Software Review for Writers: Scrivener

Scrivener has been partnering with NaNoWriMo for several years (at least since 2009, when I started NaNering) to offer discounts on their software. I’ve never taken the time to use it before, but I thought I might try the free trial this year.

It’s taken a few days, but it’s grown on me. Let me show you how it works (and why you might want to get it for yourself):

(Open the image in a new tab/window so you can see it better.)

You can see the folder organization in the left-hand panel. With some document-specific exceptions, it works like the file view in Windows–i.e. you can drag and drop things within it and organize it however you want with folders.

When you have a folder (or the project) selected, you see your sub-documents as index cards on a corkboard. You can write brief summaries on the cards to help you remember what that document is about. You can drag these cards around and rearrange them them here, and it will be reflected in the sidebar. This makes it really easy to reorder chapters.

Projects Development

As I have lamented already, my dystopian novel has been proving reluctant to form itself. Instead, my brain seems to be filled with nothing but ideas for my Acceptance sequels. (Yeah, they need to be edited/written, but not at this moment!)

I decided to follow Wallace’s advice and just write whatever and count it all towards NaNo (also known as being a NaNo Rebel). So my Scrivener project is entitled “NaNo 2012.” You can see in the above picture that I then divided it into folders–one for each novel I’m currently working on. My word count (more on that below) is pooled from all of these folders.

In each folder is an actual document. Each is either an entire chapter or a piece of one (a scene).

Under normal circumstances, I don’t think you would want to have your entire writing career in a single Scrivener project. However, there are advantages to putting related books into one project. For instance, I think it would be a good idea to have an Acceptance Trilogy project, with each novel having its own folder.

Have a chapter/scene in one book that needs to be moved to another one? Drag and drop, baby! It’s that simple.

But what if you put a bunch of novels into one project, but decide later that you want them to have their own project (as I will want to do post-NaNo)? Create a new project, then drag and drop  all the folders you want from one Scrivener window to the other. (Just like all Windows files, you can Ctrl + select or Shift + select to highlight multiple files, so you can take all the docs and folders that you need at one time.)

Character Development

See the Characters and Places folders under my novel folders? Those came with my NaNo template (more on that later). If I only had one novel going, then they would be best where they are now. But if you have multiple novels going at the same time, you may want to move them around.

For instance, you may want one character folder per novel and have it contain all of the characters who will appear in that novel. That will help you keep straight who is supposed to be there (or not). The files are easily duplicated, so you can put your protagonist’s info into each novel’s character folder. Then it will always be easy to find.

Here is a single character entry on the corkboard. If I had more, they would show up here so I can see all of my characters at a glance. Normally, the cards have ruled lines for text, but I chose to add a picture (it’s easier for me to keep up with my characters that way). But if I double-click the index card, it will give me ruled lines again (the equivalent of writing on the back of the card). When done, the card would “flip back over” to the picture side.

Here is Kalyn’s character sheet. I used the NaNo template that came with my download, but you can just write in a blank document, make your own template, or copy and paste someone else’s here to use. I went to my website and clicked on Kalyn’s picture and dragged it into the right-hand sidebar and boom, Kalyn’s picture is on the index card. (You can add a picture to any index card, not just ones for characters.)

In the menu bar above the picture is a little tool that allows you to switch between the picture and the text of the index card, so you can see whichever is most relevant to you at the time.


This works the same way as the character sheets. Use whatever template you want to make notes about your setting, drag and drop in a picture, etc.


This is one thing I don’t like about the program. It comes with a research board (you can’t delete it). It’s a fabulous idea, but doesn’t play well with the other boards/folders. You can drag anything from any folder into it, but it’s very particular about dragging things back out again. For instance, I can’t drag anything out of it and into my novel folders or subfolders, which are all under the project board. However, I can drag into the other folders (characters and places) which are independent of the project board.

You can make a sub-folder in your novel, entitle it “research” and then put everything in it. This way, if you add a novel and want to give it it’s own research folder, it’s easy to move stuff between the two. It also makes it pain-free to move research between one project and another one.

Here is the research sub-folder for my third Acceptance novel.

The problem with doing things this way, though, is that it won’t let you save a web site to it. But you can save a website to the research board. (I think this is an unintentional flaw, since the option is there for every board, but only works in Research; I plan on reporting it, so maybe a future update will have it fixed).

