Scrivener: a review

Scrivener. It’s like the Evernote of word document systems; everything you need in one place. But is it worth the hype?

If you’ve been around the writing block you might have heard about Scrivener. It’s like the Evernote of word document systems; everything you need in one place. Including room for research notes, character sketches, place descriptions, and the ability to export your work in a single document.

In general, Scrivener receives great reviews for price, effectiveness, and user friendliness. But is it worth the hype? Let’s find out…

Who: 

Scrivener. Owned by the software company Literature & Latte. (A name after my own heart.) 

What: 

A software tool for writing projects. Used by writers and researchers across the board to organize and manage projects. This is a proprietary software license. I.e., you purchase a license and download the software to your device. It’s not cloud-based and you can’t access it from devices that don’t have the application installed. 

Where to buy:

Literature & Latte website

Pros 

Cons

  • You may need to download and purchase a software license if you plan to use across multiple devices. For instance, I purchased one license for my laptop and then purchased the Scrivener app for my phone.
    • N.B., in order to get the individual applications to sync (i.e., get Scrivener on your phone to sync with Scrivener on your laptop) you must set up a Dropbox account and link them. Scrivener provides detailed instructions for this.
  • If you want to sync large files or multiple projects, you may need to purchase additional space on Dropbox which is a subscription service.
  • You’ll need to back up your files on a cloud storage system or external hard drive
  • Functionality can feel confusing and overwhelming as there are a myriad of features and customization options

My take: 

Worth it. 100% worth it. I was on the fence about purchasing the software and was only tempted when I saw it highlighted as a featured product during NaNoWriMo last year. I had a system in Google Docs and it worked well enough. Not great, but no major complaints either.

So I downloaded the 30-Day trial to give it a spin (all the other cool writers were doing it) and fell in love. Switching over has vastly improved my organization. I no longer have loose or lost documents floating around Google Drive. Everything is in a tidy and compact binder where I can see exactly how the story unfolds and move chapters around as needed. Which is fantastic as I sometimes write something without knowing where it fits in the story’s timeline. Now I have the freedom to write and reorganize later. It’s also easier to keep track of multiple revisions and compare them side-by-side.

My only complaint about Scrivener is that it’s not inherently cloud-based. If I could access my Scrivener account from any device, anywhere that would be great. It would also give me peace of mind that my work is backed up. Even so, the Dropbox workaround works and I’m happy with the purchase.

If you’re serious about your writing or want to become serious about your writing, consider investing in Scrivener. 

Bonus tips

  1. You can download Scrivener for a 30-Day trial if you’re on the fence.
  2. Can’t figure out how to do something? Google it! There are thousands of videos, guides, and blog posts out there about Scrivener.
  3. Post update! Please see comments below, there are other ways to back your Scrivener up to a cloud storage system so you can access across multiple devices.

He said, she said: Writing powerful dialogue

Learn to write strong dialogue without using adverbs or verbs to modify said.

Several years ago, I participated in a Visiting Writers Series class at Butler University that focused on reading and analyzing the works of writers and poets visiting the school or local Indianapolis area. (The class name was very literal.) As part of the class, I had the honor of introducing Elmore Leonard during his lecture at Clowes Hall.

Myself and Elmore Leonard at Butler University

I could tell you some more about the introduction (it was terrifying and wonderful and I almost threw up) but the best part of the experience was the pre-lecture dinner where myself and a couple of other writers spent time with Mr. Leonard and learning about his craft. We went to the Naked Tchopstix in Broad Ripple and he told us about the tattoos he got while serving during World War II and the importance of writing every day. What stuck with me from that conversation was his advice to never use anything other than said in dialogue. No adverbs, no adjectives, no verbs. Nothing. Just he said, she said, they said, we said, I said.

At the time I nodded enthusiastically because who was I to disagree with a writing god? Later on, as I worked privately on my own prose I felt the advice didn’t work. How is the reader supposed to know my, the writer’s intent, if I don’t use sarcastically, quietly, loudly, scoffed, growled, etc. when writing dialogue? I couldn’t make them guess–that seemed cruel and unproductive. So I pocketed the advice and continued writing dialogue as I always had: peppered with clues about my intent.

Recently, I re-read Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and came across the advice again.

“It is seldom advisable to tell all. Be sparing, for instance, in the use of adverbs after “he said,” “she replied,” and the like…Let the conversation itself disclose the speaker’s manner or condition.”

