Scrivener: An Indispensable Author’s Tool

A huge welcome to my guest: writer, author, blogger Clare Toohey! Clare generously agreed to share the wonders of Scrivener, a writing tool I’ve heard so much about – and after reading Clare’s post, I think you’ll agree we need to try it! Read on as Clare explains:

“Why this scatter-brained multi-tasker can’t live without Scrivener!”
Confession: I do a million things and forget a million more while I’m editing and writing fiction across a variety of formats and genres. But that’s why I love the Scrivener writing software (must mention it’s available at For a seriously nominal investment, it does things which I can no longer live without, and that’s why I was singing its praises to Molly on Twitter. However, I can’t possibly describe (okay, maybe even grasp) all its powerful capabilities. I’ll say here and again later that the hour or so I spent with the interactive tutorial that comes built into the demo version was invaluable, and pointed out what I knew I’d personally use and other features (like the many for screenwriting and the amazing Scrivenings), that I wouldn’t need as much. That said, I’m going to give you a glimpse under the hood by sharing 3 particular areas where, for the way I work, Scrivener kills the world with its greatness and might be of use to you, too:

  • CREATING: I can COLLECT and maintain EVERYTHING to do with my projects in a single PROJECT BINDER.
  • FORMATTING: I can COMBINE text in various files and types, OVERRIDE and REDEFINE their formatting globally.
  • E-PUBLISHING: I can OUTPUT E-BOOK FILES that work perfectly, as many times as I want!

1) CREATING: Scrivener’s project format provides a wonderful way to collect and organize all your research, notions, and inspiration in one place for quick reference while you’re working!

This screen shot is from a short story. After I found the online research I needed, I had about 10 browser tabs sitting open with everything I wanted to remember. Scrivener’s Binder view lets me see everything I’ve collected in my Project and is the way I work most, though you can blank out all the extraneous and just see your page alone as you compose, if that’s your groove. The left side shows not only your created text, but other stored material, while the main window shows whatever active bit you’re working on. The formatting bar above the active text probably looks similar to whatever you’re using now.

Under the Research section, I decided to store more background detail. By adding another page here (see the giant circular green “+” button on the top of the screen shot?—that’s where you do it), I was able to cut and paste in a couple of paragraphs from a Wikipedia entry with hyperlinks intact, plus adding another link I found for a fan database, pasting in another handy copy of the logo I grabbed elsewhere. From yet another website, I pasted in the submission guidelines for the story, too, so I could easily double-check as I work. Once I’ve submitted the story, I can add more notes about the sent date and response. (Reprint tracking, anyone?)

If you like using the Scrivener-supplied Research forms to record Places, (as one example, but there are also Character sheets, etc.) you’ll get blank notation fields for season of year, sights, sounds, smells… handy as spurs to your imagination, but you can delete any field you don’t need. The forms are as simple as any other project document to edit, and you can import or create your own templates for any system of background charting you use. Sure, yeah, include audio and video clips as research, too–how’s that for comprehensively cool?

Besides using the Binder view as an organizational guide, you can choose to see all your text or parts of it as cards on a Corkboard or in the Outliner, and there are icons and color-coding you can customize by location and character. I’m also writing contemporary and gothic-y type romance, and having blue/pink coded POV chapters is very helpful for my planning. However, below is a quick Corkboard example I dummied up, just so you could see if that function’s a dealmaker for you. MG-2-Corkboard

All the pieces of research or background notes will be stored together with your project forever if you want. (It’s cinchy later just to output the chunks you want into whatever final format you need, but we’ll get to the mighty Compile function more later.) As handy as they are, these background notes and multimedia aren’t embedded in the formatting of my created text, so they can’t make it act funky or display incorrectly. I don’t have to memorize or bookmark a thing, and as soon as I open up this project among my many-many, I can immediately access all the great specifics I’ve already found and promptly forgotten.