Here is a picture of a website in the research board (this is the first index card on the board in the picture above):

While in the research board, I told it that I wanted to add a website. It asked me for the URL and how I wanted to save it (text, HTML document, pdf, image, or embedded browser). I saved this particular site as an HTML document. It’s easy to highlight the text, copy it, and paste it directly into another document (something I do when I’m working with a foreign language or something else that I’m afraid of misspelling).

Embedded browser sort of works. It works with websites that don’t play video (no YouTube!), but when there’s video present, it complains that the Flash Player needs to be upgraded. (My Flash Player is up to date and I don’t have a problem viewing stuff in my regular browser.) This is probably another glitch that may be fixed in future updates. But you can see the great potential. Instead of venturing into the dangerous waters of the internets, you can just watch videos or read websites inside the writing program and avoid the allure of your favorite bookmarks.

Pictures are very easy to add to the research board. You can just drag and drop them from a folder on your computer or the internet. You can also add other files from your computer, such as Word documents and Excel spreadsheets.

Edited to add: While playing around with the program last night, I found that you can make folders within the research board, so you can at least divide up your research by novel (or by type; you can have all your pictures in one folder, web sites in another, etc.).

The Right-Hand Sidebar

(This is also called the “Inspector,” and you have to turn it on in “View,” “Layout”)

I’ve already mentioned that you can add a picture and summary to your index card by working in the right-hand sidebar. There are a number of other features available there, too. I haven’t used most of them yet. There’s a place to add keywords.

You can also add links to  internal or external documents/websites in the documents reference section. This can come in handy if you  constantly need to reference something else while working on a particular chapter. For instance, if your novel flips back and forth between time or place or characters, you can use the document references sidebar to link all your similar chapters together so that you can quickly flip between them and read them in order without going out of that time or place or POV.

There is a place for general notes, so if you want to remind yourself to do something, have a quote you want to use somewhere in that chapter, warn yourself not to do something, have a simple scene outline, etc., you can type it up in your notes.

There is also a sidebar view for all of your footnotes, endnotes, and other annotations so you don’t have to scroll through a lot of pages to find the one footnote you’re looking for.

Word Count and Other Metrics

Daily and overall word count is important if you’re NaNering. There is a floating window that will show you both.

I moved my Project Targets window to the right-hand side bar (it just floats there; it’s not attached). You can set any overall word count or character count that you want.

If you look just above that Project Target window you’ll see “General meta-data.” That allows you to mark what you’re working on as a first draft, revised draft, or whatever you want. You can also label it as a chapter, scene, character note, research, etc. But just below that is a checkbox that says “include in compile.” The compile is when Scrivener takes all these pieces parts and slaps them together into one single document.

You’re not going to want research stuff, notes, or outlines included in your compile, so for each of these documents (or entire folders, if you want), you can turn off the “include in compile button.”

There is a similar button on the Project Targets window which says “Documents included in compile only.” If you have that selected, then only your compile documents will count towards your word count. This allows you to have a true word count for NaNo: just the novel, not the notes, etc.

And because it’s easy to include or exclude entire folders, I can exclude one of my novel folders and get a total word count for just the other one.

Of course, you can tell it that you want it to count all documents if you’re willing to give yourself credit for any work you’ve accomplished on your project.

The session target metric is exactly what it sounds like: it keeps track of the words you’ve typed since you opened the program. Note that’s since you opened the program, not just today. If you close the program and reopen it, the session target will be reset to 0. Conversely, if you leave it open for days, it will count without interruption (you can use the reset button to reset it at any time, though).

Edited to add: I just noticed that the status bars change color as you add words. They start out red, then morph to orange, yellow, then, as you near the home stretch, turn green.

(There’s a running word and character count for each individual document at the center bottom of the screen.)

There is also a handy little word frequency tool:

This will show you the frequency of every word in your document. (You can also highlight multiple documents and run the text statistics tool to look at the words in all of those documents.) This can help you see words that you use too frequently. For instance, I’ve used “coffee” in this chapter 17 times. It just so happens that these characters are talking while they’re having their coffee break. But I might want to consider using a synonym, like “drink” or “mug” or “cup” in a few instances to reduce the frequency.

The End

What happens when you finish writing the first draft of your novel?

It used to be that, when I was editing in Word, I would cut out scenes and paste them into new documents and save them in case I changed my mind later. That became cumbersome and didn’t protect against small changes (like deleting or changing a single sentence) that I might want to reverse. So I started saving a new copy of my document every day (I used the date as the file name). This is better, but if I write something and then delete it on the same day, I will lose it permanently.

