Scrivener: A Love Story

Writer John

If this were how I had to write, I don’t think I’d write. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

When I was in the early to middle stages of revising my dissertation into a book, I discovered Scrivener. At the time, the Windows version had just been released in Beta. I tried it, and it was still too buggy to use on a huge project that was fast approaching its deadline, but oh, oh did it have incredible potential! My mind was blown. So much so that, I’ll admit, Scrivener was a fairly major factor in my decision to switch to Mac (it was time to get a new laptop anyway, I’ll say that much for my sanity).

Importing a 300-page manuscript full of footnotes was a bit of a pain. Scrivener isn’t really intended for large-scale importing of a whole project at once like that. But it worked. And then my life was changed.

No, really, this software changed my life.

My dissertation project had begun many years before, and I had gone through several major moves, including international ones, with all my research notes and drafts, and I had switched software for various aspects of the data management several times. In short, all my materials were a bloody mess. And here I needed to quickly revise this enormous beast in significant ways — I added four new half-chapters, new framing on every chapter, new introduction, and bits and pieces of new research throughout. It was a monster to keep track of it all.

And I am not someone who deals well with that kind of situation even on a small scale. I think in circles and spirals, not straight lines. I can’t keep anything in my head that isn’t right in front of me. This whole project had the potential for disaster.

But Scrivener was, seemingly, devised for people exactly like me. Scrivener is not word processing software (although it can do all the basics of word processing). It’s part database, part outliner, and mostly it’s something else entirely — a virtual version of a stack of legal pads, index cards, paperclips and a bulletin board. But you don’t have to carry all that paper around with you, and you can’t lose any of it, since it’s got a really smooth automatic backup system. In addition to all that — and many more features aimed at fiction writers that I haven’t explored at all — there are some really nice whistles and bells that just make it very pleasant to use.

Here’s how I use it. At first it was just for the dissertation, so I’ll start with that. Once I’d imported my huge text file and figured out how to get all the footnotes looking right (actually looking better – in a panel beside the main text, much easier to see while editing), I started splitting my text up. One of the core features of Scrivener is that you can break your text up into chunks of any size, and the smaller your chunks, the more you’ll get out of Scrivener. So I didn’t just break it up into chapters, or subsections, but into paragraphs. Each chunk gets a title, and these titles are displayed in a panel next to the text as you’re reading it, so in effect the outline of your whole text is right there in nested folders, which you can quickly and easily rearrange. (Scrivener will also output all your data and metadata into a proper outline where you can change things in groups, etc.) Just the process of splitting up and labeling my chunks of text revealed many places where the organization was a lot less logical than I’d thought, so I did quite a bit of rearranging just in the process of importing.

Each chunk of text has a virtual index card attached to it (I love that it looks like an actual index card), which you can either auto-fill with the beginning of whatever’s written in that chunk, or you can fill with your own summary. There’s a corkboard view where you can see just the index card versions of your chunks, and rearrange them at will. This is incredible.

Years earlier when I was finishing the dissertation, I had actually printed out several chapters, cut them up into paragraph-size pieces with scissors, and spread them all out on my living room floor. That exercise was incredibly helpful, but it was such a big project that I only did it once. With Scrivener I can do it easily and often, with no mess, and no trees killed for my efforts.

Each chunk of text can also be labeled for easy sorting (like, “Chapter,” “Front Matter,” “End Matter” etc), and can be marked with a status (like, “To-do,” “First Draft,” “Final Draft,” “Done”). You can set the options for label and status however you want. In addition, you can add as many keywords as you choose (like tagging — I can add “gender,” “upbringing,” “childhood” to one paragraph, and “gender,” “estate management,” “needlework” to another, and later sort all my chunks to see those that all have “gender” in common, or just the ones on “childhood,” etc.

Each chunk of text also has a free field where you can add notes, like “did I double-check this in Blum?” And you can also insert comments into the text as you do in the revision mode in MS Word. So, you can have comments pointing to one spot in your text, or comments referring to a whole chunk at once. There are, in addition, a bunch of options for custom meta-data and internal references that I haven’t even begun to explore. All this metadata displays in another frame on the other side of the text you’re reading. You can hide this frame, or the one showing your folders, at any time.

One of my favorite features (though it’s so hard to decide) is that you can also split the main text frame, vertically or horizontally, to compare two chunks of text. This feature alone would have been life-changing to me, even without all the rest. I compare documents and cut and paste between chapters or separate files constantly, and even with all the screen real estate in the world, there’s no way to do this in Word without aggravation (and endless confusion about what was changed where and when — in Scrivener everything is in the same file, with created and modified dates on every chunk of text, not just the whole file, always visible, without clogging up space). On my 13” MacBook Air, I can split the text screen horizontally and still see the folders on the left and the metadata on the right. Or, I can hide those two side screens and compare documents vertically, for more intense editing back and forth. All of this can be done with quick, one-step, intuitive clicks.