2. FORMATTING: Because Scrivener deals with your project’s text as .rtf (Rich Text Files), it can all be easily massaged, re-combined, and overridden to spit out into any other text Format you need. MG-3Format-OutlinerAbove is a bunch of crime stories I’ve been working on as a collection. I Imported them all into a new Project (seen here in the Outliner view, just so you’ll have seen that one along with the previous Binder and Corkboard for comparison), just so I could easily play around with story order before combining and universalizing them into a new, combined Word doc, which is the format I was requested to provide once all the edits were done. Once I’ve selected what chunks of the project I want Compiled into in my final output file, I can make overarching format selections. MG-5Font-OverrideYay, global font override! Can I tell you how beautiful it is to collect 14 authors’ favorite fonts and convert them instantly into the one I need? All the stories remain separate and unique within my project—Compile doesn’t change the underlying files—but I was able to combine them and output them into a new and universally formatted file. Sweet. If I need a different format later, cool. Compile as many times you want in as many ways as you want. But that leads to one of the biggest time- and sanity-saving functions in Scrivener: compiling into e-book formats!!!

3. E-PUBLISHING: You can assemble all your front matter, back matter, body text, and Scrivener will Compile it into a host of nice e-book formats. (Yes, Kindle .mobi files that work transparently, not like rabid squirrels in a font barrel!) MG-6Compile-Formats

If, like many authors I know, you’ve had “issues” converting your work into uploadable e-book files, let me suggest you give the trial version of Scrivener a shot. Last year, as my introduction to the program, I co-wrote a one-off zombie fairy tale novella that I and Laura K. Curtis wanted to put for sale on Amazon. Laura, who’d been using Scrivener already, showed me how we could create the .mobi files to upload with the KDP dashboard. You can see below that there’s an additional, Kindle-specific file to download. But once you do, and Scrivener knows where to find it, you’re off to the races. MG-7Compile-MOBITypos and Tweaks? Of course we had plenty of those, so it got re-compiled and uploaded again. And again. Maybe it took a couple of minutes each time? My mom says she’s found more typos, which she’ll send along, so I expect another “revised edition” eventually, and it’ll be just as easy to do.

MG-8Sybelle-Mobi-fileLook at the preview online if you want to see how the text looks. Yes, you can also get much fancier with the internal layout than we did, but the point is IT WORKS and the way it converts makes sense! Unlike another writer friend who spent, seriously, hours on the phone with a nice support person trying to help her get her backlisted novel back into shape for sale on Amazon, you can do this yourself without weeping and pulling out your hair. The ease of that process alone made me have to explore Scrivener for myself. If you’re into indie e-publishing, you’ve got to try it!

In fact, this post itself was composed over several weeks in Scrivener. I knew the aspects of the program I wanted to highlight and which of my projects could serve as illustration for each, but I wasn’t working on all of them simultaneously, and not all of them were at the right stage of progress yet. So, while I was working, every time I got to another right spot in editing or writing, I just screen-shot it, pasted it into my Molly-Greene-Blog Scrivener project with a little description, and then went back to what I was doing before. Tra-la-la. Later on, I added more description, and later still, smoothed it all into final shape, without losing the flow of what else I was doing, all in parallel and on-the-fly.

I hope you can see why my overscheduled sieve-brain adores this software. It has more functions than I use, but I may branch out and need them someday, and what I neglect may be perfect for what you need. I’m saying again, as threatened, I’d advise anyone even curious just to download the free 30-day demo and sit down with the installed video tutorial (took me a little over an hour and a half to complete, then I was ready to rock). There are also plenty of books out there now, too, that introduce the logic and layout as well as the most powerful features and possibilities. You’ll recognize what you’d benefit from most, and if you love it after the trial, you can buy it for about $45, which for me at least, was a no-brainer of a writing investment. Now, where did I leave my coffee mug again?

About the Author: Clare Toohey helped found and now manages, an online community for lovers of crime stories. She’s a writer and editor, a musician who can’t remember chords, an artist who buys her greeting cards, an online gadabout and friendly contrarian. She also blogs at Tweet her @clare2e.

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28 Responses to Scrivener: An Indispensable Author’s Tool

  1. Stephanie August 5, 2013 at 3:44 pm #

    I just downloaded this over the weekend and imported all of my unorganized book documents into an orderly file. I’m still learning all the functionality of the program but what a tool. It’s allowed me to make my fragmented word documents into one flowing piece. I can’t say enough about it and thank you for sharing this information. For $45 it’s the best purchase I’ve made for my writing. Highly recommended. 🙂

    • Molly Greene August 5, 2013 at 3:55 pm #

      Hey Stephanie! You beat me to it – I haven’t purchased yet but will soon, and I know a couple of people to ask now if/when I get stuck. Thanks so much for your thumbs-up!

  2. Clare2e August 5, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

    Congrats, Stephanie–that’s just how I felt, too, and still do!

