Writing Tools: Scrivener

Someone asked a little while ago about whether or not I could show some screenshots of Scrivener, which is a writing tool I’ve been banging on about for ages. It’s a great piece of kit and has changed the way I write. I was skeptical at first – how could a bit of software change that? – but it’s helped me plan in more detail and structure my novels. With all the notes to hand, in a very simple-to-use way, I’d say it’s helped me just relax into the writing each night.

So here are a few quick screen grabs, which I’ve taken from the forthcoming The Book of Transformations. Hopefully there’s nothing here that gives away any secrets – it’s just mainly research, and a good chunk of this sort of thing never makes it into the novel anyway. I’m just revealing all to you – because I’m that kind of guy.

As you can see, there’s a sidebar and a central writing column. I tend to have loads of boxes for parts of the manuscript as well as the bits of research to go alongside that. You can put anything you like in these, not just text but you can cut and paste web pages (in case you ever go offline), images, the full works. This is great when I email myself with notes that I can just pop in without having to worry about formatting, compatibility and so on. A lot of the sections end up looking messy, but I’m fine with that.

I’ve never really got to grips with the cork-board function – in fact, there are dozens of functions I’ve not yet used. But that’s all right – the software doesn’t force you to use these things. (It’s not designed by Microsoft.)

And, the coolest feature, is the one where you can knock-back the rest of your desktop, even the rest of the programme, and just have a simple page on a dark background.

What it’s done is help me categorise and put order into the way I do things, without it ever seeming to be an irritation or a chore. It’s allowed me to move parts of the book around with ease, to drop bits in and take things out, to guarantee important notes are addressed rather than forgotten.

I know I’ve hardly used half of the features. In the current version there’s all sorts of ways of formatting your manuscript – from novels to audio scripts – so this really has been designed with writers in mind. (It’s not a word-processor, though, it’s a writing tool. I usually tart up the final draft separate to this.) You get better at using it as well – I’m using it to plan the book I’m writing after the Red Sun series, and I’m utilising far more of the available functions. (Hopefully, after a year of planning this book on the side, using Scrivener, I’ll have something far more dense and complex than the current series could ever achieve with a collection of shitty Word documents.)

So there you go. Have I sold it to you? Does anyone else use other writing software which they’d recommend? Should be said that, I think Scrivener is only available for the Mac at the moment.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.


  1. It’s not quite Mac only – there is a public beta of the Windows version http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivenerforwindows/ it’s based on the last release so doesn’t share all the same features.

    Great show and tell – most interested to see a style sheet – it’s not something I’d have though of but great practice and something I tend to forget.

  2. I’m currently using yWriter, primarily just to organize the layout of the story. I’m sure it doesn’t have nearly as many features as Scrivener, though it is free!

    To keep track of other stuff I tend to keep binders and just write/draw things out by hand or print them out to store. (I actually can’t read certain things on the computer without getting distracted—particularly novels). I work all day on the computer throughout the week using lots of different programs, so honestly it’s kind of nice to step away and do some of my novel work away from the laptop. There’s just something about doing things by hand, you know?

    “(Hopefully, after a year of planning this book on the side, using Scrivener, I’ll have something far more dense and complex than the current series could ever achieve with a collection of shitty Word documents.)”

    Lol. With the first two novels in your series, did you only use Word documents? (Or are you just saying this because you really love Scrivener now? :P)

  3. Nice write-up Mark,

    As I mentioned before, I use yWriter for Windows which is a little less polished but essentially the same concept. I’d really like to try Scrivener but the Windows version isn’t out of beta yet, and I’m not about to risk a corrupt manuscript. As soon as they release a stable version, I’ll buy it.

    I have a few questions about Scrivener if you’ve got the time?:

    Can you import a file (DOC, RTF etc.) into Scrivener, and have it automatically split scenes based on a specific characters like *** ?

    Does Scrivener track which characters are mentioned in which scene?

    Does Scrivener allow you to define locations, and assign scenes to them?

    Have you tried it on a small screen like a netbook? Is it still decently usable?

    Does it have a function to count particular words to identify over-usage?

    Finally, how long do you personally find yourself messing with the program vs. actually writing?

