head to head: comparing scrivener and storymill

October 27, 2008 | 16 Comments

Stretch your fingers and prod your imagination — NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writers Month) commences at the end of this week. For the would be novelists out there, I thought it might be helpful to offer a comparison of Scrivener and StoryMill.

(Update: you also might be interested in a more recent post where I compare Ulysses 2.0 with StoryMill and Scrivener.)

Both of these applications are popular tools designed for the writing process. I find a number of visitors make their way here via a search for one of these applications. Often, they are searching for a comparison between the two. Though I have both apps, and have mentioned both, I’ve never put them head to head before today. I’ll begin with a few thoughts about each app, and then wrap up with my own preference.


As the name suggests, StoryMill is designed with the narrative writer in mind. It would work equally well if you are developing a fiction piece, or a biography. Rather than create one long document, as you might in Word or Pages, StoryMill breaks your manuscript down into chapters, and even scenes within the chapters. This helps see the larger framework as you are planning and outlining the story.

A project in StoryMill acts as a bundle to keep all of your thoughts and information together by offering convenient access to your supporting material. Scenes can be laid onto a timeline to help track the chronology of events. A Characters and a Locations screen allow you to make notes to keep track of the who’s and where’s of your narrative. Tasks and Research give you places to tuck away ideas and information for your evolving tale.

StoryMill is available from Mariner Software, a long standing developer of Mac software who provides, from my experience, great customer support. It sells for $44.95, although are known to offer discounts via MacZot and MUPromo if you are willing to be patient.


Scrivener is similar to StoryMill in that it allows you to break a larger writing project down into smaller pieces. It is not geared for writing stories alone which makes for a simpler interface that is more streamlined than StoryMill.

A project outline can be broken down into smaller and smaller subsets, allowing the writer to focus on the tiniest of sections. Several sections, called scrivenings, can be viewed at a time, which allow you to see how well the pieces flow. A unique view is the corkboard, which shows your sections as notecards which can be moved around as you brainstorm and rework your writing.

If the strength of StoryMill is shaping and organizing the elements of a story, then the strength of Scrivener comes in collecting information and research. A small (and handy) Scratch Pad window can be opened to float on top of or alongside any app, which can be used to collect notes and research. More convenient for my workflow is the ability to drag some previously collected notes from Yojimbo directly into the Scrivener research folder; unfortunately, this doesn’t work in StoryMill.

Scrivener runs $39.95 and appears to be the product of a single programmer — but one who loves the writing process. It is available via his website: Literature & Latte.

The Exciting Conclusion

As far as which choice is best? My preference is Scrivener. I like the more streamlined interface and I’m already familiar with it from some previous non-fiction projects. But both are great programs, so you might sway toward StoryMill. Both offer a free trial so I’ll let you decide which is best for you. If any other Creatvityists have experience with either product, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Can either of the programs guarantee you 50,000 words for a successful NaNoWriMo experience? Well, probably not. But knowing you have a program designed with the writer in mind could offer some extra motivation and confidence. Good luck!

  • I use Scrivener and I do a lot of my writing in it. What I like about it is its flexibility. It doesn’t tie you into any structure or process and you can use it for any kind of writing, be it fiction, non-fiction, technical, documentation, blog posts or whatever.

    Where StoryMill probably does better is catering especially to creative writers (as opposed to technical/bloggers/non-fiction writers). I especially like the timeline feature, which is missing in Scrivener. The latter has an index card view, but there’s no way to visually put chapters or scenes into a temporal context. You’d need to use a separate program for that, such as Aeon Timeline (currently in beta) or Bee Docs’ timeline.

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  • Thank you. This and one other review I unearthed provided exactly what information I needed to hear. Scrivener it is since I am primarily a non-fiction writer. I’m still looking to see what people think of StoryMill’s MacJournal. Any bites?

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  • John

    Thanks for your comment. Glad to know I helped point you in the right direction. I love Scrivener…just opening it is inspring.

  • Jennifer

    Thank you! I needed to hear an experienced review. I’m going to get StoryMill now because my daughter’s passion is fiction writing. She hopes to write and illustrate graphic novels too. Any idea what kind of software would be good for that too?

  • John

    Glad I could help. I’m not aware of any software dedicated to graphic novels, but I would be that Mariner Software, the makers of StoryMill would be a good place to start. They have several products devoted to specialized content creation.

  • Larry

    Good article- well described comparisons. I went with Scrivener for a novel. The features I liked were the story board (called the cork-board) and the ability to write small chunks that were out-of-sequence, but saved in a highly organized manner.

  • JoAnne

    Has anyone used Storyist? Is it any good?

  • John

    Hi JoAnne,
    Thanks for the comment. I’m familiar with Storyist, but haven’t been hands on with it at all.

  • Tollis

    Too bad there isn’t one that combines the two. I like what a read about both and like the exclusive feature it one has, the shaping and organizing the elements of a story with one and the ability to research, organize and collect information. Still am unsure of which to buy since both have features I desire but not in the same package.

  • John

    Thanks for the comment. I think that, unless you really want the timeline, Scrivener could probably replicate most of the features of Storymill for you. They both have a trial, so you could at least compare them head to head for your own purposes.

  • liza asked about MacJournal and I’ll be the first to say it’s a great program, with almost any feature you could think of related to journaling, blogging, etc. It can serve as an excellent general note taker, too.

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  • Jordan

    Thanks for the info! Just curious – I was under the impression that Scrivener could help keep track of characters… is this so? If not, what method have you seen used to keep track of characters and settings via scrivener? Thanks!

  • John

    Hi Jordan,
    Thanks for the comment. Scrivener is flexible in that it lets you create new folders and notes in the sidebar, similar to the research folder. It seems to me that you could use that to track specific notes for characters and settings.

  • Jordan

    Ah I see, so nothing like Story Mill in terms of character orginazational tools. I would basically need to create my own subfolder to compile my character data.

    I think I follow you. Thanks for the info.

  • David

    Supernotecard, available form mindola.com, preceded Scrivener and uses a similar approach: notecards arranged in decks, with areas for factors/references (depending whether the work is fiction or non-fiction), categories, flags, etc. Supernotecard (SNC) is portable to and from Windows and can be accessed from the web. I’ve yet to see a comparison of SNC and Scrivener. (I’ve been using SNC for years, and have considered Scrivener.)

  • Jeanne B.

    Scrivener has many templates that would help you get started, and it does offer specific Character organization. There are character sheets available in the templates where you can note characteristics, internal/external conflicts, notes, storylines, and even attach a photo to spur your inspiration. I love Scrivener, and I can’t wait to get my Mac back from the shop so I can use it again.

    I’ve never tried StoryMill. I looked at Storyist. Similar features, not nearly as elegant.