Software Week #2: Syncing with Scrivener

Software week resumes (previously here and here). OK, it may not correspond to an actual "week," but it should go through at least seven installments. This one continues the theme of how you can use a syncing program, in my case SugarSync, with programs that store their information not in familiar, standalone .DOC or .PPT files but rather in "bundled" storage units. This time we turn to the writing program Scrivener, which I've used as my mainstay for the past two years or so and about which I've testified before. (Eg here.)


First, about Scrivener itself. It is Mac-only, though as discussed here and here several PC programs approximate some of the features. And, as the designer of Scrivener, Keith Blount of Cornwall, England, explained four years ago in an intellectual history of the program, it shares a spirit with some other PC and Mac programs, including Ulysses. For later Software Week discussion: in what circumstances and for what kind of users would a program like this justify a move to the Mac.

Why do I keep mentioning this software? I've used a ton of word-processing programs over the years, from The Electric Pencil in the late 1970s, through WordStar and WordPerfect and XyWrite and a winsome native-OS/2 program called DeScribe, and Oracle's OpenOffice, and of course the inescapable Word. I've liked some better and some worse, but they're all basically utilities. Scrivener is different in adding an organizational ability. It allows you to work easily with blocks of text -- chapters in a book, items in a list, scenes in a novel, sections of an article -- and view them separately when that is convenient, or together when that is. Keith Blount explains some of the reasoning behind this approach in an interesting video interview, here.  After the jump, comments that appeared in email from a young lawyer who has found the program surprisingly valuable. Also, at $39.95 it's cheap.

But Scrivener stores its data in complicated bundles, not self-contained .DOC files. How do you sync it between machines or back it up to the cloud? Easy.

The conceptual approach is the same as mentioned previously Personal Brain: you rely on the program's built-in capacity to create a ZIPped archive of each "bundle"; you transfer that ZIP file from one computer to the next; you unZip it on the other machine, and you're in business.

Step-by-step sync details after the jump. Plus the lawyer's testimonial; plus an important user note on previously mentioned Personal Brain.

Using Scrivener with SugarSync:

1) Create a Scrivener file (known as a "project") and have its normal storage site be the "Documents" folder of the Mac computer you are working on.

2) When you're done, save the "project" as you would normally, with Cmd-S. But then also create a ZIPped archive of it, for transfer to your other machines. The command sequence is File/Backup/Backup To. Two details are important here: specify the "backup to" site as the "Magic Briefcase" folder, which SugarSync will automatically transfer to all your other computers when they are online. And, be sure to check the "Backup as ZIP file" box. This will produce a file with a time stamp in its name, something like "My Project 2010-09-07" The time stamp means that you can create a series of these archives without worrying about duplicate file names, and you can easily see which one is newest.

3) Go to your other computer,. Using the Finder, move or copy that most recent ZIPped file from the "Magic Briefcase" folder to the "Documents" folder. Conceptually, you're transferring it from the common folder that is shared among the computers, to the folder where you'll work on it locally.

4) Un-zip that file in your "Documents" folder, which will produce a file called something like "My Project.scriv."  Housekeeping detail: if there are earlier versions of that file on this computer, when you un-zip it, it will get a name like "My Project1.scriv." That's fine -- you can just work on that one. But for tidiness, I move older versions of "My Project.scriv" to the Trash (where they're still recoverable) before unzipping the new one.

5) Begin editing My Project.scriv on the other computer. When you're done, go back to step 2 and repeat as necessary.

Bonus 1, an extra tip about Personal Brain, from Michael Ham:

I'm trying Personal Brain again. I had installed it on my other computer and could never make any headway. Reason: I did not watch ANY of the instructional videos. I found the program quite intuitive AFTER watching the videos. Before I watched them, the program just seemed weird.

Indeed, do check out the videos. Personal Brain is Windows/Mac/Linux.

Bonus 2, from a young lawyer, about Scrivener:

I just finished taking the New York Bar Exam. I followed an on-line crash course featuring 40 lectures of 4-6 hours a piece, plus outside readings, cases, etc. One takes notes throughout the entire lecture, yileding at least 20-30 pages of notes a day.
The classic issue with the bar is not the difficulty of the law - it's actually fairly easy stuff - but to keep the massive amount of information straight. Even smart and hard-working students often fail because the volume of information overwhelms them. Word's rudimentary organizational mechanisms exacerbate this problem. Most law students just start a single word document, or perhaps make different documents for each major subject matter (torts, contracts, etc.) If they try to maintain a visible outline structure, the number of sub-tabs quickly leaves them using only 1/3 of the page, further exacerbating the length issue and killing any possibility of seeing the structure on the screen. Most students abandon their structure somewhere midway and resort to what has worked for them in the past, brute, line-by-line memorization, often from purchased, pre-prepared materials.

I was on such a pace for the first 1/4 of the course until I remembered what you had written about Scrivener (I formerly worked with McKinsey & Company, the consultancy, so I keep an eye out for productivity / GTD apps and the like). I made the switch and had a completely different experience. The outline of what I was doing - where I was in each area of the law, and in the course as a whole - was clear to me. This made processing the individual lectures easier, as I could see what the (sometimes disorganized) professors were getting at with each point and where it fit within the subject's larger scheme. More importantly, it revolutioned studying and reviewing. By manipulating the folders and using their other tools (tags, etc.) I could quickly navigate the entire course - the entire corpus of what I had to know for the bar - and see what I had done, what I had left to do, the areas I needed to review, etc.

In all, Scrivener took a classically overwhelming amount of information and made it digestible; it took what was brutally painful / impossible and made it only really unpleasant. It gave me a much better life during the study period (my wife still talks to me!), a much clearer picture of where I stood as the test date approached, and ultimately more confidence that, in the end, I would pass.

One more bonus: interesting screen shots and slideshow, here, of how a graduate student used Scrivener for a MA thesis. And bonus-bonus, a really charming YouTube review of Top Five Writing programs, by aspiring novelist ML Martin Jr.