  4. Thanks Mark. Pretty similar to how I use it.

    I’ve used the Windows beta and aside from some formatting bugs (that I think have been fixed) the basic features are in place. I used it for NanoWriMo and didn’t lose a single word. The biggest annoyance working cross platform was having to zip the Scrivener projects up for transfer at the end of the day to avoid them getting corrupted by Dropbox.

    To the previous poster, I don’t think Scrivener automatically tracks characters or has location specific tags. However, you can create custom metadata and assign it to individual documents. There’s an outline view (you can see it at the link in the first comment) and you can display metadata as columns e.g. I’ve got columns for showing the status of semi-sentient daggers and the level of integration between two personalities throughout a story. Also locations!

    There is a feature that counts use of words (sortable alphabetically and by count) so you can easily scroll through and see if any of your common overuses are turning up too much.

    Like any tool, you can spend time messing with it and setting up your development environment just right, but once that’s done, the features you need are all set up and ready to go. As Mark showed, switching to the full screen mode removes pretty much all (visible) distractions.

  5. I never tried Scrivener because of its limitation to MAC (which I don’t have & despise), I’ve played around with yWriter & PageFour, which are both nice, but do not have the many many features Scrivener has.
    I totally missed that they’ve released a Windows beta, I am gonna give it a try.

    A nice feature is that Scrivener also supports some basic University style guidelines. I have to write a essay, and was planning to use Lyx for that, but now I’ll try how the workflow with Scrivener will work out….

  6. Interesting. I must admit, I’m very poor at adding my research into it. I have a folder for each chapter, and then a sub-document (I forget the official name in Scrivener) for each scene. Given that most chapters have only one scene, I feel this may be overkill.

    I have a habit of putting notes to myself in the right hand document notes. Usually continuity errors (i.e. remember to show gun in first scene) or things I’m unhappy with (“character is too 2D”). I’ve found by doing this, I stop worrying about things being wrong in the initial drafts and worry more about getting the draft done

  7. Gav – thanks for the link. I try not to pay too much attention to PC users. 😛 The Style Sheet is very useful – probably saves editors a bit of extra pain, too.

    Tiyana – I’ve heard good things about yWriter. With Scrivener, you can scan in your images and drag and drop them into a folder – so everything is at hand. As for Word documents – yeah, I just had different files for different things. It was a pain to keep opening files, and hard to navigate.

    Charlie – I’m not actually sure. You can import files, or just cut and paste the text with the formatting there. I’ve not tried it on a netbook (is it perhaps only available on Macs rather than iPads?). And to my knowledge you can’t search for repeated words or phrases in a set area – which is a shame, and hopefully something they’ll add on. Also – I spend minimal, minimal time tinkering with the software. Once you get the hang of it, you’re away with just writing. It supports writing and doesn’t get in the way. You used to be able to get a decent 30-day trial with the software so give it a go!

    Sam – thanks for answering those questions, which I’ve just seen now I’ve typed my response! 🙂 And yeah, once combined with Dropbox on the same system, it’s perfect.

    Serbert – wash your mouth out! Yeah, I’d be interested to know how good the windows beta is actually.

    Adrian – do you not find that it encourages you to add research though? I was pretty bad at keeping track of notes before I started really getting into this bit of kit.

  8. I’ve been using Scrivener’s public beta version for Windows. I’m cobbling together my first novel with it (fingers crossed), and so far have used it to assemble research.

    My favorite trick there so far is the split screen option, so that I can pull up either the same document in two panels (so I can modify one list while reading another), or two different documents so I can compare, say, a list of names I’m working on with a list of places.

    Speaking of names, the name generator is surprisingly useful! It has an ample database of names from various languages and cultures, but also has some neat tricks, like allowing one to pick a starting letter. It is a bit sluggish, though.
    Long story short: When the Windows version goes commercial, I’ll buy day one.

  9. I’ve been using the windows beta since NANO. The current version seems very stable. I have been writing in word and adding it to scrivener (just in case) even doing the extra work the program is amazing. It’s so easy to find a scene, move it around, look at what’s been written in one POV. I say take advantage of the free beta and play. The new one should arrive in April.

    I’ve also found it much easier to get the writing done knowing one scene at a time works well with scrivener.

