Do you want to learn the fundamentals of Scrivener without reading the 800 page manual? In this series, I’ll help you master Scrivener and get the most out of this amazing app.

NOTE: This tutorial series covers Scrivener 3 for macOS Mojave. The features shown in this tutorial should be applicable to the forthcoming Scrivener 3 for Windows. Where differences occur, I will try to point them out.

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Project management for writers

Scrivener is much more than a word processor. I’d argue it’s not a word processor at all — at least not in the classic sense of Microsoft Word. Consider Word a moment. Microsoft has created a powerful document preparation system for office workers who need to produce short and medium form letters, reports, and so on. Word encourages you to write your document from beginning to end, and as you write, you see exactly how your document appears in its final form. For simple documents, this approach works fine.

However, novels are not simple documents. Novels appear simple, with minimal formatting for text and chapters, but that belies their structural complexity of beats, scenes, chapters, acts, plot points, subplots and character arcs. Where a non-fiction writer can pin their structure on hierarchical headings and sections, novelists weave their structure into the fabric of the text.

Managing a complex narrative structure in Word, while not impossible — lots of writers do it — is undoubtedly harder from a logistical and visual standpoint. Word can show you the structure of a single document, but unless you write your novel in a single file (and please, never do that), it cannot show you the structure of your entire manuscript. This because Word shows what you see, not what you mean.

Word has an inherent weakness — it is bound to a single-document metaphor, where what you see is what you get. Writing a novel necessitates working with hundreds of files, containing not only the segments of your manuscript but also your notes, research material, and so on. Management becomes exponentially more difficult if you are writing a series, or you are a world-builder with a meticulously crafted world chronicled in what amounts to a small encyclopaedia.

By contract, Scrivener is a potent project management tool for writers. Drafting text is only one aspect of its capability. Scrivener does without the conventions of the word processor. There’s no futzing around with the look of the drafted text. You needn’t worry about page or chapter numbers; that’s relegated to a process called compiling, which I’ll cover in-depth in a later post.

Taking cues from the tools used by computer programmers, Scrivener understands that long-form prose projects are made of up hundreds or even thousands of files. Instead of the single-document metaphor, Scrivener uses the concept of storing individual pages in a ring-bound folder. This concept is time-honoured, and it was first taught to me by my Honours supervisor nearly 20 years ago, long before Scrivener existed.

The advantage of this approach — and it’s a big one — is that your entire project is available in a single interface. Moreover, Scrivener provides you with the tools to effortlessly plan, structure, visualise, publish and backup your manuscript in whatever way that works for you.

I’ll stop here and let that sink in.

If I hear one criticism about Scrivener, it’s that people find it too complicated. But it doesn’t need to be; you can make Scrivener work your way.

Scrivener, unlike Word or Google Docs, is a highly malleable app. Scrivener has more features than you will ever need because it caters not only to novelists but also non-fiction writers and academics. Scrivener does not impose upon you a particular workflow or structure. You are free to use as little or as much as it as you need or want. For example, I don’t use its famed corkboard view, while other writers swear by it. I often use the product differently as I move through the stages of my manuscript’s life. For planning, I love Scrivener’s outliner. While drafting, I dial everything back to just the full-screen composition view. Then when I revise a story, I’m deep in Collections, and typically have multiple documents open at the same time.

Getting Help and Getting Started

The first time you open Scrivener or create a new project, you’ll see the Project Templates window. This window serves a couple of purposes. It allows you to create a new project using one of the many built-in templates. Alternatively, you can use it to open an existing project once you’ve already started. Or, you can access some terrific sources of help using the Getting Started tab.

Project Templates
Project Templates

Scrivener’s User Manual is notoriously epic, weighing in at over 800 pages. To say this is daunting is an understatement. Yet it needn’t be. It’s an invaluable resource, but one I tend to use reference for specific features, rather than reading it cover-to-cover.

Much more useful is the interactive tutorial. This tutorial is essentially a project filled with instructions, that walks you through Scrivener’s essential features step-by-step. I highly recommend you do this at least once.