Scrivener has a solution to this problem. At any time you can use the “snapshot” option to “take a picture” of your document. You can name the snapshot whatever you want, or just use the date and time stamp to identify it.

Look at the right-hand sidebar. At the top is the list of my snapshots (I’ve only taken one). When one of them is highlighted, it will show up in the bottom pane. You can scroll through it, and if you see something in it that you want in your current document, you can just highlight it, copy, and paste. Or, if you hate all the changes you’ve made, you can highlight the snapshot you want and hit “rollback.” That will make your current working document the same as the old snapshot.

So what if you’re done done? Scrivener openly admits that it’s not the fanciest formatting device in the world. It doesn’t have all of the options that Word does and you are not going to want it to be your final form.

So you need to double-check that everything that should be compiled is marked as “include in compile” (and everything that shouldn’t be isn’t). You also need to check the box right under that called “page break before,” or all of your chapters will run together. Once that’s set, tell Scrivener to compile and save as a .doc (Word) or whatever other option you want.

It offers to format it for you (ebook, standard manuscript form, etc.) but do not take this as the final format. Formatting for Smashwords, in particular, is hairy, so don’t trust the compiler to do it correctly. Instead, worry about getting it into Word and do the rest of your formatting by hand from there.

And what if you don’t want to format and compile it? What if you only want one chapter (or three) in Word? If it’s a small bit of text, copy and paste will be quickest. But if it’s multiple files, you can select them all and export to a Word document.


Overall, I’m really impressed by Scrivener. I wish I had had it when I was doing my senior thesis in college. It would have been a lot easier to organize both my research and my writing. I plan on buying a copy to use for my novels going forward. It will also come in handy when I have to write research papers (aka documentation) for my medieval arts and sciences entries.

What about you? If you’re interested in buying it, it’s $40. But if you “win” NaNo this year, you’ll be given a special coupon for half off. And even if you don’t win, you can use the coupon code NaNoWriMo for 20% off.

If you want to put it through its paces first, you have two choices:

The NaNo edition. This trial edition comes with those character and place templates I mentioned, plus special compile formats. It also has your overall and daily word counts already set up for 50,000 and 1,667, respectively. It is hardwired to expire on December 7th, though. (You are supposed to be able to export your documents after that time, so they won’t be stuck in a program that you no longer have access to, but I wouldn’t personally risk it. As soon as NaNo is over, export it to be on the safe side.)

The standard trial. This doesn’t come with the templates or pre-set options, but it is good for a full 30 days of use (time only runs when you use it, so if you d/l it now, use it one day, then don’t touch it for two months, you will still have 29 days’ worth of use).

2 comments on “Software Review for Writers: Scrivener

  1. Thank you so much for doing this! I have the free trial and I followed as much of the tutorial as I could, but it didn’t make much sense to me.
    When I first started using Scrivener I was writing a really straightforward romance with only three or four main characters. I had word documents for my timeline and character checklists and I had the novel. That was it. No research required (I was writing about photography and I’ve done photography courses so all the knowledge was in my head!). However when I started writing my paranormal romance I should probably have transfered that to Scrivener because there were lots of things that needed cross referencing. The word frequency particularly would be really useful because I know I have a tendency to over-use words (like Wow and my heart is pounding/racing/skipping/yada yada).
    I think the problem for me is I found the formatting part of Scrivener really hard, when I was outputting my first novel to e-book and pdf. I faffed for days to get it to do what I wanted and in the end I dumped it all back into Word and formatted it in half a day. I’ve been using Word for decades and even though I hate the new version I still have a better grasp on it that I have managed to get on Scrivener. However I am motivated by your post to give it another go before my free trial expires.!

    • Keri Peardon says:

      Yeah, you’re going to have to bring it over to Word to do the final formatting and proofing. But since I formatted both a paper book and an e-book by hand, I’m not worried about having to do it again. But thinking Scrivener will do it for you and then finding out it won’t can be really disappointing.

      One thing I’ve noticed that it doesn’t catch is no space following periods or a non-capitalized first word. I’m used to Word catching those things for me and either fixing them automatically or at least giving me the red squiggly line. So when I take everything over to Word, it’s going to need a thorough read-through, in addition to the formatting, just to check for little errors like that.

      It also doesn’t have an on-board thesaurus. It sends you to the web for that. For most people, that will be fine ( is more powerful that Word’s anyways), but it doesn’t work for me, since I only have dial-up at home. But I’d really like to have the Masterwriter software, which would be my go-to guide for all word searches, regardless of what other program I’m working in.

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