While I’m writing, the word and character counts show on the bottom of the screen. I can set daily targets for myself (or in my case limits!).

I can also view my text in any old font or size, secure in knowing that when I’m ready to compile into a Word, RTF, or PDF file, I have saved settings that convert everything automatically to the output style I want. All that is easy to do in your custom way, though there are also settings available for the basic options (for people who write things like screenplays, there’s much more to all this). I like that I can read on-screen in 18-pt Helvetica, or some random combination of sizes and fonts that result from pasting in text from a variety of notes files, for example, without it affecting the finished product, and without having to fuss about cleaning up a bunch of little inconsistencies.

I also imported Word and PDF files that I needed to refer to, but weren’t part of my text. These go into a separate folder, where they can’t be edited, but can be viewed alongside your text in the split screen, for reference. Awesome.

Right now I’m really enjoying the first stages of starting my new project on Scrivener, building up the organization and metadata from the start, but there were some particular advantages, too, to finishing up my first book project in Scrivener. As I went through my research materials collecting bits and pieces that needed to be added, I imported them into Scrivener as separate chunks of text. I labeled them as “Added Bits,” which gave them a different color in the folder hierarchy and outline, so they could be spotted easily as I integrated them into the main body of the text in the places I thought they should eventually go. As I worked my way through them, I could either change the label or merge the added bit to a chunk of the original text, as it got integrated, or I could shift it off again to another folder labeled “rejects” or “spin-off article.” When you compile your text into a word processing file, it’s easy to un-select any folders like this that aren’t intended to be part of the whole.

Once I got going with all this, I found that I could use Scrivener for practically everything I do. Most significantly, for all the writing I do for teaching. I have one Scrivener project for all teaching-related materials: syllabi, assignment sheets, handouts, etc. I keep a template that contains most of the boilerplate text for my syllabi, for example, and can very easily slip in the updated text for a particular iteration of the course, then, with a few clicks, compile it straight to PDF in my established format for syllabi. I can easily separate out a chunk of text in a handout that changes when I use it in different courses, for example, with all the alternate versions I need for just that chunk, while the rest of the handout is common to all versions. That way, I can update part of the common sections of the handout, and when I compile one or another version, that update will automatically be there. I can collapse the subfolders for courses I’m not currently teaching, yet still have them handy when I want to go back to an old handout for a new purpose. I have files with reference material like the official college grading scale, official verbiage about department goals and requirements, etc, so that I can grab it when I need it without opening new files, without constantly updating an external folder system full of duplicates, etc.

And now I even use Scrivener for writing blog posts. When I have a random bit of an idea for a post, I create a little “chunk” of text for it in Scrivener, so that I have a running list of many potential posts in various degrees of completeness from raw idea to ready-to-publish (each one labeled with a click and automatically color-coded). This way I can add a bit here or there whenever a moment presents itself, without losing anything or getting buried in duplicates. Or accidentally publishing a half-baked post!

It’s also easy, once you have a system down, to create a template in Scrivener that you can use for future projects, and then these templates can be easily shared. I made very basic templates for my own purposes (and to share with my husband), for a book-length historical research project, an article-length project, and teaching materials. These templates don’t use the vast majority of Scrivener features — they’re really just a system of basic organization that I don’t want to have to recreate again and again. I’ve shared them on my profile if you’re interested.

To conclude this story of a love affair, I’ll admit that I’ve had one problem with Scrivener so far, and I don’t know if it was my fault. The word count of my manuscript in Scrivener was drastically different from the word count I got when I compiled it to Word. By 30,000 words! This is of course a very serious problem. I assume that Scrivener was not counting the notes or some part of the front- or end-matter, but I did very carefully (many times!) check all the settings and make sure the right boxes were checked to include all those. I tried comparing a short, plain text document, and the word counts were comparable. It may be that the many abbreviations in my footnotes were handled different by Scrivener’s word counter than by Word’s (though I don’t think that could add up to such a huge discrepancy). Right now, I don’t think Scrivener is really designed for massive scholarly research projects with more than a thousand footnotes. It can handle that, but it wasn’t really designed for it, and that may be part of how it was possible for the word count to be so far off. I haven’t gotten to the bottom of this issue, and I welcome thoughts others might have about it. In any case, now that I’m aware of the issue, it’s simple enough to compile the text after any major changes to keep a rough gauge of the difference between a Scrivener word count and Word’s.

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3 Responses to Scrivener: A Love Story

  1. Sandra says:

    Great article! When you did your import, were you able to import previous drafts of a section or piece? If so, how did you categorize it?

  2. Eric S. says:


    Thanks so much for this extensive explanation of your process. However, I am unable to locate the templates you mentioned. Am I missing something?

    Thank you!

    • Kate Antonova says:

      This is a very old post – Scrivener has updated many times since and my templates are no longer compatible. I don’t have time to update them, unfortunately.

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