  3. Belinda Pollard August 5, 2013 at 4:35 pm #

    From one Scrivener groupie to another, thanks for the post, Clare. I’m sure Molly can’t hold out much longer. 😉

    Like you, the “everything in one place” is a favourite of mine, as is the ability to output in various formats. I’ve just done a book for a client and output it as mobi and epub to cover most of the e-readers, and a pdf just for him to have as a reference doc.

    I often find it annoying that Styles don’t update across the document, like they do in Word (eg if you’ve applied styles in Word and later you decide you want extra space before each paragraph, you only have to change the style and the whole doc updates, but Scrivener doesn’t do this). So I’m interested in that “override fonts” thingy you’ve found (I hadn’t found that before!). Does it also allow you to change indents and line spacing etc, right across the project?

    • Clare2e August 5, 2013 at 7:52 pm #

      I think what you may be looking for is in the Compile section as well. When you go to the Formatting area, make sure you’re on the tab that says ALL OPTIONS not Summary. There, you’ll see how you can set up different hierarchies of indents, for example, and then to apply which gets applied to which selection. While in this view, hit the little oval OPTIONS button to the right above the ruler, and you’ll blow out another huge list of possible overrrides, which at least includes globally retaining your line spacing, so I’d think that means you could change it all, too.

      I’m boring about liking the tutorial, but play around in Compile or check your favorite Scrivener reference or the great forums and I think it does do what you’re asking for.

      • Belinda Pollard August 5, 2013 at 11:47 pm #

        Thanks Clare, I’ll check that out! I like the Scrivener tutorial, too. However, I did a certain amount of it, and then just wanted to get started. I should go back and do it again, or at least finish it!

  4. Laura Zera August 5, 2013 at 11:41 pm #

    This coupon code also gives the buyer 20% off. I used it last year, but I think it’s still valid, according to my Google search: WORDSWITHJAM.

    • Molly Greene August 6, 2013 at 8:50 am #

      Thanks, Laura! I think there are other 20% off coupons for the program, too, so no we have no excuses not to go buy it 🙂

  5. Liam August 6, 2013 at 3:54 am #

    I have gone round and round with Scrivener and Write it Now 4 for months. There are features in both that I like and there are also things that I don’t like about both programs. For me alone, neither really meet the full needs of what I am looking for in a writing tool. That said my desktop has two monitors so my solution is to have one program open on one screen and one opened on the other screen. The features I like better in Scrivener I use in that window and the features I like better in Write it Now 4 I use on the other screen. Using both together does everything I want a program to do and more. Well, they almost do everything. I dictate most of my writing so I use in a 3rd piece of software Dragon Naturally Speaking 12 and that competes my trifecta of computer software for writing.

    • Molly Greene August 6, 2013 at 9:50 am #

      Wow Liam! I’ve heard about that dictation software – that would make a great blog post!

  6. Jon Jefferson August 6, 2013 at 6:06 am #

    I love Scrivener. I am anxiously waiting for the Ipad app and/or for the PC version to sync with Dropbox.

    • Molly Greene August 6, 2013 at 8:50 am #

      Great idea, sync with Dropbox!! Scrivener, are you listening??

  7. Laura K Curtis August 6, 2013 at 9:17 am #

    Scrivener already syncs with Dropbox across COMPUTERS…I use it all the time. And if you accidentally leave the file open on one computer and then go to open it on another, it will alert you and make a backup file so you don’t lose anything you’ve left unsaved on your other computer. But the flip side to all the excellent features is that it’s been hard for them to come up with a mobile app. They’ve been working on it for ages.

    Clare knows I am a huge Scrivener fan. I also think the tool can teach you things about your own writing. For example, you can see a picture of my current project here. When I first started with Scrivener, I realized I had some REALLY short (ie: useless) scenes at the end of every big scene. So I started adding the number of words to the “document view” as you can see in the picture. The color codes indicates the POV of the scene, the number gives me a quick check of the length. I also write in the timeline (ie: MONDAY, TUESDAY) so I don’t get lost.

    I still have some short scenes, but now they’re much rarer and more substantial.

    Also, I have to add, if you’re the kind of person who learns better from a book than following a tutorial, as I am, I HIGHLY recommend the book Scrivener for Dummies. I’d had the program for a long time before I got the book and I just couldn’t make myself use it. It seemed overwhelming.

