Writing Toolbox: Scrivener

WritersToolbox Blog Scrivener

Scrivener is a writing-focused tool developed by Literature & Latte. One may question the usefulness of having a dedicated writing tool. Microsoft Word is a perfectly serviceable word processor on its own. And Word includes all the layout and design tools you’ll need to prepare your manuscript for publishing.

What Scrivener offers is the power of focus. Word is a diverse tool with many applications. Scrivener is a tool just for writing.

The features Scrivener offers help writers gather information into easy to access locations. And with the info easily at hand, the writing flow is less disrupted when referencing data. Then it’s all about word processing.

The Basics

Scrivener is primarily a word processing tool. Sit down, limber up your fingers, and let the words pour out. And after only a short time using the tool, you’ll realize why Scrivener excels at this. Their word processing tool provides common layouts, fonts, sizing, and spacing options. But you’ll get the most out of Scrivener when you just write. If you have a font, size, and spacing your prefer, you can easily build a template and start from there.

I like to set my template to 6 x 9 and use Garamond 12 point to see an approximation of how the paragraphs will look in a print ready size. If you’re more accustom to the standard 8.5 x 11 (MS Word and Scrivener default to this size) you can always keep that sizing too. Remember, the major formatting will be done later, so don’t get hung up with settings at this point. Scrivener’s strength is in writing and word processing, with little interest in the final formatting choices.

Scrivener Word Count Targets

The writing tool itself is simple and elegant. The word count runs on the bottom. If you’re goal oriented like I am, you can track your progress against a target goal. I aim for 800 words a day, so when I sit down to write, I can set and watch that goal. You can also set an overall target and see your progress toward completing the manuscript word count goal.

Typewriter View

A surprisingly helpful and seemingly small feature is the “Typewriter View.” When this option is selected, the cursor and line of text you’re typing re-position to the middle of the screen as you type.

Unlike MS Word, which shifts down the page as you type, Scrivener doesn’t care about pages as you write. And with the Typewriter View, the balance of text and white space on the screen is maintained as you work. It may seem like a little thing, but once you’ve used it, you’ll see how helpful it is to keep your eyes on the same level while typing. Typewriter View helps me stay focused while I write. And I’m left feeling less strain on my eyes after prolonged writing adventures.

Scrivener is all about these little benefits to the writer. The developers clearly had writing in mind when they created this software. It shows in the simple tools and design elements focused on the writing process.

Powerful Organization


Scrivener brings with it one more incredibly compelling reason to use it as your primary word processor. Organization.

Before I encountered Scrivener, I would create a file folder on my desktop, then generate a multitude of Word files and save them in this folder. This included at least one file for the main body of the work, an outline, a timeline, and research files. Often times the number of individual research files would exceed twenty. For a non-fiction piece, this would compromise source material, reference links, and a file with quotes copied in and sourced.

For fiction, I would create a character worksheet for every main character. I’d also need a short list of info for secondary characters. And research about the location(s) based on the setting of the story. Finally, I would need theme and character trait research documents. Is my protagonist an aspiring athlete? I’d need a file with specific research about their favored sport.

By the time I finished a piece, the folder for that manuscript would be massive and oftentimes needlessly confusing.

Scrivener does away with this. When you work in Scrivener, you’re not writing a single file, you’re working within a project. They call the project a “binder” and envisioning it this way can help clarify how it works. Your project is essentially a three-ring binder, and you’ve got dividers and labeled sections, with the various pieces stored in the correct locations. The goal here is ease of use.

The Binder

The binder is managed with a column on the left. All the content is nested into easily organized folders. Everything here can be customized. Design folders to suit your needs. Create templates to organize your research into coherent and easily referenced files. Add images, video, audio, and text files you think may be useful in writing your manuscript.

Once you begin to learn the ins and outs of Scrivener, you’ll find that creating custom folders and templates helps to keep your background work quickly accessible. Writing a scene with a secondary character you thought up a month ago? Forgot how you imagined them appearing? No worries, just expand the Character folder, click on the Character Sketch template you created. Then click back to the scene you were writing and carry on!

