Thursday, September 19, 2013

Scrivener - How I use it, part 1

To the aspiring authors out there:

Before reading this, there's one thing you absolutely need to know.  When it comes to writing, "there's no rules, only tools." Take all writing advice with a grain of salt. If you have time, or know you need a change, give things a try and keep what works for you.  If things are working for you, keep doing what you're doing and file this stuff for future reference.

Now then, ready?

Scrivener.  You've probably heard about it by now.  If not, you should give it serious consideration for your next project. I say next because I think Scrivener works best when you use it from Day 1. And, generally speaking, it's a bad idea to switch software tools in the middle of a project.  With November approaching, that's a pretty good opportunity for all you Nanites out there to give Scrivener a shot, especially since they usually offer a free trial version in November (and a discount if you finish Nano).

Why Scrivener?

If you've ever developed any software, you should get what I'm about to explain instantly.  For the rest of you, I'll try to make this as clear as possible.
Scrivener treats your manuscript like source code.  You've got a project (the book, or even books in my case), and all the material involved is contained in that project.  Not just the manuscript, like you'd have in Word, but everything.  Chapters, scenes, research, character bios, you name it... each is within the project and each is treated as a separate thing.

Whereas in Word your manuscript is the file, just one big stream of text, in Scrivener you can keep everything in nice tidy chunks.  Why's that important?  Well, first and foremost is speed.
You can zip from one chapter to another in seconds, and since each is titled with a name you provide, making a quick jump to review what happened in a previous chapter is just a single click away, rather than minutes of scrolling around in Word trying to find the right spot.  If you've never dealt with a long document in Word you might not realize this is even an issue, but once you've got a big novel going, it's incredibly useful.

Let me highlight a few things I can do in Scrivener that are impossible, or so cumbersome they might as well be, in Word:
    • I have a single Scrivener project that contains all three manuscripts (multiple versions, too), every bit of research (text, images, audio, even video), worldbuilding notes including maps, character sketches, deleted scenes, plus hundreds of notes or ideas I came up with during this process.  That's 500,000 words of core work, plus tons of additional stuff, and it's all instantly available and searchable.  Word basically chokes on anything over 300 pages or so.  In Scrivener I can zip around nearly 1800 pages easily, and it's all lightning fast and incredibly stable (zero crashes).
    • Scrivener focuses on content, not "the document".  I've tagged every scene with who is in it and where it takes place.  This means I can instantly filter down my view to just the bits where a certain character is present, or scenes that take place in a certain location.  If you're writing multiple POV's, or have many subplots, this is unbelievably helpful.
    • Scrivener treats each chapter, indeed each scene, as a separate entity. Want to try a different chapter arrangement? Just drag and drop. Its as easy as moving files.
    • Scrivener treats the final "document" as a product you produce at the end.  You're not editing a document in Scrivener, you're editing the content that will make up a document.  This is the key paradigm shift over something like Word, and probably the hardest thing for a new user to grasp.  Programmers probably get this quickly because basically it's a workflow they're used to: your content is like source code, and the outputted manuscript is compiled.  Need a standard manuscript in Word format? Compile.  Ebook properly setup for Kindle? Compile.  PDF with notes and watermarks and with the alternate ending? Compile.  None of this changes the content at all.
As with software development, a few simple organizational tips up front will help you immensely down the road.  I'll start with one here, and cover others in subsequent posts.

TIP 1: Naming chapters

Or, perhaps a better way to say it, let your chapter names be your outline.  Never, ever, name them "Chapter 1, Chapter 2," and so on.  Why? Chapter numbers will change and besides naming them this way doesn't help you at all.

Here's an example that uses the first few "chapters" of the movie Star Wars as an example:

As you can see, some of these have scenes in them, but the bottom two do not.  Whether you choose to break things down smaller like this or not doesn't really matter.  The point is, look at how easy that is to navigate!  Imagine this expanded over 50 chapters each with multiple scenes.  Can't recall if Han shot first in that bar scene just before they flee Tatooine? Well, just click the chapter in your binder and there you are.  With split view mode, you don't even need to leave the spot you were writing in to do this.  Using tags properly is another way to do this, and I'll cover that in part 2.

By the way, this doubles as an example of how I outline, which I've mentioned before here and in some interviews.  A few words per chapter or scene, usually noun-verb-noun, is what I use once I start writing.  This is enough for me to know where the chapter is going without taking all the creative spontaneity out of the writing itself.