(Strunk and White 75)

And it clicked. I, as the writer, am not supposed to tell my readers about the characters. The characters are supposed to tell the readers about themselves. HOLY HELL. This whole time I’ve been writing weak dialogue by using adverbs and verbs to forcefully drag my readers down a certain path of understanding.

Opening up the last chapter I worked on, I went through and cut every adverb and verb I could find. Which meant I was editing 95% of my dialogue. Confronted with so much slashing, I realized I was relying too heavily on the writing to tell the story instead of allowing the actions and dialogue to speak for themselves. Me, the writer, was interjecting in the story like an unwanted voiceover when I should have been an observer.

While burning and slashing all words ending in -ly or -ed it became clear I couldn’t just edit out adverbs and verbs to create good prose.

“This is good cake,” she said greedily, “I adore it.”

“Of course it is,” he said sneered, “I used to work in a Parisian bakery.”

Better without the adverbs and verbs but still not great. It took time and patience and lots of what-the-hell-am-I-doing-can-I-even-write-well? but I found some tactics to remove those life-draining adverbs and verbs to write drastically better dialogue. Here are my top three tips:

Connotation is your friend

If you’re not using adverbs to describe the way your character says something, then use the connotation of their words to convey their feelings. For example, “I like coffee” has a variety of meanings depending on how it’s said. The character could be ironic, sarcastic, enthusiastic, or anything. Instead of modifying the verb said try modifying the content of the dialogue.

Original: “I like coffee.” She said sarcastically.

Revised: “I guess I like coffee.” She said.

Show don’t tell

Already modified the content of the dialogue as much as you can? Try describing what your character is doing before, during, or after they speak. Grinning, fidgeting fingers, or slamming a door are more telling than happily, nervously, or angrily ever were.

Original: “I like coffee.” She said sarcastically.

Revised: “I like coffee,” she said, picking up the sugar dispenser and holding it above her coffee cup for several seconds.

Play off the other characters

Tapped out on using connotations and showing-not-telling? Want to mix it up? Try omitting said entirely and allow your characters to play off one another. Whether responding directly to each other’s tone or indicating it by their response. Just make sure to set up the scene beforehand so your reader knows who is speaking as they follow the back and forth.

Original:

“I like coffee.” She said sarcastically.
“You don’t like coffee,” he scoffed, “order a tea.”

Revised:

She picked up the up the sugar dispenser and held it above her coffee cup for several seconds.

“I like coffee.”

“Stop being difficult. You’ve never liked coffee. Order a tea.”

Learning to cut adverbs and verbs from my dialogue was difficult and painful process. To be honest, I still catch myself trying to sneak some adverbs or verbs in after said. But if I want strong dialogue and a strong story, I need to drop my ego at the page and let the characters speak directly to the reader. Writers are a vessel for their stories. They shouldn’t interject their thoughts anymore than the paper and ink do.

Citation: Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style with Revisions, an Introduction, and a Chapter on Writing. Longman, 2000.

9 words you’ve been using wrong this whole time

No matter how advanced a grammarian you are, it’s helpful to revisit the rules. Check out these 9 grammar rules you may not be using.

“Only the writer whose ear is reliable is in a position to use bad grammar deliberately.”

Strunk and White 77

Whether you’re an advanced content strategist or fledgling word nerd, it’s easy to forget about one of the primary building blocks of our craft: grammar. I recently re-read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and was surprised at how many grammar and style rules I broke on a daily basis.

While I’m working on cleaning up my style in the background, here’s 9 words that are commonly misused in modern writing.

1. And/Or

I am guilty of using this in nearly 80% of my work emails. It (seemed to) function so nicely as a catch-all for situations where things could include or exclude certain variables. But as Strunk and White point out, it’s a sloppy shortcut that damages the clarity of the sentence. Does it include both? Or one or the other? Pick and or or (say that 3x fast) and leave the backslash in the editing trash.

Original: The party may include wine and/or whiskey.

Improved: The party may include wine or whiskey or both.

Also improved: The party may include wine and whiskey.

2. Among vs. Between

It had never occurred to me that these two words weren’t interchangeable. Instead I relied on my ear to determine which one I would use when indicating how people or things were involved with one another. However, it turns out there is a difference!

Among is used when describing the connection of two or more persons or things. E.g., the coffee cups were divided amongst the four baristas.

Between is used when describing the connection of just two persons or things. E.g., the macchiato was split between the husband and wife.

