Google Docs vs. Scrivener for Writing

I used to be a hardcore Scrivener user. Over the last 2 years, however, I’ve used Google Docs almost exclusively for everything but my submissions drafts. In the last 2 years, I’ve put nearly 600,000 words through Google Docs.

Because of this, I am often asked why I use Google Docs for writing instead of Scrivener. Or, put another way, I am asked “Which tool is better for writing, Scrivener or Google Docs?”

The answer, of course, is both, depending on how you work. When I write posts about the tools I use, I write them from the point of view of me as a writer using the tools. My process may be different from yours and the process one uses often dictates the best tools for the job. For some processes, Scrivener is a far better tool than Google Docs. For others, Google Docs is sufficient. For others still, another tool might be appropriate. Let me expound upon a few things that might help distinguish the pros and cons of the tools

Process

I choose a tool based on how well it fits my writing process. There are two things that are important to know about my process:

  1. I am more of a “pantser” than a “plotter”
  2. I track my writing in order to track my progress, but I’ve automated this because I don’t want to spend time doing it manually.
  3. I want to spend as much of my available writing time writing.

Everything about my process is driven by these three basic requirements.

Bud Sparhawk and I have, over the last few years, given a talk at Capclave on “Online Writing Tools.” We demonstrate our processes through the tools that we use. It’s great because, as it turns out, Bud and I are opposites when it comes to process. Bud is an extreme plotter, while I am a pantser. But I wasn’t always a pantser, and when I did plot out what I was writing, I used Scrivener almost exclusively.

Scrivener for plotters

Scrivener is, in my opinion, the single best all-encompassing software tool for writers available today. And if you are a plotter, Scrivener is probably the best place to get started. Scrivener has a set of features designed with plotters in mind. Scrivener makes it easy to lay out scenes, outline stories, shift things around visually, and have those shifts reflected in the manuscript with little or no effort.

Scrivener also does something that I believe is critical for a word-processing tool for writers: It separates the content from the presentation-layer. In other words, how the content appears on the screen when you write is completely separate from how it appears when you compile your manuscript. You can have large, easy-to-read fonts on the screen, and Scrivener will still compile the document in standard-manuscript format. This means that as a writer, you can focus on writing, and not be distracted by formatting.

Scrivener also has advantages for self-published writers. It makes it easy to produce e-books in multiple formats.

It has hundreds of features that speed up the process of managing your document so that you can concentrate on plotting and writing. I can’t think of another tool that does all this as well as Scrivener does.

Google Docs for pantsers

On the other hand, many of these features, for me, are overkill. I don’t create outlines. I don’t generally have a need to shift scenes around in my manuscript while I am working. I don’t prepare e-books. What I do is this:

  1. Write a first draft, telling myself the story.
  2. Write a second draft, telling the story to an audience, now that I know it.
  3. Send the second draft to beta-readers for comment.
  4. Incorporate comments into a third “feedback” draft.
  5. Prepare a submission draft

For this, Google Docs has worked very well for me, and has some advantages over Scrivener. It is lightweight, requires no installation, can be run anywhere, and since everything is stored on the server I don’t have to mess with settings when I move from one machine to another.

It makes step 3 particularly easy because I can simply share the document with my beta readers, who can comment directly in the document using Google Docs built-in functionality. No compiling to a Word document and worrying about compatibility.

do still use Scrivener to produce my submission draft, and because I have the process mostly automated through templates and scripts, I don’t have to spend time wrestling the manuscript into submission–so to speak. Meanwhile, my Google Docs Writing Tracker handles the tracking off all of my work, from words counts to time spent. It is entirely automated, and I don’t have to do anything but write.

The best tool for your job

Does this mean that if you are a plotter your should use Scrivener and if you are a pantser you should use Google Docs? Not necessarily. You should use the tool that works best for you and your process. Scrivener is a perfectly good tool for writing as a pantser, and with some extra effort, you can use Google Docs if you are a plotter.

The main point in my attempt to answer the question “which tool is better for writing” is that there is not right answer. It depends as much on the person using the tool and their process as it does the features and functionality of the tool being used.

For me, the key is to use a tool that allows me to spend the majority of my time using it to write as opposed to anything else.

What’s the best tool for your job? Let me know in the comments.

11 thoughts on “Google Docs vs. Scrivener for Writing

  1. I was getting into Scrivener (the Windows version) until recently when I started using a rather natty Lenovo Miix 8-inch tablet which runs Windows 8 and comes with Microsoft Office ready installed. While it works well on a full-blown desktop, Scrivener makes no concessions to screen size and proved pretty unusable on an 8-inch touch screen, so with some reluctance I returned to Word, supplemented by OneNote for managing notes. Both of these adapt well to the smaller screen and have good support for touch, while features like the Navigation Pane in Word have proved every bit as useful as the index cards and outlining facilities of Scrivener. I was also having problems using Scrivener with DropBox, primarily because a Scrivener document involves so many files.

  2. I still use Word.

    I tried to make a go of it with Scrivener, lo, I tried, but I get bogged down, I get frustrated, and then I just give up.

    It’s not perfect – as I cobble together a supplementary system for my outline and notes (using Evernote, mostly), but I’ll probably use Word until it’s no more.

  3. When I’m writing long reports where I do move bits around, use an outline etc and Scrivener still works well for that.

    For short pieces I use Byword where I write in Markdown. I use it in combination with Marked.

    For the mid-length pieces I’m increasingly writing straight into Indesign. As long as you use templates and styles it’s pretty easy to separate content and style.

    I can’t remember the last time I wrote in Word on Pages which are the other two tools I have available.

  4. Not sure if I can post links, but I just blogged about my own workflow here: http://justincawthorne.com/2015/01/14/my-new-writing-workflow/

    I use Google Docs too, mainly because I can use it across all my devices and be able to write almost anywhere I am. However, I’ve recently started using a combination of Evernote (inspired largely by Jamie!) and Trello to take care of the plotting side of things. It’s early days yet, but it’s feeling ‘right’ so far.

    For blogging purposes I used Trello as an organiser, but still do the writing in Google Docs.

  5. I’m really trying to use Scrivener for eBook formatting and such, but it just hasn’t clicked for me yet. One of the most frustrating tools ever.

    Evernote on the other hand, is great for collecting blog ideas and drafting posts. Can’t wait for distraction free writing from the web interface to be incorporated into the desktop and iOS apps.

  6. Great post. I agree: I think Scrivener and Google Docs are two different, complimentary products. I find myself using both. But here’s the important thing: Word is out. 🙂

  7. Fun article!

    I’m a bit of a pantser when I write fiction. In Scrivener, I open a file, write a scene, and then use the Binder or Corkboard to reorganize scenes later. Reorganizing scenes is tricky (for me) in Google Docs because it’s a more linear writing tool.

    Do you know if Google docs has a feature similar to Scrivener’s Binder (or Word’s Navigation Pane)?

  8. No, Google Docs is just a document. You can move text around in the document, but Scrivener has a big advantage over Google Docs when it comes to wholesale scene management.

  9. I’m taking an online course right now from Gwen Hernandez, the Scrivener expert. For 25 bucks, you will learn a lot. http://gwenhernandez.com/scrivener-corner/

    I’m a pantser and I need the ability to move and change things around and have everything in front of me. MS Word doesn’t allow me to do that, nor does Pages, nor does Google Docs.

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