Having important and useful information that close to hand not only saves time and gets you back to writing more quickly, but it also fosters good research and crafting habits. Your work will benefit from consistency in the earlier drafts, aiding in the editing process later.

Scrivener offers one more cool way to organize and prepare your writing. It’s called the “corkboard” and it allows authors to organize different pieces within the binder, to begin piecing together the manuscript. The most useful feature of the corkboard is the ability to add a synopsis to each element. You can write a short description or piece of reminder text for each scene or section, then organize with the corkboard to your liking. Need to move a character’s first scene to an earlier spot in the manuscript? No problem, just drag and drop the scene to the right spot on the board and the order is updated!


Cloud Power

The last key feature of Scrivener we’ll look at today is the Cloud storage design. All files for Scrivener use a unique file type and store as a folder through Dropbox. It can take a few minutes to set up and get used to accessing and saving files this way, but once you learn the process, you’ll have the protection of knowing your documents are safely stored online. No longer will you need to fear file loss because of a computer crash or any other technical difficulty.

Scrivener syncs with Dropbox automatically and will default to backing up your project five times. This means the most recent version, plus the four previous versions, are all saved to your Dropbox for you. On top of that, you can keep your current version saved, and Scrivener will always open the most recently updated file when you load the program. And you can do this across platforms. That means I can work on my Windows machine, save the binder to Dropbox, and if I think of something I want to note or I need to look up a piece of information, I can open Scrivener on my iPhone and see the same synced version.

Cloud storage provides reliability and ease of access while ensuring the security of your files. Yes, of course, you can upload your files from any word processor to Dropbox or another Cloud storage tool, but Scrivener requires it, and in doing so makes it that much more likely that your work will consistently be updated and retained.

The Next Step

Alright, you’ve got your manuscript written, and you’re ready to send it to an editor or begin formatting for print. Scrivener’s role in your writing process is likely at an end.

Once you’ve prepared the manuscript, you’ll need to compile it into a single file and select the file type to export. This, like most features of Scrivener, is relatively easy and painless. The “Compile” command provides some options about formatting and file type, but I find it easiest to export as a basic DOCX file and work in MS Word to perform the layout and design.

It is worth noting Scrivener can export EPUB files. You can find the instructions for EPUB export, along with a wide range of tutorials, on this page.

And that’s Scrivener – a tool for writers to help them write. It is a potent and simple program that will aid in productivity and streamline the research and organization phase. I encourage any serious writers, particularly those with procrastination issues like I have, to give Scrivener a try. They offer free trials on their website, so you can experiment a little before you make up your mind.

Next week we’ll conclude the Writer’s Toolbox series with a look at Evernote, a cool application that can help keep your writing (and your life) organized and on track.

11 thoughts on “Writing Toolbox: Scrivener”

  1. The best place to get started is our home page – http://www.lulu.com
    You can find the free publishing tools here, as well as our “Learn” page with all kinds of helpful information to assist you in preparing your manuscript for publishing.

  2. Hey Paul, great review! May I draw your attention to TheRightMargin, a goals-first writing tool? My team and I launched it last summer and it really nails some pain points that Scrivener doesn’t address yet. Would love your feedback on it since you’re doing research on your writer toolbox series. Thanks!

  3. Hi Shivani,
    I had a look at your site this morning, and I have to say it is an interesting tool. We’re wrapping up the writing tools series, but I will add TheRightMargin to my list of writing software and keep it in mind when we talk about suggested writing tools.
    Thanks for sharing!

  4. I bought Scrivener over a year ago and am really struggling to use it. However, your comprehensive blog reads more straightforward than the instructions that came with the software itself; I shall try again using your steps.
    Fingers crossed

  5. Hi guys
    I just finish reading about all the good features Scrivener has to offer writers but what if one already have a book or two written.
    Can one upload previous work to Scrivener and get the same results like one is starting a new project?

  6. I downloaded 30 day trial, after 2 days reading the tutorial, it refused to open any longer without purchasing. I never got to actually try it out.

  7. Dumb question, but do I write my ebook in MS Word then use Lulu to convert it to epub or should I just write the whole thing in Scrivner? My goal is to create an ebook for Kindle

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