Tools of the Trade: Scrivener

Welcome to Tools of the Trade.  In these articles, I’m going to share with you my opinions of the tools and techniques I’ve come across throughout my writing experience, hopefully offering an insight into what works and what doesn’t.  It’s all just a matter of opinions though, so take from it whatever you find useful and bin the rest.  Hopefully there will be something along the way that helps improve your writing experience.

This week, I’m taking a look at my word processor of choice: Scrivener.


With the evolution of the computer and the near-death of the typewriter, the word processor has become perhaps the most important weapon in a writer’s arsenal.

Like most people, I was always a Microsoft Word-kinda-guy (school and higher education don’t really give you much choice in that department), but there are plenty of alternatives out there. Once my interest in writing took off, I put in some effort looking at the alternatives to see which one worked best for me.

To cut a long story short, I decided a few years back that Scrivener was the tool for me. I’ve invested in the software on two platforms since then and have never really looked back. Why, I hear you ask? How can it possibly be any better than MS Word?

Coming up, I’ll highlight five of my favourite features, explain why I prefer Scrivener to Word, and, hopefully, enlighten you to the perks of using Scrivener to ease your writing woes.

1. Project Management

First up is the level of project management Scrivener affords you. If you’re anything like me and a veteran of Microsoft Word, you probably have multiple documents on the go, whether it’s for each scene, for each chapter, or for other notes and character sheets. With Scrivener you can put all of these documents in the one place, with a simple filing system that allows you to easily organise and navigate about them.

Scriv - Project Management 1
fig. 1 – The Scrivener work space.

When you open or create a new project in Scrivener, you’re presented with a screen similar to the one above. The bulk of the screen is made up of the Document panel, where you’ll carry out most of your work. Whatever you have selected in the navigation tree in the left-hand panel, whether it’s a text document, an image file, or a folder, the contents will display in the Document pane. Select a text document and you can edit it with the word processor; select an image to view it; or select a folder to see and manipulate the folder’s contents in the Cork Board mode (more on that later).

Scriv - Project Management 2
fig. 2 – The navigation panel.

The navigation panel lays out your entire project in a simple, easy to use tree structure, similar to Windows Explorer. You can expand folders to list the contents, rename objects, select what you want to view, and otherwise organise to your heart’s content.

In the example above, you can see the manuscript folders (making up the novel itself) towards the top, with the front matter (the dedication and copyright pages you find at the front of a book), the character profiles, and setting details listed below. Generally, this layout is decided by the template you select when creating your Scrivener project.

For The Ember Child I selected the fiction template ‘Novel (with Parts)’. This sets up a new manuscript with the folder structure set out to encompass a novel made up of multiple parts. You can see from the example that The Ember Child is made up of three parts, The Call, The Earning, and The Return. Each part then has folders for the chapters, and within the chapter folders are the text documents that make up the scenes.

You can add or delete parts, chapters, and scenes as you see fit, or move them about as easily as clicking and dragging within the tree structure. So even if you have a complex novel format and a thousand pages of notes, you can store them in one easily managed project. What’s not to like?

2. Cross Platform Sharing

This was a biggie for me. Having the domestic life I do, most of my writing gets done on the go, while travelling to and from work. Back in the day it could be quite painful, as I’d be using some random word processor on my phone, emailing it to myself, and then shoehorning it into my Word document at home. Not hard, just inconvenient.

Scriv - sync3
fig. 3 – Synching across platforms.

 

With Scrivener, and a little help from Dropbox, I can now work on my desktop, my phone, or my iPad, and quickly sync up across all devices. Unfortunately, there’s no Android version of Scrivener as yet, so I had to give up my Samsung for an iPhone, but it really does make a difference not having to worry about getting your work from platform to platform, or even from one app to another.

3. Full Screen

The full screen mode when writing in Scrivener is also a big plus. It takes away all the distracting guff and just leaves you and the page.

Scriv - Full Screen
fig. 4 – Cutting the distractions with Full Screen mode.

There are options, such as setting the fade on the background or changing the page and font size, but, essentially, it’s just writing laid bare.

4. The Cork Board

Like the Navigation panel, Scrivener’s Cork Board feature offers a great way to organise your novel. When you have a folder selected, you can see all the documents held within. If, like me, you use the text documents for individual scenes, you can move your scenes around by dragging and dropping them in the desired location. It makes restructuring your story effortless.

Scriv - cork board
fig. 5 – Managing a chapter through the Cork Board feature.

There are also other features available in this view. You can add icons or coloured labels to identify what type of scene it is (perhaps which character’s point of view?), a status to indicate what draft it’s up to, and even a short description to outline what the scene contains. This latter option also means you can use the Cork Board as a sort of story board, showing the flow of the story (I believe the Apple version even lets you organise them in a timeline!).

5. Formatting and Compiling

After all that, what’s left? Well, once you’ve completed your work, the compiling feature Scrivener offers is very useful.

To extract a completed draft of your novel, you only need to hit the Compile button, select the files you want included, and set the desired file format.

scriv formating
fig. 6 – Formatting in the Compile mode.

During the compile process there are a number of options available to ensure each scene, chapter, or part is formatted exactly as you like, making the finished product as consistent as possible. This is useful for a number of reasons, but especially because you don’t have to stress if you decide to switch font styles part way through writing. You can also export in Kindle format, which saves a tonne of headaches if you’re planning on self-publishing.

The one drawback of Scrivener’s system is that it’s not the best at formatting the smaller details. As a result, I still find it necessary to export to .docx format so that I can carry out some of the finer editing in Word.

That’s it in a nutshell; five reasons why I love Scrivener and would recommend any writer invest in it as soon as they can. Whether you’re writing a book, a screenplay, an essay, or a blog, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better tool. And I still feel like I’m barely scratching the surface of the what it’s capable of.

What about you? What software do you use to write? Have you tried Scrivener? Do you love it or hate it?  Let me know, I’d love to know what other people use.

Tony
1st October 2019

6 thoughts on “Tools of the Trade: Scrivener

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  1. I was a stubborn old school Word user too. I remember scrolling up and down the entire manuscript to edit and move chunks of text around. What a waste. Now I can rewrite and edit my novels in a fraction of the time because Scrivener makes it so easy to jump around the book and swap scenes around. It takes some getting used to, but it’s absolutely worth it. Excellent overview of a must have tool for writers. Thanks, Anthony!

    1. I think that’s part of the reason I stuck to chapter documents in Word, only throwing a manuscript together towards the end. Scrivener definitely makes life so much easier on that front. That ability to shift things about is like second nature now, and I barely remember the dark days without it! 😁

      1. Me too. I whine, but then I think of the writers of the past who only had typewriters. Or quills! We are lucky to be writers in this age.

  2. Just getting started with Scrivener as I revise my first children’s book on pirates, but I’m loving it so far. The ability to drop scenes where I need them, write notes on them, move them around on the corkboard… it’s brilliant.

    1. You’re not wrong! I think that flexibility can seem quite daunting to some users, but once you get the hang of it you find yourself wondering how you ever lived without it. Good luck with the revisions! I’m going through the editing phase of my second novel, so I know that’s a challenge in itself!

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