Comparing StoryMill and Scrivener

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:

  1. Annotated text is clearly marked, yet the annotations themselves are completely invisible unless you want to see them.
  2. Annotations are rich text, so they can contain just about anything. This includes images, formatted text, etc.
  3. 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.

16 responses to “Comparing StoryMill and Scrivener”

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  1. Alan Schmitt says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write this down. I’m sticking with Scrivener for the moment, but it’s good to see there are great alternatives out there.

    One thing I may explore, most realistically after NaNoWriMo, is how Scrivener is fit to write scientific articles. I’ve read many good things at how it can easily be used in MultiMarkdown format, and I’d be curious if it could beat my current Textmate projects approach. (Textmate projects work great, but they lack a bit in organization.)

  2. Ian Beck says:

    It would likely work great. I haven’t used Scrivener’s plain text formatting myself, but there’s a vocal contingent of Scrivener users who need and use it. This is definitely an area where StoryMill doesn’t even attempt to cover that feature; you should check the Scrivener forums for specific advice and tips.

    You could probably get the best of both worlds, actually, assuming Textmate’s MultiMarkdown bundle is better than Scrivener’s editing interface. Just download QuickCursor and you’ll be able to edit text from Scrivener in a variety of different editors (including Textmate).

    Just in general, QuickCursor is a brilliant tool. I’ve been using it a lot to edit form fields online (which are terrible for editing in; always too small) in WriteRoom. (In point of fact, I’m typing this in WriteRoom thanks to QuickCursor right now.)

  3. Troy Kitch says:

    I started out on CopyWrite back in 2004, but abandoned it because it was never updated. I use Scrivener for a variety of writing projects, and now use StoryMill as well (based on your recommendation, actually). I like both of these tools and, as you point out, each serve a need. Thanks for the tip on QuickCursor. Using it now. What a great idea. I don’t own WriteRoom (it seems a bit pricey to me for what it does, given other tools offer full-screen editing), but I’m going to use QC to edit in Textmate.

  4. Ian Beck says:

    To be honest, I’ve never really understood why WriteRoom was priced the way it is. Ten, fifteen dollars and it would totally be worth it (I only own it and use it thanks to getting it as part of a bundle; one of the first MacHeists, if memory serves). The nice things about WriteRoom: 1) it launches basically instantly; 2) it offers a block cursor (which I’ve turned out to like a surprising amount); and 3) offers typewriter scrolling (which is really nice compared to editing plain text in something like Textmate, Espresso, or BBEdit).

  5. Alan Schmitt says:

    I use QC, and find it great. I’ve tried WriteRoom several times, but I have yet to see the appeal when compared to the price.

  6. KB says:

    Hi Ian,
    I’m the developer of Scrivener and I just wanted to say thank you for covering Scrivener in your article, which seems to me a very fair and intelligent comparison between the two programs. I just wanted to add a couple of clarifications – hope you don’t mind:
    • Scrivener’s full screen mode can easily be set up to be nothing else but your text too (there are no floating windows unless you want them). You can have green text on a black screen and nothing else visible at all if you want. We have a video showing how here: http://www.literatureandlatte.com/videos/Writing%20Environment.mov
    • I agree with you about the menus! They have become a little bloated in 1.x. One of my big jobs for 2.0 has been to streamline them and make them easier to navigate as much as possible.
    • 2.0 will also have an alternative and improved comments (annotations) system, that falls somewhere between StoryMill’s and Pages’ comments.
    All that said, I agree that StoryMill is a great app, and although both Scriv and SM are aimed at writers, they are very different in their approach, so I always recommend users try both (and the others out there) before choosing, as the choice really depends on the individual’s style of working.
    Thanks again for covering Scrivener!
    All the best,
    Keith

  7. Ian Beck says:

    Hey Keith,

    Thanks for reading! I’m glad that you find the comparison fair; as a long-time StoryMill user and evangelist I tried to make sure that I wasn’t being too biased in that direction. :-)

    Thanks for the clarifications about full screen and so forth, too! I haven’t actively used Scrivener in several months, and I’d forgotten that you can slim down the full screen layout with a little work.

    I’m looking forward to seeing what you’ve come up with for annotations in Scrivener 2.0. That and my inability to find things that I know should be there in the menus are the two things that consistently prevent me from using Scrivener 1.x whenever I decide to give it another whirl for a new project.

  8. Etienne Navir says:

    Thanks for this comparison. I have both StoryMill and Scrivener. (I used Scrivener for the 2009 NaNoWriMo.)