You can also find the link to many video tutorials, which will take you to the Literature and Latte website. If you like to learn through screencasts, then I highly recommend you check them out. Speaking of the Lit’n’Lat website, it’s also where you’ll find their official blog, which often posts lots of useful tips, as well as the highly supportive forum.

Templates also include another source of help. Each provides a document at the top of the binder with instructions on how to use each template. Here’s an example of the one included with the Novel template.

Template help file
Template help file

Beyond the official sources of help, the web is full of tutorials made by happy users like me. You’ll find blogs posts like this, YouTube videos, and even paid courses if you want to go down that path. The Scrivener community is undoubtedly passionate and helpful, with many congregating in the forum mentioned above, as well as Facebook groups and Reddit.

Help is never far away!

Scrivener’s interface

Scrivener’s interface follows many conventions set out by the Mac operating system. On the top is a customisable toolbar. I confess I don’t modify this much, having remembered most of Scrivener’s keyboard shortcuts. In the centre of the toolbar, you’ll find the Quick Search widget. Left alone it displays the name of the current document. Hover over it, and you’ll get a word count. Click it, and you’ll activate the quick search, allowing you to locate anything in your project.

The tool buttons I most use are the view options Toolbar views, allowing you to change the Editor view between editing (the text editor), corkboard and outline modes. Apart from that, I typically only use the Compose button Toolbar compose which hides everything except a full-screen, focus-friendly version of the Editor

Scrivener Interface on macOS Mojave
Scrivener Interface on macOS Mojave

The Binder on the left contains a tree view of your project. This tree is the index of our analogous ring binder, listing every single file and folder in our project. I’ll return to the Binder below. Note, you can toggle the Binder from view, which I sometimes do when I want more space for the Outliner.

The Editor occupies the centre of the screen and shows you the content of the document selected in the Binder. The Editor has three view modes as I noted above, and these are toggled using the toolbar. Firstly, it acts as a Scrivener’s word processor or text editor, allowing you to draft, edit and optionally style your text. Then it can display any subdocuments or folders within the selected element either as a Corkboard or an Outline.

Corkboard View
Corkboard View

The outline is by far my preferred organisational tool because it works much like a spreadsheet application built into Scrivener. If you’ve ever contemplated using the Snowflake method, or you like to outline in Excel or OmniOutliner, you’ll find the Outliner invaluable. If you consider the cost Excel or OmniOutliner, then it’s quite frankly incredible that you get this feature as part of the price. Unlike those other apps, Scrivener’s outliner is designed for writers — Microsoft Excel and OmniOutliner are not.

Outline View
Outline View

Another terrific feature of the Editor is you can split it in two. Split the layout, and you can reference one document (or piece of research) while you are writing another. The Editor can be split vertically (two docs side-by-side) or horizontally (two docs stacked). I use this feature extensively when editing and revising drafts.

Split-screen Editor
Split-screen Editor

Spilt view even works with the corkboard and outliner, meaning you can reference or modify your structure or document metadata while you edit your text.

Drafting and viewing an outline in split-screen mode
Drafting and viewing an outline in split-screen mode

Finally on the right-hand side, is the Inspector, which details the active document’s metadata, including title, synopsis, label, status, document notes, bookmarks, keywords and custom metadata, snapshots and comments. I’ll talk more about these features as the series progresses. Note, that as with the Binder, you can toggle the Inspector on and off.

Inspector showing synopsis and notes
Inspector showing synopsis and notes

On the subject of split-screen editors, it’s worth mentioning Scrivener’s Layout options. Layouts toggle at the click of a button, a series of pre-defined (or user-defined) arrangements for Scrivener’s various panels. You access the layouts from the View button on the toolbar. I find them invaluable for quickly adapting Scrivener’s interface to the task at hand. Scrivener also allows you to create layouts if the defaults don’t match your needs. As I noted above, Scrivener is highly malleable, so don’t be afraid to alter the interface to suit your needs and sensibilities.