  8. Keri Peardon August 6, 2013 at 3:41 pm #

    I used a free trial version during NaNoWriMo last year and made myself complete the challenge just so I could get a 50% off coupon to buy Scrivener!

    I’ve been using it for going on 10 months now and I can’t do without it! It makes it so easy to jump between chapters or start reading a chapter right in the middle (no more endless scrolling or searching!). I LOVE the feature that allows me to save a previous version(s) of a chapter, so if I end up making a change I don’t want, or I want to put something back in, I can open up the previous version and either restore it entirely or copy what I want out of it and insert it into the current version.

    I also love the sidebar notepad. I’ve found that very helpful for keeping up with character names/info and for writing myself research to-do’s (e.g. “What’s the name of the river in Prague?”).

    I currently have two multi-book novels in development. I keep all of the books for one series in a single Scrivener project. The left-hand file window allows me to see all of my books and chapters at the same time, or I can collapse individual books and only see the chapters for a single book. This is also a great time saver as it takes seconds to look up information in other books instead of minutes combing through various Word docs.

    Some problems I run up against: it doesn’t do accented letters (that I can figure out)–no symbols button, like Word, and it doesn’t recognize “Alt” shortcut keys for accented characters, either. I have found that I have to create my accented word in Word, then copy and paste it into Scrivener (I can also turn it into an auto-correct word so that when I type it without the accent, it adds the accents). It also only has an online Thesaurus option, which doesn’t work for me since I’m on dial-up. I have to use Word for my Thesaurus. Its dictionary is also not quite as large and up-to-date as Word’s, so it says some things are misspelled when they aren’t really.

    But I find those to be minor problems given the amount of time and hassle it saves me.

    • Molly Greene August 6, 2013 at 4:29 pm #

      I’m so convinced! Almost everyone who uses Scrivener loves it – let’s wait for Clare to weigh in and see if she knows anything about the accented characters issue. THANK YOU, Keri!

    • Laura K Curtis August 6, 2013 at 6:43 pm #

      Hey, Keri! Are you using the PC version? On the Mac version, it handles accented characters the same way Word does. And the special characters map is available at COMMAND-SHIFT-T, or the last menu item under the EDIT menu. Hope that helps!

    • Clare2e August 7, 2013 at 4:56 am #

      What she said, Keri! ^^^^ And let me add that I admire your ambition. Thinking about multi- multi-book series makes me….whew, I feel a little woozy.

  9. James August 10, 2013 at 10:11 am #

    There is a public community for people who use Scrivener on Google Plus. We have over 800 members. Because this is a public community, you can read the posts and comments even if you do not choose to join us. Here’s the link.

    • Molly Greene August 10, 2013 at 12:03 pm #

      Thanks so much James!

  10. Doreen Knight August 12, 2013 at 3:30 am #

    Scrivener taught me the joys of outlining. I used to think I was a pantser, and wondered why I never finished anything. Faced with a screenful of index cards, I thought I might as well fill them in. Result: a fully-planned novel, and I can dip in and write the scene I’m ready for without risking having to go back and rewrite everything that came before; or re-order scenes without having to cut and paste till kingdom come. Love it, just love it. And a bargain price as well.

    • Molly Greene August 12, 2013 at 7:13 am #

      Very interesting comment, Doreen. I just finished my second novel and for the first time ever I decided I need to learn to outline – and I won’t even mention the craziness about moving scenes around in Word. Thanks so much for another reason to learn Scrivener!

  11. Cindy Smith-Jordan August 16, 2013 at 8:11 am #

    Thanks for posting this information about this tool. I have to look into getting my hands on it.

    • Molly Greene August 16, 2013 at 9:31 am #

      Our pleasure, Cindy. Thanks for stopping by!

  12. Debbie Young August 23, 2013 at 2:09 am #

    Sold! You’ve convinced me! About to invest in Scrivener, taking advantage of discount offered to members of the Alliance of Independent Authors 🙂

    • Molly Greene August 23, 2013 at 8:41 am #

      Hey, I need to join that group! Thanks for the tip, Debbie!


  1. Why this scatter-brained multi-tasker can’t live without Scrivener! | Women of MysteryWomen of Mystery - August 8, 2013

    […] Of course, I did give our own Laura K. Curtis credit for introducing me to the program. (She blogged about it here on WoM last year.) But if you’re interested in the points above, you can read the rest of my guest post for Molly’s blog (with illustrative screen caps from the software ) at Scrivener: An Indispensable Author’s Tool […]