Scrivener auto-save blues (reprise)

I recently updated to the latest version of Scrivener for Windows. Scrivener is a word processor aimed at creative writers and has great support for the kind of unstructured work many writers undertake. For me it’s probably the best piece of writers’ software currently out there. Though not necessarily perfect.

I discovered one of Scrivener’s “foibles” shortly after my initial purchase and installation. It was incredibly slow. I installed it on a computer that had no problem running any other software including traditionally “weighty” apps such as photo and video editing software, 3D modelling , databases and similar. Scrivener crawled along like a spider trapped in prehistoric amber. It was so slow as to be virtually unusable.

Naturally I contacted the support team and after exchanging a few emails they told me the problem was caused by running it from a USB memory stick. Yes, I wanted portability and I wanted to carry my new writing tool around with me the way I do my files. That didn’t seem like too much to ask. Not only that but, my previous favorite writing tool (PageFour) which worked along similar lines ran perfectly happily from the self-same stick.

I did some investigation on high-speed memory sticks and ended up buying a big fat high speed 32 gig stick. At least I could now use the software, even though it was [still] annoyingly slow and clunky.

Something bugged me though. Why was Scrivener so slow? It seemed ridiculous; it was only a word-processor after all and even the notoriously bloated MS Word shamefully outperformed it. It triggered the old software developer geek in me and I started to think about what was happening and why loading a piece of software from a memory stick could have such  a performance hit on the software’s execution.

Flash memory (the kind in memory sticks) is much slower than your computer’s internal memory; it’s also slower than your hard drive. This might affect the application as it loaded, but after that it should be okay. It shouldn’t have an effect once it’s running.

A possible cause of the problems could be if the software is accessing the drive all the time for some strange reason, say if it was directly editing on the drive rather than loading it in to the PCs internal RAM. Of course no-one would design a piece of software like that. Would they?

I spent quite a bit of time mulling things over trying to figure out a possible answer. Then, completely by accident, I noticed something in the Options dialog.


Two seconds??

Yep. Scrivener is set by default to autosave your work if you lift your fingers from the keys for just two seconds.

Autosave is good, right? It saves you from that “Oh no! I forgot to save my work and the power’s gone out!” moment. So if it’s good, more should be even better, [surely? to avoid repeating right?] right?

Well, no. Sadly this is definitely a case of too much of something being bad. Let’s look at other software Autosave defaults:

  • Microsoft Word – 10 minutes
  • Bad Wolf PageFour – 2 Minutes
  • OpenOffice – 15 minutes
  • WriteMonkey – 2 Minutes

For creative writing I’d say the Word/OpenOffice defaults are probably too optimistic; PageFour and WriteMonkey seem reasonable – you’re not going to lose much, if anything , in two minutes. Scrivener and 2 seconds? That’s just ridiculous.

I’m typically pretty paranoid when it comes to saving my work. I’ve been backing up my files for years. Not just a simple “copy this somewhere else” [technique instead of  type of thing?] type of thing though. I back-up internally on my PC between two internal drives every day. I also have a backup to an external drive as well, just in case the internal ones get fried somehow. I also do the same backup across my network to my wife’s laptop. After all, my desktop and its external drive could just be destroyed by a fire in my office… I also back-up regularly to my fat fast memory stick, which I carry everywhere with me.

Talk about paranoia! Ooops did I mention that I also have a daily back-up to an internet storage site as well? So that’s three belts and two pairs of braces I think. But I’ve never lost an important file. I take this seriously as you can see.

But 2 seconds?? Never in my wildest, most ego-inflated moments have I ever considered that everything I write – even in two seconds  – needed preserving. This setting is just simply crazy. On a memory stick it’s even crazier. The lower speed of the flash memory gives you the wading-through-treacle effect. Not only that,  but such over-optimistic saving also burns through your flash memory write-cycles (there’s a limit) and even on a regular hard drive would be considered aggressive.

