The Most Crucial Writing Tools

I’ve already had a few enquiries about how easy it is to put new works up on the internet, so thought I’d add a few comments.

First, you obviously need a piece of software that will help you to create your work. And most authors will leap to Word immediately. Well, you can use Word. I have myself, in times gone past.

In fact I have used quite a lot in the last eighteen years as a novelist: from a copy of Wang Labs’ own wordprocessor (simple, effective, more than adequate, now sadly no longer available), Word Perfect (more comprehensive, very good, and I still miss it), to Word from Microsoft (adequate, but starts to get all emotional and tired when you reach about 100,000 words, so not good enough).

All are useful. Word is something I do use to dash off a letter. But when I turn on my computer, I don’t want a simple text editor. I need something that will help me produce effective work. That’s why I, like a lot of other professional authors, have chosen Scrivener.

Right – first statement, for those of a doubting disposition: I do not hold shares in the two software packages I am discussing here. Both have been bought at my own expense. However, when I find a good product, I believe very firmly in letting other people know about them. It doesn’t hurt me, and it may help others. So here goes.

Scrivener can be found here Go to through the tabs for the best view of this superb piece of software. Why is it good?


Look, instead of working on one page within an entire document, all of which is a long stream of text, Scrivener allows you to work on simple documents within a project. Every document is discrete, and that’s great. It means if you decide that the flow of the book is not quite right, and it would be good to move that scene there to earlier or later, all you do is grab the document (scene) and drag and drop to the place where you want it in the “Binder”. Just think of it as a large project held in a binder. You want to move pages? You pull them out and shove them back into the binder in the right spot. It’s that easy.

But that’s only a part of the benefits. Each document has its own “inpector” window. This I find phenomenally useful. There is a space for a synopsis of the scene (which can be displayed with other scenes’ summaries on a corkboard background, as though you were looking at a novel as a group of index cards on a wall, shifting one above another, until you’re happy with the novel’s layout). Under that there are labels and a “status” title so you can highlight the scenes in any way you want. In addition there is a section for you to add keywords, so you can keyword search throughout the project for specific people, say, and make sure that they develop as characters through the novel. Another (brilliant, brilliant, brilliant) facility is for notes.

A typical Scrivener screen.

“Wow,” I hear you say? OK. Think of this. There are two sets of notes: one is scene-specific, one is project-specific. So you can add notes for the scenes or the whole novel. Great. Where it shines, is that you can have text in the notes, or photos, or html links – anything. And when you’re working, you can constantly refer back to them to refresh your memory.

I can type my works as I usually do, the flow and the story unfolding before me, referring to my notes as I go, or, I can make use of the corkboards.

These, as I mentioned above, are great little additions. You can develop a general flow (which is what I’m starting to do now) or plan and plot in great detail.

That really is the beauty of Scrivener – it is up to you. I know, for example, that friends like David Hewson use the keyword searches extensively. I confess, I do not. In my case, I find that the word-in-text search is more reliable. I don’t have to remember to put a name into the scene’s search box. Instead, whenever I need to find someone, I type his name into the search box at the top of the screen, and Scrivener helpfully presents me with all the scenes in which that word appears, while also highlighting the word in that scene.

And there is another little point. When I type, I like no distractions. With Scrivener, I don’t have them. A option- command “f” takes away and hides all the screen, and all I have is a sheet of paper on a black background, with, if I want it, a typing line. Everything I type appears on the same line, so my eyes aren’t having to flit up and down to find where I am. I always know (and it’s preset-able to your preferences, of course).

My typing line is there in pink highlight.

But while the software is superb, it does lack one little thing: a timelining facility.

When I was a dedicated crime writer, I used to have to make sure of my timelines by scribbling extensive notes all over the place. The most important scenes had to be linked to each other, with who was doing what and when, so I didn’t end up with the murder occurring three days after the body was found or something.

Scrivener’s Keith Blount wrote recently to let all users know about another wonderful package: Aeon Timescale.

I am in the middle of researching a book that will be a work largely of non-fiction. I have a bunch of papers to work from, and I have the broad sweep of history through the Second World War, as well as all the websites and books you could hope for. But to make sense of events happening across two continents, I need to have a fairly detailed timeline. I was really pulling my hair out until Keith’s email.

Aeon downloaded as a trial within a matter of moments, and in less than half an hour, I was working on it. I kept going for about three hours – and at the end, I had the complete timeline and an outline for my book.

But not only that: Aeon links seamlessly with Scrivener, so when I next opened my document in Scrivener, all the Aeon timelines were already there as chapter or scene headings.

And that is the final beauty with Scrivener. It links to Aeon, but also to a growing suite of alternative packages. When I used to use (I did love it and still miss it) my iPad, I used to use an app that brought up a series of note cards. I could outline stories briefly, store them, and next time I was home, they would load into Scrivener so I could use them as notes. I also used Simplenote, an app that allows you to take – well, simple notes, really. And that too integrated.

For my usual tablet now I use an Android. No, I disagree with David Hewson here. I am not so convinced of Android, and when I can, I’ll return to an iPad, but for now I can at least output (automatically, it just syncs) my Scrivener files to my HTC so that when I’m away from home I can still mark up alterations and corrections.

Now, of course, with something like Scrivener, you can print documents. But the manner of working is not “type, check, print” like in Word. You first compile your project, which sets up the basic formats, margins, formats etc. This can be output into almost any format. The common ones are things like Word, and you can email or print direct from there, if you want, but then there are the alternatives: epub format, or .mobi, for example.

