The Case for Scrivener as a Policy Writing Tool

Iv’e been trying out Scrivener for the last few days as my main writing tool.  You might not have heard of it but it has taken off like wildfire over the last few years especially amongst those writing long documents, such as novellists of those writing disserations or research reports.  In those two days, after a short sharp learning curve I have become a total convert.

The problem being that traditional tools like Word are really designed for writing letters and short reports and imagine you start at the first word and type continuously from that word to the last one.  Word has terrible tools for long documents and none at all for non linear writing and research.  It is also dreadful at design which is why I always use Indesign for long documents and those with a design element such as leaflets and posters.  So I avoid using word as much as possible, it drags down my productivity.  One area I have used word a lot for recently however is research papers, as its integration with endnote, for paper references is amazing, just one custom button and it insets the reference and updates the reference list at the end.

But for a current project I have half a dozen policy statements from different NGOs and need to see them side by side and see if common positions can be gleaned from them.  I need something much more non linear, where I can take snippets of text and move them around.  Hence after many recommendations I tried scrivener.

The Basic Philosophy of Scrivener is that it is for writing, then you export to something like Word or Indesign to do the final edit.  It is less a word processor than an ideas processor.  You write snippets of text on index cards, arrange them in one or more ways visually, and when you are ready stitch them together linearly into a stream of text then ‘compile’ to your output program, to pdf, html whatever.  It keeps each snippet of text as a separate file in a database.

Just as important within the writing environment it allows you to see and organise your research alongside your text.  An example lets say you had lots of evidence base reports.  In scrivener you could create a folder called EveidenceBase_transport say.  Have a PDF on that in the bottom of the screen and in the top of the screen a policy snippet of text on transport,  What before could easily become buried and lost in a crazy file system is all there easy to view.

There are of course big advantages in modern document management and collaboration tools such as Objective (FNA Limehouse) bringing within them ideas from the corporate document lifecycle management world.   But it isnt necessarily a tool for creative policy writing.  Indeed you can always tell a policy written in Objective a mile off – it has a certain writing style, ideas live in hierarchical silos, there is little creative integration.  Sorry but I find them very often boring and often way too long.

So im convinced that the fist drafting, or fist radical redrafting of policy should be in a more non-linear tool.  Where for example as you can in Scrivener have multiple different document organisation pattersn all at once in the same file.  For example you can experiment with a place based and a them based structure reusing the same text fragments within each – quite amazing.

I have to say the Mac version is much more advanced than the word version.  Things I really need such as endnote integration, setting up styles, autonumbering of policies, autosyncing with other programmes, and references are only in the mac version.  Its the application that is finally making me move to the Mac (I can do the GIS stuff in Bootcamp and parallels).

A really cool workflow is to keep a Scrivener project folder in dropbox.  Because each section of text is a separate XML file you can then have separate people working on different sections of text and a project manager can see it all assembled at any time, it autosaves and syncs constantly (every 2 seconds).  So its a hypercheap solution for document collaboration (£25 a seat), as long as you manually make sure that two people dont try and work on the same text segment at the same time, you can coordinate this collaboration with free online tools such as Asana  .  Of course with dropbox syncing the Scrivener  they don’t even need to be in the same continent.  You can also set up auto-sync expert.  For example you could output the text to a folder to undertake collaborative commenting (which Scrivener doesnt do) in Word or indesign/acrobat (i much prefer acrobat commenting to word).

In terms of getting text in to a document management collaboration system like Objective as each snippet of text is a separate XML file it should be trivial.  Indeed you could set up a workflow to mark up text using the XML tags – like Policy – that Objective uses.  Indeed on a mac you can link other programmes such as Instant Cursor and multimarkdown so that with a simple keyboard shortcut it will correctly format with tags a section of text for you.

Its opened up a powerful new way of thinking about documents for me.  I no longer see them as linear but as a snapshot of ideas organised as a narrative, and it is that lack of a clear short simple compelling narrative that so many policy documents lack.

Oh and Scrivener is an English, or I should say Cornish, creation.

It is particularly useful when combined with the ideas in this fantastic book Organizing Creatively

2 thoughts on “The Case for Scrivener as a Policy Writing Tool

  1. Pingback: The Case for Scrivener as a Policy Writing Tool | Everything Scrivener

  2. Pingback: Business Policy Writing Scrivener Workflow -

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