    Although I tend to use StoryMill more often, there is something simply alluring about Scrivener. Perhaps it’s just the interface. Scrivener seems more modern … whatever that means! Also, I like Keith! I get the feeling he’s more committed to the writing process, although I’m sure this is not the case. The StoryMill developers seem more anonymous.

    As to features, I agree StoryMill’s Timeline is very useful, although I’ve had some difficulty using it for very tight scenes, where the duration is only minutes, and the end of one scene is the beginning of another. And creating storylines is very counterintuitive (to me).

    My biggest complaint about StoryMill is the either / or Notes or Text window. I much prefer Scrivener’s approach since it keeps notes — which in my case are “directions” for what’s happening in a scene — always visible. With StoryMill I’ve adopted the workaround of copying relevant Notes into Text, then deleting them when finished.

    I should also mention I’ve used Storyist, but it didn’t seem to offer anything not available with Scrivener or StoryMill that made me want to learn a new application.

    I’ll probably continue using both StoryMill and Scrivener, but for slightly different projects.

  9. Ian Beck says:

    Hey Etienne,

    Glad you enjoyed the comparison! You can actually view notes and text at the same time if you want in StoryMill; just double click the scene and you’ll open it in a new window. You can then size it appropriately and stick it off to the side while you continue to work in the main window (or vice versa). I will often work in the chapter editing window (what you get by double clicking a chapter) and reference the main window behind and to the side for scene notes and so forth (using command-` to switch between the two). I’ve even been known to have half a dozen windows open, with actors, scenes, and other notes scattered about the screen.

    The chapter editing window may also be useful because you can open up the chapter notes drawer (View → Show Notes Drawer or command-R) to and store your scene outline/notes there while you work.

    If you think Todd (the developer of StoryMill) is anonymous, you’ve obviously not spent much time in the StoryMill forums. :-) Todd is fantastic at responding to and engaging users. He and Keith are two of the most responsive developers I’ve ever encountered.

    You’ll find that StoryMill’s timeline also stutters badly when you have scenes that span large amounts of time (or have large amounts of time between scenes). I’m hopeful for StoryMill 4 (I know improving scenes is a big focus), but we’ll have to wait and see if the timeline can be more useful for the short and long ends of the spectrum.

  10. W. David Hurley says:

    I have read several reviews and comparisons of Scrivener and StoryMill. This article, with its responses, is one of the best discussions I have come across. Thank you for a job very well done.

  11. Bruce says:

    To be honest, I’ve never really understood why WriteRoom was priced the way it is. Ten, fifteen dollars and it would totally be worth it (I only own it and use it thanks to getting it as part of a bundle; one of the first MacHeists, if memory serves). The nice things about WriteRoom: 1) it launches basically instantly; 2) it offers a block cursor (which I’ve turned out to like a surprising amount); and 3) offers typewriter scrolling (which is really nice compared to editing plain text in something like Textmate, Espresso, or BBEdit).

  12. tim says:

    Thank you for the review/comparison. I’ve just got a Mac (using window before). I’ve written in Word or Notepad++ all these years and used a neat little program called neomem for organizing all my disparate ideas. I’m leaning toward Scrivenor after this review, since timelines wouldn’t work for my style. I like to flop scenes and time around to suit the storyline and the mood.
    Thanks again, I am greatfull for your review.
    Tim

  13. ELLEN says:

    I am curious as to which program would be most useful in converting a screenplay to a novel? Does anyone have a recommendation?

    • Ian Beck says:

      Either would work; it really depends on which program fits your needs (and the way you think) best. For writing screenplays, Scrivener is the clear winner because it has screenplay formatting abilities, but for writing a novel based on a screenplay both of them will allow you to create scenes based on the screenplay’s plot, track characters, etc.

  14. Geoff Hindmarsh says:

    Hi Ian,

    Thank you for posting the comparisons. I’m just about to finish my first novel and was looking for a software program that I could export it to. I’m using a Mac. I know SM is purely Mac, but is it easy to export large bodies of work into these programs?

    Thanks,
    Geoff

    • Ian Beck says:

      Both StoryMill and Scrivener can export your novel, and you usually have to do this to prepare it for submission in an actual word processor (Pages, Word, Nisus Writer, etc.).

      If you are trying to migrate your novel into StoryMill, then my advice would be to start using StoryMill for your next novel instead. It’s possible to import novels from Word documents and so forth (if I remember correctly), but it’s a lot of work to get it all set up properly and there’s very little payoff since you’ll just have to move it back out of the program again when it comes time to submit it.

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