Scrivener Alternatives for Authors
With Scrivener recently unveiling version 3.0 way late (as in years late as of July 2021, when I'm updating this post), you might be considering whether to take the plunge and buy. In this review, I’ll cover two other options that help authors structure stories and don’t cost an arm and a leg. Both Novelize and The Novel Factory are designed for fiction authors, but can be tweaked for non-fiction purposes as described.
That said, having lived with both options now for 6-plus months, I'm not sure either are completely ready for non-fiction use because of the inability to add hyperlinks (with Novelize a step ahead on that front as described below). Smart quotes also go away when you upload content to either, and you're not going to get a ready-to-print version when downloading. But if organizing your content is the priority, and you don't mind fixing up a downloaded version, you'll mostly be ignoring fiction-related elements that aren't helpful otherwise. Here’s my take after testing both on a PC with Windows 10 and Google Chrome.
This browser-based site is a bit simpler in structure than The Novel Factory (which I'll call TNF), and cheaper as well. I’m also reviewing Novelize first because it has a shorter trail period, so you may want to visit there initially. As a professional editor and writer, I’m currently in the research stage of ghosting a project, while having a book proposal of my own to develop. So, I also liked the fact that you can play with more than one project on Novelize in the trial period.
Novelize offers similar functionalities to TNF. It organizes materials into four main buckets that are accessible on the upper left menu, and accessible in writing mode (called the Write webpage): the Manage subsection holds high-level information, and there are two content-related Summaries sections, and a Notebook subsection for background information.
Manage is the first webpage you’ll fill out with big picture details like the book’s title, and your word count goals if wanted (and whether to receive weekly reports on word count progress by email). You can also select which (fiction) genre you want to be in. That may seem frustrating as a non-fiction author, but the chapter templates are infinitely flexible, and you can have one “scene” chapters, or divide chapters into sections by classifying them as separate scenes.
These scenes are built out using the Outline mode available among the other modes at the lower right menu options. The Outline includes space for an extended synopsis of your book, and to summarize the beginning, middle and end of your “novel.” Though that may seem unnecessary, it’s never a bad idea to consider non-fiction content from the perspective of fiction, as books like James Nestor’s Breath have three sections. You can then add in chapter titIes (which can be fairly long), and summary content on the chapters. I believe the extended synopsis can only be altered from the Outline mode, FYI.
The Contents subpage offers a more detailed outline in the left third of the page while you’re writing. The left-hand content can be made to disappear by clicking “Panel” at lower left when you want the full screen of the right-hand side material.
The Summaries section pulls the big-picture content from the previously filled out pages, which occupy the left third of the screen. Below the overview items in “Summaries” is the title of each book chapter and a drop-down menu to access a synopsis about the chapter (or sections if you’ve divided each chapter into those in the Outline mode). With the chapter summaries available here or in the Outline mode, a drop-down Notes option below the text box allows you to add comments that won’t show up in the actual text. I love that feature, for instance, for when you want to point out a note to be sure to refer to while developing part of a chapter. A Contents view when you’re in split screen mode does allow you to see all elements of the outline while writing, including chapter numbers and titles, unlike in the Overview mode of the outline for TNF.
The final subpage is the Notebook area, which allows you to have more than one Notebook of background information, aka “Notes.” So, for a non-fiction author, you might have one Notebook for interview notes, another for reference materials, and another for hyperlinks, and so on. TNC has two different folder options already set up for this (though no flexibility on adding more). For those writing a book series, Novelize allows you to transfer a Notebook to be used in the second or later book in the series, along with downloading Notebooks or crafting new ones for later works. And it’s fast to toggle between Notes in this site. The attachment option didn’t work for me, though, when I tried to drag or click upload a Word document that was well below the 500 kb listed as the maximum. Adding text or updating it requires hitting a check mark before exiting. That “done” button is at the lower right corner of each Note.
Because Novelize is fiction focused, there are subsections for capturing information on some things you might not use (such as Items a hero in a story would have), but others are likely useful (such as noting main characters or location descriptions). For the characters option, for instance, some non-fiction authors might want to post details about themselves and label the “file” Narrator. There are many subcategories to help you think through what features you could note (internal conflicts, mannerisms, etc.). Considering your personality traits and your internal and external conflicts, for instance, could help you better define what tone of voice you’ll use as a narrator, and what trait tendencies to play up or avoid displaying through word choices and such (e.g., I can come off as a bit reserved in person, which won’t help when connecting to readers).
The Notes section doesn’t have the versatility of Scrivener in terms of allowing you to nest a folder of notes within the book structure itself. You are also limited to seeing Notes only in a chronological order, which is a bummer. But you can see your Notes while in the Write mode as preferred. The most common word processing options are available as shortcuts in the detailed section of Notes, as is the addition of hyperlinks.