I used these when I was working on a lengthy modern-day novel, and output the entire work into epub. I could then load that into my iPad and work on my own books on the pad. And enjoy the process much more, because the tablet was infinitely more pleasant to read and work on than roughly 500 sheets of A4.

However, there is another huge benefit.

In the last few weeks I’ve been working on my old short stories. They’re all out of print, and I owned the rights. So I thought I should make them available again. And to do that, I immediately thought about putting them on Kindle as ebooks. And now, if you want, you can read them. It took an hour.

My shorts were all in Word format on my computer. I had to figure out how to produce them as ebooks. Obviously first there was a long, long process of editing and proof-checking (because two were on ancient disks and corrupted, so there was some retyping and – well, you don’t need to know). However, once that was done, I asked Scrivener to import them. It did. Faultlessly, I’m glad to say.

The next thing to do was export them to electronic format. I told it to compile the works as a Kindle book. It did.

I went into the Kindle Direct Publishing site, loaded my book and picture, and then Kindle gave me an opportunity to preview the format. When I went in, the chapters ran straight into each other, one ending, the next beginning, on the same pages. I didn’t like that. So, back to Scrivener, I changed the tick-boxes on compile to tell it to put in a page break between chapters, compiled it again, uploaded it again, and checked the preview. It was fine.

That entire upload, think: “bugger,” go back to Scrivener, alter the output, recompile, upload again and check, took less than ten minutes. The majority of that time was waiting for Kindle to accept the book (because my line speed down here in Dartmoor is not blisteringly fast).

Within four hours I was selling copies of FOR THE LOVE OF OLD BONES and other stories.

So, for my money, Scrivener is not a desirable piece of software. It is as essential to me as a writer as is my Apple computer itself. I could not function without either of them. They are absolutely crucial to my being able to forget about the tools I am using so that I can concentrate on my stories and the best way of getting them out there, in front of people.

And after only two weeks of playing with Aeon Timeline, I have to admit, it’s already up there, almost as important as Scrivener.

For those who want to learn more about either of these, the Scrivener website is at For more information about Aeon Timeline, go and check it out at

You will see that both offer free downloads for a limited period. I tested both in some detail before investing, but I would say that Scrivener is ludicrously cheap for the job it does. It suits not only authors and novelists, but students, managers – anyone who has to write moderately long documents which require thought and good formatting. Aeon Timeline can be used by project managers, engineers, and a number of other guys because it is so flexible. And the fact that it integrates so smoothly with Scrivener makes life just so much easier.

Go and test them today, folks.

Meanwhile, I would be highly remiss not to remind you that you can buy the superb collection of short stories: FOR THE LOVE OF OLD BONES from Amazon for your Kindle or for any computer device that runs the Kindle app (computer, phone, iPad etc) for a truly ridiculously small price.

For your copy, please paste these links into your browser:

Amazon UK:

Amazon US:

Good Writing, and Happy Reading!

9 Responses to “The Most Crucial Writing Tools”
  1. akhenkhan says:

    Thanks Michael,

    I’m about to take a look at Scrivener’s site. Despite your enthusiastic description, whether or not I invest is determined by its ease of use.

    I am now so familiar with creating on Word and checking the result each day for errors etc via PDF, and/or .mobi file on my Kindle for PC app.

    I hear what you say about Kindle not providing page breaks, but I have found from various online conversations which I have strayed into from time to time, that most ebook readers aren’t usually concerned, unlike those of us who still prefer physical books.

    Well, time to visit Scrivener.




    • Word is very easy. Scrivener is, I would say, a damn sight easier, though, and so much more flexible. However, if you’re fixed in your own way of working, you may well not need it. It took me only two days playing to see how much more effective it was, though. And as for Aeon … saved me hours this week and last!


  2. Alice Taylor says:

    Jack – where do you get the .mobi tool? Could you post a link?

    I too after a couple of years finally have the gist of Word 2010 and I love using it for my novels, but Michael is right – it’s a pain to scroll through a long document and does sometimes have an infuriating mind of it’s own. I would like though to share what I write with the world and get a bit of money for it. It’s the turning my Word file into a .mobi file that I’m getting stuck with. PDF? Button for that. Boom! Alacazam and there we are. I really don’t want to retype 400 pages of novel. I find the prospect both scary and heart-stopping. After all, I just want to get on and write.

    I would however consider getting Scrivener for my screenplays because it takes hours to format it properly and if I can drag and drop my existing Word doc into it, hit a button and et voile we are in Kindle format, I would buy it.


    • akhenkhan says:

      Its called Calibre Alice, and its a free download. Simply google Calibre and get yourself a copy. :)


    • Alice, if you’re thinking about Scrivener already for your scripts, just download a copy now and import your Word file into it. It’s so easy – I had to do it with my short stories, but I’ve also done it with my first novels which were 150,000 words. It is very quick, very simple, and gives you the best options for trying out the software as a trial, if you’re working on your own documents.


  3. Alice Taylor says:

    Thanks, Jack… Have also downloaded free trial of Scrivener – for those who are interested on the exchange rates, $40 is roughly £25.


    • Aha! That’s the way to do it. The nice thing is, Scrivener is actually British, too. It’s designed by a pleasant fellow who lives up in North Devon. I hope to meet him one day!


      • Alice Taylor says:

        Downloaded the trial last night, was feeling a bit blueerrgghh so wasn’t in the mood to have a play around. I love the fact it’s an English product too. I did see the preloaded script formats and my heart did a little dance of joy. :-)


      • Mike says:

        You will like it, Alice. Anyone writing novels, scripts or even long essays at University, will find it a Godsend.


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