Scrivener for iPad and iPhone

In searching the archive, I found my first review of Scrivener on MacSparky in 2007. That's right. … 2007. Scrivener was my original “White Whale” app for the iPad. Within an hour of using my first iPad, I remember thinking, “Now I need Scrivener.” How badly did I want Scrivener? So much so that I acted as errand-boy for the Scrivener developer and bought an iPad (with his money) and mailed it to him. (At the time, the iPad wasn’t available in the UK.) I was hoping he’d get addicted to the iPad and immediately put all effort into developing an iPad application. So I guess you could say I’ve been looking forward to seeing Scrivener on iOS for awhile now.

To be honest, that’s not entirely true. Initially, I had all sorts of bizarre workarounds where I could edit and work on my Scrivener files on iPad ranging from weird partial text syncing to VNC but none of them were really that good and as the years went by and Scrivener did not show up for iPad, I moved on. I’ll call those my wild years.

During the wild years, I started using several alternative apps that are iPad friendly. Most notably is Ulysses, which is similar to Scrivener but also different. While Scrivener is once again my weapon of choice for big writing projects (particularly those including research), there are still some projects for which Ulysses is the right choice. I'm currently outlining an episode of Mac Power Users on big writing projects and we’ll be comparing and contrasting these two apps so stay tuned for more on that.

The story behind getting Scrivner on iPad could probably be the subject of its own interesting novel but this week, after so many years, my beloved Scrivener found its way to the iPad and iPhone.  I’ve been using it and syncing my book files between the two platforms and it sure is nice to be home again.

So why do writers get so excited about Scrivener? I’ve written about it before but Scrivener is the first application that I used as a writing tool, as opposed to word processor. With Scrivener, I can take on big writing projects in a way that I simply couldn’t before. It lets me organize blocks of text and it keeps track of my progress. One of its killer features for me is the ability to hold my research data in the same file as my scrivenings.

Scrivener can take just about any file type you throw at it (including PDFs, images, and Word documents) and make those available for review while working inside the application. So when you are working on a big project, using Scrivener you can have all of your research in the same file as your words. This is really handy as it saves you the trouble of digging in the Finder, Evernote, or wherever else you use to keep support documents for big projects. This convenience is even more notable on iOS where getting documents out of cloud storage isn’t alway easy.

Now that Scrivener is on the iPad, I can show up at a coffee shop and work on my latest legal brief or book and know confidently that I have access to all the resource documents I need for the project. That’s the magic of Scrivener. It not only allows you to write and organize your words for your big writing project, it also holds your research as well. And now Scrivener is on the iPad and iPhone.

You can get Scrivener in the iOS App Store for $20 (App Store)(Website). The application is universal and works on both iPad and iPhone. One of my big concerns about creating a version of Scrivener for iPad was striking the right feature balance. There are a lot of features in Scrivener for Mac. The question was how many of those features need to get over to the iPad to make the application useful while at the same time not making it overwhelming. Scrivener for iPad and iPhone does nicely in striking this balance. Indeed, I was a little surprised at how many features did make it over for the first version.

Research, which is one of my most important features in Scrivener, syncs over just fine. That, for me was going to be the make-it-or-break-it feature in bringing Scrivener back into my life. I will acknowledge, however, that's a relatively low bar but the developer got it right. You can put both research and text on the screen at once and I've been writing legal briefs and working on a new book in this new version of Scrivener with no problems. 

Scrivener for iPad and iPhone isn't a simple port. A lot of effort went into determining what features work best on iOS and where accommodations need to be made. The iOS keyboard adds additional rows with Scrivener-specific features and the interface is much cleaner than Scrivener on the Mac. Indeed, I prefer the interface on the iPad over that of the Mac even though it doesn't have every bell and whistle you find on the Mac.

While there were some features cut, Scrivener on iPad is fully functional for the hard work of moving the cursor on big writing projects. The text editor is absolutely up to the task and you can organize your buckets of text on Scrivener on the iPad and iPhone just as you would on the Mac. I was particularly impressed with the keyboard shortcut support, which makes sense because a lot of people will use this tool with an iPad and external keyboard. 

One feature that made it over from the Mac is color coding document sections. This is easy to implement for a writer and super-useful. Color coding makes it easy for going back later and making edits or re-writes.

When you're done, you can synchronize your data back to your Mac using Dropbox. Synchronization with Scrivener for iOS, however, deserves some further discussion. Scrivener documents are, in essence, package files that hold the research and various bits of text that you're preparing. Scrivener does not use iCloud but instead Dropbox. (I don’t know for certain but am guessing this has something to do with the synchronization of the research files.) Either way, you save your Scrivener file to the Dropbox destination of choice and then you can access it from Mac, iPad, or iPhone. 

When you first boot up Scrivener on your iPad or iPhone, you are asked to synchronize data with your Dropbox folder. Then digital wheels grind and synchronization takes place. When you're done editing your document on your iPad or iPhone, Scrivener again prompts you to synchronize back up to Dropbox. (You can also manually trigger synchronization.) 

This system works. The only time I was able to break it in testing was when I was deliberately trying to by opening files too soon (before Dropbox caught up with me). Nevertheless, the whole process feels a bit fragile. I'm not sure if there is a better way given the different types of data Scrivener synchronizes but I will warn you to be deliberate about syncing when using Scrivener on iPad and Mac at (or around) the same time.

After hacking my way into Scrivener from iOS for so long, it sure is nice to see the Scrivener icon on my iPad home screen. This is exactly what I was looking for so long ago when I started using my original iPad.