3. Comprise

The definition of comprise is “to contain or include”. So it’s imperative that you pay attention to how it affects the noun before it. A coffee shop is comprised of (includes) writers but writers do not comprise (contain) a coffee shop.

4. Disinterested  

Okay, this one in particular jumped out at me because, ladies and gents, I’ve been using it incorrectly for years! Disinterested means impartial or unbiased. But in everyday speech we tend to use it to mean “uninterested”. It makes sense–the prefix dis- is means “not”. Dislike=don’t like. Discontent=not content.

But this is not the case and you should only use disinterested when you want to say impartial or unbiased.

5. Flammable vs. Inflammable

Here’s a curveball for you–these are synonyms. That’s right! Flammable and inflammable both mean “to catch on fire.” It gets confusing because the prefix in– typically means “in, on, or not”. However, the word inflammable doesn’t use this prefix. It derives from the Latin word inflammare–to flame. If you’re a word nerd like me, you can read more about the history of the word on Merriam-Webster.

Regardless of your word nerd status, if you’re trying to say “can’t easily catch on fire” try incombustible or nonflammable.

6. Less

Very similar to the above note on Among vs. Between, less is more precise than just “not as many as before”. You should use the word less when referring to quantity and use the word fewer when referring to a specific number.  Here’s an example for each:

Less: There were less doughnuts than last time.

Fewer: There were three fewer doughnuts than last time.

7. Nauseous. Nauseated. Nausea.

You may have heard this one before–it’s one of those grammar rules that gets touted as an example of how much everyday language can deviate from a strict definition. Whether you’re on #teamcolloquialism or #teamformal, it’s important (and interesting!) to know the difference. So let’s break it down:

Nauseous→ causing nausea or disgust

Nauseated→ to become affected with nausea  

Nausea→ a stomach distress with an urge to vomit

So when we say, “I’m nauseous” we’re actually saying “I’m causing nausea or repulsion”. Doesn’t quite work right? Unless you are in fact doing something to cause repulsion. Instead say or write, “I’m nauseated” or “I have nausea”.

8. One

This one is perhaps antiquated, however it does pop up every so often. When using the word one to mean “a person” don’t follow up with a pronoun. Instead substitute the pronoun for one again. Here’s an example to clarify:

Typical sentence: One must always order their coffee black

Better sentence: One must always order one’s coffee black

Best sentence: You should always order your coffee black

Side note: the best sentence in that set of examples is so named because it uses an active voice and is more direct.

9. People

As people, we use this word almost every day. But did you know it also has a more precise meaning than just “several humans”? The word people means a collection of humans typically bound by a common interest. In most cases it has political connotations such as The People’s Republic of China.

When you’re trying to express a certain number of humans, it’s best to use persons. Here’s a good visual from Strunk and White:

“If of ‘six people’ five went away, how many people are left? Answer: one people.”  (Strunk and White 56)

No matter how advanced a grammarian you are, it’s helpful to revisit the rules. Because sometimes our ears and common sense deceive us. And the above is not an exhaustive list. Grab Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and you’ll see the above is the only start. Happy writing!

Citation: Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style with Revisions, an Introduction, and a Chapter on Writing. Longman, 2000.

Carried Away: Stream of Consciousness

Quick guide on using stream of consciousness in your writing.

Definition

noun; A literary style or technique in which a character’s thoughts are presented in a continuous manner uninterrupted by other characters, dialogue, or omnipotent observations. Typically devoid of standard punctuation.

Photo by Vishal Banik on Unsplash
Photo by Vishal Banik on Unsplash

Example

So they will have told you doubtless already how I told that Jones to take that mule which was not his around to the barn and harness it to our buggy while I put on my hat and shawl and locked the house. That was all I needed to do since they will have told you doubtless that I would have had no need for either trunk or bag since what clothing I possessed, now that the garments which I had been fortunate enough to inherit from my aunt’s kindness or haste or oversight were long since worn out, consisted of the ones which Ellen had remembered from time to time to give me and now Ellen these two years dead; that I had only to lock the house and take my place in the buggy and traverse those twelve miles which I had not done since Ellen died, beside that brute who until Ellen died was not even permitted to approach the house from the front…

–Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner

Pros vs. Cons

One very big pro of this style is to give insight to the inner psyche of your character. By giving them free reign of the narrative you convey how their inner mind works and allow the reader to draw connections between seemingly insignificant events and content to form a more developed picture. For instance, does your character’s overuse of the word “fabulous” reveal a superficiality about the things/events they find “fabulous”? Great way to subtly splice open your character and lay their bones and nerves on the table for the reader.