Using Write Mode
The Write section of the site allows you to work with your book as one long document broken up into chapters (and sections). That may seem like a given, but not all writing software allows for that experience (for example, the free Bibisco is said to only allow you to write scene by scene). The Write mode includes alignment choices and the ability to change text’s color, as well to insert special characters. The software automatically indicates when the text for each chapter was last autosaved, and allows you to access 30 previous versions of content. As noted earlier, you can opt for a Full Screen mode by clicking “Panel” at lower left. The drop-down Notes option remains available at the lower right corner of the text box for writing, for using to add comments on each section of a book that won’t show up in the actual text.
Novelize only allows you to export documents in a .docx format, though that may be just fine for your needs. A co-founder noted that free tools such as Calibre are available for reformatting, and that Amazon accepts .docx documents from self-published authors. But that reformatting does add another step for authors. More of a concern is that a 2019 reviewer who did a lot of book formatting while in Novelize spent long hours trying to re-add those specs in a downloaded option.
What I've found with a trial download is that Novelize allows you to download the entire content, with a nice title page created, and does allow you to adjust the font sizes and styles (limited to three common ones) for all heading levels; the software created indented paragraphs from my left-aligned ones that had had a space between them. Non-breaking spaces appeared randomly in the downloaded document, so I needed to do a Find (using "^s") and Replace to insert traditional spaces back in (a simple fix that's needed, as 250 of these appeared in my 16,000-word draft).
When uploading, Novelize will save hyperlinks in a Word doc (unlike TNF), but turns them into citations. These citations appear in text as a number in brackets, and then at the bottom of each book section as sequential endnotes. That's definitely a plus over TNF when it comes to non-fiction author needs, though far from perfect.
You aren’t restricted to using one log-in device with Novelize, so you could technically update content on your internet-accessible tablet or cell phone, though that could be cumbersome for more than jotting down ideas. On the grammar front, both Grammarly and ProWritingAid work within the site, and are affiliates of Novelize.
Support is provided by email or through a web-based form, so not ideal, but not surprising given the monthly fee. The company is U.S. based, and responses are said to happen in 24-48 hours (I received one within a day answering several general questions). There is no Forum where you can see behind the Wizard’s curtain to know what other users are struggling with, which isn’t great. A co-founder noted considering a Facebook page for that forum purpose, but that it would be difficult to monitor regularly, noting elsewhere the company’s small staff size.
If you’re interested, there is a 17-day free trail for Novelize, with regular subscriptions costing $45 per year, or roughly $4 a month.
The Novel Factory
If you are newer to writing, The Novel Factory (TNF) software includes tutorials that walk writers through how to develop and publish a book (albeit a novel). You can completely ignore the tutorials by what you select on the upper left navigation bar, or browse what interests you, including publishing-related content in this nice perk that I’ll discuss more below. I’ve only reviewed their browser-based format, not the downloadable version that’s no longer being upgraded (though it would give writers a cheaper, one-time payment option). The subscriber-based online portal is available for both Mac and PC, and each webpage has pop-up text that can be hidden that overviews what the page offers.
This upper-left menu option is where you’ll outline your work, with options preset to allow much more detail than in Novelize. However, it lacks the ability of Novelize to view things like the Plot Outline or synopses of your work side by side with the text as you develop the guts of your work (unless you have dual monitors, of course!).
An Overview section allows you to see the big picture elements such as the broad outline, but lacks the ability to show you the name of chapters in each Act/book section. The Plot Outline has left-hand boxes for adding chapter numbers and titles, and provides text prompts about potential things to think about for each Act (book section) based on which story template you chose (easy to overwrite the prompts, which often remind authors of the emotional needs of storytelling). I picked the Hero’s Journey template, but regardless, you can delete and add sections however you want, and save a template you’ve created for use later.
There’s space for a short and a long synopsis, with those appearing on several other Planning pages. The Extended Synopses can be used to start generating your book text in the separate Scenes section of the website, though other reviewers suggest changes made in the Planning document version won’t carry over to the Scenes text.
There are two sections for placing background content: Resources, where links are the priority, and Notes, where information about topics can be saved as separate “index cards” as in Novelize. Because these options are preset, you can’t create added options, and I would likely simply add more Notes to that section if in need of new content categories.
On the plus side compared to Novelize, you can view Notes as a corkboard, where they can be rearranged to put those related to the same chapter near each other; but the cards snap to a grid, so you can’t make one row be about chapter one, and the next row, about chapter two, etc. I was told that options such as attaching photos to Notes are in the works as part of making them more user-friendly. Adding text or updating it requires hitting a Done button before exiting a note (and many other fill-in boxes). That button is at the lower right of each box, and a Delete on at lower left, meaning you could risk deleting something by clicking that option instead. In some cases, it took time for a Note to populate as well in the trial version, which never happened with Notes in Novelize.