Pre-defined Layouts
Pre-defined Layouts

Set and Forget

Before I get too carried away, I’ll cover off a few important things I like to do whenever I start a new project. I find futzing around with settings and configuration, to be a grind, and I much prefer using an app which allows me to set and forget. It’s time to become acquainted with Scrivener’s settings menu.

General Settings
General Settings

There’s a lot here, and most of it I’ll be honest, is just noise. The important things for me are to set up save options, the appearance of text, and backups!

To set the auto-save options, we want General -> Saving. Writers are a paranoid bunch, and so the app defaults to saving every 2 seconds of inactivity. By that, it means you lift your fingers from the keyboard, in two seconds, Scrivener will save for you. Very nice. I stick with this default as I have a fast Mac with an obscenely fast SSD. If you notice performance issues (typically experienced when using older style spinning hard drives), you can raise this number a bit if you like. You’ll note too, that I keep the other settings unchecked as 1. I don’t use the snapshot feature much and 2. I don’t like being distracted when I’m drafting in Compose mode.

Save Settings
Save Settings

For the look of my editor (the drafting window), I make the changes in Editing -> Formatting (see below). For 15 years I’ve written using Optima Regular at 14pt. I like the font, it’s comfortable on the eye and feels like an old friend. Optima is also available on iOS too, so my project looks the same when I use Scrivener on my iPad and iPhone.

Of course, you have your preference — maybe it’s Times, Helvetica or Comic Sans, I’m not judging. Set the font, size and leading (line-height) you like in the main editor and then open the Formatting options window (Settings -> Editing Formatting) and click the Use Formatting in Current Editor button. Set it and forget it!

While there you can also set your typography preferences for Notes, Comments and Footnotes if you want to change the defaults. I keep them the same, to create some visual difference with the manuscript texts.

Editor Formatting Settings
Editor Formatting Settings

The exception to this set and forget approach is if you are a non-fiction writer. If your document has blockquotes, tables, captions, and so on, your best approach is to style them using paragraph styles. I’ll address that in another post.

Backups

If you’re a writer and you don’t have a resilient backup system, you are an idiot. Sorry if that offends, but it’s true. Many a heart-broken writer has shared horror stories on social media after losing everything to laptop theft, hard-drive failure, house fire or flood. I’ve heard of writers taking their own lives after losing a life’s worth of creative work. You don’t want that to be you.

Scrivener has a backup facility built-in. However, it’s only half of the picture. I strongly recommend backing up to one (or better still, more) cloud service providers. You cannot rely on the hard drives or SSDs in your computer. They all fail eventually, and it’s a matter of when not if.

My first line of defence is Dropbox. Dropbox is the only supported mechanism for syncing a Scrivener project between devices. Even if you don’t use Scrivener on iOS, at least consider using Dropbox (the free tier is sufficient) for storing your working projects. Thanks to tight integration, working on your project will see the individual files contained within automatically sent to the cloud when you edit them. This one step alone will do much to protect your work from disaster.

Backups give you a second line of defence. You’ll find Scrivener’s backup settings in Settings -> Backups (shown below). Once you turn on automatic backups, you can set them to occur at several stages automatically, such as when you open, close, or manually save (hitting CMD/Ctrl-S). As you can see below, I perform an automatic backup when I close the project, and I find that sufficient for my needs.

Optionally, you can zip the backups, which I do, and you can specify the number of backups you keep from 3 to 25. I recommend zipping backups because a Scrivener project is made up of hundreds of individual files. Even though the project appears on macOS to be a single file, it’s a folder conforming to Apple’s unique bundle format. Zipping files ensures the integrity of the project, mainly when you back up to a cloud service that doesn’t understand Scrivener’s bundle format.

Consider here where you want to save your backups. If you’re smart, you’ll use a second cloud storage service. I keep my backups in Apple iCloud, but Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive is just as good. Most cloud providers have free storage tiers — some more generous than others — so I strongly recommend you use them!

Backup Settings
Backup Settings

As an aside, I also use a third cloud storage service, Amazon S3, to periodically back up my Scrivener backups. Amazon S3 is extremely cheap and very reliable, though using it has a higher learning curve than consumer-oriented services by Dropbox and iCloud. The takeaway is, you really can’t have enough backups, and with cloud storage being so cheap, there is no excuse!