Major con to this style is that it’s straight up difficult. Difficult to craft and difficult to control. It’s easy to get carried down the stream without any real content. Just because your character has the ability to say or think anything, doesn’t mean they should be allowed to. Your job as a writer is to choose what’s most important. Cut the rest.

Tips

If you’re exploring this style, try free writing for  a set amount of time (20-60 minutes will do it). Don’t censor yourself during this time–go with the flow. At the end of your set time, go back to the beginning and read. I recommend reading the whole piece through once (without editing), then answer these questions:

  • What’s the overall theme and feel to the piece? Is your character reflecting on a tragic/happy event? Are they worried, angry, nervous, exuberant, in love, etc.?
  • Next, what is the purpose of this section? What does it do for your story? Does it progress the action? Or provide necessary character insight?

With your questions answered, go back through a second time and start cutting anything that doesn’t fit the above answers. If your character is in love and reflecting on their current love triangle, it’s probably not the best time to mention how much they hate their neighbor for not sorting their recycling.

When in doubt as to whether or not something should stay, cut it. If you don’t immediately love it or feel like it fits, it has no place in your writing. Cut it. If you have a crush on it, save it for another piece. But if there’s no love it doesn’t belong. Better to have a succinct piece than something that causes your reader’s eyes to glaze over.

The Masters

The best way to learn anything is to study those who have perfected the skill. If you’re looking for inspiration or guidance, pick up one of these for your next read:

  • The Autumn of the Patriarch; Gabriel García Màrquez
  • The Sound and the Fury; William Faulkner
  • Wide Sargasso Sea; Jean Rhys
  • Mrs. Dalloway; Virginia Woolf
  • Ulysses; James Joyce
  • On the Road; Jack Kerouac

Bibliography

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

The Great Oxford Comma Debate

Give me ALL the Oxford Commas

One time, my friend messaged me to ask if she should use an Oxford comma when listing out projects on a resume. As a student of journalism, she came of age in AP Style and that comma before the conjunction was a big faux pas. I spent the next 26 minutes composing a verbose, but well-meaning pontification on how an Oxford or serial comma should always be used. No matter what. A month later she got me this →

Which leads us to the question: is an Oxford comma necessary? Or was my spiel a little too extra?

If you’re new to the Oxford comma debate, an Oxford comma or serial comma is that final comma in a list right before the conjunction. Example:

I like coffee, yorkies, murder mysteries, and tacos.

Now, MLA, Chicago, Strunk and White, and various government and academic publications demand its use. On the flip side, AP and The New York Times oppose use of that last comma. The arguments for and against usually go like this:

#TeamOxfordComma#TeamNoOxfordComma
Promotes clarityUnnecessary if conjunctions are used properly
Offers efficiency in reading Takes up valuable space
Reaffirms the last two items in a list are separate entities Pretentious (i.e., too academic and not colloquial)

So to comma or not to comma? The answer is: it’s a stylistic preference. If you’re copywriter or a ghost writer, it’s important to stick to your employer’s preferred style guide to maintain brand consistency. If you’re writing for a personal project or your employer has no preference, the decision is all yours.

My take: if it’s within your discretion, you should always use an Oxford comma. Besides the reasons in the above #TeamOxfordComma column, an Oxford comma also promotes visual consistency and modernity.

As writers, we’re often more concerned with how a sentence sounds and communicates rather than how it looks. But in an age where Instagram and video rule the internet sphere, it’s important to have visually appealing work. A list without that last comma is unbalanced and distracting. Like an unresolved melody. Place that last comma my friend and resolve it.

Additionally, most writers, government agencies, academic institutions, and public in general support the use of an Oxford comma. Conformity in political and societal affairs = trouble. Conformity in spelling and grammar = understanding. If you want to connect with the general public, get with the times and add that comma!

At the end of the sentence, there’s no right or wrong way to use an Oxford comma. Language is a living breathing organism and “rules” are seldom hard and fast. It’s up to the brand, your employer, or your preference. Whichever way you swing, make sure you’re consistent in usage and everything will be just fine.

How do you feel about an Oxford comma? Pretentious? Necessary? Beautiful? Let it all out below!