options. Scrivener 2 will feature a “paged” option, but it’s not included in the current versions. Basically, you’re supposed to export your final manuscript (as a .doc document or some other such format) then work on formatting if you need it. The novel’s name and page numbers appear automatically upon export when you use, for example, Scrivener multi-markdown function; you can choose to include or exclude things like novel title, notes, chapter titles, etc.

      I would suggest you take a look at user forums and see if someone more familiar with StoryMill’s export features can help you. :) Hope this clears things up a little for you, and thanks for taking the time to visit.

  3. Took me time to read each of the comments, but I really enjoyed the article. It proved to become very helpful to me and i am sure to each of the commenters right here! It’s generally awesome whenever you can not merely be informed, but also entertained! Cheers!

  4. I quite agree with your dissatisfaction about timeline feature of Storymill. I also tried it and found it difficult to use. Typing in each date of scene and opening timeline again to see the scene on a time frame seems to cumbersome. Just dragging a scene on a timeline to assign a date to the scene would have been a better solution. Comparing Scrivener and other writing software makes me realize that Scrivener is a really well-made software in smaller and easily negligible details.

  5. Star says:

    Scrivener is freaking awesome!! I am a screenwriter and storyteller and Scrivener rocks! I sometimes write my scripts better when I hear music that I can visual see as the score for my scenes, Scrivener allows music to play in the top pane that one may have attached to the project as future ‘score’ ideas and I can type my scene in the bottom pane. Awesome! The cork board, the notes pane, the pictures, flexibility. Yeah I love me some Scrivener!

  6. Mark Borok says:

    I own Storymill and have been trying out Scrivener. Storymill has improved with version 2. There are two features in it that I really like that are missing from Scrivener; the cliche finder, and the word frequency feature. I’m weaning myself off of cliches, but some of them are so ingrained as to not be obvious even to a careful writer. The same goes for relying too much on the same words.

  7. chris says:

    I gotta say, THANKS! :). A week ago I got a request from a writer client about which of these programs to use so I down loaded them all. I work in IT and this client knows that I’ve also been working on several personal writing projects. So far it’s been MS Word and Excel, but we have both been aggravated by MS words “window orphan controls” and other such impediments to maintaining a creative flow. I’m a firm believer that software should make intuitive sense, particularly for people who use computers as a tool. Like you I thought that StoryList and StoryMill were kind of intuitive and even sort of fun. On the other hand, Scrivener looked daunting right from the start and I do training and tech support for a living. The thought of having to read a manual or watch videos just to get a basic understanding on how the program works brought back nightmares of what it took to learn pro audio apps so I could teach a few music clients how to use them in their home studios. Anyway, after your review, I’m actually looking forward to checking Scrivener out. Thanks for putting in the time and effort to not only review these programs but to also write intelligently about them as well. Thanks again!

  8. Jeremiah Crowe says:

    I use both Scrivener and Story Mill, and I like them both, but you might also want to check out Jer’s Novel Writer. It is perhaps the simplest and most direct writing app, with the best notation system by far. Just a suggestion.

    • roelani says:

      Thanks Jeremiah! I’ve heard of it but I haven’t yet given it a shot. When I don’t need all of Scrivener’s features, I generally turn to nvALT, a fork of Notational Velocity that syncs with dropbox.

      Might actually write a post about my syncing process, seeing as how Scriv iOS is still a ways away. Thanks for dropping by~

      • Jeremiah Crowe says:

        Thanks for your reply. I haven’t heard of nvALT, so I Googled it. I’m
        still not sure what it is about. Is it something like Text Edit? I saw
        one reference to AppleScript, but I haven’t figured out how to use that
        feature yet.

        As you can see, I am not a Techie. I am a retired journalist who is trying
        to commit fiction, to scratch a lifelong itch. I cut my teeth on an
        Underwood, so you can imagine how foreign a lot of this sounds to me.

        I will give nvALT a try. I have tried most of the writing apps, including
        Storyist Ulysses, Write It Now, and a few others. I am always looking for
        the perfect app, although I haven’t seen anything that can top Scrivener.

        Thanks again,
        Jeremiah

      • roelani says:

        nvALT is pretty much a straight-up text editor, with a left pane that can contain several files and a right pane for writing/editing. I only use it so I can send bits of writing (like current chapter progress, short stories, brain dumps, sputtering starts, that sort of thing) to my iPad. I got a setup on there with Nebulous Notes which is pretty awesome, and both the iPad and nvALT sync my files to dropbox. It’s not perfect, and I’ve had stuff disappear on me a few times, but dropbox has a pretty solid version control system in place which allows you to rollback.

        nvALT also lets you sync to SimpleNotes, another online sync service. See image below~

        nvALT pref pane

  9. Thank you for the useful review. I was in temptation to buy a StoryMill after downloading a trial version of the program. I didn’t even hear about the Scrivener before, but I decided to give it a try and it proved itself to be rock-solid app that does its job the way that writing app should do.

  10. Richard C says:

    Cheers for the review, it really helped sort in my mind which to aim for!

    These were the three apps I ended up with on my list so decided to do a versus search on Google between all three and came up with your post :-)

    As an IT bod and a mature student with ideas racing round my head for all sorts of things, I wanted something that would allow me to build up works for both fiction and non-fiction (predominantly Uni assignments). Scrivener seems to be the most flexible here for my needs.

    Cheers!

  11. Very good reviews of all three.
    I trialled Scrivener during NaNoWriMo 2014 and was more than happy with it during my writing experience. Having a split screen with my body text on one side and my characters or scenes or research in the other was wonderful. And, when I had completed the book, being able to compile the content into almost any format with very little manual intervention was amazing. It is possible to make revisions and then recompile. No effort.
    Above all, having become a NaNoWriMo Winner, I was able to buy the product for half price. I am therefore hooked and shall be using it again next month.
    One query I have though, is wondering if there is a cliche-trapper that I can use with Scrivener. I know such tools exist for MS Word, but I don’t want to have to convert to run a cliche trap. Anyone know?

    • roelani says:

      Hi Lance! Thanks for commenting.

      I agree that the split screen is the bee’s knees for planning and editing. I do most of my Oh-Shit-So-Fast-This-is-Torture-Where’s-my-coffee actual NaNo writing in full screen, but I abuse the hell out of split screen the rest of the time. ;)

      I don’t think a cliché-trapper exists within Scriv. Never even heard of one. Is it a function that tells you repeat words?

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