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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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