This default wasn’t there on the beta versions. I’d have seen it if it were. The performance only dropped on the initial full release, so someone made a decision at that point to change this. When I queried it,  I was told that Scrivener “wasn’t designed to be used on memory sticks”. Perhaps not, but when the only thing stopping it working correctly is an autosave setting, that response is a little short-sighted (not to mention defensive).

I’ve been using Scrivener successfully for over a year now – running it from my memory stick without a problem. Overall it’s a good piece of software. I have ideas for something similar that I feel would be better, but “Scriv” provides 80% or more of what I’d like so why invest the time to build my own (and it is a lot of work, I know) – I’d rather spend my time in writing.

Fast-forward to today. I installed the latest update (v1.5.3.0 for the versionally obsessed). And what’s this? Scriv the Slug has returned!

It didn’t click immediately. I’ve not had this issue for more than a year, so it took a while to remember the earlier problems. I checked the autosave setting and yes! The new update had changed it back to the default.

No update should change a user’s settings. They’re my settings dammit!

And 2 seconds is still crazy…

6 Responses

  1. Just found your blog post after googling “Scrivener autosave”.

    I was falling in love with scrivener, until it dawned on me that if I changed the autosave thing to something higher, and then I had a computer crash after an hour of non-stop writing, because I never had a pause in my writing, everything of the last hour would be lost. I’d seriously prefer the option to automatically save after a predetermined period of time, not based on my inactivity. The advantage of autosave is that it saves *while i’m actively typing*.

    Ugh. Anyway, thanks for your blog post. I have more useful info now. Cheers.

    PS While i’m pointlessly complaining about a random program to someone who can’t do anything about it, I really wish Scrivener had some “todo” functionality. Alas. I have to have another program link me to whatever scrivener document I need to work on or review. Still trying to figure out which one, but meh. Keep up the good work.

  2. Hi Leo
    I agree with you that the Scrivener auto-save function leaves a lot to be desired. There are parts of the program that to me feel like developer-based rather than user-based solutions and this is one of them. I don’t type constantly enough to hit the issue you mention but I understand your concern. The auto-save should kick in at a set time frequency, as determined by the user, the way that MS Word works and independent of the idle time.
    To be perfectly honest I don’t rely on auto-saves (or auto-backups for that matter); if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years in the IT industry it’s “Save Often.” When saving is just a CTRL+S away, I find it better to rely on me rather than the software designer’s whimsy.
    To-Do functionality in Scrivener might be nice. I currently track things in good old Excel, using a very simple spreadsheet. I’ve tried all kinds of to-do software but find a simple approach works best for me. What I would really like to see is Scrivener being opened up to 3rd party plug-ins, that way the community as a whole could create extensions to the software.
    Good luck with all your writing endeavors!

  3. Does this mean if you DON’T stop typing it will not Autosave? It Waits for you to stop typing? I set mine after reading your article for 120 seconds but now I’m worried that if I type non-stop and don’t take a two minute break it won’t autosave.

  4. Hi Shelley

    Yes that’s the way it works and what makes the implementation so flawed in my opinion. You have to take a break for the length of time set in there before the autosave kicks in. I think a lot as I’m writing, so a couple of minutes now and then is likely to happen, but if you’re prone to typing more constantly, you’d be better off with a lower setting, depending on your habits.

    My opinion is that ihe way it should work is that the autosave kicks in every X minutes or seconds, whether you’re typing or not. Which is how Word and other software works.

  5. Thanks for the information. As a very recent owner of a Scrivener program, which I purchased to help me make progress in writing my first novel, I’ve found the whole thing pretty daunting, compared to Microsoft Word. The advantage I’ve found in Scrivener is being able to clearly separate scenes/chapters/whatever into work product with the ability to bring it all together when needed, in any format needed. Still struggling with a lot of this, but the information you’ve given on the importance of using an storage space outside of your PC is very helpful. I believe, from what you’ve written, I’ll change the autosave to a longer time frame and save to a flash drive as well. I also (as one of your comments relates) am very careful to “save often”, but can also see the advantage of an automated save to be in use as well. Thanks again for this article and useful information.

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