If you use my chapter naming scheme above, you'll probably want to turn off the display of those in your compiled manuscript.  This is easy to do in the "Compile" screen:

Turn off the checkboxes for "Title", and make sure you have the "Text" boxes checked.  This way, if you want to have actual chapter titles in the book, just put them in the text of the document itself (I do this at the chapter level, then the actual prose in the scenes included therein).


miss_dobie said...

This is brilliant! No more chapter number for me. Thank you so much for this VERY helpful instruction.

Extremely Average said...

I, too, have been using chapter numbers. You've won me over. I also like the idea of adding tags. I'd not thought of that.

Great post.

Mona at Cabin and Camp said...

This sounds wonderful, but I've tried using Scrivener for a non-fiction book I'm writing and I hate having to admit I don't get it AT ALL.

The more I read about it, the more I wonder if it's only easy for people who know this stuff inside and out. Can you give me some encouragement?

It's not as if I don't know anything about word processing or using the computer. I've built two websites--one on Blogger and one on WordPress--and I use Word for most of my writing.

I've started this book on Word and have been working to transfer the chapters to Scrivener. I have a couple of them there but can't seem to get the others to move over there.

I also can't figure out how to use that nifty bulletin board.

I seem to be stuck on the first few pages of the tutorial because suddenly nothing is making sense.
(Hate to have to admit that.)

Jason M. Hough said...

Mona -- look on YouTube for tutorial videos, that might be easier to follow.

I think there's two things for you to keep in mind: As I mentioned, mid-project is probably not the best time to try Scrivener. I've also tried to move documents into it, and although it can be done it's also a distraction from the actual work you need to do.

The second thing is to not feel like you're missing out if there's features of Scrivener you're not using. The cork board is pretty in screenshots, but ultimately not very useful after you've passed the outline phase. All those things may come in handy at some point, but to go in feeling like you must use them will probably just muddy things for you.

If nothing else try just using it like word, but keep your work in more manageable chunks like the "outline as chapter titles" example I gave.

Caveat: I can see how non-fiction might also require a lot of page-layout related features (images with captions and what not). I don't know anything about writing non-fic, but if you're doing that kind of thing Word might be better for you.

Steve Shipley said...


I also love Scrivener and was very concerned about switching over in the middle of my WIP was was about 80% complete for a first draft at about 90K words. However, after reviewing, I did make the switch and within two days had greatly improved my productivity. Therefore, even for WIP, the switch can provide immediate benefits. I have written a blog similarly on how I use it and the benefits derived. Keep well.

Mike Noone said...

Hello and thanks for the great info about Scrivener.

I am what should we call it, an upcoming writer as I have only write one short story recently, so Im totaly fresh but have been dreaming about using my fantasy and start writing :)

The first story I have use Word as many/most others I guess but now im ready for Scrivener but as I am so new to all of this world I have some dumb questions so please bear with me.

1- Can I use scrivener the same way as Word, I just want to see the same look as in word for e.x one A4 Page layout and want to continue this way as page 1 - page 2 Is taht possible ?

I dont want to be fiddling around with scenes, chapters and so on, I just want to write it as one long document, allright!

Of course I will learn about that stuff later but right now I just want to write :)

And you may wonder, why does this dude want to use Scrivener for then. I want to use the easy way to have notes and the coarkboard for an e.x and surely I can split up my story and make chapters later, right ?

Best Regards

Jason M. Hough said...


Yes if you wish you can write in one long single document. Keep in mind with Scrivener the page size and formatting stuff is all choices you make when you compile your document, so you really don't need to worry about those things while writing.

Once you've got a bunch of work in there, you can use the "Split Document" feature to break it into multiple parts should you decide to start taking advantage of that. I use this all the time.

Mike Noone said...

Hello Jason!

Thank you very much sir, for the answer!

I have done the tutorial but I dident find out really about it, it was much to comprehend and the program seems really fantastic in every way.

So then I can just go on with the writing and just use it as one long document but say for an e.x

If my new story would be like 40 pages of Letter 8.5 X11 much the same as an A4 page size then I hope I can have page break or else it would be really crazy to scroll thru all :)

Right now I am on my second story in word and right now I have written 17536 words and are on page number 31 so you can see there is much text.

I guess im rambling right hehe.
After that story is finished I will go on to Scrivener, seems like a good thing for a new writer to have the best tools to go along

Thanks again, really appreciated.

Tommy Kront said...
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