Apps o’ the Morning: Scrivener and Textilus

Apps o’ the Morning: Scrivener and Textilus March 27, 2014

Is there anyone who writes who hasn’t heard of Scrivener yet?

Scrivener is a word processor for large and complex writing projects: novels, screenplays, scripts, and the like. Instead of writing a single long stream of text, as you might do in Word or OpenOffice, it lets you break down your project into many small pieces of text (e.g., scenes). You can look at these in an outline view or in a cork board view; and you can attach notes and tags to any scene apart from the actual prose. You can edit the scenes individually, or all at once if you’re making global changes. In addition, you can add folders of additional material that are not part of the manuscript proper: descriptions of characters and settings, time lines, research materials and so forth. And then when you’re ready to publish as an e-book, or send the manuscript to a publisher, Scrivener can pull the whole thing together and format it just the way it needs to be. It’s a beautiful tool, and if you haven’t tried it it’s worth investigating.

For me, Scrivener has two killer features. The first is the ability to format the text as an e-book; the second is Scrivener’s ability to sync with DropBox. You can select any part of your project (typically it will be the manuscript proper) and ask Scrivener to sync that part with an external folder. On your desktop machine, that folder can be somewhere in your DropBox folder; each individual scene will be synced as a separate file in plain or rich text format.

As a programmer, I love this. I trust text files; I have lots of tools for browsing, editing, and making use of text files. I don’t trust application document formats, because application document formats often get abandoned. I’ve been using computers for over thirty years, and I have files on my hard disk that I can still read that are almost that old—because they are text files. Consequently, Scrivener’s ability to sync in this way gives me warm fuzzies; I can put a novel in Scrivener, sync it out, and know that even if Scrivener stops working I’ve not lost it.

But syncing isn’t just a security blanket. When I write I like to go off to a coffee shop of similar place and work there, and I usually work with my iPad and an external keyboard. There are many iPad adds that can edit text files on DropBox; the vast quantity of my novel Vikings at Dino’s (which I’m planning to put up on Amazon as a kindle book in the next month) was written in a local burger joint, mostly using an app called Nebulous Notes, a simple, reliable plain-text editor with a good interface to DropBox.

The one problem I had with Nebulous Notes is that it only edits plain text. I confess, I like to use italics in my prose. It’s a fault, I know; but sometimes it’s necessary. And in the roundtrip from Scrivener to text files on DropBox and back to Scrivener, the italics get lost, at least for any files I actually edit. I’ve worked around this in the past by using underscores _like this_, and then changing them by hand to italics later, but it’s a nuisance.

Now, Scrivener can also sync using rich text format (RTF) as well as plain text; but as Scrivener’s documentation notes, you pretty much need to use plain text on an iPad, because there are no editors that do rich text and will sync properly with Scrivener.

Except that now, there’s Textilus, a rich text editor that (in its paid version) syncs with DropBox and targets integration with Scrivener. Textilus is not cheap, for an iOS app; I paid $5.99 this weekend, and I gather it’s usually $9.99. But by golly, it got the job done. I synced the manuscript of Watchman for Daybreak to DropBox as RTF on my desktop; and then, at a Starbucks about an hour and a half from home, I downloaded Textilus, linked it with DropBox, spent a happy couple of hours writing, came home, and gosh, wow, all of my formatting was preserved. That’s worth the money for me.

Textilus probably has other features of note; I’ve spent only two hours with it, and virtually all of that was spent focussing on the words I was writing, rather than exploring the app and its user interface. It fit right into my workflow and got out of the way; what’s not to like?

Could be plenty not to like, of course; it’s quite possible that there are gotchas that will emerge as I get to know the app better. (That happened with the first DropBox text editor I tried, which I won’t name; it looked good at first, but after it lost me an hour’s work I deleted it and found something more reliable.)

For now, though, I’ve got a solution I quite like.


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