A gentle introduction to Scrivener
For people who are deeply suspicious of Scrivener
I’m frequently surprised that there are writers who don’t use Scrivener. For long form projects, it’s my most indispensable tool. It enables me to be a better writer and helps me publish weekly, serialised stories without getting into a total mess.
Now, if you’ve used Scrivener and didn’t get on with it, that’s fine. If you prefer using something else, also fine. I’m not trying to force anyone to convert! I’m not evangelical about tools - or try not to be. This post today is for people who have heard of Scrivener but perhaps haven’t found the time to check it out, or have found it too intimidating, or who don’t understand the point of it.
If that’s you, keep reading. There’s even a little video tour.
What is Scrivener?
At its most basic, Scrivener is a word processor, just like Microsoft Word or Apple Pages or Google Docs. In and around that, though, is a toolbox designed specifically for writers of complicated, long-form projects. Such as novel writers and non-fiction writers.
I started using Scrivener around 2014, I think, which coincidentally is also when I started writing consistently. A big part of my productivity increasing was switching to serialised storytelling and releasing my work online, but Scrivener had an important part to play as well. I don’t think I’d have been able to write serial fiction, week-by-week, without running into logistical problems.
Why Scrivener isn’t scary
It’s not one of those programs with a massive learning curve before you can even do anything. You can be up and running and doing some writing very quickly and easily. All of the word processor tools are standard and recognisable.
The additional power and functionality is optional and discoverable, by which I mean that you can use each tool as and when you need it. You can expand into Scrivener over time, rather than having to understand everything at the start. Trying to learn all of its features in one go would indeed be intimidating and a huge time sink.
Instead, you’ll start off using it to do basic writing. Easy! Then you might think “hmm, I could do with planning out the upcoming chapters,” and you’ll start using the corkboard features. Then you’ll research a particular aspect of the book and want somewhere to store the material, so you’ll put it into the research folder. As your story gets larger, you might want to jot down character profiles.
You get the idea. If you need a feature, chances are the Scrivener devs will have thought about it at some point in the last decade, and it’s waiting for you to discover it.
Using Scrivener for research
A major benefit of Scrivener is the way it structures its projects. Rather than being a single document, like in Word or Google Docs, Scrivener is instead a collection of files. These all held within a single project, so it’s nice and neat and easy to manage.
A Scrivener project can contain pretty much anything you want. Text, obviously. Images, too. Stored web pages, even.
That screenshot above is a snapshot from my research folder for Tales from the Triverse. If you look on the left side you can see the binder, which is used to navigate between all the parts of a project. Note how I have a research folder, inside of which is a ton of stuff. Here’s a close-up:
That’s just a cropped image - there’s a lot more out of shot. It’s up to you how you structure this stuff (or if you even use it at all), so it’ll look a bit different for everyone. Some people have tidy desks; some people have papers all over the floor.
I knew going into Triverse that I was going to have to do more world building prep than usual. Ordinarily I have the main foundations set, but then figure out a lot of the detail along the way. Being a collection of detective stories, most of the rules had to be worked out in advance to avoid cheating on the reader - I wanted the setting to be coherent. You can’t do a crime procedural if you’re making it up as you go.
That ‘episode ideas’ folder is where I jot down random ideas as they come to me. It’s a big binder of one-liner ideas, which I can pull out and turn into a full storyline.
You could do all of this in lots of other ways, of course. All this information could quite happily be in separate Word files, or on a Trello board, or in paper notebooks. I find having it all in one place, easily searchable, to be a real benefit. I have over 17,000 words in the Triverse bible (and counting), and trying to find a particular reference in that in most other mediums would be a pain.
By keeping all this information tidy, it helps my brain to be free of clutter while working on the actual meat of the book. I spend less time wrestling with my own memory and plot technicalities, and more time writing words onto the page.
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How Scrivener helps with big projects
Simpler word processors are absolutely fine for writing letters, or even short stories and reports. I find if something is going over 10,000 words, though, Word or Google Docs doesn’t really cut it anymore. It’s not a problem with the software but more to do with my ability to navigate the project file - over 10k and the scrollbar ends up being tiny, and there’s just so many words.
The design of Google Docs or Word makes the project feel bigger and more intimidating. That isn’t helpful when I’m writing a novel. I want to be able to feel the book as a whole, to comprehend it in its entirety as well as sentence-by-sentence.
Scrivener helps me do that, by managing both the macro and the micro.
There are multiple ways to visualise and navigate a large project. On the left is the binder, a simple folder tree. I structure my novels by section and chapter. Hence the opening of Triverse looks like this in the binder:
It’s easy to see the chapter breakdown. I can hop between them with a quick click.
I can even view multiple documents at once. Here I have two chapters open:
I can write into either of them. This is useful when referencing something that has happened previously, while writing new material. Alternatively, I could have some important world building details open in one panel.
Here I have a character profile open while writing from his point of view. A brief chapter synopsis can be seen in the inspector on the right:
At this point you’re starting to see how the program shifts and expands depending on the needs of the project. As long as you introduce yourself to it slowly, it’s easy to pick up.
If you try out the demo, I highly recommend working on a real project during the trial period. It’s the only way to really get a proper feel for how it can benefit your writing.
Scrivener, like any tool, doesn’t directly make me a better writer. But it does get a lot of the procedural faff out of the way, which then enables me to be the best writer I can be. A lot of the technical complexity of novel writing is handled more elegantly, which gives me more space and time to be creative.
Like I say, use whatever you’re most comfortable with - as long as you’re writing, it’s all good. But if you’re struggling to keep track of characters, or have a major project coming up that is feeling a bit daunting, or if you find Word a bit fiddly once you break the 10k mark - well, that might be the point at which to give Scrivener a go.
A mini tour of my Triverse project file
I thought it might be interesting to have a little video tour of Scrivener, rather than just me writing about it in the abstract. This is possibly the jankiest video I’ve ever produced, especially the audio, but if you’ve never used Scrivener it’ll help give an idea of how it slots together:
If you have questions let me know. I’d also be very up for putting together some Scrivener tutorials, if that might be of interest (with a better microphone and camera….).
Anyway, let me know down in the comments if you like Scrivener, hate Scrivener, or haven’t yet given it a go.
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I love Scrivener but, it can be intimidating at first especially if you consider compiling. If you have a large, long running project, it is definitely worth crunching through the learning curve. I always recommend that people considering Scrivener, take a portion of their project and use the tool to see if it meets their needs. Their free trial is very unique. You get the full product for 30 days of writing. This is not 30 calendar days, but 30 days of use. If you us the tool the 1 day, wait a week and start using it again, there are still 29 days left.
I agree that the more you use the tool, the more features you find. I used Scrivener for my book end to end. I used it the write the book and publish it to Amazon as a e-book and paperback. It is an amazing product, especially for the price.
Good thing you didn't go with "Three-World Problem" as I'm reading "The Three Body Problem" (first novel in a sci-fi series) by Liu Cixin. Wouldn't have been deliberate on your part, but you wouldn't want to be that close to the title of a Hugo-winner. I've considered Scrivener for years and jumped on v2 during a sale you told me of. Annoyingly, at that time with that version it tripped my virus scanners and my computer literally refused to install it. Maybe I'll try again with v3, cuz I have projects that are spread across so many single documents... I'll watch the video later today. Jankiest video ever? I dunno, man, I've seen your tutorials (joke, of course). Obviously this is one of the days Substack won't accept paragraph breaks.