Shortcuts for the most common word processing options (but not aligning or creating bullet lists) are available within Notes, as are Find and Replace, copy, cut and paste. It doesn’t include the option of inserting hyperlinks, but you could copy and paste one into the text boxes; because links can be long and cluttery, that is a disadvantage vs. Novelize. Notes here also allow you to add comments separate from the text itself.
There’s a list view for Notes with a few sorting options that aren’t completely clear what they’re about, but alphabetical is an option. Titles for items in TNF such as Notes do have more space limitations than in Novelize, and using shorthand conventions helps.
Other Content Menu Items
I covered the Planning and Notes sections above because they matter most for the book development. However, you could familiarize yourself better with the site overall by selecting Roadmap from the upper left navigation bark; that subpage walks you through the steps of adding in content, and includes background tutorials; since many of the fill-in options covered are novel-related, I won't cover them, but you can learn details from this spring 2020 review. Other top-left menu options give you access to your preferred and current word counts (the Statistics tab), or for describing characters, locations, objects and timelines. The characters option allows much more detail than many non-fiction authors may need, but the locations one gives you an image attachment option (which worked for me), and guides you through thinking about the five senses that help readers of all stripes connect to a place.
This is the writing mode, which allows basic font changes, alignment choices, and the ability to show text as being deleted and to create subscripts and superscripts (but no insertion of special characters). You can split the screen to toggle between the different book scenes in a left-hand panel, and access details regarding characters, locations (as a hyperlink) and such in a right-hand panel. Similar to Novelize, you can access Notes in that panel. An icon at the upper right of each Scene provides access to earlier versions of it (though the online Manual etc. don't clarify how many versions).
A bonus feature with The Novel Factory is a webpage where you can track the requirements for submissions and who and when you reached out to contacts. You could do the same with a spreadsheet, of course, but it’s a nice plus.
TNF allows you to import a manuscript to start a book from, and to export your final book in several formats, including .docx and rtf. There was one user on their forum indicating challenges with formatting issues with an export, so that’s something to note. You can export pretty much any item, though, by clicking each one you want on a custom download page. That includes the Submissions section. You aren’t restricted to using one log-in device with The Novel Factory, so you could technically update content on your internet-accessible tablet or cell phone, as with Novelize. The cheaper desktop version of TNF that I haven’t reviewed does not synch up with the online version, and you have to purchase it separately. The only product difference is supposedly that the subplot options disappear (which may be less important for non-fiction authors).
You can post questions on The Novel Factory’s forum, or submit a form or an email. Based on the forum, responses often come within 24 hours—although if you’re in North America, for example, time differences mean your Friday query will have to wait for Monday in the U.K. to roll around. I did get a day turnaround response to non-Friday emails, and they were interested in customer feedback on features to improve (although, like Novelize, when future feature updates would come was left open-ended, with resource limitations stated as the reason). The site is more developed in general, suggesting more energy is put into the details; it also offers a blog, User Manual and an extensive resources section about writing-related information.
Now that you’ve seen the detes on TNF, it may not surprise you that it’s pricier than Novelize. You get 30 days to test out the software, and can stick with working on one book only at a time. That would be the Basic plan of The Novel Factory, which currently is $75/year, or $6.25 a month; for the Standard package with unlimited book projects and ten times the storage (500 MB), it’s $16.50/month or $198 annually, and there’s a 5 GB storage option for $50/month. The cheaper desktop version of TNF (for Windows only) has a one-time fee of $87. It no longer gets feature upgrades, and lacks the subplot feature.
All the features are available in the different online price plans of The Novel Factory. So, you could consider getting the Basic online plan of TNF for a more involved project (that you download and delete before moving on to the next one), while using Novelize for simpler projects, and for book proposal development.
Either software allows you to organize chapters, such as creating an outline and stashing notes that you can access in a relatively streamlined way while building your book. Novelize is more focused on the basics of writing and storing content – and a bit easier due to less options. The Novel Factory has more bells and whistles overall, but its current inability to incorporate hyperlinks seamlessly into text could be a big downside for some non-fiction authors.
For exporting files, Scrivener is still likely superior (or waiting to do any major formatting if you use either alternative). If you end up going the non-Scrivener route, you'll be supporting a company that may have better customer follow-through when it comes to providing upgrades. TNF, for instance, is talking about unveiling a 3.0 version by September 2021 or so.
Barbra A. Rodriguez