A New Direction for Scrivener? A Review of Scrivener 3 for Mixed LTR and RTL Scripts

Writing a dissertation or academic article is difficult enough on its own, but it can be intensely frustrating if your word processor does not support the kind of formatting needed for your project. This post examines the ability of Scrivener 3 to accommodate mixed left-to-right (LTR) and right-to-left (RTL) scripts on the same line—a function that is a necessity for my academic writing but is rarely supported by word processors. For academic writing that combines LTR scripts like English, French and German with RTL scripts like Hebrew, Arabic, and Urdu, scholars are hard-pressed to find a word processor that can handle the task well. To date, the word processor Mellel has been the only application that can support complex combinations of LTR and RTL scripts, though in recent years more support for RTL languages in Word and other popular programs has begun to close the gap. None, however, have overtaken Mellel.

The first two versions of the advanced word processor Scrivener are counted among those programs that have lagged behind Mellel’s support for RTL. As a consequence, when I used Scrivener 2 in the past, it was for non-technical writing, such as my C.V., course syllabi, or applications for jobs and scholarships, where RTL scripts are used minimally. Scrivener is superb for these less technical projects, and I have always wished for Scrivener to expand its support for RTL so I can use it for more of my writing projects. When I heard that a third version of Scrivener was set to release in late November of 2017, I was eager to see if it could measure up to my go-to word processor for serious academic writing, Mellel 4.

Although most word processors allow one to toggle between LTR and RTL, to my knowledge, only Mellel has the “direction breaking space” that tells the program where a change in direction between LTR and RTL occurs in the middle of a line. This feature of Mellel is critical when combining numbers, punctuation, and a mixture of LTR and RTL in a line. For example, in my research I work with Dead Sea Scrolls, which are referred to by sigla such as 4QGena, where the number indicates the cave where the scroll was found, Q = the site of Qumran, Gen = Genesis, the composition in the scroll, and a indicates that the scroll is the first copy of the composition to be identified in that cave. These documents are written almost entirely in Hebrew and Aramaic, which are RTL scripts, so it is common to quote a scroll in RTL script followed by a citation using the LTR siglum, all on the same line. Furthermore, in editions of these scrolls, there is an apparatus that compares differences of wording between the surviving copies, versions, or translations, which combines strings of numbers, letters in various scripts, brackets, and symbols. An apparatus is fairly easy to write in Mellel, but it has always been a struggle on other platforms because they lack a direction changing space for mid-line transitions. Toggling the direction of writing for the entire paragraph is often the only option, and it cannot accommodate these finer, mid-line transitions. Changing the input source does not remedy the problem either.

This post will test Scrivener 3 to see if it can handle the complex strings of characters found in an apparatus and whether it has closed the gap on Mellel’s superiority for mixed LTR and RTL writing.

I have copied six lines of text and five lines of apparatus from Eugene Ulrich’s The Biblical Qumran Scrolls: Transcriptions and Textual Variants.1 This section of Ulrich’s text contains the kind of mixed scripts that word processors struggle to produce, with the exception of Mellel and its direction breaking space.

Example: Mellel 4

Mellel did everything Ulrich’s edition required of it. The only challenge was closing the brackets around the wawyod and lamed in the first line of the apparatus—the second section that is justified to the left margin. The brackets disrupt the order that the string of characters had to be typed, which made it more challenging to compose, though not impossible.

Example: Scrivener 3

Scrivener 3 accomplished most of the task, but it could not handle RTL script followed by “4QGen” in the apparatus.

On every line of the apparatus, Scrivener 3 moved the “4” of “4QGen” to the left side of the Hebrew characters. The lack of a direction changing space in Scrivener 3 is a significant limitation for this kind of technical writing, and it is the reason that I continue to use Mellel for writing my dissertation. Furthermore, Scrivener’s “change of direction” option is buried in the paragraph menu, with no toggle switch in the toolbar or hotkey to make switching the direction of paragraphs simpler. Even if this option were available in the toolbar, it would not address the challenge of mid-line directional changes.

I want to emphasize that Scrivener 3 is an excellent writing platform for compositions written entirely in either LTR or RTL scripts and for projects that do not combine LTR and RTL in the same line. Aside from its handling of mid-line directional changes, I have found no better application than Scrivener 3 for writing composite documents and that supports the various aspects of the writing process, from planning to publishing. For technical writing combining LTR and RTL, however, Scrivener 3 has not quite closed the gap, though it is only a feature or two away.

1. Eugene Charles Ulrich, The Biblical Qumran Scrolls: Transcriptions and Textual Variants, VTSupp (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 2.

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