  10. Thanks for the run-down, Mark. Looks pretty handy. Is the corkboard the same thing as my coffee table full of post-its? Is there some other function that replicates it?


    It is important to me, particularly in the beginning, as I’m shaping the plot, to be able to see the whole structure of the book at once. My fear with programs like this is that the screen just ain’t big enough.

  11. Matt – I had no idea about the name generator! That’s both cool but slightly scary. I’m not sure I’d dare rely on it, since I’m rather picky about some names.

    Diana – thanks for stopping by and sharing. Glad it’s working out for you.

    Nathan – The corkboard thing is a little bit like that, but you’d maybe find the screen too small for that? I mean, that’s an entire table there. It’s basically a smaller version of that, but you can move stuff around quite easily.

  12. I hear you on being picky on names. I used it more as leading inspiration than filling in a specific blank. I created a bank of, for example, Portuguese names so I could get a “sound” in my head for how to name characters from a region. It helped clear a big block for me.

  13. Tiyana pretty much exactly described my own process! I like yWriter now I’m used to it, but it’s taken me a while. I don’t know why because I’ve never had a problem navigating through information on the web, but I’ve found it really hard to deal with what I’m writing in a non-linear way when it’s on a computer screen. If I have notebooks and physical pieces of paper to flick through and move around then I can rearrange scenes, keep track of character relationships, cross reference things and so on – but I just can’t do that on screen. I really wanted to be able to and tried it, putting the research and world building for a story into Liquid Story Binder and using the different timeline functions and everything, but it fell flat. When I’m writing out longhand I can pick bits up and put them down again then move to a different part of the story but, maybe due to using Word for too many essays over the years, when I’m at a computer my brain has always demanded that A follow B in one long line until the end. Is this just me?

    I’m getting better at it. I think I’ll be keeping my research in binders, files and notebooks (and post-it coffee tables) for some time to come, but I like using yWriter for the actual writing of the story; I can switch between scenes and move scenes around (this much, at least, the computer bit of my brain has learnt to cope with) whereas I used to feel trapped at a particular point in the narrative – or else writing bits out longhand and then typing them up. It’s certainly made my writing, if not exactly easier, a lot freer.

  14. I’ve been using the beta version for Windows on a new writing project after I had so much frustration working with a word processing program. When I revise, things can move around a lot. I might have a scene in Chapter 25 move up to Chapter 12. It’s very hard to do in a standard word processing program. I can either put the manuscript in one big file and use styles to move it around or I can create separate files for each scene. It’s always messy trying to to do either one. Scrivener is nice because I can just bump up a scene (Ctrl + Arrow) and I don’t have to worry about accidentally deleting it. Being able to focus only one scene at a time while still having the other scenes available is fantastic.

    The other nice thing is that I can use the document notes feature to jot down a note that occurs to me so I don’t forget something. I’ve also used it to mark off things I’ve gotten into the scene (i.e., sense of hearing – seagull cries) that are hard for me to keep track of.

    The corkboard I’ve been using to define my scene with one sentence. So when I come back in to write the scene, all I need is a quick glance to remind me of the conflict. I can also color code it–customizable. I did Main Story, Subplot #1, Subplot #2.

  15. I tend to revert to Microsoft Word 2000 (I’m oldskool like that ;P) but have been messing around with a nice little freeware app called Q10. It allows fullscreen, no distraction editing and has a nifty typewriter sound effects feature.

  16. I tend to use Word 2010 and occasionally Newnovelist2 on PC; I am trying to transfer to Mac and so am looking at other options 🙂

  17. I’m about ten days into my 30-day trial of the Mac version of Scrivener, still feeling it out. I like how it facilitates planning alongside writing, but I am wondering for the purposes of communicating an outline to an editor – can Scrivener export a synopsis?

  18. Ross – to my knowledge, you can export a synopsis; I’ve only ever done one page to export, but I think you can compile different compartments. I’ve not done that though!

  19. Thanks for this. It is very helpful. I will be taking a look at the Windows version of Scrivener. This dialog has provided answers to many of my questions. Raised on Windows via its business applications, when I began to write I kept track of projects with a combination of written notes, Word and Excel. I am very excited by the prospect of getting all my stuff in one pile. Wish me luck!