BACK. UP. YOUR. FILES!

The Binder

I briefly introduced the Binder back when I looked at Scrivener’s interface. As noted, it provides you with a complete index of your project, including every files and folder. I’ll talk a little more about files and folders in a moment.

The Binder has three mandatory folders: Draft, Research and Trash. These cannot be deleted or moved within other objects, but you can rename if that is your preference. The Draft contains your manuscript and is where you’ll do the bulk of your writing. The Draft can only contain document files and folders.

Research can contain anything you want, including document files, folders, images, PDFs and even audio and videos files. You can store anything you want inside this folder, from Excel spreadsheets to Scapple documents. If Quicklook supports the file type, you can even preview it from within Scrivener. I believe there is a similar mechanism at play on the Windows version.

The Trash contains any file or folder you have deleted, providing you with a safety net in case you accidentally delete something. Nothing is entirely deleted until you empty the Trash. Even then, if you’ve got a good backup regimen in place, you can usually retrieve something by opening up a backup.

The Binder doesn’t limit you to creating other top-level structures. Many default templates have folders and documents ready to use as Front Matter, End Matter Templates and so on. As I’ll show in my next post, I create several top-level folders that suit the way I like to structure novel-writing projects.

Within the Binder, Scrivener allows you to create and manage an almost limitless number of files and folders. The app handles even the most massive epics with ease. With Scrivener’s organisation tools and powerful search engine, you’ll never lose anything. Nor will you experience the slowdown prevalent on Microsoft Word and Google Docs when they handle large manuscripts.

Chunking

Scrivener’s strength is that you can break your manuscript up into smaller, more manageable chunks of text. I learnt this practice early in my career as a professional technical writer, and it’s just as invaluable — perhaps more so — for writing fiction.

Consider that a user of Google Docs or Microsoft Word might reasonably have one document per chapter. Scrivener’s binder allows you to break down a manuscript into individual scenes, or even into their constituent beats for you Save the Cat types.

Nothing is stopping you doing this in Word or Docs. However, managing this complexity in the file system is much harder. Typically it involves creating a complex folder structure and establishing a naming convention to keep documents in their place.

The critical flaw of this file-system based approach is when you want to move a scene or chapter. With Scrivener’s Binder, that limitation doesn’t exist. You can reorganise documents and folders as quickly as dragging them from one position to another. This simple act changes the structure of your manuscript on the fly — no messy cut-n-paste, no worrying about file names and numbers, no renumbering chapters, or captions.

Powerful stuff!

Drafting and Writing

Unsurprisingly, you’ll spend a lot of time using Scrivener bashing out your prose. That means hundreds, if not thousands of hours, in the editor view. The editor view is just as flexible as the rest of the app. If you took my advice to set and forget, the only thing you need to do is type. One of my favourite ways to write is in Compose mode, a full-screen minimal interface that lets you focus on your text.

Consider the full UI of Scrivener, compared to the compose view in the following screenshots.

Full Scrivener UI
Full Scrivener UI
Focus mode
Focus mode

Compose mode strips away the complexity, giving you the digital equivalent of the coveted zen writing experience. Like the rest of Scrivener, it can be customised to suit your tastes. A toolbar (shown below) to control the look of the compose view, fades in and out from view when needed. You can set the text size as a percentage — I increase the size to 125%. You can also set the position of the paper and its width. I leave it dead set on the screen and reduce the page width to something approaching a 4:3 aspect ratio of my iPad. The background fade option allows you to adjust the compose view’s level of transparency from solid black to almost transparent. I black it out to the maximum setting.

Compose view tool bar
Compose view tool bar

You can also engage focus mode, blurring out everything except the line, sentence or paragraph you are using. Focus mode is a popular feature in apps such as iA Writer and other minimal editors. It’s nice to have the ability in Scrivener, for those who need to blot out everything to help write.

