I’m a long-time user of StoryMill (starting when it was originally called Avenir), but I’m also something of a software junkie, so when Scrivener came out I tried using it for a few projects. Particularly now that StoryMill has a timeline view (as of this writing the only Mac creative writing software to implement the feature) and Mariner Software is distributing it, it seems like a more and more people are wondering whether they should use StoryMill or Scrivener.
Well, here it is: my definitive StoryMill vs. Scrivener review. Although StoryMill is my personal application of choice, there’s a lot to love (and some things to dislike) about both programs.
Quick and dirty
Not everyone wants to wade through my periphrastic meanderings (just discovered that word, and it’s making me really happy; sorry for sounding like a total vocab snob), so here’s the quick and dirty:
- If you primarily write fiction and want a program that will provide you with an easy framework for organizing your writing, you’ll probably prefer StoryMill.
- If you primarily write non-fiction or screenplays or write fiction and want a program that will let you do pretty much whatever the hell you want workflow-wise (with a correspondingly higher level of confusion), you’ll probably prefer Scrivener.
A broader picture
As is often the case, the fast and dirty comparison is a bit misleading: either program can help you write fiction or non-fiction. The reason the fiction/non-fiction comparison is common is because StoryMill is explicitly focused on fiction (and doesn’t support screenplays at all, since that would steal sales from its companion software Montage) while Scrivener provides a general writing metaphor that can apply to either genre equally well (with limited support for screenplay formatting and footnotes).
The truth is that regardless of your genre the deciding factor for which software to use will be a matter of style. StoryMill’s approach is to provide you with a specific framework for writing and organizing, complemented with a focused group of powerful features. In contrast, Scrivener is much more flexible and offers a larger number of features that you can pick and choose from to form your workflow. You can do most of the things in Scrivener that you can in StoryMill (with a few key exceptions), but it will be slightly more effort.
If StoryMill’s framework makes sense to you and you don’t have an urgent need for any of the features that are Scrivener-only, then StoryMill will be the easiest environment to write in. However, for some people the time necessary to set up their own framework in Scrivener is well worth the effort because the program’s flexibility allows them to write most effectively.
To figure out which style, and thus program, is the best choice for you, you’ll need to consider two big questions: what metaphors do you use for writing, and what specific features are most important for you?
StoryMill: a novel framework
The foundation of StoryMill’s approach to writing and organizing is the scene. Scenes in StoryMill are the building blocks which create chapters and ultimately the story itself (it’s worth noting that you can think of scenes and chapters as whatever content blocks make sense for your story; the names don’t really limit the function). Though you’ll track your characters, locations, and so forth elsewhere, the scenes are where you’ll tie them together.
StoryMill offers several other types of items like characters, locations, research, and even submission tracking for when you complete the novel, but the scenes are the core of the program. If working with scenes makes sense to you, and you like the ability to directly relate characters to scenes and organize both in plot order and chronological order (the latter via the timeline feature), then StoryMill will likely appeal.
This scene-centric framework has actually taken a page from Scrivener’s book in recent updates, as well. You can use scenes either as an outline (in the Scenes view) or as the actual text of the story (in the Chapters view). Storing text in scenes can be a little bit confusing (particularly since you can still store text in chapters and use scenes purely for organization if you choose), but this allows you to take advantage of the outline-as-text feature that Scrivener executes with such panache.
StoryMill also has some specific stand-out features that influenced my decision to use it. For me, annotations are one of the biggest. In StoryMill, you annotate text by selecting it and choosing “Annotate”. The text turns the standard link blue with underline, and a little window opens up in which you can type the annotation’s title (defaults to the selected text) and add your annotation. This is great for a number of reasons:
- Annotated text is clearly marked, yet the annotations themselves are completely invisible unless you want to see them.
- Annotations are rich text, so they can contain just about anything. This includes images, formatted text, etc.
- StoryMill handles annotations intelligently: if you open up the annotations window and start moving through the text with your cursor, the displayed annotation will update based on which linked text the cursor is in. You can also open the annotations window for a given annotation with a hotkey (no clicking the link required).
Some people prefer the margin-notes approach to annotations in Pages, Word, etc., but I find those extremely limiting because if you type more than a sentence or two they become unwieldy, it’s not always easy to tell what text the annotation applies to, and you can’t have very many on a page before they get out of control. The only thing they have over StoryMill’s annotations is that you can view all of them at once, but in practice I’ve never found this to matter.
Another big draw for StoryMill is its timeline functionality. Timelines allow you to view and organize scenes in chronological time, even if the flow of the novel is completely different. This can be fantastically helpful for preventing plot holes and other inconsistencies, and getting a general overview of the flow of time through your novel can be useful in its own right. The downside to timeline is that it’s still a young feature; the interface could use a little refinement and it had a bit of a rocky start thanks to some bugs, but there’s still nothing comparable out there (aside from dedicated timeline software).
