A Novice Scrivener User Tries to Explain Scrivener

By Nicole Stump

Perhaps you’re a more straight-thinking human, but when I’m writing anything more than an email, my notebook or Google Doc increasingly spirals out of control. I’m continually shifting, reshaping, reimagining how the piece will come out. Because of my non-linear approach to writing everything from poems to essays to fiction, it’s no surprise that the thinking process gets messier as my word count goals increase.

In an effort not to totally lose my mind when I latched onto a novel-length writing project, I knew I needed to find a way to get my writing organized. I knew that I wanted to work outside of my notebook, but my old standby, Google Docs, wasn’t seamlessly providing the functions I wanted.

Enter Scrivener.(By the way, this isn’t an ad. If I were more entrepreneurial, maybe it would be. I’m, unfortunately, getting no kickbacks for writing this.)

At any gathering of more than 10 writers I’ve been in, I’ve heard someone mention Scrivener. It’s writing software. Here’s the Wikipedia blurb: Scrivener is a word-processing program and outliner designed for authors. Scrivener provides a management system for documents, notes and metadata. This allows the user to organize notes, concepts, research and whole documents for easy access and reference.

So I tried the 30 day free trial to toy around with it. It had enough potential that I paid the $45 licensing fee. There’s definitely a learning curve to get this to maximum efficiency, so I took a class through The Writer’s League of Texas (also not an ad, though I do strongly recommend connecting with other writers). Getting to know Scrivener was a nice way to put off writing but still feel productive.

Here are some things I’ve learned to love about Scrivener:

  • The Binder  (image from Howtoscrivener.com)


    • Really, this feature is the main selling point. It keeps the various moving parts of your project in order.
    • Organizational options include arranging, labeling, and rearranging
    • This means you can sort your story into chapters and subdivide into scenes.
    • Each top layer of the binder has a notecard view, where you can give brief synopsis of what’s in each part. (Photo from howtoscrivener.com)


    • Within both top and lower layers of the binder, each header or document has a sidebar for notes. This is great to link other documents that have relevant research, to take notes on potential revisions, and to clarify intent with your future writing self.
    • There’s an optional color code system, which you can customize for your purposes. The most common designations are probably Done, In Progress, and To Do.
  • Drafting Options
    • Split Screen (image from milfordsfwriters.wordpress.com)
    • scrivener-2
      • For days when you need to consult research, are diving into big revisions, are checking for consistency between plot points, or using photo inspiration, split screen allows you to share the screen between your working document and your secondary document.
    • Compose Mode

Screen Shot 2018-10-09 at 8.14.31 PM

      • This is simple, but useful. Compose mode gets you into a writing zone. This full screen feature dims the screen to black with white letters, which makes it easier on the eyes.
      • There’s an optional typewriter scroll to keep forward progress. It’s a subtle way to discourage re-reading as a time killer, and it’s a small suggestion of momentum.
      • For a scene where you need some references as you’re writing, you can view your designated Quick Reference list as needed within compose mode.
      • Compose mode blocks out email/social media notifications, which offers peace and god-damn electronic quiet (assuming you’re not near your cell phone).
  • Data
    • If you’re into numbers, you can set word goals, see breakdowns of productivity, analyze your common word usage, and explore a variety of other kind of nitpicky, but kind of satisfying information about your writing.  
    • Loosely related, there’s a character name generator, which allows you to search for names based on criteria like gender, obscurity, region of origin, and your preferences for or against alliteration, initials, and double-barreled names.
  • Storing and Sharing Your Writing
    • Before making a big revision, you can take a snapshot of the scene/chapter as it exists and save the version. If things go terribly awry, there’s a quick way to bring the original back to life.
    • If/when you’re ready to share your writing, Compile give you choices of formats and sections to include in a PDF.

Here’s what happened when I started using Scrivener for a new project: I realized my novel-length idea was unsustainable. With a full outline and around 12,000 words of story, I was able to see clearly that my novel was not going to be interesting (or good). Because I could see the direction of my piece within my binder and the notecard views, I noticed that my protagonist was the wrong protagonist for the story, and the plot would have fizzled out quickly.

I salvaged the bits that had potential, reimagined my story. Then I compiled the rest of my work into a “First Draft” folder, and I tucked it away in the Research folder of the binder. Those words are there are a reminder of the work that I needed to think through as my brain began to wrap itself around the purpose of my book. Now, I’m going into my second version of this book with clearer intention.

Though Scrivener has already proven valuable to me, there are a couple of quasi-cons to consider:

  • At the Texas Teen Book Festival, author Morgan Matson said that she was told you’re not a real author until you’re crying in an Apple store trying to recover a lost draft. There are plenty of Scrivener users who’ve experienced the panic of losing work, but the internet seems to believe it’s almost always recoverable if you’re using Scrivener. There are several resources to recover lost work, and your draft autosaves to your preferred location every two seconds.
  • Scrivener license is tied to one specific computer, so it does not have the convenience of Google Docs across multiple workspaces. Bummer.
  • I heard/read/thought the 30-day trial was supposed to be days used, but mine was 30 calendar days.

If you are considering Scrivener, I recommend trying this near the start of a big project or maybe when you’re moving into a 2nd draft. If you’re making huge progress on your own without it, keep the workflow going, and consider this when it’s time to transition to a new project.

Can you write a novel-length work without dropping money on this software? Sure. But I’m glad I have it to help me keep track of the innumerable pieces of thinking that are going into my project and to give me some structure to work within.

Scrivener users: what other functions are you using that are useful? What advice do you have to get over the learning curve? Share your knowledge in the comment section!


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