Scrivener also a typewriter mode. This feature keeps the current line you are typing, vertically centred in the view port. I use this feature, and like that my eye can remain fixed in the centre of the screen and not have to follow the text as I fill up the document.

Rich-text editing

Scrivener’s editor is a basic rich-text word processor. Rich-text means your text is formatted in the manner you’d expect from a word processor, such as word. So, if you bold or italic text, they will appear as bold or italic. Similarly, when you use quotes, they will be rendered as smart curling quotation marks. You can also set indentations, line-height (leading), create tables, ordered and unordered lists, add images, footnotes, and comments.

For someone coming from Word or Docs, this will likely come as a relief. Granted, plain-text markup-based editors, such as Ulysses or iA Writer, are increasingly popular. For legions of writers taught to use word processors in their formative years, Scrivener’s rich-text editor is familiar and comforting. Markup turns a lot of people off. It can be distracting seeing your prose littered with formatting characters like hashes and asterisks, and using double hard returns to separate paragraphs.

I’ll reiterate Scrivener’s set-and-forget approach. The app allows you to set stylistic defaults, and write without messing around with style systems. Also, what you see in the editor, may not be what you get in the final compiled product. I like this separation of concerns. When I write, I don’t want to mess around applying paragraph or characters styles and fiddling with tabs. In a word processor, text styles are vulnerable to breaking, as anyone who’s copy and pasted text between Word documents will attest.

Scrivener supports markdown, but you don’t have to write in markdown’s weird syntax. Scrivener 3’s style system was created with markdown in mind, allowing you to transform rich-text styles into markdown upon compile. Few novelists will need this feature, but it’s fantastic for web writers or those who write non-fiction. I’ll return to this feature in a later post.

Compiling

I’ve mentioned compiling several times now. When you finish drafting, it’s time to export your manuscript. Scrivener does this by a process called compiling. Compiling is the merging you individual documents into a single formatted manuscript. You can compile your work into Word format for your beta readers or editor. You can even create ebooks and PDF for publication.

Compiling is a complex process. Many people criticise this complexity, and it’s cost Scrivener users who have migrated to alternative apps like Ulysses, which makes this process easier. Scrivener 3 made significant changes to the complication process, ostensibly to make it simpler by hiding some of the complexities present in Scrivener 2. I have mixed feelings about the new compiling feature. In many respects, it is an improvement, and one that dovetails well into other new Scrivener features, like styles, section types, improved markdown conversion, and CSS3.0 for the Epub3 specification. However, these changes create confusion unto themselves, particularly for long-time users who were very familiar with the older ways of doing things.

Nevertheless, I think that the improvements go a long way to making the most common compiling tasks easier. For the majority of writers, I think it’s enough to compile a manuscript to a Word document. Word’s ubiquitous docx format is the de facto standard for exchanging manuscripts between authors, editors and designers.

Creating a Word document is as easy as beginning the compile process (File -> Compile) and choosing Compile for Microsoft Word, accepting the defaults and hitting the Compile button.

Scrivener's infamous compile system
Scrivener’s infamous compile system

For now, that’s enough to get you started. I will revisit compile throughout this series, to introduce more of the compile’s system’s features as we need them. I will also create a post towards the end of series, dedicated to compiling for publication to ebook and print.

What’s next

That brings me to the end of this part of the series. It’s a little longer than I originally planned, but then again, there’s a lot of ground to cover when starting from first principles. I’ll not lie, Scrivener is a complex app, made up of many components that might rightly deserve a separate app in their own right. Scrivener’s complexity is also its strength; there’s not much you can’t do with this app once you’ve climbed the learning curve.

Throughout this series, I plan on introducing Scrivener’s features as needed, and in the context of specific use cases. Scrivener’s flexibility means you can wrestle it into a writing system to produce just about any document, in any style you want.

In the next part, I build upon the fundamentals I covered here and describe how I use Scrivener for writing individuals novels.

Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

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Chris Rosser

Chris Rosser is the author of The Lords of Skeinhold fantasy series. He is a technical writer, web developer and blogger living in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife and three kids.

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