StoryMill has numerous other small features that I can’t live without, as well: the progress meter is a one that I’ve surprisingly grown to rely on. It visually tracks how far along you are for both your session and project word goals. It also can emit a sound when you hit your session goal, which is really nice feedback if you’re working in full screen. Full screen is of course another great feature, although one that’s available in most writing software these days. The reason I like StoryMill’s better than Scrivener’s is that it’s truly nothing but you and your writing; no annotations, no floating windows, nothing but the text. Tags and smart views, export templates, and the project-wide find and replace dialog are other reasons to love StoryMill.
Scrivener: your digital corkboard
Scrivener takes a slightly different approach to the writing process. Where StoryMill provides a framework with carefully designed parts, Scrivener offers the user a beautifully executed corkboard metaphor and then hangs potentially useful features around it.
Scrivener’s corkboard is where it really shines. The connection between outline, visual organization of “index cards”, and your actual text is simple, sensible, and flexible enough to handle virtually any kind of writing. Want to break things down into beats, then scenes, then chapters, then acts? Go for it. Your only real limit is your creativity. Scrivener’s central metaphor additionally captures in a digital format a way of working that instantly makes sense to most people who have written by hand. This is a definite strength over StoryMill, which takes a more relational database-driven approach to organization and writing that may not be as easy to initially access for some people.
Aside from its elegant central metaphor, Scrivener also offers a slew of useful features. I encourage you to check out the Scrivener website and free trial to figure out which ones you’ll care about, but the primary things of interest to me are snapshots (saving multiple versions of a single piece of text), wiki-style links to internal documents, the vastly flexible exporting system, and the simple script-writing formatting tools.
It’s worth taking a moment to dwell on snapshots. Although StoryMill is planning to implement similar functionality for their next version, this is a key area where Scrivener is clearly the better choice. Organizing multiple revisions of the same text in StoryMill is extremely kludgy at the current time, while Scrivener handles it with ease.
Additionally, you can (with a little bit of work) mimic some of StoryMill’s strengths in Scrivener. For instance, the Document References could be used to associate characters with scenes. You can also mimic StoryMill’s annotations to some extent using wiki-links that open in split views (Scrivener’s built-in annotations are inline with the text, making them only useful for very short notes to yourself that you don’t mind reading every time you go back over things). They’re not as easy to use as StoryMill annotations, sure, but this kind of flexibility is another of Scrivener’s strengths. The menus may be confusing and (to my eye) bloated, but all those disparate features mean that with a little work you can achieve numerous different workflows.
Beyond the software
Of course, there’s more to writing than just the software itself. Both Scrivener and StoryMill have healthy communities and refreshingly responsive developers. Scrivener has a larger community (and one more inclined to chat about whatever the heck is on their minds), but you may get a faster response in StoryMill’s forums simply because there aren’t as many threads. Your mileage will doubtless vary, but I highly suggest dropping by the forums for whichever software you’re leaning toward and asking any questions you have.
An additional concern is interoperability between your writing software and other software on your computer. Both Scrivener and StoryMill store data in proprietary formats but both also offer flexible ways to export that data. Which export system you like better will probably depend a lot on what you need to export, but both allow you to get all of your data out of the program without much fuss. If you’re trying either software’s free trial, definitely play with the export system before purchasing it.
Scrivener additionally allows easy editing of text in external programs, which can be nice if you like editing text in WriteRoom, BBEdit, or similar.
Time to write
Both StoryMill and Scrivener were created because the developers couldn’t find a tool that fit their respective needs as authors, and the bottom line for any potential user is you should use whichever program makes it easiest for you to write.
For myself, that program is StoryMill. Its framework makes sense to me and I’ve become addicted to its overall slimmed-down focus on the features that matter most (not to mention some specific niceties like rich annotations and timelines).
I can certainly appreciate the draw of Scrivener, however. Every time I open it I’m amazed anew at how simple and relevant a metaphor for writing it provides. StoryMill’s niggling issues with the separation between outline and text are nonexistent in Scrivener thanks to its solid basis in the idea of a corkboard. Sure, to get the kind of interconnectivity that StoryMill encourages you have to do a bit more work, but with Scrivener’s large and helpful community figuring out a document layout and workflow shouldn’t be too painful.
Ironically, in a few short years we’ve gone from having no great alternative writing environments to Word and the other word processors to having a difficult choice between two strong contenders (and that’s discounting the scads of similar but less popular software like CopyWrite, Jer’s Novel Writer, Storyist, or Ulysses, the program that started it all); no choice has exploded into too much choice. Hopefully by focusing on which general approach and specific features are most helpful for your workflow you’ll be able to select the best software for you and get on to what’s really important: your writing.